Category Archives: The Wire

Obama, Trump, Omar, Levy. The game…

I am no fan of Trump, obvs.  But this emoluments thing, about him crassly (and everything about the Donald is crass) enriching his family and business through the POTUS gig.  Everyone is losing their shit about it, but when Obama gets a gig to give a speech for 400k for it people were slightly less bothered.

If I were a Trump supporter, I’d call that hypocrisy, and if I were a Trump supporter who loved The Wire I’d be pointing to a scene which involved Obama’s favourite character – Omar, who steals from drug dealers.  Omar is in court, giving evidence against a drug dealer on a murder charge. The dealer’s lawyer, Levy, who is in a retainer from the Barksdale gang, is cross-examining Omar.

Levy: You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade.  You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite, who leeches off..

Omar:  Just like you man

Levy:  Excuse me? What?

Omar: I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though right?

Baffled, Levy looks at the judge, who shrugs.


Yeah, I know it’s an order of magnitude, and Obama has had the ‘decency’ to wait until after he left office. I am not a Trump supporter, and I know there is a difference.  But what I am saying is, if I WERE a Trump supporter, I’d not be seeing a very big difference….

“Bel-Ami” – brilliant brilliant book about journalism, life, image, etc

How did I not know about this book?  Why was I not told?  Eh?  This is up there with The Wire as “cultural artefacts that everyone will have to engage with when I am chief fascist dictator”.

It’s by Guy de Maupassant, a French writer (mostly of short stories) who died from syphilis in the early 1890s after a short but brilliant and prolific career, writing about French society in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1.

Bel-Ami follows the ever-upward trajectory of Georges Duroy (the name changes in the course of the book). We first meet him basically starving on the streets of Paris. He meets an old army acquaintance who offers him a hand-up – an invitation to dinner, and money to hire the right clothes for such a dinner.  There is a wonderful scene, full of insight where Duroy climbs the stairs feeling the clothes ill-fitting and himself to be obviously a fraud. He bumps into an extremely elegant young man, beautifully turned out…. his reflection. And he learns to fake it till you make it (It would have been great if Maupassant had lived long enough to get down with Siggie Freud).

Duroy is a cad, a bounder, an  outrageous user of women.  He becomes a journalist (somewhere between Scott Templeton meets Sammy Glick) and the novel follows his ascent, alongside and over the bodies of various women (Duroy is as priapic as de Maupassant was).

There is fantastic stuff about corruption, appearances, hypocrisy, love, obsession.  The use of a painting of Jesus walking on water becomes a skilfully-used motif.

Really, this is a book to re-read every year.  Just amazing.

Bateson, schismogenesis, etc and The Wire…

So, am reading about Institutional Work.  And stumbled on an article that used the best television show that I ever saw (‘The Wire’) to talk about this and a LOT else.  Not sure how I will be able to use it in The Thesis (concept of fields, relentless contestation that changes the actors – and indeed whether it makes sense to speak so much of ‘actors’ in ‘systems’. But I digress…)

The article is this –

Zundel, M., Holt, R. and Cornelissen, J. 2013. Institutional Work in The Wire: An Ethological Investigation of Flexibility in Organizational Adaptation. Journal of Management Inquiry. Vol. 22 (1), pp.102-120.

Here are some excerpts with comments, followed by the specific references I will chase down.  First though, Fun fact – Gregory Bateson talked about the threat of climate change in.. 1967 at the International Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London [paraphrased here].  Possibly told about it by his ex-wife, Margaret Mead, who had been involved in LBJ’s science committee in ’64 and ’65, and who would go on to hold a conference in 1975 with a young-ish Stephen Schneider. But I digress.

However, rather than suggesting this to be the result of an inherent duality in the structure of theorized phenomena, or even a problem of bad measurement leading to erroneous or incomplete taxonomies of things and their properties, Bateson argues that these problems stem from a tendency to ignore the difference between the categories we produce and the world of phenomena they are designed to capture: They are “errors in epistemology” (Bateson, 1972, 1979). His response is a move from analyzing “things” to investigating “patterns” (Bateson, 1972, p. 428), suggesting we can recognize and describe patterns of accelerating and regulatory processes whose dynamics afford or restrict the possibilities of adaptation for living systems.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 103)


Bateson terms such progression “schismogenesis,” which in cases of patterns of boasting or intensifying competition is symmetrical. The alternative to symmetrical is complementary schismogenesis, when increases in the display of one behavior (A) elicit more of a different behavior (B), for instance displays of “dominance” invoking greater display of “submission.” These interactive patterns of living systems can therefore not be explained using a language of force and impact alone.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 104)


Such flexibility may be restricted because energies are committed when systems devote their efforts to satisfy ongoing interactive patterns, for instance when defending their territory, in competitive relations, or simply when keeping up with the neighbors, so that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to do things differently while trying to satisfy existing and unfolding commitments. Systems can expend a lot of energy simply staying put.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 104) (emphasis added)

Yes”- there is an “invisible” work in institutional maintenance- in keeping things as they are…  And later on

However, it has remained less clear how such peripheral work functions in practice and how it realizes change or stability (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010, p. 190). Our analysis offers a number of new insights into these questions. In particular, “boundary” no longer indicates an enclosure of a fixed and stable field that distinguishes people and groups (Bowker & Star, 1999; Carlile, 2002) but, rather, relational patterns. To understand institutional work, we analyze movement that makes differences (they resonate: energy is transferred, soaked up, released). Here, fields become temporarily balanced ethological systems. This changes the character of movement made possible within and between such ethological systems.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 114)

and this bit was good-

Submission to the open, collaborative organization of the Co-op finds Baltimore’s gangs gaining and yet relinquishing flexibility. They gain the flexibility to pursue alternative actions by reducing costs of enterprise (capping resource-hungry violence, bulk buying product, setting up legal footholds, etc.). But with the increasing focus on harmony, they also increasingly deprive themselves of the flexibility to exercise violence, partly because they no longer maintain their private armies of “muscle” and partly because of new decision structures entailing debates and standards that place bureaucratic burdens upon the execution of violence, as such acts now require sanctioning (“quorum”) by the Co-op….
De-emphasizing violence and aggression emasculates the gang and renders it unable to respond with the former vigor to the actions of Marlo Stanfield, the new market entrant whose vicious dynamic finds other systems wanting.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 114-15)

Exactly this!  By refraining from industrial activism (strikes, work-to-rule etc) during the 1980s, under the Accord, the ACTU lost some of its folk memory/skills and credibility…. Also, under the  Bolsheviks it was Stalin who had taken on all the ‘boring’ and unglamorous tasks,and so held the reins of terror. By the time his erstwhile colleagues grokked this, it was Too Late.

And those references…
Alvarez, R. (2009). The Wire: Truth be told (rev. ed.). Edinburgh, UK: Canongate.

Bamberger, P. A., & Pratt, M. G. (2010). From the editors: Moving forward by looking back: Reclaiming unconventional research contexts and samples in organizational scholarship. Academy of Management Journal, 53, 665-671.

Gephart, R. P. (1997). Hazardous measures: An interpretive textual analysis of quantitative sensemaking during crises. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 18, 583-622.

Kisfalvi, V., & Maguire S. (2010). On the nature of institutional entrepreneurs: Insights from the life of Rachel Carson, Journal of Management Inquiry, 20, 152-177.

Langley, A. (1999). Strategies for theorising from process data. Academy of Management Review, 24, 691-710.

Lawrence, T. R. Suddaby, & B. Leca (Eds.), Institutional work: Actors and agency in institutional studies of organizations (pp. 1-27). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Maguire, S., Hardy, C., & Lawrence, T. (2004). Institutional entrepreneurship in emerging fields. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 657-679.

Orton, J. (1997). From inductive to iterative grounded theory: Zipping the gap between process theory and process data. Scandinavian Management Journal, 13, 419-438.

Rerup, C., & Feldman M. S. (2011). Routines as a source of change in organizational schema: The role of trial-and-error learning. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 577-610.

Tsoukas, H., & Chia, R. (2002). On organizational becoming: Rethinking organizational change. Organization Science, 13, 567-582.

Willmott, H. 2011. “Institutional work” for what? Problems and prospects of institutional theory. Journal of Management Inquiry, 2

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.

From “The Wire” to “Heresthetics” – the game is rigged….

The game is rigged, you feel me? (At this point the wife will point out that I am not, in actual fact, a black man from B’more… Sorry “Baltimore”).

Anyway, back to game rigging- the word for the day is “Heresthetics”

William Riker was one of the leading scholars “positive political theory,” or the Rational Choice School of political science. He developed a theory of political action based on a skill he called heresthetics: structuring the world so you can win.

Positive political theory has three central assumptions: 1) Rationality-individuals make reasoned decisions; 2) Component analysis-only small parts of a system are important in predicting human behavior; and 3) Strategic behavior-individuals take into account what others may do before making decisions (interaction as opposed to action). All three assumptions play an important role in his model and attempt to answer the question: Does a distinctly political kind of behavior exist? Riker’s answer is yes: heresthetics. Riker coined this term from a Greek root meaning “choosing and electing.” For Riker, the rational political person wants to win at the game of politics. How they win is using rhetoric (verbal skill in persuasion) and heresthetics (structuring the process so one may win) to build effective coalitions.

Brilliant satire and observations of the games of academia/science

“The first step is to create a task force to develop a proposal for funding for a workshop as a preparatory step toward a conference. Once you get funding for a workshop, you’re pretty well along for getting funding for a conference, because the workshop can compile a list of problems that the funding agency had better not ignore. The conference confirms the findings of the workshop. And the funding agency is on notice. If something big goes wrong, someone can pull up an old report and charge that you were warned about it but didn’t do anything. The press really goes for old reports that were ignored. Get that workshop, and you’re on your way.”

So advises “Grant Swinger”, Director of the Centre for the Absorption of Federal Funds.  Swinger is of course a satirical creation – while many would say this stuff privately, you’re not supposed to say it out loud, or the spell loses its magic.  He’s the creation of Daniel S. Greenberg, an American science journalist who has been observing the games of politics and policy for over 50 years, and has written some very well regarded books.  Including a novel “Tech Transfer” which looks like great fun too.

In 1988 he did a Grant Swinger Q and A about ‘the Greenhouse Effect’ that is hysterically funny, and will end up in my PhD if I can help it…


The game’s the game, yo?
See also:

Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men

Ian McEwan’s Solar

David Lodge’s Campus novels (and especially the character Morris Zapp),

Gilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author and

Malcolm Bradbury’s “Mensonge”

Juking the academic stats – the ivory tower game explained.

Is it possible to be cynical enough?  That’s one of those questions I ask myself occasionally (daily/hourly) and usually when I begin to chide myself for corrosiveness, along comes confirmation/warning that I haven’t even got to cynicism basecamp.

The latest timely warning is “Ring a Ring  Roses: Quality Journals and Gamesmanship in Management Studies.”  This is an article by Stuart Macdonald and Jacqueline Kam, that appeared in the Journal of Management Studies (where else?) Journal of Management Studies 44:4 June 2007

Here’s the abstract

A paper in one of the quality journals of Management Studies is much more important as a unit of measurement than as a contribution to knowledge. It measures academic performance and determines much academic funding. There is consequently some pressure to publish in quality journals. But quality journals are defined in terms that are themselves defined in terms of quality journals – a circularity that explains both the paper’s title and the frustration of those who do not mix in these circles. We examine the gamesmanship of publishing in quality journals. Findings from a survey of heads of Management Studies departments in UK universities suggest that such gamesmanship is common. Cunning and calculation now support scholarship in Management Studies. Gamesmanship will remain common until the rewards for publishing attach to the content of papers, to what is published rather than where it is published. We propose a ‘Tinkerbell Solution’: without belief in the value of a paper in a quality journal, the game is no longer worth playing.

Before unleashing a bunch of quotes on you, with comments attached, you should definitely watch this 100 second clip from season 4 of The Wire;

(Soz, embedding disabled)

Poor Prebs. He thinks he’s left the game-playing-at-the-expense-of-the-stated-mission behind him when he left the Baltimore Police Department. But the game is omnipresent, omniscient. It stalks you … “Wherever you go, there you are.”

So, a sample of the quotes I loved

Rejection rate is also an important guide to quality in journals: the higher the rejection rate, the higher the quality….Only spoilsports will observe that the more authors are encouraged to submit their papers to quality journals, the higher will be the rejection rates of these journals, leading to an increase in their quality, yet greater incentive to submit papers, a higher rejection rate still, and yet more quality. Only cynics and statisticians will observe that as rejection rates rise past 90 per cent, the reliability of screening plummets (Miner, 2003).
(Macdonald and Kam, 2007: 642)


University departments play the game. Their managers encourage publication in quality journals because the return is great and because the measure of performance allows those who know nothing about a subject to judge the work of those who do…. In some French institutions, €12,000 is the going rate for a publication in a quality journal. In Australia, just about to introduce its own version of the RAE, there are similar enticements. Melbourne Business School pays $A15,000 cash for every paper published in the Top 40 list compiled by the Financial Times…. As these payments are per author rather than per paper, authors can bestow riches on favoured colleagues, presumably in return for similar favours. External authors get nothing so collaboration beyond the department is unwise. Cutting long papers into two or three, however, is logical. There is little incentive to write anything for practitioners. (emphasis added)
(Macdonald and Kam, 2007: 644)

Conspiracies against the laity, much?? Finally –

The canny editor cultivates a cadre of authors who will boost the measured quality of his journal, authors who cite themselves and each other, who dedicate swathes of their papers to reviewing past work, authors whose work is so anodyne and so generic that it can be cited almost anywhere.
(Macdonald and Kam, 2007: 645)

Recently the wife told me that I wasn’t a cynic, but rather a disappointed romantic (I shot back an unrepeatable joke that would get me sacked)

Next up – “games,” Wittgenstein and family resemblance