— Cultural Sources of Newness

Researchers as world-makers?

Some articles are too stimulating to read alone. J.K. Gibson-Graham’s provocative article “Diverse economies: performative practices for ‘other worlds’” cries out for conversations. It challenges researchers to become “conscious of the role of [our] work in creating or ‘performing’ the worlds we inhabit.” The authors invite us to go further than this by using our “power to bring new worlds into being. Not single-handedly, of course, but alongside other world-makers, both inside and outside the academy.” (2008: 614)

I invited colleagues in Audencia Nantes School of Management to talk about this article over lunch today to see how the questions and suggestions the authors raise there resonate with their self-conceptions as researchers. Even a French lunch is not enough time to do the article justice, but it started the kind of conversation we too rarely take the time to engage in during our full schedules. 

There was a nice mix around the table: 5 women, 1 man, from diverse fields (accounting, economics, engineering/anthropology, strategy/psychology, sociology, organizational behaviour) and ranging from 3-30 years of research experience. Conversations around a meal in France tend to move fast and often entail more than one person speaking at any one time, so my notes are far from complete, but here are a few elements I jotted down and translated into English.

To get the ball rolling I asked each colleague why they engage in research, what it means to them to be researchers today and whether they felt their motivation for research had changed over the years.

  • “I trained as an economist in France, and remember visiting East Berlin years ago. It was amazing to discover a completely different economic system from the one we had been taught. It challenged my belief in a single truth, I wanted to understand how it was possible. For a while I was in business strategy, but only when I moved into psychology did I feel things make sense to me because there the co-existence of contradictions is normal.”
  • “I trained first as an engineer and later as an anthropologist. I really want to discover complexity, not make things complex, but reveal their complexity. Over the years, I find that I am asking myself more how my values relate to my research, and what makes my research of value.”
  • “I trained as an economist in two very different universities: one was super-Keynesian, the other very liberal economics. It was a huge culture shock to move from one approach to the other! I wondered how it is possible to have such different views—that is what got me into research.”
  • “Actually, I guess I am quite egotistical: I have always loved to read research articles! From the beginning of my studies I have asked myself how the tables of numbers that I work with may affect my way of thinking, I have never written about that, but every year I learn something more.”
  • “I did my first degree in business studies, there was no research orientation there at all. Then I started work in a company and I did not understand what was going on at all! I needed to make sense of the experience, and sociology helped me to do that. And my studies in communications because actually it is all about communication.”

An aspect that cropped up in several parts of the conversation was the nature of our relation to our research topic:

  •  “I find everything about the objects of my research, accountants, simply fascinating. Also, I really like the people I get to exchange ideas with, whether directly in conversations or indirectly through the literature.”
  • “For me it has always been important to care about the object of my research, and to understand what works there and what does not. I cannot study something I do not care about, although we are taught we are supposed to keep a distance from our object of research.”
  • “The actual topic is not so very important to me, what matters more is who I get to work with. The quality of the relationship in our research is very important.”

An aspect of the conversation that struck me was how frequently and positively teaching was mentioned. So often teaching is treated as a distraction from research, but although my questions were explicitly about the motivation for research and the identity of the researcher, my colleagues brought up how important teaching is to them:

  • “Writing for journals is often so sterile, we have to play the game there. But teaching is a great vehicle for transmitting what we care about.”
  • “I love research and I love to teach.  I get to do this every day, what a luxury!”
  • “I bring examples of my research into my teaching, although my colleagues say it has no relevance to management in traditional companies. But my cases show them that there are other kinds of organizations, other ways of managing.”

But are we “world-makers”? We did not have enough time to delve into that layer of the article today. Intriguingly, one participant observed that colleagues from finance may not use such terminology but they are actually “completely performative” because their models and formula are what the experts use to run the markets.

I would like to continue this conversation—for example with colleagues from finance who were not at the lunch meeting today; with doctoral students who are in the midst of their first big research challenges and starting to develop their identities as researchers; with colleagues at the WZB, many of whom who do not have the teaching responsibilities that my French colleagues in Audencia find such a satisfying part of their professional roles and identities.

Who else wants to join in the conversation?

Reference: Gibson-Graham, J.K., (2008). “Diverse economies: performative practices for ‘other worlds.’” Progress in Human Geography 32/5:613-632. DOI: 10.1177/0309132508090821