Karl Weick: An Actor-Network Theorist?

It is probably too great a stretch to call Karl Weick an actor-network theorist.

But I was struck by the resonance between his latest Academy of Management Review paper on The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual, the Biggest Bank Failure in American History and some notable actor-network theory concepts.

For an organization to act, its knowledge must undergo two transformations: (1) it has to be textualized so that it becomes a unique representation of the otherwise multiply distributed understandings, and (2) it has to be voiced by someone who speaks on behalf of the network and its knowledge (Taylor & Van Every, 2000: 243)…

The intertwining of text and conversation turns circumstances into a situation that is comprehensible and that can then serve as a springboard for action. If you envision WaMu as a network of multiple, overlapping, loosely connected conversations, spread across time and distance, collectively, the network “knows” the bank is failing, but that understanding is more complicated than any one node can reproduce. The distributed organization literally does not know what it knows until macro actors articulate it. And therein lies a problem. Actors who speak on behalf of the distributed organization have conversations, but the texts neither persist nor spread (Weick, 2013: 320-321).

There are a number of connections suggested by this vignette. For instance, in Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, Latour (1987: 227ff) introduces the concept of immutable mobiles, textualizations in Weick’s terms.

These are charts, tables, maps, figures: inscriptions of any kind that facilitate travel over time and space while retaining their form and shape. All are aimed at allowing the center to act at a distance (see also Law on “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics“). Importantly, immutable mobiles are also combinable. In this way, they have a tendency to become detached from their origins.

Although much has been made of the influence of Serres on Latour, as with moments of inversion, I cannot help but think the idea of immutable mobiles is already prefigured in Husserl. In fact, these two concepts themselves seem bound up with one another. Is it that immutable mobiles are constituted in moments of inversion?

Another obvious connection is to Callon and Latour’s (1981) paper on macro-actors. For them the macro-actor speaks for the assembled network. Weick seems to say as much, suggesting that WaMu’s failure may have been a failure of enrollment (see Callon 1986). For instance, Weick (2013: 32) describes WaMu’s chief risk officer “as an example of a macro actor unable to give voice to a larger set of wary conversations.”