Old friends, new ways
Starting a big research project that is very different from my past studies requires exploring new theories and methods. Old friends are a delightful source of learning. This week offered two ideal opportunities: one planned, one spontaneous; one with a woman I met at Academy of Management conferences in the early 1980s; one with a man I met when he was 6 years old in the late 1970s; one via Skype, one over dinner. Both generously shared their experiences in generating, analyzing and communicating their research-based knowledge.
My research so far has addressed many aspects of the relationship between business and society, and has involved conducting interviews with many people in different worlds than my own (managers, employees, artists, policy makers, members of intermediary organizations). I wanted to understand how they went about initiating, implementing, and assessing new activities in their organizations. It has been fascinating to go out to explore so many other worlds, returning each time to my academic setting to analyze the data and write about my findings—and then going back out again to present and discuss my ideas with people in the contexts I had been studying.
Now I am embarking on a project to understand why and how people enter and leave academia. Like all my previous research, the new project is international in scope, but this time my interlocutors will be people within my world. And instead of looking at specific projects they have been involved in, I will be asking about their life and identity construction. Clearly, I need to develop a different way of conducting interviews and I need to discover different bodies of theory for this intellectual adventure.
Obviously, the starting point for all of us academics is to read. While delving into the literature, I came across Sandra Waddock’s fascinating new book: Intellectual Shamans. Management Academics Making A Difference, for which she interviewed 28 leading management scholars. The rich material Sandra collected and analyzed illustrates the multiple ways these scholars came to do something that is not taught on the curriculum nor covered in the textbooks, namely to “find and live their purpose, to serve the world through three capacities: healing, connecting, and sensemaking.”
I remembered meeting Sandra when we were both young researchers at the Social Issues in Management division of the Academy of Management in the 1980s, but our paths had not crossed for many years other than in the literature. Her book inspired me so much that I wanted to learn how she had conducted her research, so I found her email address online and wrote to ask whether she would be willing to talk with me. She responded immediately and we made a Skype date for the very next day.
Within two hours I learned more than a course could have covered in a semester, and soon after after our conversation she had filled my inbox with literature on narrative identity theory and research methods. So I have spent the weekend getting to know Paul Ricoeur and thinking about how his concept of the narrative self and emplotment could help me frame my research.
Sandra also kindly shared the document she submitted for IRB review at her university before launching the study. This is especially helpful right now because the WZB is in the process of introducing an Ethics Commission to handle such procedures. Although they are required in the medical field, in Germany they have not yet become common practice in the social sciences, but European funding bodies are starting to include evidence of ethical review for their grants. Earlier this year I served on the first ad-hoc commission at the WZB, but we have not yet had a qualitative design to consider because the project proposals we reviewed used quantitative survey methods.
Research methods courses and textbooks tend to present the research process in a linear fashion, placing communication about research findings at the end of the process. What I learned from Sandra is that talking with publishers very early in the process can be very helpful. She explained how conversations with potential publishers had helped her shape her research, opening a line of investigation she had not originally envisioned. So, there is one more activity to place on the agenda for upcoming conferences: in addition to presenting papers and conducting interviews with academics, it is worth picking the brains of publishers.
The second significant conversation started with an email with the subject line: TONIGHT. This was most surprising because the sender is not based in Berlin but at the University of British Columbia in Canada. At 9am I learned that Julian Dierkes was in town for a few days; 12 hours later we were sitting over a meal at home. When I first met Julian he was just starting primary school in Berlin. Today he is a sociologist whose research covers completely different territory from mine: he travels frequently to Japan and Mongolia to study educational institutions and practices, political issues and voting processes, and the politics and economics of the mining industry, to name just a few of the areas of expertise he is sought out for by policy makers and academics alike. So listening to Julian talk about his research is always fascinating, but in addition, he is a source of experience in experiments with new media. Over dinner we talked about his newest experiments with blab, a platform for livestreaming conversations. He is pioneering its use in academia by talking with experts around the world, for example about digital diplomacy.
The conversation with Julian confirmed what I had learned from Sandra about the generative value of not sticking to the traditional structure of a research process that positions the phase of communicating about our research at the end of the process. Using blab in academia offers exciting possibilities to blur the boundaries between phases of data collection, sensemaking, and knowledge sharing, because the participants open their process of questioning and interpreting to a wide audience, and the audience is invited to add their questions and comments online too. My mind is now buzzing with ideas about how working with blab can complement research interviews throughout the project.
After so much intellectual stretching, I was fortunate to receive an email from another old friend at 1am on Saturday morning. He was so excited about a concert he had attended that evening that he encouraged friends to drop everything to go to another performance by the ensemble on Saturday night. If you ever wondered whether anything new can happen with old J.S.Bach, listen to the Wolf-Ferrari Ensemble! They performed the Chaconne originally composed for violin solo in four different versions, and interspersed them with improvisations on the double bass.