Interview with Best Published Paper Award Winner

Teddy DeWitt (UMass) interviewing Mark de Rond (Cambridge U), Isaac Holeman (U of Washington), and Jennifer Howard-Grenville (Cambridge U), Winners of the OMT Best Published Paper Award, for “Sensemaking from the Body: An Enactive Ethnography of Rowing the Amazon”


[Note: this interview is an edited transcript of an iterative email exchange with the three authors. All three authors are therefore listed together in all the responses.]


Teddy DeWitt (TD): Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me about this great paper. To kind of set the stage, could you briefly highlight what this paper is about, and how did the three of you come together to collaborate on this work?


Mark de Rond, Issac Holeman, and Jennifer Howard-Grenville (MdR, IH, & JHG): This paper is an attempt to explore different ways the body is implicated in sensemaking. Referring to “the body” and “sensemaking” in the same sentence (and in relation to each other) is deeply uncomfortable. For it maintains an age-old separation that it is near impossible to rid ourselves of: the Cartesian distinction between body and mind (as if these were separate, and to some extent autonomous, entities connected by information highways). This is where Wacquant is helpful: in proposing a conceptualisation that allows one to see how the whole (human) being is involved in the process of “coming to terms with, or settling into, a situation so as to, at some point, move forward” – or what we typically refer to as “sensemaking.”


This AMJ Special Issue called for “new lenses” to be trained on organizational phenomena, and it seemed that Wacquant’s conceptualization might actually be able to make a positive difference to our understanding of the role of the body in sensemaking.


In terms of how we got to work on this paper: Jen and I [MdR] started a conversation on the potential of the fieldwork at a PROS [Process Organization Studies] symposium in 2014. We had a nice dinner, some decent wine, and, based on the recently collected fieldwork, allowed our imaginations to flow. What might this be a case of? Or, perhaps better, what could it be a case of? Isaac was, at the time, one of our most promising PhD students, and happy enough to come on board. Isaac took charge of coding the videos (755 in all – some over 1 hour long), using Atlas.ti, which was no small feat, and he did this admirably.


TD: How did you all arrive at the realization that you would need to present findings *of the body* and *from the body* separately? You mention this realization briefly in the paper, but I would be curious to hear more about the thought/discussion process that helped this analytical choice come about?


MdR, IH, & JHG: This distinction is Wacquant’s, in that he separates out two fundamentally different ways of “doing embodiment:” of the body and from the body. The former is possible by, e.g., examining video footage from a rugby match (as Cunliffe and Coupland did); the latter is only ever possible by “being there/being them” – or by means of “enactive” ethnography.


Our first submission articulated this (conceptual) distinction but focused on only one Methods and one Findings section (“from the body”). For our first revision, Jen came up with the wonderful idea to highlight the particular distinctiveness of a “from the body” approach that might require us to articulate an “of the body” approach in the first instance. That’s how we ended up with two Methods and two Findings sections – in the first, we’d demonstrate what an “of the body” analytical approach might allow us to see; in the second, we’d provide a “from the body” analytical take on the same set of critical events to highlight the contrast between the two approaches.


TD: There are many interesting moments in this paper. But one I found to be particularly interesting was one of the places in Findings 1 and 2 that appeared to describe similar events. (Please correct me if I am wrong in my reading of these.) In Findings 1, there seems to be an instance where the readings of the GPS and Miguel's knowledge of currents taken together could result in sensemaking, or at least a provisional understanding of unfolding contingencies. Whereas in Findings 2, the data from the GPS combined with the fatigue and exhaustion of the rowers actually inhibited the act of sensemaking. But it seems that if you did not have both sets of findings this contrast – this clear presentation of the physical state of the body inhibiting sensemaking – might not have been on clear display. Did you anticipate that your analytical methods would yield these kind of results, or was this a surprising finding?


MdR, IH, & JHG: One of the points we tried to make here is that a GPS speed reading and a visual of the river (that, in turn, needs to be interpreted by someone with knowledge of the river – in our case, Miguel [a pseudonym for one of the participants in the rowing journey]) are helpful in arriving at a sense of whether you’re taking advantage of currents or not. BUT it is incomplete. To arrive at a complete understanding of whether you are, or are not, in a fast current requires a triangulation among (1) the GPS speed reading, (2) Miguel’s “reading” of the river (much like Whiteman’s experience with the Cree trapper in her paper (with Cooper) on ecological sensemaking), and (3) a felt response from the body in terms of how hard it is working to maintain that particular speed (e.g., if the body is working harder than normal – and is thus more fatigued – then it is likely that increased speed is a result of more effort rather than the current).


Our fatigue really only began to inhibit our sensemaking in the latter stage of our journey where we felt so confused, so exhausted, that we ended up throwing bits of paper in the river to help us understand whether it was true that we’d been fighting the tide (which comes up to a hundred miles in from the mouth of the Amazon) for the last couple of hours or not (or whether we were so tired by this time that we didn’t have what it took to simply power the boat).


TD: In your paper, you highlight Wacquant's point that, one of the advantages of enactive ethnography is to grasp first-hand how the mind constructs the schemas associated with action, as that action is being performed. What I would add to that is that an advantage that Mark and Anton [pseudonyms for the two other participants in the rowing journey] had was that they already had first-hand knowledge of the lived experience of rowers as indicated by the thick description of the proprioception [or kin(a)esthesia), is the sense of self-movement and body position – Wikipedia] associated with rowing on p. 1975. Researchers who want to engage in enactive ethnography might lack these sorts of physical or cultural references that are germane to a given research setting. What recommendations would you have for ways that researchers could potentially "triangulate" their experience with enactive ethnography to gain a more holistic view?


MdR, IH, & JHG: The main benefit to have rowed for years prior to the Amazon journey is that Anton and I [MdR] knew how to row for long distances (1) without blistering our hands (blistering hands make for painful rowing and won’t heal if continuing to row) and (2) without hurting our backs (too much). Our knowledge of rowing technique proved helpful (as the example of Miguel shows – him blistering and unable to pull as hard as us even as he was physically much stronger than we were).


While ethnography often involves us, as academics, observing others engaged in activities that involve skill (and thus often years of education and training), Wacquant argues that there are yet ways to becoming “enactively” involved. We may not be actors but can become involved in preparing stage props; we may not be surgeons but can make ourselves useful in roles that allow us to share “the stage” but without getting “stuck into” the same activities. Granted, our experience won’t be exactly theirs. (How could it be?) But it comes a fair bit closer to it than many other research approaches. Further, as a newcomer or novice in a setting one might actually learn certain aspects of embodied skills (and limitations thereof) by being exposed to them for the first time and, ideally, might use these novel experiences to learn more explicitly from those more experienced in the setting. No approach can perfectly mimic that of those we observe in action – but, aware of the limitations, quirks and foibles we bring to the field, we try.


TD: As researchers, we care deeply about variation. Whether we are primarily qualitative or quantitative in orientation, variation in our research setting helps us explain the phenomena we observe. From your work, it clearly seems that enactive ethnography lends itself well to environments where there is deep physical variation, such as sculling the Amazon. Do you feel that enactive ethnography would be as productive a methodology in an environment with less physical variation?


MdR, IH, & JHG: There is a difference between variation in a setting and how that affords theory building, and the setting itself being extreme. Each can be useful in building theory, as can both together. The physical demands and the presence of the body in rowing the Amazon is obviously hard to deny, while in a different setting it might be less immediately obvious how being embodied shapes action and interaction. However, as we outline in the paper, there are many more typical organizational settings in which embodied sensemaking would be expected – from surgical settings to investment banks. We can even consider any ‘typical’ organization or work setting which, during the time of the pandemic in particular, could contain may ways to explore embodiment. For example, how are different people or teams managing the physical and psychological stresses of home working? How is that shaping their interactions, coordination, or decision making? Since all of us have bodies, the boundaries for theorizing about embodiment really need not be seen as limited to only obviously physically demanding settings.


TD: Several times throughout the work you speak to the affordances of the technology and equipment in this particular environment – the mounted camera affords unfiltered action capture; the GPS combined with local knowledge can afford potential sensemaking opportunities. Yet the story of technology today is more of one in which it more intensely mediates our organizational experience, especially during the pandemic. Do you think technology's role as a persistent mediator between the body and organizational life is something of a barrier for researchers who may want to engage in the study of embodied sensemaking in organizational life?


MdR, IH, & JHG: Technology does mediate our experience and, indeed, now more so than ever for many of us who are interacting online or teaching online in a way we never were before. That said, technology constrains and affords. So one can inquire about how it does so in relation to embodied experiences. Of course, as we show in the paper through the comparison between “from the body” and “of the body” analyses, one can only ever know one’s own embodied experience (and infer others’ with whom one interacts). But we would expect both our own embodied experience and certainly the ability to “read” others’ to be very different in a heavily technology mediated “Zoom” environment. There could be a great research project in all this for honing how we think about embodiment in relation to other aspects of organizing, including technology.


TD: Is it possible that in not taking into account aspects of the body in sense-making work, especially in extreme situations in which pressure on the body can delay sensemaking, that some of our field's finding's around sensemaking need to be re-explored?


MdR, IH, & JHG: Perhaps. Of course, it is hard to do so relying on many of the sources of data that sensemaking has historically used. For example, we conjecture in the paper that Weick’s account of Mann Gulch could be read a little differently if he had access to Dodge’s (versus others’) embodied experiences. But we can’t really know that, can we, when we use accounts that are not generated by our own experience?


TD: What did you enjoy most about this research project?


MdR, IH, & JHG: Being given a long leash by the AE in crafting the paper, allowing us to experiment with structure and prose.


TD: Could you give me a little detail about the revision process associated with this paper? Given both the unique analytical process and prose-like presentation of data, how did the reviewing process help shape this paper into its final form?


MdR, IH, & JHG: Tima Bansal proved to be a wonderfully supportive editor. She was keen from the start that this paper retain “our voice,” that it be distinctive. As such, she allowed us more freedom than usual in “crafting” this paper (including experimenting with structure and prose). We were never absolved from an obligation to engage with the reviewers but were given a gentle nudge early on to be bolder in how we constructed and crafted our arguments. This, in turn, gave us a bit of freedom to explore more creative ways to help “land” our contributions – on how we might best to do justice to what Wacquant had in mind when developing his “from the body” approach to embodiment. (And Wacquant was generous in helping us capture his unique vantage point.) Tima’s faith in our ability to write this paper made us more committed than ever to deliver, making sure her editorial efforts (and her courage), and the input of the reviewers, would not remain unanswered.


TD: Would you like to share any challenges you faced during the research and writing process? If so, how did you overcome them?


MdR, IH, & JHG: Our challenges were no different from that encountered in working with co-authors generally. They are overcome by keeping the lines of communication open, by fostering psychological safety (where each co-author feels able to voice her/his concerns and float ideas), and by giving each other the benefit of the doubt, always.


TD: And last but not least, what are the next directions that you intend to follow after this paper? Did it prompt more questions that you wish to pursue? Do you think there are other topics that you can potentially interrogate with this dataset?


MdR, IH, & JHG: We have each been so busy with our other projects that we’ve not yet had the conversation on how to move forward, if at all. Life takes over, as they say, though the temptation to leverage this unique dataset in the pursuit of other research questions is certainly there. We are not necessarily the kinds of scholars who seek to publish a lot from a single data set and rather want to publish one paper that will be seen as useful, novel, and impactful. So, we are happy to know that our effort on this one has been recognized.