Skip to content

It’s about puzzles, not gaps: An interview with Karen Golden-Biddle

Karen Golden-Biddle

Karen Golden-Biddle; Senior Associate Dean and Everett W. Lord Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Boston University School of Management

Karen must be one of the most generous and kind people I’ve met in academia. Even though she doesn’t know you, she has this knack of talking to you and engaging with you as if you were an old friend. You are immediately at ease, and if you don’t watch yourself, you might just start spelling out your whole life story to her. Which, I’m sure you all will agree, is not really a good thing when you are interviewing someone.  This interview is a bit of a special case. Although it reads as a single interview, in truth it is a reconstruction of several conversations Karen and I had over several months, some recorded and transcribed and some not. Some of it even comes right out of the comments Karen made as one of the speakers in our Publishing Qualitative Research workshop (which you can see on video on this blog). There are many instances where Karen will talk about the writing process (she did a write a book on the topic, after all!), and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the listening end of those moments on several occasions. So although our “formal” interview for this blog lasted well over an hour, I was not happy with it in the end. And nor was Karen. There was just so much to talk about, and the hour long interview we did ended up missing out on too much of the richness I felt I had gotten from these other instances of talking with and listening to her. So I did a bit of creative collating, and this is what you get. This is all Karen. Just not all Karen in one sitting. I hope you like it!

Why don’t we start by you telling me a little bit about how you approach writing the literature review for a piece of qualitative work?

Karen Locke and I talk about it in terms of problematization. It’s not a gap per se, which is the usual way of thinking about literature reviews. It’s a puzzle. I mean, a gap is what we make it. It doesn’t exist out there. Yes, it’s a conversation, but we’re creating the conversation. Karen and I use the word “complication” and then “resolution” to describe what we mean. The idea of “puzzle” taps into that. It’s a richer notion than gap because gap is a rhetorical device that we use that assumes that the world is fixed. I mean, our papers are rhetorical – it’s an honest argument intended for an audience, and we’re trying to convince that audience, right? So do we use gap or do we use puzzle? Where does each take us? This is really important because it’s the “how” and the “what” of what we write, and these two are always inter-dependent. So blindness to the how, the rhetoric, is always to our disadvantage.

So in other words, what’s the tension or challenge that people are trying to address? I try to keep that center stage because I think a lot of qualitative research focuses on how things happen, but they don’t take it to the next level. We document processes, ok, but to what end or to what complication? What is significant about the processes themselves or the people who are implementing them? Those are questions that really begin to tap at the puzzle.

In many ways, writing a literature review is bit like kneading dough. You work that knowledge that is in the literature and you try to figure out what your own claim is going to be, so that you own it, and thus earn the right to contribute to that literature. So it’s about the claims to knowledge that you make and the warranting of that. So while I believe that the “how” and the rhetoric are critical, the “what” is also equally critical.

In doing that, do you start from the literature or from your data? Where do you start looking for a puzzle?

Well, the idea is that you are trying to craft a theorized story line and that theorized story line either comes from a puzzle in your data or a puzzle in the literature, or both. If we take the puzzle in the data route, it yields insights into an opportunity for a contribution to the literature. The downside of that is that then we struggle over which literature? We may miss what the literature has to say and it takes an incredible amount of time to continually invest into new literatures. Similarly, a puzzle in the literature can yield interesting insight and reviewers may pick up on that more easily, but the struggle then is that we reduce the vitality of our field data. Ashforth and Bartunek have talked about this as “flattening the butterfly.” We’ve missed what the field has to say. So what we want ideally, or what I’m always looking for, are those situations where there’s a puzzle in both the data and the literature and they both cohere. That’s tough to do, but it’s ideal. At a minimum, it helps us figure out where we’re at in that coupling between the theory and the data.

Let’s talk a little about your writing in general. How many projects do you typically work on at once?

Well, I can only do one theoretically empirically strong article at a time. I can alternate, but I can only really have my head in a paper one at a time. But there could be many other things going on as well: book chapters, papers.

What about your writing process as such. Do you follow any routines when you write?

Well, I’m at my best very early in the morning, at four a.m. I’ll go four to seven if I’m really thinking of new writing. And then I can do revision after that. But that’s my best time, four to eight. I also have a mechanical pencil, soft lead, 2B. I start thinking with ideas for the first draft. It’s only after that I’ll put it in the computer.

So you actually start writing by hand?

I do. And then pretty quickly I’ll move back and forth between writing by hand and typing stuff up in the computer. I really believe what Peter Elbow writes about, that there are two critical processes in writing. One is getting that first draft out, and then doing revisions to that. And then there’s the fine-tune editing, which is really significant and often under-looked.

What do you actually write down in pencil?

Well, it could be anything actually. It could be paragraphs that fit together that I cut and move around. Sometimes it’s a first attempt at an introduction. And other times it’s just writing up a particular snippet of data.

So you’re not one of those people who can write on the fly or in an airport?

No. I can do manuscript reviews. I can do lots of things on an airplane. I can maybe even jot down ideas if they come to me. But actually writing the manuscript is just not me because it’s too constraining a space for me. Not so much the people around, but the space. I spread out when I write. I’ve got stuff everywhere, on the floor, everywhere. I’m not a big outliner. But I arrange. I think about the flow of ideas. I think about the construction of the argument. What’s the claim, or claims I’m making? And what evidence am I warranting those claims with? So I think of those things but I don’t outline per se. For example, there may be a couple of claims to knowledge that I’m trying to develop, and I’ll actually put those on the floor. I’ll write what the claim is in a big marker on some index cards and then I’ll move data around or interviews around where I think they might fit. That’s before I go back in and analyze it and see if I have enough to carry the claim or the hunch further, for example. Sometimes, I’m just trying to figure out what the hunch is. Is this a blind alley or is this really something fruitful?

That’s quite interesting. So yours is quite a visual process.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s visual.

It’s like an iterative process of visually constructing your claim and actually writing it out, I suppose, and making sure it all fits, the data and the claims and your ideas.

Yes. And I really like the piece about it being visual. I like challenges, especially the challenge of putting down in writing what I’m trying to say. It’s fun. I mean writing can be painful too. But it’s also fun.

What are the more painful parts?

Feeling like you’ve worked a paper enough, but you still have more to do for the reviewers, or becoming bored with a paper. Working through that can be hard. Re-engaging with a paper can also be difficult. I mean, you’ve sent a paper out for review, you’re now onto something else, and then you get the reviews back. And now you need to work on it some more. So it’s the shifting gears kind of thing, or deciding how to shift gears.

Do you have a rough idea of your ratio of submitted and rejected papers? Have you ever bothered to think about that?

I never have. I mean in part because papers rejected become revised book chapters. Or they go to another journal. I move through the journals if that’s the case. If I’ve got an idea that I care about and it’s worth fighting for, it’s worth putting the due diligence forward and the further thinking, then it kind of moves into a different genre. I believe that every paper has a home, it’s just a matter of where. And it may not be a peer-reviewed article in the end.

How do deal with reviews?

Receiving a review letter can be quite discouraging, even if it’s an R&R. But there are lots of strategies for dealing with this. I sometimes go through review letters and count all the positive words. It helps me figure out the cues that the reviewers and the editors are giving me. I know some people who throw review letters into a metaphorical trash basket to help them dismiss it for a while.

Ok. But you have to get back to them eventually. Then what?

Well, you can have editors that dictate where you have to go, and others that never let you know where the pathways are. A good editor will help you navigate the reviews, help you deal with the egos of the reviewers and help you tighten the development of the paper.

What helps me is to think of the whole thing as a process. In her book Epistemic Cultures, Knorr-Cetina talks about process and knowledge objects. Writing is a process, and the papers we write are knowledge objects. Knowledge objects change because they are shaped in the collective community. And the collective community gets smaller when you get an R&R – those four people become your community. Convincing them becomes your goal: assessing their comments and figuring out which parts honour the work you are trying to do, but also convincing them in a way that honours their comments, which isn’t always easy to do. This doesn’t mean that you have to do everything that reviewers ask, but it does mean honouring their comments. So knowing and being able to explain why you don’t address one of the points they’ve raised is as critical as knowing why you do. In fact, the best way to work with a difficult reviewer is not to dismiss him or her, but to try and get to know them, and figure out where they’re coming from so you can respond to them in a convincing way (and doesn’t hurt their ego!).

Speaking about managing one’s academic career, how important is it for someone to remain quite focused on a particular topic, versus shifting around to different topics?

I heard somebody once say, “Stick to two or three streams of research because beyond that people get confused.” And certainly for tenure that probably makes sense. But I think that passion drives our work. I mean I don’t think we’re neutral observers of reality. We can qualify our subjectivity. And we should, and we must. I mean, there are ways to do systematic analyses and I’m very hard lined when it comes to systematic analysis and validation. But on the other hand, we’ve cultivated this myth that we’re objective bystanders, to the disservice of discovery in our theorizing. When we do research, we go after things that we’re interested in. It’s what we pay attention to when we study. There’s lots of the personal that goes into the shaping of the research. This needs to be acknowledged.

What advice would you have for those of us who are relatively new to this field?

Well, like I said, the quality of the conversation is the quality of work. There’s a lot of the writing process that’s a lone, individual endeavour. But it’s also a social endeavour. And so I find that support is really critical for continuing to write, and not getting into self-doubt. It’s really important in terms of having people you can bounce ideas off of and check your writing. And to let you know, am I off base here? People who respond to you in light of your own work, not in terms of the work they might want you to do. And that to me is absolutely important. Same goes with friendly reviewers. You don’t want, nor do you need reviewers to say, “You should really have written this other piece. And here are all the reasons why your paper has critiques on it.” You want somebody who really knows you to read your work, on the basis of what you wrote, and to tell you how to make it better.

Anything else?

I would read books of fiction writers who write about writing. So for example, Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird is wonderful. Peter Elbow wrote a book called Writing with Power which is great. It’s about articulating one’s voice. I use it with doctoral students. I read it again and again. These types of books can be quite inspiring, but also reassuring. Every writer struggles.

And finally, I guess there are two things I would leave you with. One is that Karen (Locke) and I wrote our first paper, which was published in 1993, because we wanted to learn how to write qualitative research. And that was the appealing work paper in Organization Science. And the piece to take away from that is we read papers not for what they said, but for how they were structured – how they were arranged, how the authors presented their data, and so on. We read the papers so as to understand the craft behind the writing. So that’s one piece. The other is that in doctoral classes we’re often taught to read for content. We’re not taught to theorize on our own. And we’re not taught to read so as to better understand how people put their articles together. To me, it’s theorizing – not theories as such, or method, but the actual activity of theorizing that we need to teach. When we read an article, we need to ask ourselves, how might we theorize it differently than they have? So it’s not just about learning the theories as such, but using them as a jumping off point for our own, individual theorizing. We’re not really taught that. So I think people need to think about that.

Interviewed and edited by: Charlotte Cloutier


Bartunek, Jean M., Sara L. Rynes and Duane Ireland (2006); What makes management research interesting and why does it matter?; Academy of Management Journal; 49 (1); p. 9.

Elbow, Peter (1998); Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process; 2nd ed.; Oxford University Press, UK.

Golden-Biddle, Karen and Karen Locke (1993); Appealing work: An investigation of how ethnographic texts convince; Organization Science 4(4); pp. 595.

Lamont, Anne (1995); Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life; Anchor; New York, NY.

Knorr-Cetina, Karin (1999); Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge; Harvard University Press; Cambridge: MA.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: