Julia DiBenigno – Yale School of Management
Rohini Jalan – Cornell University
Kevin Lee – New York University
Question 1. We found the comparative nature of your paper very compelling. What were some of the challenges that you faced in doing comparative work? Are there any lessons from the field that you might be able to share with budding ethnographers?
Employing comparative ethnographic methods is rewarding, but has many challenges. One of the first challenges is identifying a common unit of analysis and related outcomes to systematically track across your comparison cases. Spending a year on an interdisciplinary team doing extensive pilot field work—conducting over 130 interviews and dozens of focus groups at seven U.S. Army posts around the world—helped me identify possible units of analysis to examine. Once I broke off from the team, I used my deep understanding of my field site to conduct a more focused dissertation study. I concentrated on understanding how Army mental health providers and commanders handled conflicts to benefit both soldier rehabilitation and mission-readiness and highlighted the effect of different organizational structures on this process.
The second challenge is to ensure that what you are comparing is truly comparable. Although I had closely studied eighteen mental health clinics and brigades at four Army posts, I focused this paper on data from four highly comparable clinics and brigades at one Army post; these four clinics were well-matched on the factors prior literature suggests should affect the resolution of goal and identity conflict. In addition, I needed to select a unit of analysis that allowed me to make fair comparisons. I did this by analyzing how providers and commanders working under different organizational structures—structures with anchored personalization and those without—addressed similar types of conflict situations. I also needed to ensure that the types of conflicts were similar across clinics and that I was sampling providers and commanders in a comparable way.
A final challenge of conducting a matched case comparison is addressing alternative explanations. I sought out tough critics during data collection and early analysis to ensure that I had time to explore these alternative accounts. I constantly pushed on my findings by seeking out negative cases—those that did not fit the broader pattern of my results—to enrich my developing theory. I also sought out “switchers,” those who had experience across cases (in this context, providers who moved from clinics with anchored personalization to those without and vice versa). These switchers allowed me to assess the extent to which their behavior changed (or not) in response to my proposed mechanism of anchored personalization. Analyzing switchers can provide a wonderful test of emerging theory and can lead to new insights and understanding. I also made sure to be critical throughout my analysis to examine whether or not any other differences between my cases could plausibly affect the outcomes and processes of interest.
Question 2. Your mastery of and contributions to such a wide variety of literatures is rather awe-inspiring. How did you arrive at the literature on goal conflict and what other theoretical frames did you consider when attempting to frame the paper, if any? Furthermore, you coined a new term: “anchored personalization.” Did you face any challenges in introducing and framing this term? If yes, how did you navigate them?
One of my favorite parts about being an inductive researcher is having the opportunity to read and learn about many vastly different literatures. For this paper, the great suggestion to frame to the goal conflict literature came from a reviewer. I had previously been framing the paper in the literature on institutional change. However, the editor and reviewers thought that the institutional change literature was too far removed from the rich, meso-level data I had on how goal conflicts were handled by different professional groups. I was somewhat familiar with the goal conflict literature from my first year Organization Theory course at MIT Sloan, so I understood the broad arguments of the Carnegie School and agreed they fit my data. The other literature that I use as a secondary framing in the paper is the literature on intractable identity conflict; a different reviewer astutely suggested this literature. At first, I was discouraged, given that these literatures were so different and each reviewer seemed convinced my case best fit their suggested literature. But as I read both bodies of work, I soon realized each literature was highly relevant, yet incomplete, and that each could complement the other.
On the one hand, the goal conflict literature largely ignored how identity could make a goal conflict personal. This, in turn, made the conflict intractable, resulting in stereotyping across groups, zero-sum conceptualizations of the conflict, and defining one’s own group, at least in part, by what the other group was not. I had a case in which the traditional integrative mechanisms to resolve goal conflict did not work because of this added professional identity component. On the other hand, scholars of intractable identity conflict had primarily examined psychological mechanisms for overcoming intractable conflicts (e.g., promoting mindfulness, developing a superordinate identity), but had not considered more structural mechanisms that were common in the goal conflict literature (e.g., organizational design elements like matrix structures and co-location). What I was finding—a structure that promoted anchored personalization to help professional groups resolve both goal and identity conflict—was a contribution to both literatures.
Regarding coining the new term, “anchored personalization,” this was difficult, yet gratifying. I would have preferred a catchier and shorter term, but struggled to find one that truly captured the novel dynamic I was seeing. I played around with the term “anchored contact,” but personalization is distinct from mere contact as a psychological process. “Anchoring” came pretty easily, early in my data collection. I used the term “anchoring” to describe how these mental health professionals kept one another in check by acting as anchors to prevent cooptation by the higher-power commanders. I liked the imagery of branching out to connect to another group, but still being anchored to your home group to keep you grounded.
Question 3. Given that you were at the interface between conflicting occupational/professional groups — commanders and healthcare providers — what was your role in the field? How were you able to gain their trust, and what personal or professional experiences did you draw upon (if any) to help you in this process?
At first, my role in the field was that of a research assistant to a broader interdisciplinary project on improving the military mental health care system. I spent my first year on this project as a note taker, and later as a co-interviewer, assisting the project’s main research scientist in conducting interviews with hundreds of stakeholders. That first year was essential for learning how to present myself in the field and engage effectively with both mental health providers and commanders. One particular challenge was that each group spoke a different professional language—the clinical jargon of mental health versus the Army jargon of the commanders, both of which took time (and flashcards) to learn. At home, I also immersed myself in all things Army, from books to television shows, movies, documentaries, and blogs to help acculturate myself.
After this first year of pilot field work, I had earned enough trust from Army mental health and command leaders to break off and travel to four Army posts on my own. Once I began to conduct my dissertation research focused on the command-provider interface, my role then shifted to that of a student conducting a dissertation. In this role, it was generally easy for me to establish rapport with the mental health providers, many of whom had PhDs and were sympathetic to the challenges of completing a dissertation.
Establishing rapport with the Army commanders—especially as a young, civilian woman—was more difficult. However, my year of preliminary field work taught me how to present myself (e.g., by wearing a suit with my hair pulled back in a tight bun) and how to ask questions in a more direct manner using the correct military lingo and acronyms. Soon, when a commander told me he or she had only had 15 minutes to talk to me, I took it on as an exciting challenge. Over time, I became skilled at turning that 15 minute opening into an hour-long interview and follow-on interview. Having traveled to so many other Army posts the first year with the team also helped give me credibility, as I had been to more Army posts than many commanders. Finally, the lead research scientist was great at giving me advice whenever I felt that things had taken a bad turn in the field. He was also instrumental in helping connect me to leadership in all of these posts to gain and maintain access.
Question 4. We found your writing style extremely engaging, and we were wondering what your process/writing routine was like. What are some writing tips that you might have for graduate students looking to make their prose as readable and engaging as yours? Additionally, how did you make choices about slicing your data in order to convert your dissertation into this paper?
Thank you—I’m happy you found my writing engaging! I’m always looking to improve the clarity and impact of my prose. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned that have helped me become a more effective writer:
- I like to start with an outline before putting pen to paper. I sometimes find it tempting to “freestyle” and edit later, but the result is better when I write an outline first.
- I like to find papers I admire and then dissect the structure of those papers to use as a model for how to structure my own paper.
- For revisions, I find that it is often easier for me to completely re-write my paper from scratch instead of starting with and trying to “save” parts of my prior draft. Otherwise, I’m usually attached to my prior writing, so the rewrite process can take longer because I have trouble letting go of parts of my original work.
On the question of slicing up my dissertation data into papers; that’s a tough one! I found it very challenging to cut out parts of my data from what was once a more coherent whole in the full dissertation. I’m now working on a second paper that picks up where the “Anchored Personalization” paper leaves off. My first paper examines how the anchored personalization organizational structure allowed for less goal and identity conflict than other structures, while preventing cooptation from personalized contact with the other group. In this structure, professionals were assigned to work with specific members of the other group while remaining embedded within their home group. My new paper examines how, even within an anchored personalization structure, there is variation among providers in how easily they build personalized and influential relationships with commanders. The anchored personalization structure provides the opportunity for a relationship to develop between members of different professional groups, but does not guarantee it. I mention this point in the Future Research section of the first paper to help connect the papers. This new, second paper uses data from all four of the Army posts I visited instead of using data from one post, so most of the data is new as well.
Question 5. Authors’ Choice – Are there any questions you wish we had asked you about the article, or are there any lessons you would like to share with us?
One lesson I learned from conducting this study of military mental health, and from my advisor and committee members, is the importance of focusing on real-world problems and puzzles that those in your field site are facing, rather than worrying upfront about finding a theoretical gap to address. If there had been a simple solution to the problems facing people in the field that they could find by opening a management textbook, they would. Therefore, I found it helpful to begin with a problem in the world I was passionate about addressing. Later on, by conducting my analysis and reading various theoretical perspectives, I identified how the real-world problem I had studied teaches us something theoretically generalizable about organizations and organizational life. Early on, studying a site without a clear sense of how I would make a theoretical contribution seemed risky and daunting, and I encountered many sceptics who questioned whether studying the Army could tell us anything about organizations more generally. But, I find that it is most rewarding to identify this sweet spot of both a real-world problem and a theoretical problem. It is at the intersection of real-world empirical puzzles and theoretical puzzles that I believe we can advance both management science and ensure our research leaves our world and field sites better than we found them.
Thank you for your interest in my work and for the opportunity to answer these thought-provoking questions!