HOWARD-GRENVILLE, NELSON, EARLE, HAACK, & YOUNG. (2017). “If Chemists Don’t Do It, Who Is Going To?” Peer-driven Occupational Change and the Emergence of Green Chemistry.

Jennifer Howard-Grenville – Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge
Andrew J. Nelson – Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon
Andrew G. Earle – Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, University of New Hampshire
Julie A. Haack – Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Oregon
Douglas M. Young – Science Division, Lane Community College

Audrey Holm – Questrom School of Business, Boston University
Micah Rajunov – Questrom School of Business, Boston University

Article link:

Question 1. Background. We noticed that two of the co-authors are from chemistry and science departments, i.e. not part of business schools. How did the collaboration come to be? What was each person’s background, role and what was it like collaborating across disciplines?

The collaboration started when one of the chemists (Julie Haack) asked one of the management scholars (Jen Howard-Grenville) how she could use the type of tools we use (e.g., social network analysis) to visualize the growth of the green chemistry community. We started talking about how green chemistry had emerged and it quickly became evident that this was very different from a ‘diffusion of innovation’ story as we might think about in the organizational literature. That’s when we got in touch with Andrew Nelson, whose expertise is on occupational change and technology. He also knew how to do social network analysis much better than I (Jen) did. I (Jen) have always been interested in how people generate change around environmental issues, and particularly what we sometimes call ‘insider-driven’ change, so this was a fascinating case to study for me.

Andrew Earle began working on the project as a doctoral student in management. Andrew did a lot of social network analysis (SNA) work, which sadly does not appear as much in this paper as we’d expected, in part due to the diversity of the green chemistry community, so the networks didn’t cohere as they might in other settings. Doug Young also began on the project as a doctoral student in chemistry. He chose to do his doctoral work at UO because of the chemistry department’s pioneering role in Green Chemistry. Doug was essential in culling through our archival data on green chemistry publications to bound and characterize the nature of the community. This was especially helpful as the management researchers among us were lost on the language of many of the titles and abstracts!

Question 2. Data collection. The interview period spanned from 2009 to 2015. Was this the original design? What kinds of challenges did you face with such a prolonged time period? We’re also curious of your inclusion of skeptics in the third wave. How did you come to select this sample?

This was not really designed to be such a long study! We kicked off in 2008/2009. There was a small conference with key members of the green chemistry community held on our campus and we began interviewing at that stage. As you might surmise, the later rounds of interviews came about as we took this paper through the review process. Reviewers asked important questions and we found that returning to our original interviewees over time was important, as was broadening our sample and involving new voices.

The early years of analysis took a long time in part because we had assembled a very comprehensive database of published articles on green chemistry, largely from chemistry journals. We spent some time exploring the SNA angles with these data, but discovered through this process that it was very hard to do the kind of typical co-citation analyses, for example, that would tell us much about how the community interacted. While this seemed like a non-result (and this dataset contributes only minimally to the ASQ paper), it actually helped us have confidence in the account we do portray in the ASQ paper – that the green chemistry community is broad and diverse and impossible to define as sharing any one characteristic or motivation. So, in the ASQ paper we really focus on the qualitative data to unpack why this is so and how it came about. (We have another paper published in Research Policy that takes advantage of the other dataset). Also, to be brutally honest, the paper went through A LOT of reframing, and was rejected by another journal before we landed at ASQ, so this also contributed to the time period we were able (and invited) to cover with our data collection and analysis.

Question 3. Theory development. The model includes many elements—frames, tensions, divergent responses and layers over time—yet it is also very understandable. What was the process of building the model? Were there any specific reviews or remarks that helped you refine it? What would your recommendations be for junior scholars trying to articulate such a model from their data?

Thank you for your kind comments about the model. Again, typical (in our experience) for these kinds of papers, it took us a long time to land on the final model and especially a lot of work to visualize it. However, the core elements were really clear in our data from very early on (e.g., the different frames, the tensions these gave rise to). If we dug into our files we’d find dozens and dozens of model figures that got tried and abandoned. That is not usual though, so junior scholars should not get discouraged. It’s very hard to visualize a complex account, but being forced to do so involves a certain kind of discipline.

When we submitted to ASQ we had already moved away from a boxes and arrows linear type of model, which had appeared in earlier versions of the paper, and we were playing with a ‘fried egg’ type of image in an effort to depict the way the green chemistry community was growing yet also responding to tensions pulling it in different ways. We were struggling to get the visual right and changed it back to a boxes and arrows in the revision. At some point along the way I (Jen) remember suggesting we drop the visual figure altogether, but Christine (our editor) recommended we keep it. We’re very grateful she pushed us to keep it, as models do help to encapsulate the message of the theorizing in a compact way.

One thing that really helped us unlock how the figure would look was that we got the help of a graphic designer before the final submission. She was very helpful because of the way she thought about putting processes into visualisations. It was through talking with her that we moved to the vertically stacked model, showing progression but also bringing in the ‘fried egg’ depiction of the community, roles, and tensions. I’ve worked since then with graphics people on models as they are generally very good at translating ideas into visualizations (not typically a skill most organizations scholars have!); I’d advise more scholars—junior and otherwise—to consider this.

Question 4. Framing. The theoretical frame you use— around peer-driven occupational change without overt external change—is very compelling. However, your findings also very much reminded us of social movement theories. What motivated you to frame it as an “occupations” paper? How early in the process did you settle on the theoretical framing and how did you select the literatures to talk to?

You are right that this might look like a social movement-like phenomenon, but there were reasons we chose not to use that framing. For one, the social movements literature looks at broad-based mobilization, whereas we were really concerned with the efforts early advocates of green chemistry took to appeal to their peers (other chemists). A second factor was that the people we interviewed did not, by and large, see themselves as part of a movement but instead repeatedly used the word ‘community.’ We were struck early on by their choice of this term, and worked to understand what they meant by that and what the boundaries and membership of the community looked like, within the occupation.

All along we toyed with calling chemists an occupation, as they are. However, our first submission to ASQ positioned this as change within a (scientific) field. It was the reviewers and editor on the first round who pointed out that the way we described the field looked and felt like an occupation, and invited us to simply go with that. So we did, which made some things a lot easier. Of course, it’s not a professionalized occupation like some are, and chemists work in diverse organizations and do a variety of things, but its members have common training and expertise, so that’s how it comes together.

Question 5. Final thoughts. By considering green chemistry, your study speaks directly to the broader environmental movement. What would your recommendations be to students seeking to tackle “atypical” contexts or “grand challenges” in their research?

More and more organizational/management scholars are studying how people and organizations are tackling grand challenges, and we have a lot to add in to the conversation on these topics. By definition, there are no easy answers, but what we know about how people organize for change, as well as the barriers and complexities to doing so, are largely overlooked in broader conversations about these topics.

As long as the work is well done and rigorous, scholars should not shy away from pursuing these topics and publishing on them in top journals. It’s also important to try to get the message on our findings out in other ways, which is something that traditional scholarly journals aren’t very good at, so it’s great to see that ASQ has blogs and student blogs and other forms of outreach!

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