Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study and
Department of Information Science, Stellenbosch University, ZAF
The article aims at expanding the conversation between organization theory and philosophy in the context of complexity studies. The focus is on a new study by Christiaan Maasdorp on the significance of Paul Ricoeur's concept of a narrative identity for Karl Weick's understanding of organization.
To provide a background for Maasdorp's interpretation and critique of Weick, the introduction briefly discusses three recent contributions to the debate: Barret, Powley, and Pearce (2011) on the relevance of hermeneutical philosophy for organizational theory, Langenberg and Hesseling (2016) on the philosophical dimensions of Weick's theory and Sparrowe (2005) on the implications of Ricoeur's concept of the narrative self for authentic leadership.
The second section analyses Maasdorp's interpretation of Weick's notion of sensemaking, which represents an important advance in organization theory. Weick's seminal move to approach the organization as activity and not as structure, enables him to develop sensemaking as a dynamic concept. The various elements driving the process reflect the same dynamism. Identity construction plays a core role in this regard and highlights the changing nature of how the organization sees and presents itself. Although Weick does recognize the value of stories for identity construction, he does not integrate this in his theoretical framework. This perceived epistemological dissonance is the focus of Maasdorp's critique of Weick which is discussed in the third section.
Maasdorp's main criticism is that Weick's theory is not internally consistent and that it lacks the theoretical resources to properly study organizational phenomena. He relies too heavily on social psychology and too little on philosophical hermeneutics. Weick consequently remains trapped in a positivistic framework. As a more suitable alternative, Maasdorp presents Ricoeur's concept of a narrative identity which has the ability to approach the organization itself as narrative (not merely relying on stories about the organization). Through the "circle of mimesis" it becomes possible to provide a more adequate theoretical account of all the dynamic dimensions of the sensemaking process.
Maasdorp presents a compelling argument and highlights the value of the concept of a narrative identity. However, he overlooks the potential contribution of Ricoeur's insights for another aspect of organization theory, namely to understand how organizations can be changed and revitalized. The final section briefly discusses the implications for organizational change.
This article is intended as a contribution to the expanding conversation between organization theory and philosophy in the context of complexity. The focus is on a new study by Christiaan Maasdorp1 on the significance of Paul Ricoeur's concept of a narrative identity for Karl Weick's understanding of organization. In the first section I refer briefly to three recent essays from a philosophical perspective to serve as background for the subsequent discussion, narrowing the focus progressively from a general overview to the issue of narrative identity itself. The second section analyses Maasdorp's interpretation of Weick, to be followed in the next by his critique and proposal for an alternative approach to organizational identity. In a final section I explore aspects of Ricoeur's work overlooked by Maasdorp and which have implications for change in organizations.
It is encouraging to witness the increased interest by organization theorists in the potential contribution of philosophy to their own field of study. It is a perspective which has been neglected for too long in some circles. If organizational theory studies are in essence interdisciplinary—as Pfeffer (1997) claims—it can only benefit from this interdisciplinary interaction which is becoming an important area of investigation and theorizing2. To illustrate this, I shall refer briefly to three recent studies in this area which are of special significance for our topic.
In their essay on hermeneutic philosophy and organizational theory, Barret, Powley and Pearce (2011) provide a valuable overview of the history of hermeneutic philosophy and its influence in organization studies—in their estimation an important, but still "less recognized research domain" (2011: 208). This influence relates not only to organizational practice, but also to organizational research itself. The choices which the researcher makes in setting up a project are interpretive moves, which "have consequences of how social science activity is conducted, what topics are chosen, what methodology is adopted, and how we conceptualize the consequences of such knowledge" (2011: 196).
Their wide-ranging discussion includes three strands of thought which are of direct relevance for our theme. Firstly, the shift from a reductionist/closed/exclusivist to an expansive/open/inclusive approach to understanding. Instead of trying to understand phenomena by dismantling the whole in its constituent parts and examining these components in isolation, the whole is taken as point of departure to focus on the inter-relations between constituent parts and on their connections with the wider context. Understanding thus becomes a reflective, retrospective, circular activity, opening a variety of perspectives, worlds within worlds, and leading to the discovery of alternative "realities". In the process the ground is prepared for what would become the main interests and strategies of complexity theory (see Cilliers, 1998; Cilliers & Preiser, 2010).
Secondly, the constitutive nature of understanding and the—closely related—creative power of language. Understanding is not a secondary activity trying to grasp what already exists, but bringing into being in the first place (the ontological dimension of understanding according to Heidegger). Language is not merely a description or expression of what is, but has the ability to create something new. Ernst Fuchs, a prominent New Testament and hermeneutic scholar of the previous century, puts it this way: "When my granddaughter enters the room and cries: 'Opa!', I become a grandfather in that very moment"3.
Thirdly, the narrative nature of identity which is a specific attestation of the creative power of language. Identity construction is a narrative process involving both the narrator and the response of the audience in forming and editing components of one's story (Barret et al., 2011: 201). This self-definition is not aimed at self-indulgence, but provides the indispensable basis for action. With reference to Ricoeur's concern about lived experience and living texts, what is at stake is negotiating a path between experience and narrative. "To negotiate such a path means one must possess self-understanding and self-awareness to link past to present and present to future in narrative sense, to make sense of unexpected events, and heterogeneity of agents, goals, interactions, and the like" (2011: 201). However, the focus still remains—as we shall also see in the case of Sparrowe—on the role of the individual agent, not of the organization as such.
In contrast to the wide-ranging overview of Barret and his colleagues, Langenberg and Wesseling (2016) reduce the focus and concentrate on one concept of one exponent, namely Weick's idea of organizing as sensemaking. They offer a "philosophical exploration" of this idea. Weick conceives both the organization and its environment as a social and mental construct, dissolving the dichotomy between theory and practice in the process. In essence, he studies the organization as an activity which is constantly interrupted by contradictions and unexpected events which require sensemaking. In this approach Langenberg and Wesseling (2016: 221) see parallels with post-modern thinking and detects an affinity with Derrida's deconstruction project. Whereas Weick refers only sporadically to philosophy, Langenberg and Wesseling (2016: 222) want to rectify this lack by linking his work to "German modern and French postmodern thought" and bringing (besides Derrida) philosophers like Heidegger, Lyotard, and Nancy into the conversation. Even though Weick dissociates himself from postmodernist thought, there are similarities between his theoretical premises and those explored by postmodernists (Langenberg & Wesseling 2016: 225 footnote 4).
Langenberg and Wesseling's exploration consequently takes the form of finding "parallels and affinities" to some of Weick's key concepts. These include the organization as dynamic improvisation and not as a static architectural design (224); the "groundlessness" of the organization requiring constant adaptation and the ability to live with ambiguity and the simultaneous holding of two contradictory positions which echoes the combination of destruction and construction in Derrida's deconstruction (225); the future-oriented nature of sensemaking which requires a "jump" and which find a parallel in Heidegger's concept of the Satz as a leap which opens up a new terrain (226); sensemaking as a self-referential process which means that the "self" and not the "environment" is in need of understanding (228); identity as principally multiple and ambiguous (229), giving an "anti-metaphysical" basis to the self in line with Nancy's idea of the self as meaning and as the sharing of meaning (232); organizing as act focused not on finding, but on creating meaning and thereby underlining the pragmatism of sensemaking (229); the heuristic nature of sensemaking which not only makes (retrospective) sense of the (present) event, but also opens future possibilities. This is related to Derrida's reference to the misunderstanding that past and future arise from the now, while the order is the other way around: past and future are conditions for a potential now (235).
Langenberg and Wesseling offer a succinct introduction to Weick's central concepts but their analyses remain on the level of identifying similarities, related concepts and possible links to postmodern thought. They do not (and this was certainly not their intention) engage in a substantial debate with organization theory itself. In their conclusion they do list some implications for management, but this remains on a general level and the only aspect discussed in more detail is the consequences which a dynamic conception of organization has for leadership and especially for moral leadership (240). This provides a link to the contribution of Sparrowe (2005).
In this important study, Sparrowe narrows down the focus ever further by concentrating on the significance of Paul Ricoeur's concept of narrative identity for organization theory. His emphasis, however, is on the issue of leadership and more specifically, on the implications for what he calls "authentic leadership". He argues that authenticity is not achieved by self-awareness of one's inner values or purpose, but instead flows from the narrative process which molds one's identity and in which others play a constitutive role.
For Sparrowe, lack of authentic leadership is the root cause of the crisis of confidence in contemporary corporate leadership. Many transformational leadership theories have an "inward" orientation, understanding authenticity as an inner quality which should serve as a moral compass. The result is a static concept of leadership which produces a false sense of consistency and stability. The argument that this type of leadership is intrinsically moral, is based on circular logic (2005: 423). The fact is that leaders are subject to ongoing change in which relations with others play a crucial role. The orientation should therefore be reversed from inward to outward, from the emphasis from one's own self to how we are recognized, regarded and esteemed by others (2005: 424).
In this way, the dynamic nature of identity is duly recognized and enables narrative variations to come into play which offer alternative pasts, presents and futures. The trigger which initiates this process is precisely the "otherness" of others which challenges the status quo and releases the potential of what is different and strange (Lategan, 2018).
Important for our later discussion is the mediating potential and therefore the transformative power of narrative which can act as a "shifting device" to change perspectives and positions. "For Ricoeur, narrative is a bridge between what is lived and what is told, between tradition and innovation, between what was, what is, and what might be ..." (Sparrowe, 2005: 426). Ricoeur does not shy away from confronting opposites, from engaging in a reflective dialogue with conflicting paradigms and to accept that the essence of identity is not consistency or continuity, but "discordant concordance" (2005: 426)4.
Sparrowe thus argues convincingly that Ricoeur's idea of the narrative self offers a "richer conceptual framework for understanding identity in relation to authenticity and leadership" (2005: 434). But does this conclusion pertain only to leadership? What about the identity of the organization itself? This is the question Maasdorp raises and which now requires our attention.
In the spirit pioneered by Ricoeur to purposely engage in a dialogue between conflicting paradigms, Maasdorp's intention is to confront Weick with Ricoeur. The chosen "battlefield" is Ricoeur's concept of narrative identity and its significance for the epistemological basis of Weick's theory. In contrast to Sparrowe, Maasdorp is not interested in issues of leadership, but in the clash between the dynamic nature of Weick's thought and the static framework in which it remains captured.
With this purpose in mind, Maasdorp (2018: 3-19) contextualizes his analysis in the wider framework of organization theory—a field of study which has undergone major changes and which now encompasses a wide variety of approaches and bifurcations, often based on conflicting cognitive traditions. Maasdorp distinguishes three main directions, based on population ecology, transaction costs and institutionalism respectively. Population ecology provided the basic insights for researchers like Hannan and Freeman (1977) to explain the evolution of organizational forms and their distribution on the basis of environmental selection. The transaction costs approach offers an economic perspective on organizations and investigates the contribution which the organization of a firm can make to lower costs by finding an optimal balance between intra and extra firm transactions (Williamson, 1981). Institutionalism builds on the legacy of Weber to study forms of organization and the factors (besides efficiency and optimization) which induce continuity and similarity in organizations (for example, DiMaggio & Powell 1983). Within these three main streams, there remains a large measure of variety and difference (Maasdorp, 2018: 5).
Within this context, Maasdorp explains how Weick developed his idea of sensemaking (forthwith SM), which in essence is a critique of and an alternative to the status quo in organization theory. Although Weick tries to integrate various strands from previous research, there are also subtle changes—like the shift from the static term "organization" (noun) to the more dynamic concept "organizing" (verb). He is interested in how the process of organizing works, not so much in its outcome in the form of organized structures. This echoes the observation of Langenberg and Wesseling (2016: 221) that Weick studies the organization as activity. He is thus more attuned to the implied fluidity and to the contribution of intersubjective processes. "Put simply, Weick focuses on enactment by organizational actors whilst institutionalism focuses on the sedimentation of rationalization" (Maasdorp, 2018: 6-7). By concentrating on the contribution of these actors and how their self-understanding guides the process of organizing, Weick is able to account for so-called pre-rational elements in his theory and for the phenomenon that decisions are often rationalized retrospectively.
It is important to keep the historical context in mind, as well as the specific purpose for which Weick developed his concept of SM. It was not the result of philosophical or metaphysical speculation, but arose from the stark realities of the business world where decisions have to be made constantly in rapidly changing circumstances for the sake of the survival of the organization and its (hopefully) successful operation.
SM thus comes into its own in the turmoil of "real" life, the world of action, where concrete and critical decisions have to be made which have equally concrete consequences. It is in this existential context in which SM thrives or rather, where SM is essential for the survival of the organization or business. For Weick, interpretation represents a secondary stage in the process. His focus is on what precedes interpretation, on what makes interpretation in the first instance necessary. It is usually instances of extreme improbability which trigger SM. Weick (1995: 4) gives the example of the so-called "battered child syndrome" (BCS). For a long time even professionals denied its existence because it is almost impossible to believe that parents will habitually abuse their children. Even the clinical terminology used at the time assisted in concealing the true state of affairs: "intentional ill treatment" was the euphemism which obscured the reality of the "battered child".
Weick's priority is not to find answers as the outcome of a lengthy process of deliberation, but to discover and formulate the right questions. His starting point is to grasp the problem properly and to formulate it clearly. Problems do not announce themselves ready-made—the need for SM arise in situations that are unclear, confusing or uncertain. From this "raw material" the problem needs to be reconstructed and formulated. "(The practitioner) must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense" (Weick 1995: 9). The formulation of the problem at the same time serves as the framework for the process and determines which aspects will be considered and which excluded. "Problem setting is a process in which, interactively, we name the things to which we will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them" (1995: 9). Weick embraces a statement of Wallas which becomes the mantra for his own understanding of SM: "The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said: 'How can I know what I think till I see what I say?'" (Wallas, quoted by Weick, 1995: 12).
This mantra not only encapsulates the retrospective nature of SM, but also shows Weick's affinity to issues which later became central themes in the development of complexity theory (see Cilliers, 1998: 2-7).
SM is consequently a generative process in the sense that something first has to be produced before it can be interpreted. "Sensemaking is about authoring as well as interpretation, creation as well as discovery" (1995: 8). For Weick, SM is something substantially different from interpretation. Interpretation assumes that something already exists which can be discovered or brought to light. "Sensemaking, however, is less about discovery than it is about invention. To engage in sensemaking is to construct, filter, frame, [...] and render the subjective into something more tangible" (1995: 13-4).
Although SM can be described as a process of progressive clarification, this clarification can also happen in reverse. The greater elucidation which emerges gradually, can also have implications for initial assumptions and for how the problem was conceptualized in the first place, leading to retrospective adjustments and corrections. In this regard, Weick was heavily influenced by the study of Garfinkel (1967) on how jury members arrive at their decisions. Garfinkel found—contradicting general opinion—that these members did not consider all facts and testimonies before coming to a verdict. In reality, they reach a "guilty" or "not guilty" conclusion fairly early in the trial and then select facts and testimony which support their conclusion.
As we have seen, Weick is not influenced in any substantial way by philosophy in the development of his theory. He gives an impressive overview of the history of organization theory and lists more than fifty important publications (1995: 65-9). None of these originates from a distinctive philosophical (or more specifically, hermeneutical) perspective—as Langenberg and Wesseling (2016: 222) also point out. Weick himself mentions in passing the work of Burrell and Morgan (1979), in which they refer to "the ideas of hermeneutics, phenomenology, and symbolic interaction" (1995: 34), without discussing these ideas in any detail. (See also Maasdorp, 2018: 34, 43 on indirect references to Dilthey and Heidegger.)
Weick builds on various insights from organization theory, but develops his own, distinctive approach. His first investigations (Weick, 1979; Daft & Weick, 1984) culminated in a full-blown theory (Weick, 1995) which he refined in subsequent publications (Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld, 2005; Weick, 2003). His work has had (and still has) a far-reaching influence on organization theory and related fields (cf. Maasdorp, 2018: 40-2). For the purposes of this article, the focus is on Sensemaking in Organizations (1995) which represents the most comprehensive statement of his approach and in which he lists the well-known seven characteristics in which SM distinguishes itself from other forms of understanding and interpretation: grounded in identity construction, retrospective, enactive of sensible environments, social, ongoing, focused on and by extracted cues, and driven by plausibility rather than accuracy (1995: 17). Because identity construction is the target of Maasdorp's critique of Weick, I shall briefly discuss the other characteristics before returning to the issue of identity.
Sense can only be made retrospectively, by looking back at events which have already taken place. The moment an occurrence is encapsulated in words, it is already part the past. The outcome is already known, and this influences how the sequence is reconstructed and what moments are deemed to be worthy of attention. The values that are important to the individual or the organization thus play a role in what is considered to be "significant" of a specific event. In fact, meaning is not something that is "ascribed" to events from the outside—meaning is already contained in the way these events are perceived. The problem is not a lack of information or too little possible meanings—there are usually too many to choose from. The implication for SM is that no form of forecast or strategic planning is of any value if it is not done from this retrospective perspective.
The "sensible environments" involved in sensemaking refer both to how these environments come into being and to the creative effect they have on the process. Even on the individual level sensemaking is never a monologue—there is always a "parliament of selves" involved in one and the same person (Weick, 1995: 18). This is even more true of collective processes of understanding where meaning is actually produced through intersubjective exchange. In the organization this happens in the presence of and with the contribution of others. To understand and to decide to a large degree depend on "shared goods"—shared language, codes, sense, values and goals.
The further implication is that SM is an ongoing and iterative process. The definitive feature of open systems is exactly that they are not closed off—neither backwards nor forwards. We are always "in the middle of things" and the units in which we break up time are always artificial (and temporary) suspensions of the flow of things. Weick (1995: 43) refers in passing to Dilthey's concept of the hermeneutic circle, which is a different way to describe this continual process. As Winograd and Flores (1986: 34-6) show, the basis of this fluidity is related to Heidegger's idea of Geworfenheit ("thrownness"). In the same way, SM and decision-making in organizations are never a completed process. It is constantly triggered by incidents of different kinds and on various levels—the introduction of a new product, a discussion on site, a strategic planning session, or a budget meeting (Weick, 1995: 45). Disruptions provide the opportunity for reflection and adjustment to get the process back on track. Emotions (negative and positive) can also—if used constructively—unlock a stymied situation to get things going again. Weick purposely wants to account for the role of emotions in his theory (1995: 49)5.
SM depends on selection, or rather, how cues are chosen and utilized in the process of understanding. As indicated above, it is seldom the lack of information or options but rather its overflow which causes problems. SM requires the ability to distinguish and to concentrate on the essential, amidst an oversupply of data and stimuli. Like a magnet attracts just the iron particles in a pile of sawdust, only some elements are activated by the SM process. But what determines what is essential and what not? It is often not the most obvious, but the less prominent and subtle cues. The seasoned SM practitioner is able to read between the lines to reach the subtext—a skill which literary theory has long since learned to value in its efforts to read against the grain and to penetrate to the "hidden transcript" of the text (Scott, 1990).
The individual cues which are detected by the process of SM and used as points of departure, are linked to larger bodies of information. A fabric sample in the clothing industry is more than a mere piece of cloth—it also reveals much about its origin, the manufacturing process and the expected durability of garment to be made from it. Weick (1995: 50) finds the metaphor of "seed" particularly apt to convey the expanding, but also unpredictable way these cues drive and steer the SM process. There is always a wider context to be taken into consideration. "To talk about interpretation without discussing a politics of interpretation is to ignore context" (1995: 53).
At this stage it also becomes understandable that SM is driven by plausibility rather than accuracy. This follows from the inherent incompleteness of the SM process and the fact that in organizations decisions are seldom made on the basis of complete information or absolute certainty. Furthermore, the pragmatic context of SM favors insights and notions which support effective action rather than comprehensive and accurate knowledge. A business in dire straits is less in need of in-depth market analyses and an overview of macro trends than of concrete measures to ensure liquidity and survival. The time factor plays an important role and can demand decisions and action as soon as sufficient information is available to respond. In fact, too much detail can be confusing and paralyzing. In Weick's own words (1995: 60-61):
If accuracy is nice but not necessary in sensemaking, then what is necessary? The answer is, something that preserves plausibility and coherence, something that is reasonable and memorable, something that embodies past experience and expectations, something that resonates with other people, something that can be constructed retrospectively but also can be used prospectively, something that captures both feeling and thought, something that allows for embellishment to fit current oddities, something that is fun to construct. In short, what is necessary in sensemaking is a good story.
These characteristics form an organic whole together with the final attribute of SM, namely that it is grounded in identity construction. This is the entry point of Maasdorp's critique of Weick, but which also has wider ramifications (Lategan, 2015, 2018).
Identity is important for Weick for two reasons. Firstly, SM presupposes a sense-maker who purposely produces meaning—the so-called "authoring" of sense. The identity of the sense-maker plays a decisive role in this process and is shaped by a continuous interaction between two forms of identity: the self-image which the "author" has of his- or herself and the way others perceive the author. Our self-image (another word for our "reputation") is not something over which we alone dispose—it is very susceptible to how others see us and how they appraise us.
What applies to the individual appertains even more to collective or corporate identity. The "we" so ubiquitous in company slogans (for example, "we deliver on our promises") articulates not only how organizations see themselves, but also how they hope their clients will perceive them. Dissonance between the two could spell loss of reputation. Recently a well-known car manufacturer had to deal with several cases where the engine of a popular model spontaneous caught fire. The initial way the company reacted to the crisis (denial, apparent indifference towards owners) caused serious damage to its reputation and eventually led to deep self-examination.
Secondly, as we have seen, there is right from the start a "plurality" involved in identity formation (Langenberg & Wesseling, 2016: 229). The individual does not act in isolation, but already represents in his- or herself a "parliament of selves". Weick (1995: 18-20) quotes a poem by Pablo Neruda ("We are many") with approval. The same applies—again to a greater extent—to organizations and other forms of collective identity where identity is established through the same process of multiple interaction. The other serves as mirror in which we see ourselves. Weick refers to a statement which Cooley already made in 1902: "The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another's mind. [...] We always imagine, and in imagining share, the judgements of the other mind" (Cooley, 1902: 153).
The important point for Weick is that SM results directly from the individual's or group's deep-seated need for identity—to be more precise, from the yearning for a positive self-image6. Continuous SM is essential for maintaining a consistent, positive self-image. The discomfort caused by the judgement of others, the awareness of dissonance between self-image and the perception by others provides the opportunity for continual adjustment and correction. To make sense of yourself is the first step towards making sense of the world.
It is precisely the central role of identity in Weick's concept of SM which serves as point of departure for Maasdorp's critique. However, this aspect must be understood as part of Weick's overall organization theory. Maasdorp's main complaint is that "Weick's theory is not internally consistent and lacks the theoretical resources to properly study organizational phenomena that require interpretation rather than explanation" (2018: 7). He relies too much on social psychology and too little on philosophical hermeneutics. Weick does draw on the work of sociologists (like Berger and Luckmann) who have been influenced by phenomenological philosophy and he (as we have seen above) does refer indirectly to Heidegger, but in essence his theory is based on social constructionist assumptions rather than on hermeneutical insights. The result is that Weick remains trapped in a positivistic framework. Maasdorp wants to demonstrate that philosophical hermeneutics, and especially the work of Paul Ricoeur, offers important insights which can rectify the deficits he detects in the theory of Weick—and which have the potential to develop organization theory further.
The inconsistency which Maadsorp perceives in Weick is partly due to the fact that his theory developed over time and progressed through various phases. It originally began as a theory of enactment to explain the interactions within organizations, but over time the emphasis moved to more cognitive and interpretive aspects of organization "and in its latest formulation it is more closely aligned with emotions and often non-rational elements in organizing" (Maasdorp, 2018: 47). Although his concept of "organizational sensemaking" did lend a measure of respectability to this field of investigation, its theoretical underpinnings remained under-developed. The problem was exacerbated due to the fact that many of the empirical studies which used Weick's approach did not share the ontological presuppositions on which his theory was based. Furthermore, Weick (according to Maasdorp) does not distinguish sufficiently between SM as a theory, as a general approach to organizing and as a organizational phenomenon itself. This confusion relates to what critics of his work experience as a lack of critical consciousness in that the focus of his investigations are the subjective experiences of actors in the sensemaking process, while the researchers themselves (Weick and his adherents) treat their own observations and evaluation of these subjective processes as being objective (Maasdorp, 2018: 46).
According to Maasdorp, Weick's approach lacks the necessary continuity and structuredness to develop it into a consistent theory with predictive power. As we have seen, the SM process proceeds in a random way and is based mainly on the ad hoc decisions and actions of role-players who engage in sensemaking where and when this becomes necessary. Weick describes the process—that is, looking for cues, placing these in a framework, sifting and appraising information and taking action—as "reciprocal exchanges between actors (Enactment) and their environments (Ecological Change) that are made meaningful (Selection) and preserved (Retention)" (Weick et al., 2005: 413-4). The outcome of this interaction serves in its turn as guideline for future decisions and action.
This process which later became known as the ESR model (Enactment-Selection-Retention) gives the impression of a fixed sequence or "backbone" (Maasdorp, 2018: 39), but as the latter shows, all three elements are simultaneously in play and do not represent progression. They influence each other continuously and make a theoretical grasp of the process virtually impossible.
The unstructured nature and unpredictability (in terms of the usual expectations of a theory) of the process spill over in the concept of identity which Weick develops. We have already seen that according to Weick the identity of the organization is formed by the process of SM. SM is inextricably bound up with identity formation because the latter is forged by the former.
It is this concept of identity which—according to Maasdorp—is the Achilles heel of Weick's theory. The ESR string which gives the impression of a syntagmatic sequence (and thus a diachronic process) is in reality a paradigmatic exchange of elements which stand in a synchronic relation to each other.
At this point Maasdorp introduces Ricouer's concept of "narrative identity" in an attempt to correct the weakness of Weick's theory but also make it more effective. Ricoeur's views on identity form part of a much wider philosophical project. Like Weick he holds that identity is constructed through a process—a process which is essentially narrative in nature. In contrast to Weick, this process is in theory and practice diachronic.
Weick certainly makes use of narrative insights and view "stories" as an important aspect of the SM process (Maasdorp, 2018: 136). However, stories are for him just one of various cognitive frameworks (which he calls "vocabularies") which decision makers have at their disposal to make sense of a situation. Besides other possibilities, "they pull from vocabularies of sequence and experience and make sense using narratives" (Weick, 1995: 107). The key term here is "using". Stories are one instrument among others that can be used to make sense—it is neither an essential element of the process nor of the identity that is formed by the process. In the words of Maasdorp (2018: 132): "We know much about stories in organizations, but little about the story of organization and even less about organization as story."
In practical terms, Weick analyses stories which employees tell about themselves and about the organization to trace how the SM process unfolds. He is especially interested in stories about extraordinary events which contradict "normal" expectations. It is this kind of story which challenges existing frameworks of understanding and consequently create the opportunity to adjust or rectify the framework (Weick, 1995: 127-128).
The problem is that stories about the organization and stories by members are not necessarily the organization's story. The latter is rarely directly accessible and requires much deeper delving to bring it to the surface. Although Weick is well-acquainted with developments in this field (Weick, 1995: 128-131; Weick et al., 2005), Maasdorp (2018: 135) maintains that he does not succeed in crafting a concept of narrativity which is compatible with and supports his view of SM. Instead of establishing narrative as the core element of his theory, stories play at most a supporting and secondary role in producing SM. It shallows out further when it remains restricted to empirical studies about stories of how individuals experience and see the organization.
In contrast to Weick's use of stories, Ricoeur's concept of narrative identity offers a more comprehensive and substantive basis as well as a more suitable conceptual framework for precisely what Weick has in mind. To illustrate this difference, Maasdorp (2018: 144) concentrates on Ricoeur's concept of mimesis which shapes identity in distinctive ways. This is related to the distinction between text and textuality (the latter being the essential attributes which enables the text to function as text); between narrative and narrativity (that is, between the unadorned story and the characteristics which makes the story "work") and between story and discourse—the line of the story and how this line is constructed and presented. The latter is achieved by means of a number of strategies—including "emplotment" (or the logic of how the story fits together and how its plot is constructed).
For Ricoeur, the characteristics of narrativity is of crucial importance, because they enable the meaningful interpretation of time and reality. Apparently incidental and unconnected events are made meaningful when they are interwoven in the form of a narrative which enfolds according to its own logic (muthos, fable, plot—Ricoeur, 2004: 560) and the passage of time becomes comprehensible if it mirrors this logic. Narrativity and especially the ability to connect lines in the form of a plot is the preeminent way which enables us to get a grasp on events. "Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience" (Ricoeur, 1984: 3).
Because human existence is "temporal" in nature, meaning that we live our lives in time and over time and the fact that our actions take place in time, it is of crucial importance to find suitable ways to think about time and how to deal with time. According to Ricoeur, this is exactly what narrativity offers us. By organizing events in the form of a narrative and placing these these events in relation to other events, we are able to create distance and to discover connections which can help us to understand time better and to understand better what is happening to us. The relationship between narrativity and temporality is one of constant circularity—not in the form of a vicious circle, but of a good one—a "healthy circle" (Ricoeur, 1984: 3).
What Ricoeur is describing here is his well-known "circle of mimesis" consisting of three phases: "Prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of a configured time" (Ricoeur, 1984: 54). Maasdorp (2018: 144-146) explains the dynamics behind this process: Mimesis1 ("prefigured time") refers to already-lived experience and the ability to recognize certain forms of behavior, like emotions or needs which express themselves in certain ways, goals which are pursued, motivations which drive people and the symbolic systems which accompany this. This is the pre-work, the pre-knowledge which must already be in place and without which it would be impossible to create a narrative structure in the first place.
Mimesis2 ("configured time") refers to the "organizing of events" which transforms unconnected events and individual actions into a plot. It consists of the design and composition of a specific story from the (pre)existing "raw material". But Ricoeur wants to go beyond the mere production of a coherent whole—he also wants to highlight the mediating potential of the narrative. This entails in the first place the mediation between a plurality of incidents and the eventual narrative by selecting only certain events to place in the sequence of a story line. Secondly, the configuration of events can have a mediating (shocking) effect (as Aristotle already expected of good drama) by confronting and challenging existing ideas and norms. Thirdly, mimesis2 offers more than a sequence of events by mediating new insight, understanding and alternative possibilities. In the final section I shall return to these alternative possibilities which the text opens and to their significance.
Mimesis3 or "refiguration" is what Gadamer would call "application" (Ricoeur, 1984: 70). This is the stage where the world of the narrative and the world of the listener/reader meet and which enables the latter to see his or her situation differently because of the interaction with the narrative (Maasdorp, 2018: 145). The focus is brought back to the world of action, the context in which the narrative should be understood and where it should inspire concrete action. In this way the circle of mimesis is completed.
Kearney (2006: 484) points out that this circle does not follow a predetermined order, but that all three forms of mimesis can play a role regardless of sequence. Mimesis1 is already the product of a preceding "refiguration" (mimesis2)), which in its turn is mediated through a process of "configuration" (mimesis3). It is therefore also in this case more appropriate to talk of a "spiral" than of a "circle" of mimesis (Maasdorp, 2018: 145).
Maasdorp presents a compelling argument by exposing the theoretical deficiencies inherent in Weick's concept of SM and the consequent difficulties of its application in the context of organization theory. The otherwise extremely valuable insights of Weick of how the process of sense and decision making actually happens and how the identity of the organization is constructed in the process, lack the solid and consistent theoretical backbone needed to support this approach. Maasdorp furthermore makes clear how Ricoeur's concept of a "narrative identity" can enhance Weick's approach by providing a richer and more robust theoretical framework.
Secondly, the study makes a substantial contribution to the dialogue between organization theory and philosophy—and more specifically—hermeneutics. Such interdisciplinary discussions often run the risk of remaining on the level of comparison and the eclectic singling out of useful parallels or concepts for use in one's own discipline. Here we have a penetrating analysis of both fields leading to a perceptive and judicious appraisal.
Thirdly, the style of Maasdorp's criticism allows for a constructive conversation. He does not advocate the total acceptance of or "conversion" to Ricoeur, but elucidates how and in what respect Weick's own approach can be strengthened or made more effective.
In the same spirit and in an attempt to continue the conversation, I want to draw attention in this final section to an aspect of Ricoeur's work which Maasdorp disregards and which—in its turn—can strengthen Maasdorp's own proposal. In short, Ricoeur offers insights which are valuable to improve our understanding not only of sensemaking, of identity formation, or of decision-making in organizations, but also of how organizations can—through these processes—be changed and revitalized.
The potential for change goes back to Ricoeur's frequent use of "re" in phrases like "re-figuration" and "re-description". At the deepest level, this has to do with the mediating power of narrative; with the "detour" (Umweg) which its trajectory follows; with the exit from and the re-entry into reality; with the ability of the story to move and transform. It is already inherent in his concept of metaphor and its split reference and in the ancient mantra introducing the fairy tale: "Once upon a time" or in other traditions: "There was and there was not".
From his discussion of the mimesis spiral (2018: 142-150, especially 144-146) it is clear that Maasdorp is fully aware of the impact stories can have on reality and its resulting "reshaping" (147). He also refers to the "imaginative variations" which the narrative offers to the reader and that "those 'imaginative variations' unlock proposed worlds to our imagination, leading to a consideration of new possibilities in the world" (2018: 171). He does not, however, explain this potential for change in more detail, nor does he incorporate it in his proposal for an alternative approach to Weick.
The transformation potential of the narrative is already contained in nuce in the mimesis spiral. The move of "configuration" whereby a narrative is composed out of the available "pre-figured" material, already proposes something different from existing reality. But the process does not end there, because new possibilities are opened by "re-configuration". Ricoeur's view of metaphor (1977) relies on the same shift which he depicts as the "redescription of reality". All these different concepts and formulations have as central focus the demise of a single reality. Reality is and never was singular, once-off or one-dimensional. For Ricoeur, the challenge of hermeneutics is in a large measure the unmasking of this assumed singularity as being in fact a plurality. He thus takes the basic structure of the narrative as point of departure—a structure which in itself already represents an alternative configuration. In essence, the intention is to discover and present alternative possibilities of how reality can be understood and configured—the so-called "proposed worlds which I may inhabit" in Ricoeur's words (2016: 72).
The quest for plurality is not inspired by a perverse urge to make what is simple complex. The intention is rather to open possibilities for change. This happens not only on the macro level of the narrative where an alternative world is proposed, but also on the micro level with "split reference" which forms the basis of all reference (Lategan, 1985: 80). A further level where the doubling of meaning occurs—and to which I have already referred—is the use of metaphors. Ricouer is not interested in "dead metaphors", that is, expressions which lost their ability to surprise and to open up new perspectives. These now form part of "standardized" language, canonized in dictionaries. The power of the metaphor and therefore its ability to effect change lies in its freshness and originality.
The process of change progresses through two stages. The first consists of the de-coupling from current reality with the help of various strategies. The most basic is the use of comparison (a is like b). As we have learned from semiotics (cf. Eco, 1977: 30), there is in actual fact a third party involved, the tertium comparationis, or the aspect which the two compared entities share with each other. As soon will become clear, this tertium has as an important role to play as "detour". In the first stage not only a de-coupling takes place, but the point of focus shifts likewise—by means of comparison, by the use of metaphor or by proposing an alternative reality.
Without this shift of focus the process of change cannot be set in motion. In psychological terms, the binary confrontational matrix is exchanged for plural one. The binary oppositional structure can only have a zero-sum outcome, an either/or choice between two protagonists, with the inevitable demise of one of them. The shift away from this binary straitjacket has in the first place a de-personalizing effect. Attention is deflected from the immediate situation and the first-line actors.
This is the power of fiction, that is, narrative in its most potent form, which deflects by introducing an alternative reality. The fairy-tale opening (as we have already seen) evokes two "realities": "There was and there was not ...", "once upon a time ...". This is the formula which signals that what follows is fiction, not the "real" world. The listener relaxes, but in the process becomes caught up in the story which in the end can change attitudes and perceptions in the "real" world. Examples where fiction has more power of persuasion than "hard facts" are not difficult to find.
The detour, the Umweg which is at play here not only deflects attention from the immediate situation and actors, but introduces at the same time alternative possibilities for understanding and for action. This represents the second stage in the process of change, which consists not only in the de-coupling from existing reality, but also in the actualization of alternative possibilities. It is the seductive, liberating power of the "proposed world" which emboldens the actor/organization to take the leap into the unknown, into the future and which makes it possible for organizations to change in real time and in a fundamental way.
Narrative identity thus not only have the potential to induce radical change, but also the ability to retain continuity of identity. Placing change in the framework of a narrative structure makes it possible to fit radical change into the story line of the individual or the organization. It also enables retaining the link with the past by fitting that into the same story line. The "loser" in a binary structured confrontation is able, via the shared component of a tertium comparationis which belongs to both "winner" and "loser", to fit the choice for the future into the framework of his or her own past and thus retain a sense of continuity and of integrity to the own self—thus embracing change without humiliation or a sense of defeat.
Organization theory has indeed much to gain from Ricoeur's views on "narrative identity" and the conversation initiated by Maasdorp is worth pursuing further. But beyond strengthening Weick's theory with a sounder theoretical basis and developing a more robust understanding of corporate identity, the possibilities which Ricoeur's work open to prepare the way for change in organizations and to achieve change successfully, can be of even greater importance.
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