the key to success: get it wrong

It’s hard to write academic pieces well.  Getting the evidence right takes skill, time and patience.  Making sure I have the literature down and accounted for means revisiting notes taken years ago and stashed somewhere I can’t quite remember.  But for me, the hardest part of writing a paper is the framing because framing is generally about recognizing how I, and most everyone else who has tackled this problem, was wrong in some way.  In other words, just about every good piece of organizational theory written in the 20th century follows a general formula which begins by saying: organizational theorists have argued X, but I am going to contradict that to argue that Y holds instead.

After months — sometimes, years — of wrestling with an idea or a data set, finding that contradiction can feel impossible.  But it has to be done.  It’s what makes people read your work and, to some degree, what makes them believe you.  That realization came from the inevitable grad school airing of Murray Davis’s classic essay “That’s Interesting! Toward a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology.”  Murray writes:

An audience will consider any particular proposition to be worth saying only if it denies the truth of some part of their routinely held assumption-ground. If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, they will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth. They will declare that the proposition need not be stated because it is already part of their theoretical scheme: “Of course.” “That’s obvious.” “Everybody knows that.” “It goes without saying.”

Recently I was reminded of this idea when I was reading an interview with Ira Glass, the host of public radio’s This American Life.   He was asked “what is the big pay off  for the listener in stories… ”  To which he replied:

Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it’s done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.

He goes on to talk about a few of the best This American Life stories about being wrong and brings up the Squirrel Cop story and their series on the mortgage crisis.  [Both well worth listening to.]  Or, there is this lovely animation of a story on This American Life which is about being wrong about being wrong.

Sometimes these kinds of switch-backs can lead to juicy interpersonal drama.  Intellectual history is rife with examples of students’ “killing the father” which is to say, publicly contradicting the theories that one’s own mentors and advisers championed.   But the sweetest examples are those rare, revelatory, instances when big deal thinkers confront and admit their own wrongness after years and decades of towing the line.

It’s all a reminder to me that, while we strive for scientific rigor in our work, the best orgTheorists are also excellent storytellers whose goal is not simply to find sociological “truth”, it is to influence discourse; to change the way people think by exposing their own intellectual struggles in a way that sheds light.  And it makes me wonder: where will the next great contradictory switchback come from in OrgTheory?

Written by seansafford

June 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I think I read Davis a bit differently, and a lot more cynically. In some sense, I think Davis provides a critique of our thirst for novelty, and our rejection of anything that confirms our priors as boring.

    Take, for example, the very first paragraph:
    “It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting. Those who carefully and exhaustively verify trivial theories are soon forgotten, whereas those who cursorily and expediently verify interesting theories are long remembered. In fact, the truth of a theory has very little to do with its impact, for a theory can continue to be found interesting even though its truth is disputed — even refuted!”

    Davis talks about Kuhn near the end of his essay, and I think Davis is absolutely right that Kuhn’s schema does not make sense – for Sociology (where Kuhn never meant it to apply anyway). For us, the thirst for the interesting trumps other concerns. “Mere description” is belittled as just that (Abbott has a number of good essays that make that point). We are constantly generating theories, then generating counterexamples from which we generate new theories, and thinking that this is following the model of the “real sciences”.

    Physicists, say, spend a lot of time trying to add another digit onto a constant, or searching for particles that theories predict should exist, and so on. A good experiment that confirms an existing theory really is enough. Interesting findings that go against prevailing theories (i.e. anomalies) are often not seen as such by the very experimenters who record them – e.g. the Michelson-Morley experiments were not, by the experimenters, seen as disproving the theory of the ether. And so on. You don’t need to upend the dominant theory to get published in a top journal, or to have your work talked about over the water cooler.

    In short, I think Davis can be read as showing how we praise novelty and “interestingness” over correctness. Moreover, we think that a good description is almost never interesting on its own. I’m not sure this is a good thing, nor that it’s similar to the model(s) of the natural sciences.


    Dan Hirschman

    June 10, 2010 at 3:59 pm

  2. A fantastic post, and responding to the previous commenter, the whole point of the post as I understood it, is “what is interesting?” Economists give great value to someone who manages to prove an old theory beyond “any” doubt (the recent emphasis on randomized trials, and the celebration of the clever use of instrumental variables, are cases in point). Other social sciences seem to have a different standard. To orgtheorists, what is interesting?



    June 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

  3. My favorite quote from the musician Anthonyt Braxton: “If you aren’t making a mistake, then you’re making a mistake.”



    June 10, 2010 at 8:25 pm

  4. I am not sure about the next contradictory switchback in OrgTheory, but I recently stumbled upon Granovetter’s (below) commentary on embeddedness, which surprised me somewhat. I don’t think it counts as a “contradictory switchback”, it’s probably more of a “hang-on”.

    He says “I do not see the point of trying to measure the amount of it (embeddedness)in this situation compared with that situation. For me it is just an announcement, or a conceptual umbrella under which one should look into and think about what are the connections between economic activity and the social, the political, the institutional, the historical, the cultural elements that economic activity is mixed up with. So it is a sensitizing umbrella concept and that is how I have come to use it, because I think anything else will just get us into endless debates of the sort that we have just finished”.


    Sam MacAulay

    June 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm

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