Style as theory

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Citation: John Van Maanen (1995) Style as theory. Organization Science (RSS)

doi: 10.1287/orsc.6.1.133

Tagged: Sociology (RSS)


Van Maanen's article is an adaption from a speech given to the Organizational Theory division of the Academy of Management as part of the Distinguished Scholar address. Van Maanen's speech was given one year after a talk by Jeff Pfeffer and is essentially a response to Pfeffer and an attack on the basic substance and fundamental suggestions in Pfeffer's address. Van Maanen characterizes Pfeffer's view as focused on the idea that organization theory should be more positivist, less relativist, and more focused on a small number of promising theories and modes forward which Van Maanen reads as a call to purge OT of less scientific modes of analysis.

Van Maanen identifies himself as one of the people that Pfeffer would likely want to purge from the field of OT and argues exactly the opposite. He suggests that OT's major problem is the fact that it has over-embraced scientific principles as a way to understand organization and reduced its writing to a form of scientifically bland "non-style" that argues against the use of metaphor. Van Maanen argues for the value of a more literary approach to explaining organization.

The large majority of Van Maanen's article is about Karl Weick and his work. Van Maanen admires Weick and suggests that much of the value of his work comes from the style of his work that is literary, essay-based, often rambling, and uses allegory.He also uses paradox, often eschews explicit definitions (using presence and repetition to allow the meaning of complicated terms to emerge and be demonstrated through style.

Van Maanen suggests we should be less conversational and less focused on debate. He suggests that the more precise we are, the less we have to say. Van Maanen explains that:

What I am suggesting is that since the very process of theorizing helps create the organizational properties we find in an all too real world, it is a matter far too important to be left to a small set of self-proclaimed experts with their mock science routines, images and metaphors. History is on my side for it is not always the case that persuasion is simply a matter of a few well-placed power-brokers who bludgeon opponents into submission by controlling publications, positions and resources-although it is probably still too often the case. I think a disarmament program is in order to take away certain taken-for-granted tropes that govern organizational theorizing-tropes like progress, truth and reality (singular), as well as all those terms drawn from bipolar hierarchies that privilege certain terms over others, like hard over soft, objective over subjective, perception over imagination, quantitative over qualitative and masculine over feminine.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Van Maanen's article can be read as an argument in favor of ethnography, anthropology, and less social scientific-focused approaches in organization theory. It has been cited more than 700 times since it's publication in Organization Science in 1995 and is often included on organization theory generals lists.

External links:

  • Notes from Keith Rollag's organization theory generals notes collection