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Serendipity, Opportunity, and Disagreement

Sunday 06 July 2014

To finish the week, I had intended to produce a short six-paragraph “challenge” piece as an exercise in writing. I was collecting the thoughts that I would turn into the paragraphs on entrepreneurial opportunity, when the latest issue of the Academy of Management Review landed on my desk on Thursday. Then I read Rodolphe Durand’s piece “The Fruitfulness of Disagreement” in the book reviews section of the issue. I was struck by the serendipitous appearance of this piece when I was struggling with the storyline of my discomfort with the construct of the opportunity in current entrepreneurship research.

As an aside, and a truly worthy one, I cannot bring myself to call Durand’s piece a book review. It is much more. First, there is the matter of expository scope. Durand discusses two large, complex, difficult books: Logics of Organization Theory: Audiences, Codes, and Ecologies, by Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll; and The Emergence of Organizations and Markets, by Padgett and Powell. Each of these tomes is a daunting subject for a review. Second, Durand builds a case for review-as-reading-as-disagreement. That is, he defines a structure for approaching a review in the way one approaches a research topic: “… [B]efore thinking one has something new to say, to model, or to critique the work of those who have gone before, one needs to be convinced that something has gone awry in how those others have developed their ideas. Disagreement is at the root of thought experiments, analogies, and causal reexamination.” (p.387) He posits three forms of disagreement – about definitions, about incompleteness, and about unfairness. And to complete his extravagant “review”, Durand illustrates his method by examining the three forms of disagreement with respect to three other books from the 1960s and 1970s. Formidable!

I have the books by Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll and by Padgett and Powell on my office bookshelves, as they contribute to my study of what the great biological scientist G. Evelyn Hutchinson called “the ecological theater and the evolutionary play” in his 1965 book of that title. How much can we learn about organizations and sectors of the economy by modeling them as systems of interrelated agents (à la ecology) with explicit dynamical patterns of change (à la evolution)? I had high hopes for Hannan et al, but I could never get past the feeling that they were just trying to resuscitate the late and unlamented school of sociology that was called population ecology, but was a pale simulacrum of what biologists call ecology. By adding a cognitive overlay to the heretofore rigid classifications in two decades of “pop ecology”, the authors pirated the ideas from identity theory, but did not cite the vast literature on social and organizational identity that exists in the field of management. Padgett and Powell start off with a fascinating foray into autocatalysis by using the biochemical processes of the origin of life as a metaphor for emergent social processes and seeking to go beyond metaphor to analogical reasoning. I like the idea, but I am becoming reticent about using scientific metaphor for the development of organization theory. And when the book jumps from autocatalysis to case studies of societal transformations, I missed the analogical reasoning. Everything after page 115 looked like historiography.

Durand’s three genres of disagreements made me understand the nature of my unease with the two books that he reviews. For the organizational ecology book, I have violent disagreement with unfairness. That is, I go further than Durand in saying that the authors are unfair in the dismissal of authors and theoretical works that should be included in the development of the “new” text. I see the omission of the work on identity theory as more than a question of “compatability”. It is a question of intellectual dishonesty. And my disagreement with Padgett and Powell is a combination of the other two pieces of Durand’s approach: disagreement about definitions and disagreement about incompleteness. I believe that their metaphor is incomplete with respect to the evolution of social systems (and what evolves in them) and the definitions that have been well tested and confirmed in biochemistry have not been confirmed in organization theory, least of all by the contributors to their volume.

So what does the serendipitous appearance of Rodolphe Durand’s superb article mean for my unease with the construct of the entrepreneurial opportunity? I have not yet composed the argument in my head, but I should have a six-paragraph challenge to write by the middle of the coming week. It will be built around my disagreements with the definition of opportunity (or, more precisely, the multifarious, sloppy, and unconfirmed definitions), the incompleteness of the construct and its conceptual instantiations for explaining entrepreneurship, and the unfairness of the dismissal of a couple of centuries of economic thought so as to declare the construct as the sine qua non of entrepreneurship research.

Writing — number 2 (the coach)

Wednesday 02 July 2014

I have been working with a writing coach this year to improve my writing. As I wrote in the previous post, the critical fault I need to correct is my poor discipline. That is, I do not write enough for peer audiences on an ongoing basis. The second area I wish to improve is my effectiveness (efficiency?). Certainly learning to be a better, more effective, writer will have a positive interaction effect with greater discipline – hence, more output.

The coach is Thomas Basbøll, who practices primarily from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has a blog about his philosophy of writing and his methods of coaching. It is found at Research as a Second Language:

One can page through Thomas’ blog to learn more. I will not be so presumptuous to give a précis here. Nor will I evaluate his blog; it suffices that I have read nearly all his posts from the last four years and that I am in the midst of executing a contract for personal coaching. I will note in my posts particular elements of the coaching as they arise in the coming months with respect to my writing project.

But I do wish to note here the centerpiece of Thomas’ method that informs my second area of improvement. He treats the paragraph as the central unit for composing and writing scientific papers. (See, for example, this.)

Thomas trains us that a scientific paper (yes, social science counts…) is a 40-paragraph argument/exposition. The 40 paragraphs of a journal article have a structure and each paragraph has a structure. I remember from elementary school the lessons about the paragraph having a Topic Sentence. I am shuddering at the apparition of Miss Becker before me, brandishing the grammar book and a lethal yardstick. I haven’t paid much attention to those lessons as an adult, but Thomas insists that each paragraph contains one well-articulated claim which is declared in one sentence – the key sentence in his lexicon – and which is supported by the other five sentences. The way the forty claims-as-paragraphs are arrayed creates the scientific argument.

If you look at Research as a Second Language, you will see some exercises about writing 18 of the 40 paragraphs as a “challenge” and some specific advice about treating the writing of each paragraph as a 30-minute task. I did this challenge with Thomas over the first half of the year along with a co-author. The point was to find a way for the two of us to conceive and execute the same paper by agreeing on the 40 claims that we jointly made. Do not gloss over the previous sentence! If you have ever co-authored a paper with someone who has different training or perspective than yours, you will appreciate the substance of that particular challenge. Next week I will write about this co-author challenge. On Friday, I will produce a short version of a challenge: a six paragraph exercise to see if I can structure each paragraph well and put some structure to the six paragraphs as a proto-argument.

Writing – number 1

Monday 30 June 2014

After a very long hiatus, I am returning to this blog site to post. In large measure, this is part of a project to increase my written output. I have engaged a writing coach to help me overcome my most serious pathology — a lack of discipline. That is, I am capable of writing, but I do so only under the external discipline of a deadline. When submission deadlines are on the horizon, I can sequester myself in my office and write intensively for several days and be content with the outcome. The process is messy — literally, as I surround myself with open books, photocopies and open PDF files of journal articles, and scribbled notes that accumulated in the run-up to the writing event. And, of course, I cannot have two simultaneous writing projects ongoing.  Two phenomena militate against switching between writing projects: the physical mess and the requisite processes of thinking, composing, reference-checking, and editing that overlap during the course of meeting a deadline. Neither the open reference materials nor the incomplete thoughts from one project can be put aside in favor of another. Thus, it is necessary to develop a personal discipline that enables a more fluid writing process.

I will introduce you to the coach’s method as one of the themes of this blog in the coming weeks. At this juncture I will presage the presentation to say that an important element is the separation of thinking/composing from the act of writing. That is, one should develop the paragraphs that will be written at a particular point in time prior to the writing session. I will elaborate on this in the next few weeks as part of my devoirs.

As a second part of my training, I will also post short pieces from my current research projects. I will shuffle these in among the posts on writing as a way to practice the movement between projects. I will attempt to “think, then write” on a couple of these projects to see if I can overcome my pathological lack of discipline and my habits of confounding the different steps in writing and of burying my work space in open texts as some extravagant form of external memory.

The current projects involve the major thrust of my research on entrepreneurship: the phenomenon of collective entrepreneurship. I am participating on large projects funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the directorate of the USDA for competitive research grants. I am also interested in the cognitive and social processes that bring individuals or small firms together to entrée into collective entrepreneurial ventures. I will post on where these empirical and conceptual projects take me in the coming months as they unfold.

Otsogery, Adumbration, and the Intellectual Scavenger Hunt

Wednesday 19 September 2012

I am thoroughly enjoying a romp through On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, by Robert K. Merton. I was provoked to read this book by a series of posts on a blog called, which is one of the three blogs that I read on a regular basis. It is a forum for sociologists, in the main, and the threads often touch on economic sociology – a sub-field that I find informative as a practicing non-sociologist. The recent thread introduced a STUNNING NEW APPROACH to economic sociology called “relational work” that is meant to overtake such useless approaches as Granovetter’s embeddedness. (I’ll make a separate post on this later.) I have difficulty with the central arguments about the originality of relational work, as it looks (to a practicing non-sociologist) to be derivative of Georg Simmel’s work a century ago, as well as significant elements of cultural anthropology and social psychology. When I and others raised the question, one of the disciples waded in with a scold that we were committing the “fallacy of adumbration”, which he attributed to Robert K. Merton, but cited Alejandro Portes.

So I read the section of Merton’s classic, Social Theory and Social Structure, in the 1968 edition, wherein he spent the first three dozen pages discussing whether an erudite scientist (or sociologist) would correctly identify pre-discoveries, anticipations, or adumbrations of a new work that appeared in the past. There are two things that I learned from reading Merton (1968) that I could not from reading Portes or the poster. (1) Adumbration (foreshadowing) is not the same as adumbrationism, which is the mean-spirited search for anticipations and adumbrations and the subsequent claim that there is “nothing new here”. (2) It is more important that the scientist (or sociologist) be aware of the taxonomy or systematics of ideas – how they are related – than their priority (in the chronological sense). To declare relational work as a new approach without doing the necessary systematics is the real fallacy.

Anyhow… let’s leave the rant aside. The development of Merton’s writing on adumbrationism began with his presidential address to the American Sociological Society (1957), continued through the elaboration of this material in Social Theory and Social Structure to the publication of the delightful On the Shoulders of Giants – hereafter OTSOG – in which he brings to fruition a two-decade search for priority in the aphorism by Isaac Newton, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This particular search for priority is couched in a general discussion of the transmission of knowledge, plagiarism and misattribution, and the general nonlinearity of the accumulation of knowledge. He trades on the nonlinearity by adopting the convolved style of Tristram Shandy, which celebrates his erudition and focus on systematics in the guise of establishing priority, a design captured in the coined word otsogery.

I haven’t the mind or the relentless spirit of R.K. Merton, but I do enjoy chasing down quotes, aphorisms, and original sources. I like my students to use original sources, too. Wikipedia doesn’t count. There are two of these intellectual scavenger hunts that I enjoyed very much.

In his seminal book, The Mechanisms of Governance, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Oliver Williamson argues for pursuing his “interdisciplinary joinder of law, economics, and organization in a ‘modest, slow, molecular, definitive way’ ”. He footnotes this statement with a quote,

“The longer I live, citizen …” – This is the way the great passage in Peguy begins, words I once loved to say (I had them almost memorized) – “The longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the efficiency of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the efficiency of conversion, extraordinary, sudden, and serious, in the efficiency of sudden passions, and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work. The longer I live the less I believe in the efficiency of an extraordinary, sudden social revolution, improvised, marvelous, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship – and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”

I could not fathom how Charles Péguy could have denounced sudden, wondrous conversion and sudden, extraordinary social revolution when he was (1) a famously devout Catholic;  a mystic whose poetry includes an exceptional hommage to Joan of Arc, and (2) a famously ardent socialist who believed strongly in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. In fact, after giving up on the Catholicism of his youth while at the École Normale Supérieure, he returned to his faith in the middle of the first decade of the century, when he was in his early 30s. He was slain in the first battle of the Marne in 1914 at the age of 41.

Thus, it was hard to understand a quote that twice alludes to advancing age and a personal and social apostasy that was written by a man who died in full flower as a religious mystic and as a champion for human rights and the left. So, I went to the library and found Charles Péguy’s Oeuvres en Prose Complètes and read them back to front looking for this passage. I discovered the true passage early in the volume (nowhere close to his death) and translated for Williamson. I sent him my translations and the following.

The quote in Williamson’s text contains two red herrings. The first is, “this is the way the great passage in Peguy begins”. In fact, the quoted passage begins with the second clause of the fourth sentence of the twentieth paragraph of an essay presented as a dialogue. The second confusion is that the quote appears to be a single argument against sudden personal illuminations and sudden social revolutions. In fact, the passage is two distinct arguments in counterpoint. One party to the dialogue denies the value of sudden personal revelation and the other denies the value of sudden social revolution.

The young socialist atheist revolutionary (Péguy) consults a “citizen doctor: socialist, revolutionary, moralist, internationalist” as he has come down with the grippe while preparing for the Socialist Congress.

— … “And genius demands patience to work, doctor, and the longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied by or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the effectiveness of sudden, wondrous, extraordinary conversions, the effectiveness of sudden passions, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.”

– “ The longer I live, responded the doctor gravely, the less I believe in the effectiveness of a sudden, extraordinary social revolution, wondrously improvised, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship, – and the more I believe in the effectiveness of modest, slow, molecular, definitive, work for society.”

The conversation continues around the doctor’s thesis that one cannot believe in the “big questions” when unable to believe in the personal-level issue of faith. This essay was, in fact, written when Péguy was 26 and before his return to the church. He had just launched a publishing venture in support of socialist causes in January 1900, called Cahiers de la quinzaine, (Fortnightly Journals). This was to be his pulpit as a polemicist until his death, as well as a place where like-minded individuals published before they became famous.

The citation should read:  Péguy, Charles. “Encore de la grippe”, Cahiers de la quinzaine, volume I, number 6, March 20, 1900.

Williamson thanked me by return e-mail within the hour but admitted that he liked his erroneous, purloined quote “as it better suited his argument”. Nonetheless, my e-mail became part of his graduate course syllabus until he quit teaching.

The second scavenger hunt was the search for the aphorism, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door”. A quick perusal of the WWW suggested that the aphorism was attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and was reported by two Unitarians (Sarah Yule and Mary Keene) for a compilation in 1889. Some folks suggest that this quote or a more elaborate one — “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” – was uttered by Emerson when he visited the Barbary Coast on a lecture tour in 1871. In any case, both quotes are a pale simulacrum of what Emerson would likely say.

So I repaired to the library again and started to read Emerson’s compiled writings. The citation that I have is Works, Volume VII, 1912 edition. In it the transcription of a journal entry that Emerson wrote while on a stagecoach tour of the Mohawk Valley in  New York during 1855, one finds his discourse on Fame.

“If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles, or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, tho it be in the woods. And if a man knows the law, people will find it out, tho he live in a pine shanty, and resort to him. And if a man can pipe or sing, so as to wrap the prisoned soul in an elysium; or can paint landscape, and convey into oils and ochers all the enchantments of spring or autumn; or can liberate or intoxicate all people who hear him with delicious songs and verses, ’tis certain that the secret can not be kept: the first witness tells it to a second, and men go by fives and tens and fifties to his door. “ (page 528)

Now THAT is Emerson.

I’m looking for the next scavenger hunt. Perhaps Merton will provoke something in particular.

Excusing myself (in advance) for sporadic posting

Monday 22 August 2011

The new academic year is upon us! Unlike my colleagues who face 15 weeks of rhythmic behavior tied to classroom presence, I will be marching to several different drummers in contrapuntal syncopation. I will be teaching two executive courses: one for food industry executives in Canada, which will take me away for about a week each in Calgary and Halifax; and an entrepreneurship course for aggies, which will be taking place in Vermont and Kansas City.

I will have a week in the UK around a conference on evolutionary thinking in economics. This is not to say that economic thinking is evolving, rather it is about using evolutionary models of structure and behavior when thinking about economics. My colleague from the philosophy department, André Ariew, is joining me on this adventure, as we are writing together on the philosophy of organization sciences (including economics). I will be posting about this topic sporadically over the next few months.

I will have a few days in Australia around a speech on entrepreneurship in the agri-food sector in Melbourne at the end of October. Plus a day in transit each way…

Finally, there will be multi-day sojourns to Washington DC, Pittsburgh PA,  and Fort Collins CO.


Dinner in Alsace

Friday 22 July 2011

I organized a foray into the adjoining region — Alsace — last night with three philosophers of biology for a meal and lively discussion of research. I was joined by André Ariew of the University of Missouri, Elliott Sober of the University of Wisconsin, and Tim Lewens of Clare College, Cambridge University. The drive was about 140 kilometers each way, but the food and discourse were well worth it.

We ate at the Michelin three-star restaurant L’Auberge de l’Ill. This restaurant has been on my “bucket list” since a graduate school buddy – Bob Carney — raved about it. He was right, even 35 years later! Here is the tasting menu for the evening, minus the amuse-guele and a few other ancillary additions (chocolate truffles!). You will be disappointed with Google Translate if you try it…

– Le tourteau émietté aux herbes thaï, nage de concombre aux coquillage du moment et lait de coco

– Le filet de St Pierre poêlé aux spaghettis à l’encre, emulsion de pimentos au bouillon de calamar

– L’oeuf poché et jeune poireau grille sur une poêlée de champignons des prés et des bois

– Le carré d’agneau roti, beignet d’artichaut farci et pommes de terre cuites comme en vallée de Munster parfumées aux olives et au thym

– Les fromages (choices from 25+ on the cheese cart — all magnificent)

– La petite douceur inspire du cocktail Bellini à l’ècume de champagne et à la pêche blanche

– La gourmandise d’abricots au miel d’acacia et à la lavande

Hello from Nancy…

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Not a name, the city in eastern France.

I am in Nancy for the quadrennial Congress of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. I will have a symposium paper in a few days, but now I am enjoying being an economist listening to philosophers of science (especially biology) examining a variety of interesting topics, followed (variously) by coffee, great food, beer, and wine. Nancy is in the Lorraine region and has a long, colorful history tied to Germany,Poland, Lithuania, Tuscany, and the Holy Roman Empire. It was a center of the Art  Nouveau movement and remains an important university city.

Dinner tonight at Place Stanislas with Jean Gayon of the Institut d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences et des techniques (CNRS and University of Paris) and Werner Callebaut of the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Austria, along with Missouri colleagues André Ariew and Chris Pincock (both of Philosophy). We took on the issues surrounding evolutionary models in economics and biology, fueled by andouillette and braised pork jowls, an excellent Rhone wine, and the local eau de vie called Mirabelle. This will be truly memorable.

Place Stanislas at night