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The good-enough mother concept: An interview with Tammar Zilber

Tammar Zilber

Interview with Tammar Zilber, Senior Lecturer, School of Business Administration, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Tammar and I first met in 2007, when she graciously accepted to participate in a Symposium I organized with Ann Langley at the Academy of Management that year, on the theme “Competing Rationalities in Organizations.” When she visited HEC last year, it seemed only natural that I should interview her for this blog. As many of the scholars I’ve approached in this way, Tammar was initially unsure whether she would have anything interesting to say about her writing: “I have no idea how I write.” But (thankfully!) she agreed to be interviewed anyway. Our conversation took place over breakfast, in the student cafeteria at HEC. It turns out that despite her initial misgivings, Tammar had a lot to say! We were so taken in by our conversation that we lost track of time, and the person who was scheduled to meet with Tammar after me had to come find us in the cafeteria to say “my turn!”

What I like about this interview is its transparency – it really shows what writing qualitative research is like – messy, iterative, back and forth between theory and data until a coherent story emerges. Yes, it’s like this, even for those who have been doing it for a long while. Read on to find out more…

The first question I usually ask everybody is: “Where do your ideas come from?”

I see it really as a process where ideas, both those that are empirically-based and those that are theoretically-based, slowly converge. I might be in the field, or I might be reading something in the newspaper, or teaching in a class and something sounds interesting to me. I’ll think about it for a while. Later, I may read something theoretical, or hear a paper presented at a conference that sticks with me, and then in a magical moment, the theoretical thinking and what I saw or heard about empirically meet each other, and then it’s like “Wow, I can write a paper about that!”

Why don’t we walk through that process a bit more, using one of your papers?

Perhaps I should start by telling you the story about how I came to study hi-tech conferences in the first place, because by now I’ve been studying hi-tech in a variety of settings. I did my PhD in Psychology and it took me all that time to understand that I wasn’t in the right place because I’m not interested in the individual or in group-dynamics isolated from their local contexts. I’m interested in how people create shared reality. So gradually I moved into Anthropology, which seemed like a better fit. When I was doing my post-doc at Berkeley, I was offered a tenure-track position in the Business School (at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) which I accepted as I thought that I could add value there as an anthropologist. When I got to the business school, they asked me, “What are you studying?” and I said, “I studied a rape crisis center.” And they’d say, “Is that even an organization? What’s interesting about that?” So I thought, maybe I better study an organization that people in a business school can relate to, now that I’m in such a school. And for me, it doesn’t really matter what kind of organization I study, because the processes of organizing I’m interested in are everywhere.

So I got this position in March 2000. It was just before the hi-tech bubble burst. And here I am, and I’ve never even read the business sections of the newspapers before; I figured I should. I started reading them and since I wasn’t in any way invested in the hi-tech industry, I was free to appreciate them as texts. It was amazing for me, as an anthropologist, to see the imagery that was imbued in these articles. I started reading at the very height of the bubble and continued until after the crisis. It was remarkable to see all the emotions expressed and the symbolism used. And so I figured that I should actually study hi-tech. I mean, if I study hi-tech, everyone in the business school goes, “That’s great, so interesting.” It fits with the school.

So that’s how I got into studying hi-tech. When I started, I spent a lot of time observing things intensely. I didn’t know whether I wanted to focus on an organization again, like a start-up, or what to focus on, as a specific site. Although I did want to find a site in which people met face to face, you know, the kind of places anthropologists are interested in. Then I heard there were all these hi-tech conferences, so I figured I’d go to a conference, in order to get a feel for the field. But when I visited the first conference, I realized almost immediately that this is what I wanted to study. The conferences themselves were so interesting with all these people interacting and expressing ideas and symbols in striking ways. So I decided to study conferences. And I studied them for a few years before a deeper theoretical understanding or mature insights about them developed. It turned out to be about the dynamics of institutional fields and the meanings and roles of field-configuring-events.

How many conferences did you go to?

I went to two or three different conferences a year. I collected whatever data I could in them and on them and various ideas started to emerge and crystallize, especially when I started working on specific articles. I also kept reading the newspapers and started some more systematic archival, media search along some specific questions. All the while I kept trying to figure out: “What can I do with that?”

When did it occur to you to apply an institutional lens to it all?

Well, the institutional lens was there all along. I first encountered institutional theory in my graduate studies, and I used it in my PhD thesis. But it was quite peripheral to my thinking at the time. This changed when I was at Berkeley. I started to read AMJ (Academy of Management Journal) very seriously, which was part of my becoming a faculty member in a business school. And then I saw a call for papers for a special issue of AMJ about institutional theory and change. The editors gave a few examples of the kinds of questions that can be asked, and these resonated with some very early ideas I had when I was writing my thesis. I thought, “Wow, that’s exactly what happened in the rape crisis center I studied. I can do that.” So I decided to send a paper to that special issue. At the time, I had only a basic understanding of institutional theory, so I spent a big chunk of my post-doc year reading works carried out within institutional theory, starting from its beginnings. I read Berger and Luckmann again, Meyer and Rowan, DiMaggio and Powell and many of the works developed from their ideas. While engaged in this intensive reading, my thinking about the rape crisis center and what I observed there evolved. I thought that what I had actually observed at that organization were more complex processes of institutional change then those depicted in the literature. In particular, I realized I had something to say about the interface of actions, actors and meanings in institutional change. So I wrote the paper.

By the time I got to the hi-tech project, I’d already read so much about institutional theory, the institutional lens was there from the very beginning. These days, I look at the world through the lens of institutional theory. And still, institutional theory is such a big tent. In each new project it still takes me time and effort to figure out specifically how an empirical site will allow me to contribute to the conversation around institutional theory.

Do you have a system for organizing your ideas?

Every now and then I do this ambitious list of papers that I want to write. A list of very basic ideas, a meaningful chunk of ideas, you know, very general, because usually they develop so much through the writing. And then often there are technical considerations, like where I want to send it, what is more important to me, or what I think would be easier to do at a certain point. So I might write down the basic idea, maybe a title. And then I write down where I think it fits. I also have file folders on my computer with the names of the different planned papers. And so anything relevant to one of those papers, I’ll download and stick in there. And those files will wait there until I’m ready to get to them.

Do you work with an outline? How do you actually start writing your papers?

First I write the title. This is very important. I have to have a title because it helps me focus. Assuming that I have the empirical stuff in my head, the next thing I do is go back to the literature. Usually I will do very wide literature searches, just to figure out what’s going on. I’ll go much broader than just institutional theory. I search for relevant articles in Web of Science. I put a list of ten to twenty outlets together that I believe publish interesting and relevant stuff, including outlets from sociology and anthropology, and then I use some very broad keywords for the search. So for example, I’m writing now about ethnography in our field. So for that I did a very wide search on ethnography as a topic. I read the titles and the abstracts that come up to get an idea about what’s going on in the theoretical conversations relevant to my project. Among these, I pick papers that I think I need to read more carefully. I spend a few weeks doing these searches and reading, and by just going through this process, I get more focused. I can then start writing. I usually start with the abstract, something very general, just to be able to say, “This paper will be about…whatever.”

Okay, so you have your title and your abstract. What about the research question?

Usually I come up with the specific research question much later in the process. It’s only once I feel I have this understanding of the literature, my intuition about my empirical data, and a rough idea of how I can combine the two together that I go back to the empirical material and really start to analyze it systematically, moving back and forth between the empirical material and the theory. So I have this very basic abstract by now, and a title, and a rough outline of the theoretical arguments. The methods section is really the easiest to write, I never write it at this stage – you can’t anyways, because you haven’t finished doing all the analysis. So I’ll go through all the data and start doing the analysis. It is fed by the rough theoretical questions I have in my mind, but everything, interpretations and theorizing, develops and usually changes at this stage. I also may employ different kinds of analysis than those I started with, certainly my analytical and theoretical arguments evolve as well. The title and abstract will certainly change later. Sometimes if I need to refocus I’ll spend time writing them anew but often I’ll get back to them only much later. So it really is going back and forth between the theory and the data, until things shape up, just as they say in textbooks on qualitative methods. Once I feel like I have something interesting empirically and I have a theory in mind, I’ll write the introduction. Then I’ll write a rough draft of the discussion, just to keep me focused and to stay within a clear enough hermeneutical circle: “This is what I’m going to say, these are my three contributions and so on.” Then I’ll start connecting all the parts together more systematically – introduction, method, findings and discussion, trying to make it very ordered and coherent.

Richardson has this beautiful paragraph, which I completely agree with, where she writes about how we’re all taught that writing is the very last stage of research, and you only write once you know what you want to say, but where in reality you actually figure out what you want to say by writing. So I write and re-write and try to tie the empirical with the theoretical together, and my understanding of the data and of theory will evolve through that process.

And as I go through this process, I try to stick to the “good-enough mother” concept. Are you familiar with it? Donald Winnicott, a rather famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst, had this idea that you don’t have to be a perfect mother. You actually can’t be a perfect mother and always satisfy your child’s needs. Being a good-enough mother will suffice. As a young mother, I found his theory very encouraging. So when I write, it’s a bit like that. When I’m writing, I don’t try to write the perfect paper. I try to write a good-enough paper that is interesting enough and intriguing enough for my immediate audience – a set of reviewers and editor – to allow me to get an R&R. The paper will then evolve within a dialogue with them, a dialogue that will allow me to further develop the project.

I believe that each paper at this stage has the potential of developing in different directions. The same data can be used to say different things. I have been fortunate to have editors and reviewers that have challenged me, in a productive way, to think better about my papers, and who have helped me to push my ideas further. Had I had a different set of editor and reviewers, my papers would probably have developed in other alternative ways.

All that to say that I try not to be too possessive about what I write because I believe you can say many interesting things about the same data. When I write something, I try hard to make sure that it makes sense, that it is coherent, and especially that I like it and that I think there’s something interesting there. At the same time, I’m open, through both the informal and the formal review process, to take my ideas in different directions if a really interesting suggestion comes up and convinces me that, you know, it is more interesting to go in that direction than the one I had intended.

So you take a very pragmatic perspective on the review process…

Well, this is probably a bit too rationalized, because when I get reviews, it almost always takes me some time to get back into a fruitful state of mind, emotionally speaking. Like everyone, at first, I’m quite offended by some of the remarks made by reviewers. I can be quite mad and think that they just didn’t understand anything at all of what I was trying to say. But when I think it over, I usually get what they’re saying. At that point, I can start making the distinctions between things I agree with and those I don’t, and I’ll use those suggestions that I believe are good to further develop the paper.

I think of the papers I write as being part of a conversation, right? By writing a paper you are engaging in a conversation with other scholars, they offer their ideas in their papers, I offer mine in my papers. This is a dialogue. You actually never write in isolation. I’m not the only one who has bright ideas. The specific editor and reviewers that evaluate my manuscript are like a sample of the larger audience with which I want to converse. It makes sense to take their feedback seriously. I really do see the logic of the process and the way ideas are shaped within a conversation. After the initial disappointment, I willingly engage with the ideas suggested by reviewers and the editor, and try to figure out how to proceed. There is a core, of course, which is my own. Something that I think is important, “This is the way I think the question needs to be approached.” And with that, even in the review process sometimes, I find that I can be stubborn and say “no”. I’ll be polite, but I’ll defend it in the paper and my response letter: “This is important to me; this is something I believe deeply.” So it’s not like I’m willing to change everything just for the sake of “a dialogue.” But I think there are a lot of degrees of freedom within the complexities of the review process.

Is that something you would put in your response to a reviewer, what you just said there?

I look for the important points and try to make a distinction between the various issues. So, I would look at the review and say, “These things I can live with, I can see the merit here. The paper cannot survive without them.” On those, I’m willing to go back and do a lot of work in terms of data collection and analysis, the literature review and so on, in order to pursue this direction offered by a reviewer, because, again, I can see why they’re saying that and it’s interesting. But then, if there is something that I don’t believe in doing, and often they are things that have to do with the basic philosophical approach of the paper, like you know, it’s social construction for me and you’re trying to make me into a positivist. Then, and there’s a lot of diplomacy involved there, but I’ll make it clear that that’s the way I want to do it, because I really believe that that’s the way it needs to be done. So, I’m very flexible, but there are some core issues, around academic identity for example, which are important to me because they are part of my basic understanding of social reality and how I inquire into it and I don’t want to change them. Other than that, I’m usually quite happy to work with reviewers’ suggestions. Frankly, emotionally, it is not always an easy or happy conversation; sometimes reviewers can be very aggressive. Or I will be offended, even if they were quite polite. It is a challenging conversation, not only on issues of theory, methods or data, but emotionally as well. But usually, by the end of the process, it is a productive dialogue and a satisfying one.

Do you follow any routine when you write?

Writing is sometimes very vulnerable to outside influences. Writing for me usually starts slowly, and then gets better and better throughout the day. So I like to write long days. I can’t do it at home though, because of my kids. They are in and out of my space and they ask for my attention and I find the transitions between them and the writing to be very challenging, especially when I’m just getting into a project. Once I’m into it, I have it in my head and I really want to write it, so I don’t mind the interruptions as much. I can stop to greet them back from school, I can do the dishes, I can fix dinner, whatever, and I can easily go back to writing because it’s there constantly present in my mind, and I’m very enthusiastic about it. But in the early stages, when I’m searching for an idea, when I’m not sure yet, when I’m frustrated, and when I’m even a little afraid that it will never come together, you know? Well, then it takes a lot of trust and patience to wait for an idea to emerge while writing up a few sentences to begin with. During these very vulnerable stages of the writing process, I prefer to work in my office. It’s also then that I prefer to have long days. I don’t know why, but my good ideas come very late in the day. Really long days help.

What do you call a long day?

I leave home around eight o’clock, when I send my kids off to school, and then – thanks to my partner – I can come back at nine o’clock in the evening. And I’ll spend the entire day writing. Those days would have to be days that I’m not teaching and I’m not meeting people. I’m just there in my office; the lights are off, listening to music and writing.

Do you set yourself any kind of targets? Do you say, well I have to write so many words today, or do you kind of let that happen organically?

I see the writing process very much like a pregnancy. You need to start the process but then you don’t have any control over how fast it develops. It’s just something that happens. It’s in your body and you can eat right, and you can exercise a little bit, have enough of a rest. But all in all, all you can do is somehow take care of all the contextual conditions around you. I need to have the time and the peace of mind to really get deeply into my empirical materials, the literature and all that. But it takes time. And it doesn’t help to push it.

When I started in academia I had this mentor and he said that he writes every day an hour before he leaves his house. He never leaves his house before he writes for an hour. I tried that for a while but it doesn’t work for me. Writing takes time. I’ve learned to be patient. I know it will come. I should probably add that I don’t write that much and I don’t publish that much. My general strategy in terms of publication has been that I don’t publish that many papers, but those that I do write, I try to make them really good and I target them at very high, top tier journals. It is my way of compensating for being slow. That’s the way I think about it. I don’t push myself just to produce for the sake of producing. I just let it come and emerge within an ambitious enough project.

Let’s go back to the review process, in more concrete terms. You’ve submitted a paper to a journal and it comes back after review, rejected. What do you do?

I think I’ve had two such rejects and I never went back to those papers. I meant to go back to them, but never did. One of them was a paper where I tried to integrate institutional theory with organizational identity. I probably had a reviewer from institutional theory, a reviewer from identity theory and apparently I just couldn’t convince the organizational identity people that I had something interesting to say within their jurisdiction. The paper had been written as a theoretical piece which I sent to AMR (Academy of Management Review) and it was rejected. Then I wrote it as an empirical piece and it was rejected again, so I just left it.

What about an R&R then?

To begin with, I like these editors who are clear right away, preferably even in the e-mail itself – telling me what the decision is. I just want to know. And then I’ll open the attached letters and I’ll scan them quickly, just to see what they’re generally focusing on. Usually I’ll be very happy that it’s an R&R, but at the same time, I’ll be frustrated. So much work still! Or, you know, “They didn’t understand anything! What do they want from me?” So I’ll usually let it sit for a while.

How long?

Well, it depends on how much time I’ve got for the revisions. It probably will take me a few days, or even a few weeks. Then I’ll go back to the letters and read them very carefully. I print out the letters and go through them and write in the margins. It’s like I’m doing a content analysis of the comments. I like editors that take command over the process rather than those that just summarize what the reviewers said. I prefer them to tell me, you know, “This is what I think, this is the directions I want you to take.” I may agree or disagree, but at least I know what I’m working with. After that careful reading of the letters I start writing a draft of my response letter. It’s a way of re-engaging with the paper within a dialog with the editor and the reviewers. I rephrase what the reviewers said in terms of how I understood them, and explain what I’m going to do. At this stage I haven’t done it yet, of course. I’m just writing to myself, but by the time I’m done writing a first draft of my response, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I need to do to revise the paper. Of course, afterwards I’ll revise the letter in terms of what I actually did. But doing this helps me figure out how I’m going to respond. It goes back to Richardson’s idea of writing as a method of inquiry. That’s why I write the response letter first. It helps me figure out what I want to say and how I’m going to cope with reviewers’ comments and suggestions. Otherwise it’s too abstract and may become too remote from the conversation with the reviewers and editor.

What sort of tips or advice would you give to people starting out?

The major challenge I see with my students is that they’re always waiting and waiting for things to become very clear to them before they start writing. And so they engage in these elaborated literature reviews, and thinking, and never start. Usually when they come to me, even if they’re still early in the process of formulating their research question, I’ll say to them, “Write something. Write even just two paragraphs, and we’ll talk about them. We’ll work on them. Just commit yourself to writing two paragraphs, very general, and we’ll take it from there.” The advice I would give is that the most important thing about writing is to just start, somehow. Just write something. It could be a title. Remember, it’s temporary, it will probably change many times, but write a title, write an abstract, just to start.

And, finally can you say something more general about your academic development? How have you become what you are?

Looking back, I realize that while I was intrigued by the basic insights of institutional theory, I also read it through the lens of my specific sensitivities. And these sensitivities have to do with my academic upbringing in psychology and anthropology. From psychology, I took the sensitivity to issues like ambivalences, ambiguity, gaps, narratives as theory and method, group dynamics and emotional processes. But all these issues are set for me within a contextualized understanding that underscores culture, politics and history. This is where anthropology comes in. In psychology as an academic field, these sensitivities are long gone. From anthropology I also brought a fascination with meanings and interpretation and a strong social constructivist understanding of reality and the research process. I was lucky enough to encounter institutional theory in its formative period. It was the late 90s, a time of much flexibility and surge of new (or renewed) ideas expanding the theory, and so I – as an anthropologist of organizing – could find my own place within this dynamic and evolving conversation. It’s been great to be part of that.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier


Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In: Denzin and Lincoln (1994) Handbook of qualitative research, Sage, pp. 516-529

Zilber, T. (2006). “The work of the symbolic in institutional processes:  Translations of rational myths in Israeli high tech.” Academy of Management Journal. 49(2): 281-303.

Zilber, T. (2011). “Institutional multiplicity in practice:  A tale of two high-tech conferences in Israel.” Organization Science. 22(6): 1539-1559.

Zilber, T. B. (2002). “Institutionalization as an interplay between actions, meanings and actors:  The case of a rape crisis center in Israel.” Academy of Management Journal. 45(1): 234-254.

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