Category Archives: The Thesis

A PhD thesis explained via Woody Allen’s “Sleeper”

So, you slave through archives and papers and interviews and more papers and hard hard work. And you come up with a 20 thousand word chapter, full of the very hard-won anecdotes and quotes and…
You have ten thousand words, TOPS.

Which means you have to kill your darlings, doing away with stuff that cost you days and sweat.

The best way I can explain it at present is fighting the evergrowing magic pudding, as in this scene from Woody Allen’s hilarious Sleeper (presumably riffing off Mickey Mouse and the multiplying brooms in Fantasia?)

The whole clip is hilarious, but I am talking about the period from about 3 mins 30 to 4 mins….

Back to thwacking…


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.

Narrative, schmarratives – on telling plausible stories

So, getting to the pointy end of this PhD thesis.  Reading too much and writing too little (but the balance is shifting in the right direction). Stumbling on methodology stuff that makes things clearer (or less murky).  These are from

Geels, F. and Schot, J. 2010. The Dynamics of Transitions: A Socio-technical perspective. in Grin, J. Rotmans and Schot (in collaboration with Geels F. and Loorbach, D.). Transitions to Sustainable Development New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. New York: Routledge.


To advise people to write “narratives” is really to advise nothing. For narratives can be structured in many, many ways. It takes powerful investigative (and justificatory) methods, as well as a rich array of ever-refined theoretical ideas to figure out what “structures” and “conjunctures” count, and which happenings are transformative as opposed to merely humdrum.
(Skocpol, 1994: 332)

and then

These local narrative explanations should explicate: a) How is the game structured? Who are the most important players? What are their cognitive frames, interests, resources? b) What options and possibilities do actors have? Which actions are chosen and why? How do they react to each other? c) What are the broader effects of actions? d) Are structural changes accepted and institutionalized?
(Geels and Schot 2010)

and finally

To that end, George and Bennett (2004: 210–212) distinguish four progressive steps: 1) Detailed narrative (case history) presented in the form of a chronicle. Such a narrative is specific and makes no explicit use of theory. 2) Use of hypotheses and theoretical mechanisms to explain parts of the narrative. 3) Analytic explanation: a historical narrative of a specific case is converted into an analytical explanation by identifying an overall pattern that is couched in explicit theoretical forms. 4) More general explanation about the phenomena of which the case is a case: the particular case study is used to develop theoretical arguments about a general phenomenon.
(Geels and Schot 2010)

George and Bennett? This.

It feels like they win when they lose – hegemonic accommodation and institutional entrepreneurs

I re-read

Levy, D. and Scully, M. 2007. The Institutional Entrepreneur as Modern Prince: The Strategic Face of Power in Contested Fields. Organization Studies, 28(07): 971–991.

while slogging around Alex Park with my backpack full of books and weights this morning.  I had forgotten just how damn good it is, and how damn useful it will be For The Thesis.

I could quote for ages – especially on ‘The Modern Prince’ , but a) time b) your attention c) copyright. So for now, this – the notion of ‘hegemonic accommodation’ – a cousin of Marcuse’s ‘repressive tolerance’.  There’s useful stuff in this for me thinking about the big voluntary scheme that the Howard Government used as a fig-leaf (one it inherited from Keating, and duly expanded), also known as ‘the Greenhouse Challenge.’  The analogy with the Access Campaign is fairly weak – the NGOs in the Australian case were aiming for a carbon tax, and got rolled, not co-opted…

The interaction between the strategies of institutional entrepreneurs and defenders frequently gives rise to a characteristic pattern of limited accommodation while preserving, or even reinforcing, the essentials of field power structures. Pragmatic entrepreneurs, seeking to legitimize their claims, frequently use insider language and practices to drive change (Meyerson and Scully 1995) and ‘embed calls for change within accepted models’ (Clemens and Cook 1999: 459).
(Levy and Scully, 2007: 984)

In agreeing to establish a forum for consultation, industry not only enhanced its legitimacy but also gained financially from the marketing value of this information and from expanded insurance coverage.
(Levy and Scully, 2007: 985)

Though the Access Campaign is generally credited with having ‘won’ the struggle to allow low-cost generic drugs in developing countries, this institutional settlement was also a hegemonic accommodation.
(Levy and Scully, 2007: 985)

Indeed, pharmaceutical companies quickly moved to claim credit for expanded drug access and embraced the discourse of corporate social responsibility. The power of even the most skillful institutional entrepreneurs is constrained by the nesting of issue-level fields within wider, well-entrenched institutions. Institutional entrepreneurship has been characterized using salient episodes and discontinuities but is an ongoing, situated process.
(Levy and Scully, 2007: 985)

All in the game, you feel me?! Academia and The Wire.

Come hell or high water, this is getting cited in The Thesis.

Zundel, M., Holt, R., & Cornelissen, J. (2012). Institutional work in The Wire: An ethological investigation of flexibility in organizational adaptation. Journal of Management Inquiry, doi:10.1177/1056492612440045

Analysis of institutional work is habitually complicated by the need to combine agentic and structural features. Drawing on the work of Gregory Bateson, the authors suggest that such complications emerge from an error in epistemology whereby the stability and “it-ness” of things is presupposed. As an alternative, they develop a processual analysis that considers the flexibility of adaptation in relational patterns. Here, institutional phenomena are not stable but characterized by regenerative and degenerative cycles of influence that afford or restrict room for maneuver without classifying them “as” something. The authors explicate this by drawing on empirical material covered in the HBO TV series The Wire.