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This business of self presentation

This is a copy of a piece I wrote recently for Pat Thomson’s blog, patter. Patter is a completely indispensable resource for anyone interested in academic writing – check it out.

After long and careful consideration, I decided to write ‘my self’ into my doctoral thesis in ways that sought to challenge various scholarly conventions about distance and detachment. That I felt these conventions were open to some challenge in that particular place and time has also prompted me to reflect on the shifts I have perceived in some scholarly practices of self as I have moved beyond my doctorate, into different organisations and disciplines.

The position I eventually took in my thesis was, firstly, an attempt to present myself as interested and involved in the research. Within the methodlogical traditions I was working in this was certainly not an uncommon move to make – although such moves are always open to contestation – this was certainly not radical. I made a further move which was a bit more disruptive, which was to draw on the relevant personal experience I had vis-à-vis my chosen topic of study, in order to challenge certain conceptions of representation and meaning. This was intended as a kind of playful political move, but I know from the various comments I have received from people who have read my work that it was also a divisive one. Memorably, one such comment came from my external examiner, who said that reading the introduction to my thesis had set alarm bells ringing – definitely not something you want to hear. Fortunately for me he was generous enough to defer his judgement till the end, but his report made it clear to me that in ‘setting out my stall’ as boldly as I had in my opening chapter I had certainly taken a risk.

As I’ve already noted – I was using methods, and was situated in a disciplinary environment, education, where some ‘self talk’ had become increasingly common. I was also writing a thesis. While there are of course many conventions when it comes to writing a thesis, many of these can be stretched and some can be broken. And yet, with these methods, in this ‘safe’ institutional environment, and with this relatively inclusive genre, it seems I was still taking risks.

Skip forward a few years and I find myself in a very different institutional environment; a business school, where I have found scholarly practices of the self to be considerably more reserved. I think this is related to certain characteristics of discipline and genre, which are things that bear consideration when thinking about how to write oneself in or out of one’s work.

Firstly, business and management is a comparatively young discipline, which has emerged out of other disciplines – primarily, economics, psychology and sociology. Two of those disciplines (the former two) are dominated by assumptions of rationalism and positivism. These assumptions add up to a view of scholars as independent evaluators of a given external world.  Critical turns in either discipline – which question these assumptions with the view that in evaluating the world scholars are engaged in its construction – do not have a strong institutional foothold. Much of this is carried over into business and management studies.

Secondly, in business and management studies, the journal article is king. This is probably true in other disciplines, but I haven’t encountered one where this is so strongly and consistently articulated. Where the thesis is a comparatively inclusive genre, the journal article is generally not. There is a generic structure to a journal article which gets followed the majority of the time – particularly in the higher ranked journals, which enjoy being at the top of the list and so have little inclination to alter the rules that have put them there. Along with this generic structure goes a relatively generic style. Sentences are often passively constructed, anthropomorphism is common. The process of getting published in journals also has a tendency to reinforce dominant norms through the extensive peer review that is characteristic of the genre.

Lastly, and this is connected to both the first two points, there is a great tendency to put theory first in business and management studies. As a discipline it seems preoccupied with the idea that to contribute to knowledge means to add a piece to some abstracted jigsaw puzzle. This generally relegates data to ‘illustration’, and makes irrelevent the story of the generation of the data. A big part of wanting to include my own story with my thesis, was wanting to use this as a basis for thinking through the relationships and ideas that I formed while in the field – to treat myself as one research participant among many others. This involved the inclusion of a substantial amount of narrative based on the experience of generating the data. By excluding the majority of ‘methods talk’, many of the journals in business and management also exclude this kind of narrative. Interestingly, this does not just apply to journals – as I have learnt via a recent experience of co-authoring a book. When it came to writing the methods, my initial draft was edited extensively by my co-authors who thought my account ‘too confessional’.

I found this last experience a particularly compelling demonstration of the different institutional conditions at work regarding presentation of the self. This drew the abstract disciplinary tradition down to the level of close colleagues, who would define themselves as ‘critical’ business and management scholars, and with whom I was writing a book – which I have in the past found to be a much more open genre than the journal article. It seemed then that to present such a narrative, for them, was to risk too much of the supposed objectivity with which one must appear armed in our field.

I certainly do not mean to present some kind of cautionary tale here – I believe that interested scholarship is generally more rigorous and trustworthy, and certainly better to read, than the conventional alternative. However, presenting such an account will likely be read as a challenge to certain conventions of discipline and genre in which your audience is located. It is worth thinking carefully about these conventions and deciding how elastic some of them might be. To briefly draw a closing lesson from some management theory: normative institutional change can only be achieved with the consent and participation of existing members. This suggests that evolution rather than revolution might be the key to shifting legitimate practices of the self within scholarly writing.

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