if sensemaking is kinda pomo, isn’t all of economics just one crazy post-modern exercise?

Over at our evil twin, Nicolai Foss covers the Weick/Basbøll  dispute. In passing, he says that “sensemaking has a distinct pomo connotation.”  What’s post-modern about people interpreting things? Isn’t that psychology 101? If Nicolai is correct that creating meaning and value is post-modern, then economics is just one calculus drenched homage to Derrida. Isn’t economics based on the subjective theory of value? Commodities don’t have  intrinsic value, people assign them value, which is an example of … sensemaking. Bet you didn’t know the AER was a Straussian crypto-celebration of Lyotard.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 16, 2010 at 8:33 pm

27 Responses

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  1. The plagiarism issue seems serious enough on the merits. So what’s the point of this “Pomo Periscope” asshattery? It’s like being teleported back to 1993.


    July 16, 2010 at 8:59 pm

  2. Indeed. I like O&M a bit, but to be honest, the Pomo series is lame. Not only is it silly, but it’s intellectually lazy. Nicolai labels a lot of stuff PM when it’s not even close. It’s like (gasp) he’s never actually read any post-modernism.


    July 16, 2010 at 9:02 pm

  3. Dang, I don’t have access to the articles through my library.

    What is the basis for the plagiarism charges? This seems like a stretch to me.


    July 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm

  4. My comment from the original post:

    I can’t get the recent article. But, I found
    “Substitutes for Strategy Research: Notes on the source of Karl Weick’s anecdote of the young lieutenant and the map of the Pyrenees.” This is Thomas Basbøll and Henrik Graham s previous example of Weick’s plagiarism. It is damning.

    From Miroslav Holub’s (1977) poem ‘Brief Thoughts on Maps:
    “The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
    sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
    It began to snow
    immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
    did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
    his own people to death.”

    Weick (2001: 344-5)
    “The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death.”

    This older paper is available in pdf : (

    David Hoopes

    July 16, 2010 at 11:24 pm

  5. I don’t know about post modernism but further down in the discussion over at O&M I some of Weick’s later work that pushes “sensemaking” beyond his original discussion of enactment. My guess is many readers here have no problems with Weick’s later work.

    David Hoopes

    July 16, 2010 at 11:31 pm

  6. It’s not 11:31 pm. I stop reading academic blogs at 5:59 pm.

    David Hoopes

    July 17, 2010 at 12:06 am

  7. As I said in the comments to Nicolai’s post, what got me (and I think this what Nicolai’s intention) was the idea that Weick can be considered postmodern *even though he writes well*, i.e., that the pomo periscope is supposed to identify cases of postmodern turgidity, but in this case he would make an exception.

    I’ve never thought postmodernists have a monopoly on poor writing (nor any shortage of great writers). But I do think that some of the defects I have identified in Weick’s scholarship can be traced to postmodern attitudes about authorship, originality and intertextuality. Once you give up the idea that a text can represent reality (including another text) it is tempting also to let go of your ordinary scholarly restraint.

    That risk shouldn’t force us back to simple ideas about representation; but, as I argue in the paper, it does mean we have to be all the more critical in our reading when an author openly declares himself not to be very interested in truth.

    As Fabio rightly says, to be interested in interpretation is not to be postmodern; but to declare that there is no (worthwhile) reality beyond interpretation arguably is. It could be debated, but I think Weick does make that sort of declaration. Like I say, that should have been all the more reason for him to be careful in his citation practices.


    July 17, 2010 at 5:25 am

  8. AND his interpretive practices, I hasten to add.


    July 17, 2010 at 5:27 am

  9. Fabio, I enjoy ball-busting as much as anyone but, come on, sensemaking is nothing more than methodological subjectivism? Have you actually read Weick?

    Peter Klein

    July 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm

  10. Peter: Here’s the serious point I am trying to make. People poo-poo social construction arguments all the time. But many of the “rigorous” social sciences rely on analysis of social constructions: value, money, property rights. These are all social constructions. One might also argue that they are sense making exercises as well. My post was trying to say that is Weick is post-modern, then, heck, all of economics is as well.


    July 19, 2010 at 3:11 am

  11. Yes, I get it. But my counter-point is that when those of us on the evil side of the twin divide use the term “postmodern” were not referring simply to interpretation, subjective value and belief, social convention (I don’t like the term “social construction”), signaling, etc. Neoclassical economists, Austrian economists, new institutional economists, behavioral economists, and many more are all over that stuff. What we call pomo is much, much more than these innocuous concepts and approaches.

    Peter Klein

    July 19, 2010 at 4:19 am

  12. Peter:

    I think constructionist and subjectivist arguments lie on a spectrum. A *real* post-modernist like Lyotard, for example, thinks that there is really nothing beyond convention (read the Post-Modern Condition). Rorty, the philosopher, retreated to pragamatism on similar grounds. According to him, there’s no truth, just truth communities.

    The other end of the spectrum, that I think the pomo periscope presents, is that the subjective world is nothing more than convention making. Sure, things like money and the law are conventions, but they have no power or effect beyond their role as coordinating/signalling entities. I have a hunch that the typical economist believes some version of this theory. People have exogenously defined preferences/wants/desires/personalities that get coordinated or filtered through conventions and signals. Period. Any other talk is just silly.

    Between true post-modernism and the conventionalist account of subjective life is what you might call a feedback model of the subjective world. This is what I currently believe. I don’t believe that convention defines our entire world or that we can’t know anything. But the subjective world can have pretty powerful effects.

    That was what was so innovative about Weber’s protestant ethic argument. It wasn’t that he made specific claim about a religion and economic growth (which he did). The real innovation was arguing that a subjective worldview created a class of people with the right attitudes toward capital accumulation, which then changed the “objective” economy. In other world, conventions and beliefs (not technology or innovation) lead to real economic change. Do I believe Weber’s specific example? No. But is the deeper argument important. Yes.

    What gets my goat is that this intermediate position is lumped in with a truly extreme post-modern position. When sociologists talk about how culture or values affect behavior and structure, we are all lumped in with post-modernists. It annoys me.

    With respect to Weick, some arguments are definitely not post-modern. For example, “loose coupling” is just another way of talking about principal-agent problems in orgs. Some orgs don’t have strong control over other units and they drift. Sensemaking? If you agree that organizations are people+contracts, then you’d have to agree on some level that organizations exist, as Weick suggests, because they are talked about. If he’s big on reflexivity, then I’ll give you partial credit. Reflexivity is kinda pomo.


    July 19, 2010 at 4:49 am

  13. I don’t think sensemaking is necessarily a postmodern notion, anymore than “discourse” is necessarily postmodern. But there are distinctly postmodern (as Nicolai put it) ways of approaching these topics.

    Thinking about it now, I’m actually suprised that there would be much question about how pomo Weick is. In his review of Sensemaking in Organizations (the main object of my critique) in JMI (Sept. 1996), for example, Martin Kilduff writes: “Weick steps forward as a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist (did anyone really have any doubt?) firmly convinced in the multiple nature of the self …, and skeptical toward much of the positivist tradition within our field” (p. 248).

    Now, we could be more precise about what postmodernism is, but surely we can’t just say, as Fabio seems to, that ALL Weick says is that “people interpret things” and “create meaning and value” and that that this ALONE doesn’t make him postmodern. Weick does much more than that. And postmodernism, as Peter says, is much more than this too. Postmodernism (like positivism, though they are not simple opposites) is not a single notion or even a set of claims; it is a comprehensive style, a posture, a way of thinking.

    I think Weick does write in that mode. Such writing doesn’t have to be bad, but I think I have identified some serious defects in the dominant style of sensemaking research, with Weick, of course, being our most prominent stylist.


    July 19, 2010 at 7:27 am

  14. “Once you give up the idea that a text can represent reality (including another text) it is tempting also to let go of your ordinary scholarly restraint.”

    Are you ****** serious? Gadamer. Need I say more.


    July 19, 2010 at 5:04 pm

  15. I don’t know very much about Gadamer, but I didn’t say that giving up on representation was tantamount to letting scholarly standards slide. Just that it is tempting.


    July 19, 2010 at 9:26 pm

  16. I can only say that if you make this “argument” in front of philosophers, they will find the argument quite amusing. You might be able to show that many pomos don’t follow scholarly standards, but it should be quite clear that that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the fact that it is the pomo aspect that has led them down a path of poor judgments (I hope this point is quite clear).

    Gadamer is one of the main kings of this field. He sets high standards for argumentation – even though he always interprets a text, and doesn’t represent. His main work is Warheit und Metode.


    July 20, 2010 at 5:29 am

  17. Thomas,
    Once you start believing in the representationalist fallacy, it is tempting to believe that everything you have observed and believe to be true is backed out by the invisible and unobservable authority called “Reality”. Scholars who believe in reality run a risk of not reflecting on what they write – thus compromising scholarly standards.
    Not saying that the most vocal “realists” are letting scholarly standards slide. Just that it is tempting.


    July 20, 2010 at 11:32 am

  18. Henri and Bergies, I really do understand your points. Each epistemological framework (some would call it an ideology) offers its own temptations. And, yes, realist ontologies also underpin poor scholarship in some cases.

    Like I say, I will grant that Gadamer is a fine scholar.

    In the specific case of Weick’s plagiarism, however, I do think there is distinctly postmodern feel to how he does it. It employs forms of decoupage and collage that are often promoted (though not as explicit calls for plagiarism) by postmodern management scholars (and Weick is considered a “master” of the art, I should add). Also, like I say, postmodern arguments about authorship have as a matter fact been used as arguments to rethink the plagiarism taboo in academia.

    I am not saying this to denounce postmodernism. Rather, I am trying to engage with the sorts of arguments that might be offered for Weick’s practice of taking, for example, a poem and recasting it as his own paragraph of apparently empirical prose. No one is going to defend Weick’s scholarship on “classical” academic standards. That’s why I think Nicolai’s Pomo Periscope angle on this is not wholly off the mark.

    That said, I also appreciate Kieran’s opening comment. Why not discuss this question on the merits of the case I’m making. I would, for example, love to hear what conclusions Brayden reaches after looking at the evidence.


    July 20, 2010 at 5:05 pm

  19. Thomas, there is just a very basic distinction between what some As (might) do, and what proper A stands for.

    It really is as simple as that. Of course you can find kinds of postmodernism that says anything goes. But that is not postmodernism per se. So, in your attempt to argue against a specific conception (and instances) of postmodernism, you are really arguing against something uinteresting (while your plagiarism comment seems very interesting).

    I haven’t read your Weick text, but from the comments here (and my knowledge of Weick) it sounds convincing. But why not just make it an argument against Weick and poor use of some postmodernism terminology? You sound like you know your Weick. If you don’t know Gadamer, you don’t know your postmodernism.

    Henri really hits the nail on the head with his post, absolutely brilliant. ALthough, just re-read Kierans comment you are referring to. If people had been following proper scholarly standards, the pomo discussion should have stopped right there.

    Btw, your argument “posmodern feel”, sounds very “postmodern” (in your sense). Self-refuting, isn’t it?


    July 20, 2010 at 9:01 pm

  20. hi Bergies, I always hate doing this, but go back through the discussion and try to find the point at which I say that postmodernism (“per se”) is the target. I haven’t said that at all. I’ve just tried to work within the pomo framing that Nicolai suggested (and Fabio objected to). Sensemaking “theory” constitutes a pretty specific (if at all) version of postmodern org theory. My claim here is only to have a basis to critique that. I don’t think a general critique of postmodernism ever reall works. And, yes, I am a bit pomo myself–very much depending on the sense we give it.


    July 20, 2010 at 9:17 pm

  21. There might be two Thomas’s in the comments section.

    “I’ve never thought postmodernists have a monopoly on poor writing (nor any shortage of great writers). But I do think that some of the defects I have identified in Weick’s scholarship can be traced to postmodern attitudes about authorship, originality and intertextuality. Once you give up the idea that a text can represent reality (including another text) it is tempting also to let go of your ordinary scholarly restraint.”


    July 20, 2010 at 9:20 pm

  22. No there’s only one, and I stand by that statement.

    Suppose some but not all capitalist countries experience economic collapses, and the same of socialist countries. Now, suppose we have two countries, one socialist, one capitalist, each of which is experiencing an economic collapse of some kind. There is nothing illogical about tracing the failings of each to the temptations that economic actors in each kind of economy had fallen for. The temptations will be different, and the collapses will not say anything in general about capitalism or socialism.

    All this to insist that I am not committing some elementary logical mistake, though I’m open to the idea that I’m committing a complex philosophical error. I could have been more particular about those “postmodern attitudes” by saying I meant those held by sensemaking scholars, but I thought that went without saying.

    Here’s an imperfect analogy: to say that a soup is too salty is not an argument against salt per se. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with postmodern attitudes per se, just, in particular cases, in their application. In the case of the soup, however, framing the problem in terms of salt is not misplaced.


    July 20, 2010 at 9:57 pm

  23. I am probably getting pretty boring at this point, but since you took my last jest with humor…

    Suppose that some but not all black males commit crimes, and the same for while males. [...] There is nothing illogical about tracing the failings of each to the temptations that individuals of each culture had fallen for. The temptations will be different, and the crimes will not say anything in general about the cultures of black or white people. [...] there’s nothing wrong with black culture per se, just, in particular cases, in their application.

    Maybe, just maybe, some people might find it offensive to somehow draw implications from individuals’ failings to a broader social group? Particularly, I would say since there are at least three quite different strands of post-modernism (and probably many more), the French, the British/German, and the American. Toulmin and Rorty, for example, are clearly postmodernist in important sense, but do not exhibit any of the ‘pomo’ problems.

    Anyone for Rat Radar? It be useful to cover really bad rational choice papers in order to highlight how intellectually bankrupt papers the theory leads people to write. Not to say that PhD students shouldn’t take up rat choice, just saying…


    July 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm

  24. That’s an interesting counter-analogy. But I think (if perhaps only outside certain pomo circles) the sort of reasoning you describe can be legitimate.

    The sociology of crime in predominately white and predominantly black neighbourhoods, for example, in countries where racism of various kinds determine social and economic opportunities, needs to trace the causes of crime to different social pathologies. Such arguments may be race-sensitive without being racist.

    But that’s not the sort of implications you are alluding to, of course. And I think there is in any case a more valid link between how economies are organized (socialist, capitalist) and how they collapse than the (sort of dubious and offensive) links that some try to establish between race and crime.

    Likewise, I think the links between styles of thought (like “postmodernism”, “rationalism”, “logical empiricism” etc.) and scholarly work are more valid than those alluded to by your analogy.

    Finally, I can see why postmodernists might want to cast themselves as (or by analogy to) an oppressed minority. But I don’t think the “marginalization card”, if you will, holds any longer. I think postmodernism has won enough support on almost all research topics now to offer just as much disciplinary comfort (and censure) as any more “classical” paradigm.

    It’s not really “post-” any longer. It’s just part of the present range of options open to academics. It’s a bit like “alternative” music that way.


    July 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

  25. Generalization from some part of a population to all of the population is dubious. There are many communities who think of themselves as postmodern, both in social sciences and philosophy. For me post-modernism is not a “style of thought” so much as the notion that certain sacred axioms of early enlightenment should be abandoned because they are unfounded.

    It is rather unfortunate if some poor writing or poor thought by some social scientists I cannot stand reading is allowed to tarnish a broad range of very serious scholarship. Reminds me of Rorty noting how any serious philosopher judging the worth of derrida or foucault based on the writings of U.S. english departments would consider them to be shit. The point, of course, is that there is much more to derrida and foucault than literary theory makes out of them.


    July 22, 2010 at 6:39 pm

  26. You can’t generalize from a single, arbitrary part of population. But you can surely generalize from Weick’s (highly regarded) work to the scholarly standards of the sensemaking community (which regards his work so highly).

    The question, then, is whether sensemaking research constitutes a significant part of postmodern organization studies. Suppose those “serious philosophers” you mention had confined their judgment to postmodern literary theory and based their opinions of readings of major figures inthat limited domain (not Derrida or Foucault)?

    Still, I do actually want to stop short of passing judgment on the equivalent general population in this case. I don’t think pomo org studies is shit–I don’t even think sensemaking research should be abandoned. I have simply identified some ways in which our scholarship can (and must, to my mind) improve. And making some of these improvements does actually require that we re-assert some arguably “enlightenment” values, i.e., values that are sometimes thrown out with the post-enlightenment bath-water.

    One of these is that there is actually a truth of the matter about what another texts says at a level that perhaps precedes interpretation. So, for example, Weick cannot blame snow in Mann Gulch for the death of the firefighters (because his source says nothing about snow and says, on the contrary, that it was a really hot summer, i.e., there was no snow). On that same standard, he can’t say that the men panicked or that they were unduly optimistic (because his source says the opposite). Weick doesn’t say there was snow, but he does cite panick and positive illusions as a cause.

    I have heard that misreading defended as an “interpretation” that is made possible by the “pomo” axiom that there are no facts of the matter.

    That axiom may be right. (Or it may not really be pomo, or whatever.) Weick’s misreading doesn’t prove that postmodernism is wrong. But a critique of Weick, I still say, does force us to engage with postmodern values at least in the form in which they are norms for sensemaking research.


    July 22, 2010 at 8:55 pm

  27. [...] boys over at think that our Pomo Periscope is “lame” and are upset that we ”routinely [thrash] these people“ (meaning [...]

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