Sawyer & Clair (2022) – Hope Cultures in Organizations: Tackling the Grand Challenge of Commercial Sex Exploitation

Authors:

Katina Sawyer – University of Arizona, Eller College of Management

Judy Clair – Boston College, Carroll School of Management

Interviewers:

Chelsea Lei – Boston College, Carroll School of Management

Arrow Minster – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management

Article Link: https://doi.org/10.1177/00018392211055506

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Edited Interview Transcript

Chelsea: 

Congratulations Katina and Judy for your Best Paper Award at the 2022 Positive Organizational Scholarship conference!

How did you first get to know each other? And how did you become collaborators on this paper?

Katina:

I had read a bunch of Judy’s papers before in graduate school and also after graduate school and always really admired and appreciated the work that she was doing. I was starting to gather data in this context within this organization that was tackling this grand challenge of commercial sex exploitation, and I didn’t have any qualitative training. I realized that I was embarking on a volunteer project. My dissertation actually was interview-based, but I did that sort of more on the fly in terms of trying to train myself to do it and I really wanted to work with somebody who had done that work before in this project. I knew that my self-training was not going to sustain myself through more intensive data collection in an organization. So, I emailed Judy and asked if she would be willing to meet with me at AOM and we were able to meet up and discuss at the reception. I told her that I had read her papers and really liked her work, and it evolved into collaboration. I talked about the project and Judy was interested in working on it with me and that’s how we began working on the project.

Judy:

A little bit more of the background story is I actually don’t remember Katina emailing me at all. The only memory I hold is that I was talking to Katina at one of the socials. She was telling me about this project she was thinking about doing. She’s like, I really want to do this project. She was saying to me that I’m a junior faculty member, and I’ve been doing all this volunteer work at this organization. And she’s told me a little bit about the organization. She’s like, “I really feel that I am committed to this organization. I can’t keep working with them though, because I just had so much that I need to do for the tenure process. I decided that one way that I can keep working there as a volunteer is to imagine how to do research project and then also help this organization through the project that I do.”

She was telling me a little bit about what she had been doing to start thinking about the project and getting it up off the ground and that she really wanted to work with somebody. I had no idea she was interested in working with me honestly. I just thought it was a really cool project. So I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s such a cool project. I want to get involved with that.” Only two years down the line that [Katina] told me she had been stalking me. She started to tell me a little bit more about what she was doing and I was like, you know, I know you’re thinking you want to do this project, but you actually already have a ton of data. You’re doing an ethnography and I don’t know if you realize that but that’s what you’ve been doing. And she was very excited to know that she actually had a lot of data already.

Arrow:

That’s a really great segue into our next question. What spoke to you about this context. In those early conversations, what did you think this paper was going to be about?

Judy:

We had originally had conceived of this in a very different way. When Katina first approached me, she shared that she was interested in understanding how the women in this organization could transform themselves, change their lives such that they were leaving prostitution. That had been really abusive and they were able to live independently and be involved in employment outside the trade. What we had originally talked about was the idea that what needed to happen for these women was an identity change. So, this was originally an individual level focus, looking at how this transition could be made possible, as women would revise how they thought about themselves and how they thought about their identities. That was what originally attracted me to the study – the dual components of that. One is that that’s where I was doing a lot of my work at the time, looking at identity transition. I still do some of that kind of work. In addition to that, the context just seems so important. Almost all of my work really looks at contexts and spends time in contexts that are phenomenologically important. Phenomenon often is the leading role in a lot of the work that I do, even though I do a lot of theory building research. I’ve always been concerned with meaningful contexts that are important. This is a really, really important context, and I really wanted to get involved in doing the work in that context and make a difference.

Katina:

Initially what drew me to the context was the opportunity to engage with the community. As I had mentioned before I started there fully as a volunteer. I teach a course where we discuss sex work. Part of that was the positive aspects of looking at sex work as an opportunity for people to be able to make money in a way that’s unconventional and stigmatized, but people can find meaning and fulfillment. Then the other side of it is this exploitative side, which we were trying to make sense of in the class. From that perspective, one of the students came to me and said that she was familiar with this organization within the United States that was working on doing this kind of recovery work with women and so they suggested to me that I check out the organization. I went on the website and started looking around. It looked like the work that they were doing was really important. I went and set up some time to talk with them. As time went on, I got more familiar with the organization’s work. It became clear to me that the stories that were happening within the walls of the organization were really important and they weren’t being captured by other folks in this way from this perspective. Most of the women in the house were coming there from jail, and they have been incarcerated mostly for prostitution, sometimes for drug related charges, sometimes both. The initial protocol had to do with transitioning from being incarcerated and facing all this stigma into the traditional workforce. As Judy mentioned, part of what we thought was going to be the main narrative. In fact, that is present in the individual level data. But what became really interesting over time was not necessarily the story of how people transitioned, but how people did not transition and what the organization was doing in response to the really challenging difficulties that were unfolding around the lack of transition that was happening for the residents. It is the norm in this industry and within this organization that recovery is not the norm. So as we started to realize that, the story started to take shape in a different way.

Chelsea:

We want to ask a question about gaining and maintaining access in doing ethnography. In retrospect, what do you think you did that really helped you build rapport and gain trust of your informants throughout your ethnographic fieldwork?

Judy:

For me, it’s really important to highlight a couple things. One is that keeping access is important beyond ethnography. I want to emphasize that there are a lot of contexts where, for example, if you’re doing longitudinal research, this is a huge issue. As you know, we did this kind of insider-outsider data gathering, so I was not in the context at all. But I was advising Katina and we were talking about how we would have ongoing meetings and we would talk about how to translate what was going on into her field notes and what she should do next. What I wanted to preface her comments with was how stunned I am that she was able to do this work. I think it’s very difficult as an academic to find ways and not just relate to but also maintain an ongoing relationship with a group of people who are so incredibly different than you are in so many ways. I’m still amazed today how well she was doing that. She wouldn’t necessarily say that to you. As an outsider, I’m pretty amazed by it.

Katina:

Thank you. I appreciate that. I think one of the reasons that I was able to gain access and maintain access because I wasn’t approaching it as a researcher looking for a top tier paper. That really wasn’t my goal. I wasn’t like “cool, a context that would be interesting for me to go in and I can get this kind of data and then that’ll end up being like this line on a CV or whatever.” That really was not ever the focus of what was going on. Not that it can’t be the focus because obviously that has to be part of what we do as academics. But I do think that what that did was it made it clear that I was not there for self-gain. These kinds of contexts, they have lots of people that want to study the organization from a variety of angles. This organization had been approached by researchers before. Lots of organizations that have unique contexts or populations that people are interested in understanding how to help or spur forward have people approaching them. So, I think it can come across at times as like, hey, you know, you have this population of people. Let me examine these people and then come out and extract something and then use it for me. I think that approach becomes clear to people over time if it’s done in a more extreme way. People start questioning the intentionality behind it. I think because I didn’t start the project with the intention of being a researcher, I went through volunteer training, I was there in the evenings sitting and hanging out with women in the house well before the data collection started. They knew me as a volunteer. They didn’t know me as a researcher that was there observing. I think it helped to create that understanding that I was doing the project because I came to realize that there was something important to capture, but I wasn’t there because I felt this was a context that I could pop in and use and leave. So, I think that’s what was really useful.

It would probably not be good advice for junior scholars to just start volunteering at a bunch of places and spending their time doing stuff that’s not going to contribute to their ability to maintain their job as tenure track faculty. But I think it’s more about the attitude of partnership and collaboration than it is about looking at it from the perspective of what you’re gonna gain from it personally. It has to be a two-way street. And I also think it’s popular at this point to do research in extreme contexts. But I think to say I’m gonna pop in and study this population, but not to really understand what the issues and challenges are that are facing that population, and to prepare yourself to engage with people in a respectful manner, and to really think about like the reality of the situation that they’re in.

One of the things that I used to say a lot, and I still say it in some classes when it’s appropriate, is there’s nothing particularly special about the humanity that’s in this room of students. So, we’re going to learn about people that have a lot of different life experiences than you have, that have maybe done things that you’ve not done, but they’ve also experienced things that you’ve not experienced. So, to look at things from your vantage point and say, well, I would never make that choice, I would never end up in that situation. Or, if I was in that situation, this is how I would respond. That’s how you would respond from the vantage point of being you looking at the situation not being the person that’s in the situation who’s had those experiences. I think that understanding that I’m not coming into the space being like, I’m a researcher, and I have this degree and background, so I’m examining you and trying to understand, why did you do that? It’s more like we’re both people that have had different life experiences, but there’s not a value judgment in that it’s really trying to unpack what are the patterns of experiences that lead people to become involved in this and not making it a personal judgment or something. So I think there’s a couple things in there about the approach and attitude about how you feel about the people that you’re engaging with and that comes through. Then also why you’re in the context, I think that comes through too.

Judy:

If I had to extract out some of what Katina said to a different kind of context and for a junior scholar, I think what’s really important is thinking about not just a transaction but putting your constituents in this study – whether it’s an organization or people in an organization, some other kind of context – at the center of your thinking and concern. For some people that raises alarm bells about compromising research quality, and that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. I’m suggesting that by having that at the center of your interest, not only are you collecting better data, but the people you’re working with see that you’re concerned and interested in their experiences. The second thing I would emphasize from what Katina already said is this idea of a non-judgmental stance, and adding to that willingness to stand in the pain and the difficulty of people’s lives. A lot of the research I do and a lot of research Katina has done is in contexts where people have experienced a lot of emotional pain for a variety of reasons. I think that can be really hard for scholars to feel comfortable with because we live a lot of our lives in our heads and in our hearts. Being willing to be there without it becoming about you as a scholar and your reactions to what’s happening is really, really important to not just gaining or maintaining access, but also providing really important insights that are helpful not just for scholars, but for humanity for the world.

Katina:

The other thing is that we train our doctoral students very transactionally. You can have a career that does that and that follows that approach, but I’m not really sure that’s always the best thing for you as a person but also for your ability to really excel in the field. I do think that there are approaches to research that don’t require this kind of perspective, but if you’re talking about ethnography or any kinds of field research that’s ongoing and long term or dealing with difficult contexts, I don’t know that you can do that without taking these issues into consideration.

Arrow: 

Thank you so much. I really value everything that both of you are saying. I’m gonna shift the conversation a little bit. What was really helpful and clear in your methods section was developing a sense of how you got to that this is about hope culture. But at what point were you able to see that this was really about grand challenges? And when did that narrative really come through as you were working on this paper?

Katina:

The evolution of the paper was basically that we were interested in organizational level hope. Then, through the review process, we realized that we had a ‘hope culture.’ One of the reviewers suggested that we really look into literature on emotion cultures. So, we knew the paper was about hope. We knew it was at the organizational level. We then flipped it to recognize that, oh, this is actually a hope culture that we’re talking about. And the paper was in that form and hooked around the idea of highlighting a new and interesting type of emotion culture that has this ambivalence inherent in it, because hope has these ups and downs. The ‘Grand Challenges’ frame really came in the last round of revisions that we did, where reviewer on the review team was really feeling like the emotion culture piece was interesting, but not as big of an umbrella as we could hook the story to in order to really tell the story of the organization in a way that would make it clear why this sort of organization might have invoked this sort of culture. So we were looking to the literature to try to understand what do we think this organization is a broader example of and how might we be able to tell a story about why this organization specifically and other organizations like it might invoke hope? That’s when we came across the Grand Challenges literature. Judy had a lightning bolt moment and found some of the articles that are emergent around Grand Challenges. We realized that what this organization is trying to do is tackle a grand challenge. And that helped us to recognize what the reviewer was trying to help us see, which was that it’s not just about an organization that has this emotion culture, but it’s about a certain type of organization that might help readers to understand the broader context that this is situated in.

Judy:

I think with qualitative research, you are often going down a path of trying to figure out “what is this an example of?” And then how is this helping us learn something new in that space. When we originally were conceiving of this collective level of hope, that was born out of a long conversation we were having about how we saw that there were these practices that the organization was engaging in to help these women make the transition that they thought had risen to a level of what we were calling ideologies at the time. We were talking about that this has become a sort of ideology, not just a set of practices. It’s also there’s this whole set of beliefs and values and assumptions about these practices. That was the precursor to getting to hope cultures. It was really reviewers that helped us make that leap.

The ideology part didn’t actually even make it into the paper eventually. When it was under review, we just had ongoing conversations about that. From a practical point of view, I think the big aha for both of us was when Katina came out and we did some work in-person together. We started to map out the process of what had been happening over time in the organization. Then we decided to adopt a narrative ethnography approach because so much of what was happening in this organization had to do with interactions among people as they were reacting to what was going on over the course of the time that the team was collecting the data and how they were talking about it. The emotions were spreading through the organization. Narrative ethnography was a really great lens to think about analyzing the data at that point. We started to map out that process, trying to move from a descriptive of this is what happened over time to a more analytical conceptual analysis of what was the narrative that was moving through this organization over the course of time. That was the middle ground and I think the big breakthrough moment for us.

Katina:

Yeah. When we started mapping out the chronology was when we really got clear on what was happening with hope moving through the organization and the hope culture piece then really resonated when we came to that point. It was like, oh, right, this makes sense! This snaps right into what we were talking about. The ‘grand challenges’ [frame] was like, if we had made a sundae, we put the cherry on it with that! [Laughs]

Chelsea: 

Could you tell us more about your drafting and review process?

Katina: 

We started off with a paper that we ended up rewriting entirely. From the first to the second round, the first draft that we submitted was rewritten entirely. During that round was when we reanalyzed the data and introduced the chronological piece in a different way and really came to this aha around understanding the mechanisms by which this is really moving through different phases in time. That’s when those graphs entered into the paper. Then we ended up rewriting the intro and discussion again, around hope cultures, and then we wrote it one more time, around grand challenges. That was sort of the pathway that the paper took. John Wagner was the associate editor on the paper. The email that he sent us when the paper got accepted was for us to go back and pull the first version of the paper just for fun, and look at where it had come from. It is a completely 100% different paper. I would be surprised that there’s even a few sentences left from the first draft that we submitted. So it went through a lot of changes, and I think, really positive changes because we ended up being happier with each version as they went along.

Judy:

That sounds very rosy. We had a fabulous editor. He was great. We had three committed reviewers, which isn’t always the case. One of the reviewers especially really, really pushed us to find a deeper contribution. We were moaning and groaning through the whole process. I think it’s really hard to see reviewers and editors as collaborators but they are so important. What made this paper so much better over time was getting feedback and having people really push you to dig a little bit deeper, while we were moaning and groaning. Yeah, it’s not fun to find out you have to rewrite a whole intro and discussion and not rewrite it around the same ideas that you had but completely reconceive of the framing and then also the discussion on the back end. I think that we genuinely liked the prior versions of the paper too. So, when we found out we had to do that each time, it was like “Okay, we liked this, now it can’t be in existence any longer. What do we think can answer the concerns?”

Katina:

To Judy’s point, in some places we did push back. There were some suggested directions that we just didn’t feel fit the context or because the reviewers aren’t as close to the data as you are that you have to sometimes educate them on what is and is not in your data or what makes sense or doesn’t make sense for the context. While we really respected and heeded most of the advice and suggestions that were given, there were times where we said, you know, actually we don’t think that’s an appropriate way of characterizing the data, but here’s why for a long well thought out explanation. That’s also part of the process.

Chelsea: 

That’s really helpful to know. I am also curious about your figure writing. You have very effective visuals with the phase diagrams and also the theoretical model. At the same time, you have this wiggly hand-drawn line in your phase diagrams, which is unusual. How much did the reviewers influence your figure writing, if at all? How much did the figures in the paper change through the review process?

Judy:

I’m a very visual thinker. The figures in this paper are a lot from me with Katina helping with the contents of boxes and stuff like that. The reviewers didn’t get so involved in the figures. I don’t remember I was getting many comments about figures. Practically speaking what I do is I look around at figures that I find really inspiring and think about what it is about them that speaks to me. I think I am always doing that. The timeline and this little squiggly thing at the bottom [of the phase diagrams] was inspired by a figure that we saw in a paper by Jennifer Howard-Grenville et al. (2013). That was one of the inspiration figures I was looking at and like. I really liked the way they did that. That really was very helpful.

Katina: 

We pulled a lot of recent qualitative ASQ articles and looked at their figures too. That last theoretical model figure was inspired by Bloom et al. (2021) that had come out while we were in a round of revision. I think Judy is great at figures. I’m not a visual thinker at all, and my spatial reasoning is absolutely abysmal. So that’s not my forte, and I can’t tell when things look ugly. But the part about getting information in a box I’m okay. Words. Okay. Pictures, not as much. I like Twitter way better than Instagram, if that makes sense.

Arrow:

What comes next for both of you – on your own or working together? What sort of work would you hope comes out of this project from yourself or from others?

Katina:

We’re working on a conceptual paper right now, the two of us and two doctoral students. One of the things we didn’t have the opportunity to delve into deeply in this paper was this kind of duality, the tension in hope between hoping and despair, hoping and negative emotions, because hope of course is evoked often when things are highly uncertain, then it’s not clear we’re gonna achieve what we hope to achieve and it might be a negative consequence if we don’t do that. So that paper is trying to delve into that duality a little bit more.  Something that I would really like to do is make sure that we’re always pulling the thread through of making good on our promise to participants to use the data in a way that they would be proud of and happy with. This paper, certainly, I’m sure if I talked with participants about it, they would think it was interesting. But they’re really interested in advocacy related efforts around their personal scenarios and situations. So, I would like for us and I would like for academics in general to especially people working in these kinds of contexts, to think about creative ways to leverage the data to create a statement that helps to move these issues forward. I think that the academic articles are really important and powerful for moving forward theory and people who are, you know, thinking about these issues for a variety of different angles to read and understand, but I also think that the general public is not always consuming information the way that academics do. And so making sure to translate what we think came out of our understanding of organizations like this, which is part of the project. How could we maybe leverage our findings to help other organizations who are feeling like they’re not sure how to wield a hope culture in the face of these challenges, but also for the women that are in the sample who experience [commercial sex exploitation].

There’s a lot of data that I have on file that the people aren’t alive anymore that have shared their stories. And that’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t know if anyone else has these stories. So I would like to put out this information whether it’s through art or other mediums that are more publicly accessible and more likely to evoke emotion and action in a broader population. That’s something that I have been interested in, using the data to sort of tell that story more broadly outside of academic circles. I think that that would be a goal. It’s challenging. There are not these scaffolds in place to help academics work with people who are in art or public advocacy or policy venues. But I think even just thinking through what opportunities there are to collaborate with people cross-disciplinarily, or people who are not in academia at all, who could help us to tell our stories in a way that will grab the public’s attention better.

Judy:

The last comment I would make and this came out of the [Positive Organizations Scholarship] conference we were just at that we had presented this paper. There was a really great set of suggestions about bringing academic work, especially in these contexts forward in a way that is more connected to advocacy and more connected to helping the groups that you’re studying. So if you’re in these contexts, similar to what we’re in or other kinds of contexts that have this component of people in need. One thing that came out of that conversation, which I thought was such a great idea, was having some kind of a QR code, not necessarily to the organization you’re working with obviously because you can’t reveal that organization, but to a group or space that would benefit from contributions that are related. In our case, he was suggesting why not have a QR code at an academic talk or at the end of an article that allows people to be like, hey, I really want to contribute to this cause. I thought that was such a cool idea and such an important idea. I just want to put it out into the world because I think it’s something we should think about. Because that is a way to generate a difference, even if it’s a small one.

Chelsea:

Wow, I just want to say thank you. I feel a lot of hope walking out of the conversation. I think you are bringing qualitative research to a new frontier where we can say we are collaborators, we want to co-create, we want to help the people we’re studying affirmatively. And then we can also say, we want our work to actually make a difference. There are possibilities we already see and then it’s a matter of actually really stepping out of our traditional roles and work and make it happen and seek out those collaborators. So those things make me feel really hopeful. Thank you!

Arrow:

Thank you! I echo everything Chelsea said and I’m so grateful to have met both of you and also just learn so much more from both of you. Chelsea and I are part of a generation of scholars who are thinking about professional ethics in a slightly different way. This gives me hope that there’s energy and an interest in having more of these kinds of conversations about how can we continue to do our work, still make sure that it’s scientifically rigorous, but also about how we can be responsible humans as we engage with other humans in the world. I appreciate how both of you conducted your project. I hope more people can see and learn from what you’ve done. I appreciate your time today and also like all of the fantastic work that you’ve done and continue to do.

Katina:

Thank you! If it’s helpful, I have an existential crisis every few years about being an academic because I wonder, what are we doing to solve problems and help. Is this a thing that’s moving things forward? Or, should we be doing something else with our training or whatever? In doing these riskier projects that probably people would say are inadvisable for a junior faculty member that I have found the ability to stay in the field. If it weren’t for stuff like this, I would have a harder time. I think, just from that perspective, not that every project that you do should be risky, but if you have a project that you really care about that is riskier, I wouldn’t suggest that you get rid of that. Maybe have some other projects going that are a little less risky that you can sort of hedge your bets with. But I would say, don’t keep waiting. People will always tell you to wait. Wait until you have tenure. Wait until you have full. Wait until…you know. There’s always something to wait for, to not do the stuff that you’re inspired by. So I think sometimes you just have to say, I don’t want to wait to do that. I want to just do it now. I like Arrow’s statement about your generation of new scholars. I think is a really important one because I work with a lot of undergraduates like Gen Z types. As a generation, I think they are they’re really thinking in a much more integrated fashion, about social justice and non-social justice domains. So, for example, integrating business and social justice or integrating entrepreneurship and social justice.  I think they’re gonna think about these issues in very different ways. And I think in the older generations we get very trapped in this notion that, well, the way to make a difference is to have a company adopt our ideas and roll it out in the corporation. And that is one way that people will make a difference through their research, but there are lots of different ways to do that. It doesn’t have to be through that methodology. I think the newer generation is really committed to thinking creatively.  Yes, we’re hopeful about you.

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Interviewer Bios:

Chelsea Lei is a PhD candidate in Management and Organization Studies at Boston College. Her research is concerned with the emergence and evolution of institutional fields. For her pre-dissertation paper, Chelsea examined the diffusion of an organizational innovation known as “visual facilitation” that has spawned the growth of a new professional field. 

Arrow is a PhD candidate in the Institute for Work and Employment Research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Their dissertation involves ethnographic research on a hospital system’s implementation of democratic decision-making. Their research broadly focuses on inequality by interrogating worker voice and the lived experience of organizational change.

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