Tom Erickson
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Theories as Genres

Thomas Erickson

1998

 

...a strong theory not only shapes the scientific activity,

but becomes an important means of ordering social relations.

-C. Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge, p 183

I was struck by Bazerman's comment that a strong theory may allow a bureaucratization of the community, "allowing individuals to sort themselves out into distinctive ... roles according to rational principles generated by the theory."

One thing it lead me to ponder was the extent to which theories and genres are similar beasts. A genre - when seen as a stable-for-now structure that has developed in response to a recurring communicative situation - seems awfully similar to a theory, which also seems like a stable-for-now structure that has developed in response to a particular way of viewing the world as afforded by a set of observational tools and methods. Furthermore, both genres and theories do not simply develop in response to a recurring situation/viewing-of-the-world - they also participate in its transformation via the dance of structuration. Both would seem - once stabilized - to offer a set of communicative resources that practitioners can draw on to communicate efficiently (e.g. the Watson-Crick two page paper). And both create roles which members of the associated community can enact. ...Are theories simply ontological genres?

The other thought that Bazerman's comment provoked was more deeply rooted in my current situation, although it lead to another, even odder, parallel with genre.

Bazerman went on to contrast the role of a theory in ordering social relations with the classical bureaucracy, something which I have become intimately (if not comfortably!) familiar during my first year at IBM. Those of you not deeply embedded in a massive bureaucracy can probably not quite grasp the tantalizing nature of a vision in which theory allows an emergent form of social ordering, as opposed to the top-down establishment of roles that is the bureaucratic modus operandi.

I exaggerate a little, but nevertheless, the issue of how to organize - and reorganize in the face of shifting needs and priorities - is a key one. And all but the most hidebound of corporate executives recognize that top-down control of a large organization is not, in the end, a path towards the flexibility and responsiveness that is now viewed as essential for a modern corporation. The vision of a corporate entity as a theory-driven, self-organizing system has much to recommend it.

But alas, corporations don't really have theories. Certainly they don't have theories like quantum mechanics, which is extraordinarily powerful and almost universally accepted by members of the physics community. Perhaps the closest thing business has to an all-embracing theory is the rhetoric of customers, quality, and satisfaction, which is aggressively colonizing everything in site, including the hallowed halls of academe (soon to become knowledge marts for just-in-time learning delivered straight to the homes of its customers?). But it seems to me that this rhetoric lacks the coherence, depth, and accountability of theory - it seems principally useful for providing post-hoc rationale for an unbounded range of action, rather than for guiding or shaping action

However, the notion of theories as a means of permitting individuals to sort themselves out into distinctive roles is too interesting to allow it to slip away entirely from the corporate realm. I began to try to think of examples in which individuals spontaneously took on roles in response to something like a theory, and came up with a thought-provoking example:

Many years ago I was in a workshop aimed at producing a book. About 30 authors had gathered to mutually critique chapters for a period of three days. At the end of the workshop the organizers decided to try something unusual: all 30 authors would meet and jointly create an organization for the book from scratch -- the authors would decide on what the book sections should be, and how the chapters should be ordered within them.

We gathered in a room, each author with a copy of his or her chapter. To start the process, someone had spread some pieces of paper on the floor, with (possible) book section names written on them, and authors were asked to put their chapters near an appropriate section. After this, the procedure was simple: anyone could pick up any chapter and move it elsewhere; anyone could change the name of a book section; anyone could propose a new section by writing a name on a new piece of paper.

Although the process seemed like a recipe for chaos, and was in fact characterized by a lot of milling about and simultaneous conversations, the process was exceptionally effective. In about 30 minutes, 30 people had come up with an mutually agreed upon organization for a book of 30 chapters, with everyone participating in the discussion.

Several phenomena seemed to be important to the success of this process:

* First, the participants had assigned meanings to parts of the space. This was done by writing the names of proposed book sections on paper, and by positioning chapters relative to the proposed sections. This method of assigning meaning also created a framework that allowed participants to convey ambiguity and novelty. Sometimes participants would position a chapter halfway in between two sections, indicating that they weren't sure to which it belonged. Sometimes participants would put chapters in an area of the room without a section name, suggesting that those chapters belonged together but fit no existing sections.

*Second, the process was carried out in a visible manner. You could see when someone wanted to move a chapter. You could see when people were in disagreement. You could see when someone wanted to make a major change. We could also tell when the organization had stabilized, because the general level of conversation and movement settled down. The visibility helped coordinate the activity.

* The visibility of activity had a third effect. Because the visibility was mutual - you could see me, and I could see you, and I could see you seeing me, and so on - people were accountable for their actions. This accountability lead to discussion, which in turn lead to explanations and proposed organizational frameworks. For example, when someone went to move a chapter to another area of the room (i.e. assign it to another book section), there would be one or more people around (the audience) with whom the mover would discuss the rationale for the move, the result being that there was a greater shared understanding of the section names and definitions, and of the gist of each chapter.

* Finally, the fact that the chapters and section names were spread all over the floor had an important impact: it meant that no one could dominate the organization of the book. Those who had strong opinions about where their chapters belonged, tended to hover near their chapters, ready to 'defend' them from would-be reorganizers; those who had ideas about the structure of the book as a whole had to flit about from section to section, thus giving up any strong control over where their chapter (or any single chapter) was positioned.

I don't know if it is proper to call this process theory-driven. At best, it's a very ad hoc, ephemeral sort of theory. But like a real theory, it relies on a socially agreed upon framework and symbols (e.g., that areas of the room represented sections), and various actions with respect to the framework (moving chapters around the floor). It provide resources that were used to further and constrain communication. The process relies on maintaining accountability to justify participant's actions with respect to the shared framework. The process did in fact produce coherent activity and increased the amount of shared knowledge - in fact, it seems likely that the final product reflected more knowledge that any individual possessed. And it caused participants to freely take on roles - global organizer, local advocate - which made the process work.

Is this a theory driven process? An ephemeral genre? An ad hoc ritual? It's not clear to me, but it seems part of a family of entities that function in surprising similar ways.

 

 

Tom Erickson

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