25 February 2007

20 February 2007


An excerpt from Why Johnny and Janey Can't Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can't Teach:
And on the other hand, some researchers are beginning to expose the dirty little secret of the academy, that there is a well-established hegemony of power throughout the academic system that is bent on devaluing certain types of research, certain classes of researchers, and generally maintaining the status quo.
But they are fighting an ultimately losing battle...
Fuck the SSHRC process at this factory university.
[Technorati tags: | | ]

19 February 2007

Complex Constructivism, and an Emergent Methodology

As promised in an earlier post, here is a considerably more in-depth discussion of my research methodology. Warning: this is a long and dense post that aligns a constructivist standpoint with complexity theory, and describes Constructivist Grounded Theory with an Emergent Ground as a new, qualitative methodology. If you would prefer more entertaining fare, why don't you head on over to hear about Google's Master Plan to take over the world. For the brave academics in the audience, read on!

Sense-making and Constructivism

Methodologically, my research is challenged by two axiomatic notions: that the nature of engagement among individuals or organizations or both have changed in ways that are complex – that is, non-linear and non-deterministic – over the past one hundred years; and that individuals are generally restricted in their ability to describe their experience of the effects of those changes by a vocabulary that is grounded in hundred-year-old constructs and conceptions. Those who would report on aspects of their organization’s culture, management style, or interactions among customer and supplier organizations would be likely to describe their experiences in terms that draw referentially on bureaucratic or hierarchical structures, and their operational consequences and adjuncts, even if such structures were nominally “anti-hierarchical” or “post-bureaucratic,” terms that themselves reinforce the identified problematics. Karl Weick (2001), among others (Browning & Boudes, 2005; Snowden, 2000), might characterize such descriptions as the result of sense-making, or self-reinforcing, rationalized interpretations of behaviours that are reflexively justified according to those interpretations. Weick argues that normative behaviours in a social setting create interpretations of events that become reified in social relationships, and subsequently crystallize into organizations. Over time, interpretive justifications of events become based on these social expectations of behaviour rather than on individuated reasons. The combination of justification processes and expectations create the effect of self-fulfilling prophesies, as well as self-perpetuating conceptions of reality.

According to Weick, this process occurs approximately as follows: The entrenched justification for any action or social behaviour reflects the sense that people have made of the world. Consequently, people act on that sense without realizing that in acting they reinforce that particular interpretation of (inter)actions which is merely one interpretation among many. Although there is no intrinsic superiority of any of the multiple interpretations, one is given preference above the others, creating a form of self-fulfilling prophesy. The environment of interactions so created by specific interpretations of actions that are imposed on that environment has an interesting consequence: the environment increasingly resembles the interpretation. Thus, the privileged interpretation becomes entrenched as reality and truth, albeit a local reality and truth. That reification provides sufficient justification to view any other possible interpretation with skepticism, or outright rejection. This intrinsic process of sense-making and reinforcement represents a positive feedback loop with respect to meaning (2001, p. 15-23).

Weick’s reasoning is consistent with my contention that the common, contemporary view of organizations in terms of BAH – bureaucracy, administrative controls and hierarchies, and even their referential direct opposites, post-bureaucratic and anti-hierarchical forms – reflects the reinforced sense-making of actions and decisions that are justified in terms of those forms. To break this self-referential, positive feedback loop, any new paradigm or metaphor cannot be justified by referencing either BAH foundations, or any actions, decisions or interpretations that are dependent on BAH foundations. Rather, it must find its own justification relative to some other contextual ground that suggests alternative social relationships and “behavioural commitments” (Weick, 2001). Recasting the ground enables new justifications to emerge that subsequently can be validated (or not) in the context of the new paradigm, whatever it may be.

The Paradox of Constructivism, and a Complex Resolution

This reasoning highlights both the importance of assuming a constructivist standpoint when attempting to understand individual and collective interpretations of experiences and events, as well as the problematics and limitations of constructivism when attempting to understand newly emergent phenomena. On the one hand, “constructivism assumes the relativism of multiple social realities, recognizes the mutual creation of knowledge by the viewer and the viewed, and aims toward interpretive understanding of subjects’ meanings” (Charmaz, 2000, p. 510). Michael Quinn Patton describes it this way:

Because human beings have evolved the capacity to interpret and construct reality – indeed, they cannot do otherwise – the world of human perception is not real in an absolute sense, as the sun is real, but is ‘made up’ and shaped by cultural and linguistic constructs. … What is defined or perceived by people as real is real in its consequences. (Patton, 2002, p. 96; emphasis in original)

On the other hand, reality that is perceived and constructed according to a well-entrenched contextual ground is, de facto, the interpretive lens through which all subsequent events and actions are interpreted, irrespective of any as-yet-unperceived changes in the dynamics of that ground. A way to reconcile this apparent paradox of constructivism – that the effects of individually perceived reality may persist long past the time when the circumstances that constructed said reality have substantially changed – may be through the application of a complexity model. Indeed, constructivism is quite consistent with the principles of complexity theory as outlined earlier with reference to Cilliers’s (2005) characterization of complex systems, if the system in question is a system of meaning. Weick (2001) cites Gergen’s (1982) three principles of constructivism that I recount here, with particular points of comparison with complex systems emphasized: (1) as events occur, they change the emerging current context from which both earlier and subsequent events have meaning; (2) the reference against which the interpretation of any event is contextualized is itself the product of a network of interdependent events and interpretations, often mutually and collectively negotiated among a network of people; (3) as a consequence of the previous two principles, the meaning of any given event is interpreted differently by different people, with collectively agreed meaning being achieved through processes of consensus, or the exercise of power (Weick, 2001, p. 10).

Complex systems are often described in mathematical terms using Henri PoincarĂ©’s topological approach. In mathematics, and particularly in topology, solutions to sets of nonlinear equations are often depicted as sets of curves drawn through an n-dimensional phase space, where n represents the number of variables in the equations. A point that “travels” along one of these curves defines the state of the system at any time; its movement over time is called its trajectory[1]. The trajectory of the point is called an attractor, with three topologically distinct forms: point (a system that eventually reaches stable equilibrium, representing the end of change and growth; i.e., death), periodic, meaning a system that has regular oscillations between two states, and strange that applies to chaotic systems such as those characterized by Cilliers as exhibiting properties of complexity. Strange attractors tend to create distinct patterns of trajectories for a given system, although the precise location of a point in phase space at a particular time cannot be accurately determined. This means that the system is non-deterministic – its future state cannot be accurately predicted from its past state(s). Substantial changes in the type, shape or existence of an attractor, corresponding to substantive changes in the nature of the defining parameters (e.g., contextual ground of the system) is called a bifurcation point, and marks a state of instability from which a new order of greater complexity can emerge (Capra, 1996).

Now, consider a system of meaning, such as that typically described as emerging from a constructivist standpoint. Constructivism holds that people confer meaning onto their lived experiences by virtue of a complex intermingling of individual and collective past experiences that provide context – in other words, the system’s history – and current perceptions of events. A (contingently) stable meaning or interpretation can be considered to be an emergent property of that system of lived experiences. In complexity terms, that stable meaning can be described as the trajectory of meaning travelling through a phase space defined by a set of parameters that might include individual history and memory, group history or collective memory, consensus processes, cultural influences, normative behaviours of one or more social networks, and other similar factors, forces and causes[2]. The person’s constructed reality, that is, the trajectory of meaning through the phase space of lived and interpreted experiences, can become disrupted when one or more of the parameters of that phase space significantly change. Although a person may attempt to hold onto familiar, “privileged” (Weick, 2001) interpretations, the time during which the formerly stable meaning is disrupted is chaotic, and hence, often confusing for the individuals and groups concerned. At the bifurcation point, sufficient interpretive energy is injected into the system to enable emergence: the creation of a new stable state of higher order than before; in other words, the creation of new meaning and interpretation of events.

Constructivist Grounded Theory

I contend that the paradox of constructivism to which I referred delineates the methodological challenges that I identified at the beginning of this discussion, namely the challenge of participants describing their organizational experience in other than BAH terms. This challenge can be resolved by effecting a bifurcation in my research participants’ perceptions and interpretations of their lived organizational experience with respect to the changed ground of the UCaPP environment. Because the emergent structure of any complex system, including a system of meaning, cannot be predicted, the subject of the current research is the discovery and description of that new, emergent meaning and interpretation of organization. The methodology most appropriate to this undertaking is constructivist grounded theory, as characterized by Kathy Charmaz (2000), modified by the insertion of a changing ground. Charmaz describes constructivist grounded theory as follows:

The grounded theorist’s analysis tells a story about people, social processes, and situations. The researcher composes the story; it does not simply unfold before the eyes of an objective viewer. This story reflects the viewer as well as the viewed. … We can use [the critiques of grounded theory] to make our empirical research more reflexive and our completed studies more contextually situated. We can claim only to have interpreted a reality, as we understood both our own experience and our subjects’ portrayals of theirs. (Charmaz, 2000, p. 522-523)

A constructivist grounded theory distinguishes between the real and the true. The constructivist approach does not seek truth – single, universal, and lasting. Still, it remains realist because it addresses human realities and assumes the existence of real worlds. … We must try to find what research participants define as real and where their definitions of reality take them. … We change our conception of [social life] from a real world to be discovered, tracked, and categorized to a world made real in the minds and through the words and actions of its members. (Charmaz, 2000, p. 523; emphasis in original)

In essence, Charmaz uses the analytical techniques of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1973; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), contextualized in a constructivist standpoint, to enable the emergence of knowledge about the “world made real in the minds … of its members” (2000, p. 523). I intend to extend Charmaz’s technique by, in effect, nudging some of the parameters of the participants’ meaning phase space, and allowing the participants to describe the resultant changes in their perceived meaning trajectory. Putting it more simply, over the course of one or more interviews, I will enable the participants to change the ways in which they describe their individual and group engagement with organization, freeing them from the former vocabulary of bureaucracy, administrative controls, and hierarchy.


  • Browning, L., & Boudes, T. (2005). The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: a comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models. Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 7(3-4), 35-43.
  • Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Charmaz, K. (2000). Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods. In Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 509-35). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Cilliers, P. (2005). Knowing complex systems. In Richardson, K.A. (Ed.), Managing organizational complexity: Philosophy, theory and application (pp. 7-19). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing Inc.
  • Gergen, K.J. (1982). Toward transformation in social knowledge. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1973). The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research & evaluation methods ( 3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Snowden, D. J. (2000, 2001/10/16). Cynefin, a sense of time and place: An ecological approach to sense making and learning in formal and informal organizations. Retrieved January 30, 2007, from http://www.knowledgeboard.com/library/cynefin.pdf.
  • Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

[1] This concept is most easily imagined as a point moving through physical space relative to reference axes of length, width, and breadth. At any time, the “state” of the physical system can be defined in terms of the point’s position; its path through space is the trajectory. Similarly, in a complex system, there would be more dimensions, each dimension, or variable, referring to a parameter that uniquely defines an aspect of the system being described.

[2] Used in the Aristotelian sense, as opposed to linear causality.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | ]

11 February 2007

Racism is Alive, and Still Being Imprinted

This video report about student Kiri Davis's stunning documentary, A Girl Like Me, reveals a stark truth. Despite the progress that allows a black senator to be running for United States President, racism is still being imprinted on black youth throughout America. Davis recreated the famous imprinting experiment that was part of the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education trial from the 1950s. The outcome in 2007 was no different. Sad. Very, very sad.

[Technorati tags: | | ]

Problems of New Media - The Book

A very clever take on some of the problems of introducing new media - in this case, a reconstruction of what a Gutenberg era tech support encounter might have looked like.

Aside from the fun of this little comedy, it does highlight an important consideration about media, dominant modes of communication, knowledge and education. In each era - from the primary orality of ancient Greece, through the manuscript culture of early literacy, on to mass literacy in the Gutenberg era, through to the UCaPP transitions of today with multi-way, instantaneous communication - the skills and knowledge of the soon-to-be-former era are all taken as obvious (i.e., ground) while those of the next are seen to be problematic relative to that ground. And, of course, the structuring ground effects of the new medium of any day are never known until that new media itself becomes the cultural ground. What's more is that the current era eventually forgets how to interpret most of what was considered obvious, that is, taken for granted as comprising the basic skills of an educated person, of the former eras. This, of course, is the theme of my talk, Why Johnny and Janey Can't Read and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can't Teach, a version of which I will be performing for the Calgary City Teachers' Association later this week.

[Technorati tags: | | ]

10 February 2007

For Now

My daughter recently choreographed and performed a song-and-dance routine for her Grade 12 showcase - think of it as the graduation recital for music theatre majors at Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto. And, not being biased in the least, I think she did a fabulous job with the choreography and directing the other students in the group. See if you agree (Julie's the one in the orange top.)

Note: This video is set to expire from YouTube on April 15, 2007.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | | | ]

05 February 2007

Hitting All the Marketing Bases

Suppose you were going to market a commodity product, aimed at older teenage, and young adult women. Would you make it organic? Good for the planet? Celebrity endorsed? Donations to charity? A gift that keeps on giving (aside from an STD)?

Sephora, a cosmetic company, has hit all the bases with a new product line that taps into what I could only describe as the collective zeitgeist of young women. The only thing missing, I suppose, is a way to get that recalcitrant boyfriend to call. Or text. Or whatever.

Have a look at Sephora's CARGO PlantLove Botanical Lipstick for sheer marketing genius.
A lipstick tube made entirely out of corn - a renewable and abundant resource. This environmentally-friendly innovation also emits less greenhouse gases, which many scientists believe to be the major cause of global warming. The outer carton is made of flower paper embedded with real flower seeds. Simply moisten, plant, and wait for a bouquet of wild flowers to grow!

CARGO is donating two dollars from the sale of every shade to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The PlantLove™ seeds we sow today affect future generations so we are investing in the earth and our children for the future of the planet!

Bonus: Five of these gorgeous lipsticks were designed by your favorite celebrities: Evangeline: Evangeline Lily; Lindsay: Lindsay Lohan; Maria: Maria Menounos; Mariska: Mariska Hargitay; Sarah: Sarah Chalke
As I said, sheer marketing genius... or the ultimate in marketing cynicism. If you believe in reversal, as I do, specifically that the people as a collective create the brand (you have noticed a theme over the last few posts, haven't you?), this over-the-top combination may backfire on Sephora as the collective wisdom of aware young women begin to understand what is being done to them.

[Technorati tags: | | | ]

04 February 2007

Intellectual Property Values

Marjorie Kelly's book, The Divine Right of Capital, proposes an interesting premise. The prevailing capitalist market system is essentially an anti-republican oligarchy, although it is highly touted in a (nominally) democratic republic. Those who "own" and have first rights to the wealth of companies are typically not those who actually generate the wealth. The classic argument is that the shareholders are the ones who take the (financial) risk; yet there are almost no shareholders of public companies who actually invested the risk capital; most invest in the stock market almost as one "invests" in a blackjack game, risking their capital for purely personal financial gain, but not providing one iota of value to the creation of wealth in the company. Kelly calls for a democratization of wealth, in which all substantive contributors to wealth - including the investors - share in the wealth they create. In other words, take a more republican and democratic approach.

I was reminded of Kelly's book when I read an article in the Star this weekend about the problems Brian Froud is having with Fox Broadcasting over his popular Fringe Festival show, Swiss Family Guy Robinson. "Froud's amazing virtuoso turn as he wove the characters from the cult Fox animated series around the structure of the 1812 novel by Johann Rudolf Wyss had the crowd on their feet and cheering."

Fox, which broadcasts Family Guy and owns the rights to Seth McFarlane's creation, isn't exactly on their feet cheering. In fact, their response to Froud was a tad more terse: ""When we learned that this production had made unauthorized use of the Family Guy characters and material, we asked that the producers cease and desist and they have complied. Protecting our intellectual property and copyrights is something we take very seriously at Twentieth Century Fox Television."" Of course, they didn't give the same hard time to Rick Miller's portrayal of MacHomer - now in its 10th successful, not to mention hysterical, year. To be sure, the two actors took opposite approaches to approaching Fox about their respective endeavours. Miller provided Fox with an early video of his performance and sought permission early on, although it wasn't until Simpson's creator, Matt Groening, saw the performance that the blessing was bestowed. (We should also take note of the fact that Groening likely has a great deal more influence at Fox than does MacFarlane.) Froud, on the other hand, was fairly late at requesting permission - after quite a long successful run - and their first approach (of necessity, apparently) was to Fox lawyers, whose response was predictable: "The Family Guy is the property of Fox and you are using our property without permission." Case closed, it seems.

But there are all sorts of "properties" of this sort that have no value. Characters from failed pilots and shows cancelled after only a couple of episodes are pretty much valueless. From where does the value in such so-called intellectual property accrue? It comes from us - you and me - and the millions of other fans that make shows successful, and create the revenue streams from advertising, merchandising spin-offs, DVD sales, and feature-length movies. In the case of Family Guy, Fox tried to kill the show - twice! It was only resurrected through an intensive lobbying campaign by loyal fans (not to mention massive purchases of DVD boxed sets of the first few seasons) that has allowed it to survive to the current sixth season.

Who created the wealth of the Family Guy "property?" Although Fox had a hand in it, the value and wealth was created collaboratively and collectively by Family Guy fans, who, according to Marjorie Kelly's argument, have every right to participate in the fruits of that wealth. Were it not for the fans, there would be no revenue accruing to Fox, and no popular show about which to send cease and desist orders to someone who is, after all is said and done, promoting their brand. The person who coined the phrase, "smart as a fox," must have never met the broadcasting executives.

[Technorati tags: | | | | ]

01 February 2007

Easy, Easy, Easy

I haven't posted about my thesis work for a while now. I'm in the process of finishing up my thesis proposal, and specifically, I'm theorizing the somewhat different (that's putting it mildly) methodology that I'm planning to use. What has been hanging me up is what I consider to be a basic problematic paradox in a constructivist standpoint - what happens when we become so vested in our constructed reality and the contextualizing ground changes? [For those who aren't familiar with this line of reasoning, constructivism holds that there is no capital-T Truth or capital-R Reality aside from, say, physical existence that can be objectively known. Instead, we interpret events based on our individual and/or collective experiences and the effects of those interpretations have real consequences in our lives that comprise little-t truth and little-r reality.] I'm attempting to reconcile the paradox by using an argument from complexity theory that, in effect, grounds and theorizes constructivism in complexity terms. It's a complex argument (in both senses of the word) that has been vexing me for a couple of weeks now. Today, I think I've had a breakthrough and I've been constructing (anyone keeping track of the pun-count?) the argument.

I just went downstairs to the little food kiosk in our lobby to buy some high-carb, high-salt mental afterburner fuel (aka Doritos) for a last burst of creative energy. While I was down there I had an urge to grab an orange as well (the body knows to balance sodium and potassium, I guess). When the clerk rung up the two items, the total came to $2.22. "Very lucky number," she said in her Chinese accent. "In Chinese, 2-2-2 means easy, easy, easy. This is a very lucky number for you."

At last - a good omen for the thesis methodology, constructivist grounded theory with an emergent ground, about which I will post more when its ready.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | ]

"I Am Entitled To My Entitlements"

No, not me. But this great line, made famous by David Dingwall's resignation and/or firing (take your pick) from the Canadian Mint came back to me twice yesterday as I sat in on two separate meetings here at the Institute, from two different professors, each of whose standpoints are diametrically opposite on the political economic spectrum. At one meeting, a professor raised the issue of having to travel four entire floors away – by elevator, no less – to retrieve their own AV equipment. “Previously, an AV staff member would deliver the equipment to us in the classroom, and return to pick it up later,” he sniffed. “When will the AV department reinstate this service, as it is not the best use of a professor’s time to retrieve their own equipment.” The response was essentially, it was not the best use of the Institute’s relatively small Information Technology headcount to have a person to play delivery boy, as opposed to deploying that person in developing new applications, or even providing support services to the thousands of students who attend. But to the professor in question, “I am entitled to my entitlements by virtue of my esteemed position as professor.”

At the other meeting, another professor (indirectly, and couched in emancipatory and equity language) complained about accommodating student representatives at Institute-wide council meetings when the students are off-campus at practicum placements. The professor’s complaint was that professors and administration staff would have to stay after hours without pay to attend the meeting. Of course, no recognition was made of the fact that students donate dozens of hours of unpaid volunteer time to contribute to policy-development, decision-making, event planning and execution, and the creation of community from which we all - professors included - benefit (and this Institute does boast a vibrant and very involved community). But to the professor in question, “I am entitled to my entitlements by virtue of the fact that such involvement is tantamount to unpaid labour from which the neo-liberal institution is benefiting.”

And I won’t even mention the student representation in the name of equity that was posed as a confrontational challenge to an administration to whom confrontation is highly allergenic. Okay, so I mentioned it.

To all of them, I say, why don’t you take some classes in human dynamics, or even organization development. (Yeah, I know, they’re professors so they don’t have to learn any longer.) Although both the Marxist dialectic and a hierarchical sense of noblesse oblige are alive and well among many at this place, the key to making progress on any issue – and especially the contentious issues – is to create an environment in which dialogue and appreciative conversation, and most certainly not debate, discussion or discourse, are fostered. This entails a willingness to loosen one’s attachment to one’s standpoint, and to appreciate the reality that the most effective way to enable big systemic change is to enable small perturbations in everyone’s world. It’s complex, but not complicated.

[Technorati tags: | | | ]