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.”

Values Work Paper Update

My paper with Linda Treviño and Raghu Garud on “Values Work: A Process Study of the Emergence and Performance of Organizational Values Practices” is due to be published any day now. In what we hope were the penultimate page proofs, the full citation was listed as:

Gehman, Joel, Linda K. Treviño, and Raghu Garud. 2013. Values Work: A Process Study of the Emergence and Performance of Organizational Values Practices. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 56, No. 1, 84–112. doi: 10.5465/amj.2010.0628.

In the paper we combine actor network theory with practice theory to study the emergence and performance of organizational values practices. Specifically, we study the development of an honor code within a large business school over a 10-year period. As with codes of conduct more generally, honor codes are designed to deter dishonesty and to promote integrity and honor. A brief summary is available here.

The paper has been a “Top 10 Recent Download” at SSRN multiple times and in multiple categories (here, here, here, here and here). This week, I received notice that it was now also among the Top 10 Downloads of all time (January 2, 1997 to March 4, 2013) in the Journal of Psychology of Innovation eJournal.

Sociomaterial Networks and Moral Agencements

A good friend of mine recently sent me this TEDx talk in which Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, explores what he calls moral overconfidence and argues for the practice of moral humility as an antidote.

According to the talk’s abstract: Whenever we see examples of ethical or moral failure, our knee-jerk reaction is to say “that was a bad person.” We like to sort the world into good people who have stable and enduringly strong, positive characters, and bad people who have weak or frail characters. So why then do seemingly good people behave badly?

The centerpiece of Dean Nohria’s talk is the Milgram Experiment, which is typically argued to show that — given a strong enough situation — even “good people” will do “bad things.” More particularly, following Stanley Milgram’s own interpretation, most consider the experiment as showing the potentially dangerous consequences that may result from blind obedience to authority.

In light of my own research on values work, it seems the entire line of inquiry may be a false start — it presupposes from the beginning that good and bad are individually located. An alternative interpretation of the Milgram Experiment might start by taking notice of the many heterogeneous social and material actors that were required to be enrolled in the performance of “bad things.” Yale University, newspaper advertisements, experimental designs, subjects, confederates, experimenters, lab coats, electricity, shock machines, voltages, vocabulary tests, payments. In short, the experiment requires the enrollment of an ensemble of sociomaterial actors. If any of them had resisted, the experiment might have “failed.” So why is the actor at the end of the network the one to blame?

Such an interpretation is broadly consistent with actor network theory, in which the explanation for action can no longer be reduced to individual agency. In fact, such attributions are themselves part of what is in need of sociological explanation. What if the Milgram Experiment says more about the culture in which it is located than it does about the subjects it tested? After all, what kind of society is required for test subjects to be held responsible for the actions of an entire network, without which their performances could not have gone off? One can well imagine alternative societies in which different conclusions might have been drawn from the very “same” experiment.

In other words, we need to pose a more fundamental question. As Latour puts it, where is the morality? Is it in me, or in the objects? After reflecting on automobiles, seat belts and police officers, he concludes that morality is located in a network of humans and things. Networks make me (im)moral. Rather than an individual attribute, the definition, recognition and performance of good and evil are the result of moral agencements; moral agency is sociomaterially constituted.

See: Bruno Latour, 1992, ‘‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts,’’ in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, MIT Press, pp. 225-258.

Values Work Paper a Top 10 Download

Last week I mentioned that my paper with Linda Treviño and Raghu Garud on “Values Work: A Process Study of the Emergence and Performance of Organizational Values Practices” has been accepted for publication at the Academy of Management Journal.

Today I learned that the paper was listed on SSRN’s Top Ten download list in the Sustainability Research & Policy Network within the Codes of Conduct topic area.

In the paper we combine actor network theory with practice theory to study the emergence and performance of organizational values practices. Specifically, we study the development of an honor code within a large business school over a 10-year period. As with codes of conduct more generally, honor codes are designed to deter dishonesty and to promote integrity and honor (McCabe, Treviño, & Butterfield, 1999).

Traditionally, honor codes have encompassed a bundle of values practices, such as: (a) a signed pledge affirming that students have done their assignments honestly; (b) sanctions that are determined by a student judiciary panel; (c) examinations that are administered without proctors; and (d) expectations that students will report on their peers if they observe them cheating (Melendez, 1985).

Values Work Paper Accepted

I’m pleased to report that my paper with Linda Treviño and Raghu Garud on Values Work: A Process Study of the Emergence and Performance of Organizational Values Practices has been formally accepted for publication at the Academy of Management Journal. The paper has been a long time in the making and I couldn’t be more pleased with the final outcome.

In the paper we argue that existing cognitive and cultural perspectives on values have under-theorized the processes whereby values come to be practiced in organizations. We then address this gap by studying the emergence and performance of what we call values practices, defined as sayings and doings in organizations to articulate and accomplish what is normatively right or wrong, good or bad, for its own sake.

In other words, we conceive of values practices as ends in themselves, and thus, analytically distinct from organizational practices driven by technical or efficiency considerations. Examples of values practices include efforts to address normative concerns in areas such as ethics, diversity and sustainability, among others.

To understand values practices, we draw inspiration from scholars who have combined a practice perspective with insights from actor-network theory as a way of generating new theoretical insights. This approach enables us to move from cognitive understandings of values as abstract principles and cultural understandings of values as symbolic artifacts to a performative understanding of values as situated in networks of practices.

We apply this perspective to study the development of an honor code within a large business school over a 10-year period. Based on our analysis, we offer the concept of values work comprising four key interrelated processes – dealing with pockets of concern, knotting local concerns into action networks, performing values practices, and circulating values discourse. These processes are depicted in the figure below.

Taken together, these insights contribute to an understanding of the work involved in the emergence and performance of organizational values practices as well as the work that values practices perform and provoke in organizations. We conclude the paper by discussing some of the opportunities and challenges that values work implies for future organizational scholarship.

My First Publication

I’m very pleased to report that a paper I began working on in September 2008 has recently been published, which is actually quite rapid as these things go. (If you need immediate gratification, a career in academics is probably not for you.)

Institutions and Entrepreneurship

The paper is called Categorization by Association: Nuclear Technology and Emission-Free Electricity. In the paper we (Raghu Garud, Peter Karnøe and I) analyze the categorization of nuclear technology from 1945 to 2010. In particular, we were intrigued to understand how a technology once categorized as an atomic bomb has been able to transform itself into a technology now considered as a potential source of sustainable and emission-free electricity. Of note, our paper draws on actor network theory and a sociology of associations perspective, and conceptualizes technologies as sociomaterial — that is,  materially anchored, institutionally performed, socially relevant and entrepreneurially negotiated. Based on our findings, we consider some implications for our theoretical understanding of categorization processes. Specifically, we propose that it may be useful to re-conceptualize categories as a relational phenomenon. Rather than being established once and for all, categories can be understood as always in the making. We then suggest directions for future research that such an insight opens up.

The paper appears in Research in the Sociology of Work Volume 21: Institutions and Entrepreneurship, edited by Wesley D. Sine and Robert J. David. Other contributors to the volume include: W. Richard Scott, Howard Aldrich, Mary Ann Glynn, Candace Jones, Stephen J. Mezias , Theresa K. Lant, Paul Ingram, Jason Owen-Smith, Paul Ingram, Philippe Monin and others.

Along the way, my co-authors and I were privileged to have presented working versions of the paper at a number of conferences, including the European Group for Organization Studies Colloquium (July 2009), the Medici Summer School in Management Studies (July 2009), the Wharton Technology Conference (April 2010), the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (June 2010), the Cultural Entrepreneurship Network Workshop (June 2010), the Academy of Management (August 2010), and the West Coast Research Symposium (August 2010).