Category Archives: academia

That word “laboratory.” I do not think it means what you think it means…

Then again.

So, one of the pleasures of being a PhD student is that you get – occasionally – to sit around and talk about stuff you’ve read  (it’s less pleasurable when it’s something you’ve written [i.e. supervisions]. But I digress).  As part of the cities/urban sustainability reading group, we were getting our thinking gear wrapped around Evans, J (the j stands for jeriatric) and Karvonen, A. 2014. Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Lower Your Carbon Footprint!’ — Urban Laboratories and the Governance of Low-Carbon Futures. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 38.2 March 2014 413–30

This bit leapt out

Kohler charts the frequent use of the expression ‘natural laboratory’ in field biologists’ public and private writings from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The idea formed part of what he calls biologists’ ‘imaginative infrastructure’ — an implicit but powerful framework for thinking about how human experimenters can know nature. This ‘imaginative infrastructure’ resonates with the way in which the concept of urban laboratories is currently applied to sustainability. Urban laboratories share the assumption that such experiments are superior in their ‘adherence to life as it is really lived’ (Kohler, 2002: 215) and are capable of producing knowledge that will be useful and hence transformative, even if it falls short of the more controlled conditions offered in laboratory activities. The rhetoric surrounding the use of urban laboratories today attests to the desire to capture the authority of experimentation without giving up the authenticity of the real world.
In a chapter titled ‘Border practices’, Kohler considers how the pioneers of population biology worked in the field, developing a systematic approach to data collection over wide areas that allowed them to replicate the causal analysis associated with laboratories. The requirements of the field site were very different for these field biologists. Rather than unique settings in which to observe the more unusual of nature’s experiments unfold, site selection was driven by ease of access and the practicalities of collecting large amounts of data. The paradigmatic example discussed is Raymond Lindeman’s field studies of Cedar Creek Bog in Minnesota, which yielded the trophic-dynamic theory of energy flow that underpins the systems logic of modern ecology. Cedar Creek was chosen because it was easy to access and revealed its secrets cheaply; it was shallow, with a very simple species structure, and, if that was not enough, it could be cored to reveal species compositions over many years. In this way, population biologists managed to develop explanatory analyses from field studies by collecting such a surfeit of data that it became possible to identify variables and causal links between them. Musing on this hybrid, Kohler (2002: 218) asks, ‘what are we to make of a practice whose techniques are of the field, but whose rules of knowing are of the lab?’

This, to quote Tom ‘Lobachevsky’ Lehrer, I knew from nothing.

Kohler reference is this Kohler, R. (2002) Landscapes and labscapes:
exploring the lab–field border in biology. Chicago University Press, Chicago, IL.
Defo an #afterthethesis read

Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve – wikipedia here

Raymond Lindeman – wikipedia here.

From which-

The Ten percent law means to the transfer of energy from one trophic level to the next was introduced by Raymond Lindeman (1942). According to this law, during the transfer of energy from organic food from one trophic level to the next, only about ten percent of the energy from organic matter is stored as flesh. The remaining is lost during transfer, broken down in respiration, or lost to incomplete digestion by higher trophic level.

Me love you laing time… The work of forgetting and suppression

Somewhere in the pile of things-read-awaiting-bookmarking-on-t’website is a recent article on the what the authors called “memory work” –  (corporate) work of suppressing past mis-behaviour. It does not use R.D. Laing, but it could.  This below is the epigram from Joanna Russ’s amazing book ‘The Female Man’ [my review here]

If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.

Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on “bringing it up”. He may invalidateher experience. This can be done-more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: “It”s all in your imagination.” Further still, he can invalidate the content. “It never happened that way.” Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.

This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time. In order for such transpersonal invalidation to work, however, it is advisable to overlay it with a thick patina of mystification. For instance, by denying that this is what one is doing, and further invalidating any perception that it is being done, by ascriptions such as “How can you think such a thing 1” “You must be paranoid.” And so on.

Laing, R.D. 1967 The Politics of Experience. London: Penguin. (first chapter online here)

Thinking institutionally, dialectically, iteratively, recursively #noteasy

Our wetware has missed quite a few upgrades, hasn’t it?  It left the factory all buggy and in beta, shaped by encounters – over millennia – with sabre-tooth tigers etc that saw us as easy meat.  We have cognitive biases up the wazoo, and often lack even the awareness of that [Dunning-Kruger etc etc].

It’s only recently for me, when I’ve been trying to construct airtight arguments that synthesise a lot of other people’s work, that I realise quite what a kluge a brain is.  And how hard it is to think institutionally, dialectically, iteratively, recursively etc  (don’t ask me for the distinction between those last two – pregnant elephants or something).

Everything in our “DNA”, our educations, our culture(s) makes it easier to do system one thinking, and be happy, exp-post-facto-y with that….  Hmmm.

All this came from re-reading another excellent paper from Professor Thomas Lawrence, he of ‘institutional work’…  He has a good website, and it gives access to his papers, which is cool for people without a password through the paywalls…

Thinking institutionally, according to Heclo (2008), involves adopting an “appreciative viewpoint” that allows one to “acknowledge, and then through choices and conduct, . . . help realize some normative order reflected in the task of upholding (an) institution and what it stands for” (p. 102). This viewpoint, Heclo argues, provides individuals in contemporary civic society the capacity to think and act in ways that allow them to transcend the totalizing cognitive influence of institutions.

2011 Lawrence, T., Suddaby, R., &  Leca, B. 2011. Institutional Work: Refocusing Institutional Studies of Organization. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(1), 52-58.



The upper crust is just a bunch of crumbs sticking together #Kulturkampf

High culture?

“In his cultural studies, DiMaggio’s historical research documented the self-conscious creation of “high culture” in the late 19th-century America. DiMaggio argues that, unsettled by the weak class distinctions in growing industrial cities, local elites created a “sophisticated” culture (via the arts,universitiessocial clubs, and the like) that would separate commoners from those of high standing. DiMaggio says that “high culture” models developed by founders of museums and orchestras were then adopted by patrons of operadance, and theatre.”

source – wikipedia.
And this


is available

All rather puts me in mind of that wonderful Onion story on “Finest opera singer of her generation unknown by her generation…”

“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

Breaking into Baruch Spinoza’s shop #thesis “lens me your ears”

So, that last post, about the last two and a half years of my life being like stepping on rakes that then smack you in the face?  #selfpitying #melodramatic #firstworldproblems  And also a bit unproductive. Instead, surely it’s better to think of it like breaking into Baruch Spinoza’s shop (he was a lens grinder) and having loads of lenses that you can use.  The trick is knowing which ones to use, how and when, which ones combine to give you a clearer view, even – gasp a resolution (geddit?), and which ones make you woozy and fuzzy.

Something something six blind men and an elephant something.

Something something Otto Neurath and motes and planks in yer eye something

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

Wanna get it write? It’s the bloody iterations, sadly.

The rake’s progress – of my thesis, theories and getting smacked in the face.

The last two and a half years of my life have been like that scene in Cape Feare where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on rakes and getting hit in the face and never learning to look down/up/wherever he is supposed to look, whatever he is supposed to do.

It’s a scene they deliberately hold for far too long (kind of like the incinerator at the end of Toy Story 3), and far funnier than my life has been… So it goes.

The literature-on-issue-attention-cycles-rake? – BAM!
The literature-on-corporate-political-strategy? – THWACK!!
The literature-on-public- policy? –  SPLATT!!!
The literature-on-institutional-work? –  THWUNK!!!!
My friend asked the right question – how did Mr. Bob get out of it.  Sad to say,  I think they go to a commercial break, which doesn’t really help.
So IRL, I am stuck with a passing familiarity with too many  theoritcal/analytical/academic (in every sense) “lenses” and not enough of my goddam thesis actually, you know, written.