Godfrey (2021). Antonio Strati: Organizational Theory and Aesthetic Philosophies (Book Review)

Paul Godfrey – Brigham Young University, BYU Marriott School of Business

Minh Cao – University of California, Irvine, Paul Merage School of Business

Article link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00018392211043761

Paul: So how did you come about to do this interview?

Minh: Well, so I saw an email from the ASQ Student Blog. And I looked at the list of articles that they gave me. Yours seemed very interesting; I rarely saw a book review, and most of the articles that I had read were academic research. I purchased the book that you reviewed, and I read some of it, and it looked very different from anything that we could read in academia.

Paul: It is very, very different from any book I’ve ever read. It’s very, very different. And it’s an interesting experience for sure, very enjoyable. As I said in the early part of the review, the editors reached out and they said, would you review this book for us? And I’m like, “okay, I’ll do it.” And then you start reading it and it’s like, “whoa, this is different than anything I’ve ever read before. What have I gotten myself into?” And you sort of go through that phase, and then you go, “well, but I committed to do it, and so let me press ahead.” And I ended up learning a ton about how to think about organizations in ways that I don’t really think about them. I mean, you get this book which is all about these photographs that he [Dr. Strati] took, and he was weaving in these photographs with his theory of organizations. And it’s like, “wow, this guy and I, we are totally different in how we look at the world.” So anyway, that’s a little bit of an introduction. If you want to just jump in with your questions, we can get started.

Minh: Sure. And before I start, thank you so much for doing this, considering how busy you are. I really appreciate your time.

Paul: You’re welcome, you’re welcome. 

1. What were the steps you followed during the process of writing this particular book review? And is there anything you would have done differently upon reflecting on the process?

Paul: I think that the steps that you follow to write a book review are number one, that you want to read the book fairly. We tend to read books and filter them through our own experience. When we’re doing research, we’ll typically read a book, and we’ll say, “I’m looking for a particular topic to be addressed,” or “I’m looking for a particular perspective.” What we will do then is we will read parts of the book instead of all of the book. So, the first thing I think, and particularly when I opened this book, and it became obvious that we [Dr. Strati and I] were very different in our intellectual grounding, it was like, okay, it would be really easy for me to read this book as a rationalist, as an economist, as a deontologist, rather than what Dr. Strati was, and in that sense, I would be already reading with a closed mind and looking for things that I’m not going to agree with. And so, the process was an active effort to read with an open mind, and to try to say, “what is the author really saying here?” And as I review this book, “am I giving the author the benefit of the doubt?” And so, in terms of what I would’ve done differently, it took me a couple of chapters to adopt that protocol. Because the first chapter was sort of an introduction, and it’s like, okay, this is going to be a wild ride, and then he talks about the first photo that he took and how that relates to his theory of organizational aesthetics. And I began to think, wow, this is just absolutely crazy stuff. And then when I hit the second chapter or the next chapter, and it was another picture, I’m like, “okay, calm down, you’re going to have to read this as it really is, as he wrote it” before I offer an interpretation. So, the only thing I would’ve done differently is adopted that agnostic view of trying to read what he wrote, rather than what I wanted to hear, earlier in the book. And then the process of writing, I mean, a good book review should be balanced – it is not just a homage to the book, not just about how great or how wonderful this book was, but it will also include some critical things. And the review will include some things that you don’t like, but the critique will be done in a fair and even-handed manner. And so that was one step of the process that I tried to follow while writing the book review as well. And I don’t think I changed much there because I was trying to be very deliberate about that.

Minh: That’s great. I really enjoyed the book review that you wrote.

Paul: Thank you.

2. What was the most difficult thing about writing this book review?

Paul: This is a good question. I sort of think, there are two things, and the first thing relates a little bit to the first question that you asked. Like when Dr. Strati says he’s resistant to functionalist sociology. As a functionalist, that immediately makes me defensive. The hardest thing about writing the review was NOT going through it and saying, “How do I find his arguments wrong?” And it was wonderful because it was a very conscious process. I mean, you’ve done this, you’ve read books, we all have read books that make us just feel like saying, well, why would a publisher ever publish this stuff? A book that disagrees with what we believe in. I think the most difficult thing was actually saying, “Okay, is he right that we need something that resists a very functionalist view of sociology?” And again, as I write in my review, he [Dr. Strati] gets to this point where one of the things he says is you can’t understand a hospital without understanding the lighting in the hospital and the smells. And if you’ve been in a hospital, you sort of know the distinctive smells. And for me, that was like, the light went off. It’s like, oh, wow, there really is something to this perspective that’s completely different from functionalist sociology. And then afterwards I began to see the whole pandemic thing that I wrote about, like, here we are interacting, I’m in my office at home, you are in your apartment at home, and yet we are professionals having a dialogue that would normally be had in a conference room at a university. And so how hard is it for me to connect with a university when I’m sitting at home? And like I talked about in the book review, my son is at a community college; he’s a student at the community college, but he’s sitting in his basement. And we have these discussions about how hard it is for him to be engaged, because when he looks away from the screen, he’s not seeing a whiteboard, he’s not seeing other students, he’s not sitting in a chair, he’s at home, and so, how difficult it is. Funny enough, once I started to adopt Strati’s perspective, one of the difficult things, was to remind myself that I’m actually a functionalist and not just get totally enamored with sight and smells and sounds, but to actually let that functionalist, rationalist part of me come back to the conversation. So those were two difficult things.

Minh: I think that’s going to be a difficulty that many people have with this book because there are lots of functionalists in the field of management.

Paul: And his view is so different from ours, that’s actually really a pleasant thing.

3. What was the most enjoyable thing about writing this book review?

Paul: The most enjoyable thing, there were two parts of it. Number one, I thought it was really enjoyable to try to ask some difficult questions. So, I think this aesthetic view has a lot to it. But again, as a functionalist, how do we think about organizational poetry? How would we study that? How would we measure it? And particularly, I work with a lot of faculty who are starting out, who are trying to get tenure, well, if I’m reviewing your paper and you’re writing about the aesthetic view, how would I interpret that? How would I know if you’ve done good research or if you just sat in a chair and speculated? And so, I think the most enjoyable part, and I hope that Strati actually responds is, how would we do this? To try to push the conversation forward even though I’m not a deep adherent to what they’re doing. It was enjoyable to try to push it forward. And it was also really enjoyable at the end when… Okay, so I try to read 30 books a year. That’s my goal, to read 30 books a year. Some years I do it, some years I don’t, but you read a lot of books and if a book has one really good idea in it, that’s a good book. And when I get to the end and I’m counting up three or four different things I learned from his book, it’s really enjoyable to say, “hey, this is a pretty good book.” It’s actually worth reading. So, I enjoyed that part of it, finding that at the end of the journey, it was totally different than at the beginning of the journey when I was thinking, “what did I get myself into?”

Minh: I’m just curious, the standard for books, that a good book will offer one good insight and an excellent book will offer maybe two or three good insights… Did you come up with that standard by yourself?

Paul: Yeah, that’s just my own rule of thumb. Because you’ll read a book and two weeks later you won’t remember anything from the book. And it’s like, okay, interesting, check mark, but nothing really valuable. But then you find yourself in a class where a student asks a question and you go, oh, I read this book, and here was an idea from the book that really helped. One idea, good book, multiple ideas, excellent book. That’s just my own rule of thumb.

Minh: And just curious again, what would constitute a great book to you?

Paul: Oh, a great book. A great book is not just insights, but it’s really sort of life-changing insights. So, some of the really great books I’ve read, most of them are practitioners’ books because they change the way you behave, not just the way you think. I mean, academic books are good because they change the way we think about the world and the way we do our work. But the books that have made the biggest difference to me are things like “Getting to Yes” – the negotiations book, because it makes me behave differently, or Covey’s “7 Habits,” which makes me behave differently. Or reading the Bible, or great scriptural works because they invite me to behave differently, not just to think differently. So great books get into the realm of behavior, excellent books are still in the realm of thinking.

4. Your usual intellectual perspective and Dr. Strati’s perspective differ greatly. How did you overcome the challenge of reading and reviewing something foreign to your worldview? I think you have talked about this; could you please elaborate on it?

Paul: So, I think what you have to do is you have to be willing to suspend disbelief. I’ve read some postmodern philosophy and generally, I don’t think those are good questions, I don’t think those are good answers. But again, in the day and age in which we live, one of the biggest problems that we all have is we are so wedded to our perspective that the world is right or wrong. If you agree with my perspective, you’re right. If you don’t agree with my perspective, you’re wrong. And so, one of the things that really helped me with Strati’s book was again to say, “well, what if he’s right? What if he’s actually right?” And I was able to see that the fundamental rightness of his position didn’t depend on whether it was a resistance to functional of sociology, or if it was just a complimentary perspective, whether it was engaged in enlightenment philosophy or postmodern philosophy. I think you could have written the same book from a different perspective. So, I don’t think the areas where we disagree defined how I had to read the book, but I did have to be willing to look past all of that and not jump to conclusions about the book, and sort of take the book on its own merits. So, it’s really useful when we’re looking at… when you send your paper out to an academic journal and it gets reviewed, and you read the harsh reviews. We read a harsh review and the first thing we see is, “well, that reviewer is so wrong; he just didn’t understand my paper at all.” And we don’t succeed in this business until we ask, “well, what if they were right?” What if there’s actually merit to the way that they are thinking about this and that it can actually enhance my own work? And so that’s how I was able to overcome the differences of opinion that we have about functionalism and which century philosophy really ended in. It was to be willing to suspend my disbelief and withhold judgment.

5. What advice or tips would you give to scholars who are interested in writing book reviews?

Paul: The first thing is you don’t write a book review because it’s going to help your tenure case. Nobody’s going to look at a book review and go, “Oh, Minh is so insightful; let’s give her tenure; she doesn’t have any published article but what a great book review!” So, I think if you’re going to write a book review, you’re going to do two things. Number one, you’re going to try to help the field by identifying ideas that might be worthwhile, identifying ideas that might be suspect that are given in book length. I think if you’re going to write a book review, you have to actually want to advance scholarship in the field. And that allows you to write a better book review because it’s not thumbs up or thumbs down, but how useful will this be for the field and how could it push research forward? So, I think that’s the first thing. And then I think the second thing about writing a book review is it forces you to be balanced. Because again, good book reviews are not just glowing praise of this author and their ability, nor are they simply slash and burn indictments about how everything in this book is wrong and the publisher should be driven out of business. A good book review is balanced. And if you think about how that can help you develop as an emerging scholar, think about when you review a paper. Our natural instinct in reviewing papers is to find everything that’s wrong and just tell the author, here’s 10 things why your paper should not be published. But if you remember that principle of balance, it’s, “hey, there’s actually a good idea here; you may not have executed it very well, but the idea itself is good.” Or “your empirics are really good, but your theory is questionable.” And I think that’s part of the value of writing a book reviews, it helps you to be a balanced scholar and to approach the work of others in a fair-minded way.

Minh: Yeah, I completely agree. And I think it’s very useful that you use the paper-review process to illustrate what you’ve said.

Paul: Yeah. I think a lot of young scholars want to write book reviews, so they get a reputation as having something published. But what you want a reputation for is being fair and being thoughtful. And I think a book review is a great way to help you hone those skills at any point in your career.

Minh: All right. Would you do this again with another book? I mean, would you be interested in writing another book review?

Paul: So, that’s a really loaded question. It’s loaded in the sense that if I say, yes, there’s some editor out there who’s going to send me another book to read and I have already a plate that’s really, really full. But I think when the editorial team at ASQ reached out to me, well, I know they reached out because they thought I could give it a thoughtful and a fair read. And so, I will never say “I’m willing to do another book review,” but if the right book comes along, it’s a great opportunity. I know this is a popular podcast and will be seen by millions in the academy; I don’t want every editor saying, “Godfrey, will you please review books for us?” So, I can’t say that, but if the right offer came along, it’d be good to review another book.

Minh: Thank you so much. I think that’s it for today. Thank you so much.

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