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Focusing on what really matters: An interview with Steve Barley

Stephen Barley 2





    Interview with Stephen R. Barley
    Weiland Professor
    School of Engineering
    Stanford University

Every field in the academic world has its roster of celebrities, and if anyone fits that bill in organization studies, it’s Steve Barley. I doubt there is anyone in our field who has NOT read something that Steve wrote – evidence of how frequently cited his collected works are. And if that weren’t enough fame for one person, in a 2006 survey of the Academy of Management Journal’s editorial board on “interesting management research,” Steve’s 1986 article on CT scanners “Technology as an Occasion for Structuring” came out on top, alongside Jane Dutton and Janet Dukerich’s study of the New York Port Authority.  There is no question that for the vast majority of us, Steve is a tough act to follow. When I found out that he would be visiting HEC, I hesitated before asking whether he’d agree to be interviewed for this blog, as I thought he’d turn me down!  And although he can certainly be pretty direct about his opinions (during his visit, he claimed that there was no such thing as “auto-ethnography” which sparked considerable debate among the ethnographers in our midst!), we discovered that Steve is also a super friendly, down to earth and very approachable kind of guy. He was all graciousness about the interview. So here you have it: Steve on his writing habits, on reviewers who ask him to read his own work, and on the publishing process not getting any easier. I hope you enjoy it.

I will start by asking you my usual first question: where do get your ideas for articles?

That’s a good question, where do I get my ideas for articles? Well I can tell you I never start a project with a notion of what I’m going to write about. Part of it is shaped by my going after topics that I’m personally interested in for one reason or another. What I actually write about depends on what is in the data. What can I support a story line with? This is a little different when I sit down to write a theoretical paper, because that’s much more focussed and it requires more crafting of the literature. Empirically though, I need the data to be rich enough to support a line of argument. How am I going to frame that data? I never know that at the beginning. I only know afterwards. I figure out what theories I can wrap around the data.

Can you think of a specific paper, perhaps one that you like a lot and tell me how it came to be?

Why don’t you pick a paper and have me talk about it?

Okay, what about a recent one like the How to Corral a Government* one?

Ah, okay. Well that’s a little different because that was not based on field work. It was based entirely on a synthesis of the literature. It came about over a long period of time, with me reading the newspapers and thinking that corporations were being granted more – I don’t know if this is the right word or not – freedom or more privileges by the Federal Government than individuals were. This came to a head for me one morning in 2005 when I read in The New York Times that Congress had just passed a new law that forced most debtors to pay back their loans. They could no longer absolve themselves from debt and start over again. This did not apply to corporations though. Corporate bankruptcy laws have stayed the same. I actually wrote about that in a paper that I ultimately published in the Journal Management Inquiry. This was particularly troubling to me because the United States was settled by debtors, at least in Virginia. There were Bankruptcy Acts that were passed by Congress back in the late 1800s that literally made it easy for people to become absolved from debt and start over again because so many people had been sent to the States out of debtors’ prison. So the notion of starting over was really crucial, you know, to have that kind of freedom from your creditors.

You knew about this before or was it something you had to look up?

I’m a Virginian. You get taught Virginian history twice in a lifetime. In case you didn’t get it in the fourth grade, they teach it to you again in the seventh. So that was the trigger that made me decide that I wanted to go after this. And even before all of this happened, I had written a paper with Bob Stern in the 90s about why I thought organization theory was not paying attention to how organizations influenced their environments. So this sort of triggered something in me and I decided that I have ten years left, I can start working on these kinds of things. So that was sort of the genesis for it. Later I got an invitation to spend a year at the Centre for Advanced Studies and the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford, which is kind of like summer camp for academics where you get to do anything that you want and they give you a nice office with a great view. They have people who go to the library for you and get you stuff and bring it to you. It’s like academic paradise. So I decided I was going to spend that year trying to understand what political scientists, legal scholars and sociologists who had looked at this topic had to say about the relationship between corporations and the Federal Government. As I began to read this stuff and try to make sense of it, what occurred to me was that people had been looking at small, particular issues and really hadn’t paid attention to the larger system that was being built. I was strongly influenced by a book that David Vogel wrote in 1989 entitled Fluctuating Fortunes because it helped me see that most of the stuff that I wrote about in this paper happened in the 70’s and the 80’s but no one had pieced this together. So I kind of threw this data together with ideas of organizational populations, which is clearly the core idea behind population ecology and network analysis. I asked the question: Okay, who are the actors? What kind of system or field is constructed when you look at all of the flows and resources that take place? So that is how that paper came about.

Do you have a system for organizing your ideas?

Well it depends on what kind of project I’m doing. For this kind of project I fall back on what I was taught by my English teachers in high school: when you write a term paper, you take notes on note cards. And what you ultimately do with these note cards is sort them and reorganize them into an outline. And by the time you’ve done that, you have all of the information you need to write the paper from beginning to end. So I literally will meticulously take notes. I also have a pen scanner that I can use to scan text into files.

You mean like those pens that you run across text and it scans?

Yeah, exactly. And I dump all that into files, which I organize. And One Note is okay for that. If I was a software programmer I would build a program that did a better job than One Note, or anything else that is out there, but it’s ok. I keep the notes by article and by book. Then I dump all of that stuff into Atlas ti and I code everything. And that is how I get it to the outline version of the note cards. One Note has this metaphor of notebooks and folders and I have folders for different kinds of topics. So, for example, everything that I read that focused on a peak organization like the US Chamber of Commerce would go in a peak organization folder. Then I might reorganize that folder and create more folders in it, like one for the US Chamber of Commerce, one for the Business Round Table and so on. I do it in such a way that I’m always able to trace a quotation back to the original document.

When do you actually start writing?

After I have an outline. I always do outlines. I don’t know how I generate an outline but I have some notion that what I’m looking for is an argument, right? I know that I have to have a way of introducing the topic. I know that I have to have a way of developing the topic and I know that I have to have a way of ending the topic. So what I try to do is develop an outline that gives me the general flow of what the paper is going to look like. Sometimes those outlines are fairly high level. Sometimes they can be quite detailed. Sometimes I write my paper literally by filling in the outline with text and then just ripping out all the Roman numerals or a, b and c’s and so on, and then bingo! you have a paper.

So you’re a linear writer.

I start from the beginning and end at the end.

Does it work like that when you write with others?

Yes, it has always worked like that. And maybe that’s because I am too commandeering when it comes to writing.

Who does the outline then?

Oh! That is always done jointly.

And the writing?

We write side by side.

Can you tell me how that works?

We used to sit down in front of a terminal and write side by side, but now I use WebEx. It allows you to be apart, but you can see and work on the document together. I wear headphones and we’ll have a conversation around writing the document as we are writing it. I am not into doing a draft and then giving the draft to my co-author and then having them work on it. I just discovered along the way that for me joint thinking makes for a better paper.

When did you discover this?

The first co-authored paper I ever wrote was a paper with John Van Maanen and that was done the other way, where we traded drafts off. The first papers that I probably wrote in this joint way were Culture of Culture and Design and Devotion. Both of them were written that way.

How does it work? One person types while the other talks?

No, you sort of talk about ideas and then you figure out how to craft the sentence to capture the idea.

How long does that take?

Oh, I don’t know. I have never had a paper that I did quickly… To write a first draft, it can take anywhere from three to four months to a year. To get something published, it used to take two to three years from the time you start writing to the time it comes out. Now it has gotten much longer than that because of the way journals function. It used to be you got one R&R and that was it. Now you get four or five R&Rs and still they might not publish it.

Yes, I know.

Don’t get me started!

Do you follow any rituals when you write?

I used to think that I could only write in the morning but now that I can no longer have mornings the way that I used to, I’ve discovered that I can actually write at different times of the day. I used to think that I should write in the morning because I would be fresher, and I do think that’s true, but I no longer have that luxury.

Are you someone who needs long periods of time in order to write?

Yeah, I definitely need at least two, three hours. I mean, you have to recognize that part of that is going to be wasted trying to get over procrastination.

How do you overcome that?

I procrastinate long enough that I get upset with myself.

What gets in the way of writing for you then?

Everything. TV, whatever. You know, procrastinators find all kinds of reasons to procrastinate. As far as other writing rituals, I have to be in a room where nothing else is going on. So for example, I can’t write a paper in a library or in a Starbucks.

Do you schedule time for writing?

Yes. I block it out on my calendar. I try to do two or three days a week in at least three or four hour blocks. I schedule them into my calendar so that nothing else gets placed over top of it. I wouldn’t get anything done if I didn’t do that.

How good are you about not pushing that time away for something else?

I used to be better at it. Now that I have administrative roles, it is a little harder to do because crises happen.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

When don’t you have writer’s block? I mean, tell me about what you mean by writer’s block and I’ll tell you whether I’ve got it or not.

Well, one of the reasons people procrastinate is because they can’t pull something together or they can’t express something they’re trying to say…

That happens all the time and what I’ve discovered is that I have to force myself to sit in front of the computer even if nothing happens. I know from experience that I need to go through purgatory before I can figure out how to put something together. I have to worry about it, I have to think about it and then it will eventually come, usually when I am not expecting it to happen. It might be when I wake up in the morning. It might be when I’m in the shower or it might be when I’m falling asleep at night. I don’t know when – something has to happen in your brain subconsciously maybe. And it’s painful to wait for that to happen, but I think that the pain is important because it probably means that you are always thinking about it at some level, either consciously or unconsciously.

Does knowing that this is something you have to go through make it easier to deal with?

No. Not really.

Why don’t we can talk a little bit about the publishing process. When do you know a paper is ready to be sent in?

When I don’t think I can make it appreciably better. Sometimes I’ll have people read it, but not always. What I’ve discovered is that it’s very hard for most people to give you serious feedback if they know you. I mean, they can’t be like reviewers because reviewers get to hide behind anonymity and your friends can’t hide behind anonymity. So I have a couple of people who have no trouble beating me up and I value them tremendously for this because most people won’t do that.

So sometimes you’ll ask for a friendly review and sometimes not.

Yeah, because in the end right, my theory is that no matter what your friends say, even your best critics, the reviewer is going to come up with something else anyway, right? And this is because most reviewers think their job is to figure out why the paper should not be published. It shouldn’t be that way and I know that if you ask editors, they’ll say, “Oh, no, no, no, we’re developmental,” but I don’t believe that’s true.

Do you think things are changing?

If anything, I think they’ve gotten worse. Historically, when Organization Science was first published, Arie Lewin and his co-editors adopted a developmental stance towards papers to compete directly with Administrative Science Quarterly. And for a while they were doing a really good job at it. They would take a paper and they would meet the paper where it was at and try to help the author get better at what they were trying to do. For that, they would often do multiple reviews. If you go back to the early editions of Organization Science you will see at the bottom, “paper submitted at such and such a date, paper accepted on such and such a date.” So you could get a sense of how long the paper was in process. They don’t do that anymore. One of the reasons I suspect they don’t do it anymore is because the process has gotten to be way too long. And now everybody is developmental and you go through, not one or two R&R’s, but maybe three or four, which I’ve been experiencing recently, and I don’t think I have gotten any dumber. I may not have gotten any smarter. So yes, as far as the length of time it takes to get published, I think it’s getting longer.

Is that because there are just more scholars in the field now?

The Academy of Management now has 18,000 members. The vast majority of these 18,000 members are told that there are only six journals in the world that count. How crazy is that? If you add it up, you know that there can’t be more than 200, 300 possible slots per year for 18,000 people. It affects senior scholars too, not just junior scholars. It’s everybody. It’s nuts!

On that rather encouraging note, let’s say you get lucky. You send it in and it comes back with an R&R. Then what?

The first thing I do is get pissed off.

Do you open it right away?

I open it right away because I know that I’m going to get pissed off and I know that it’s going to take me anywhere from three to six months to stop being pissed off so I might as well start being angry soon.

You’ll put it aside for three to six months?

Yeah, usually that’s what happens. I read it, I put it aside. I complain a lot and don’t do anything with it for a while, mostly because I can’t do anything with it. I have to distance myself because it’s only then that I can see the things the reviewer said that make sense. Often there’s stuff that makes no sense. For example, I’ve been told on three occasions that I should read Barley. I’m always tempted to say, “You know, I talked to Barley about this, and he agrees with me.”

That’s quite funny, actually.

Yeah, I’m always amused by it.

One thing that I think a lot of people struggle with are contradictory reviews. How do you deal with those?

You’ve got to make a choice and you have to explain why you make that choice. In one of my more recent papers, I actually ended up writing a letter to the editor saying, “Here is what I can do, here is what I can’t do. If you need me to do what I can’t do, then I would like to withdraw my paper.” No hard feelings right? Because there is no point in me trying to do something that can’t be done and there is no point in wasting reviewers’ time telling me again that I should be doing something that can’t be done. Make a decision.

What happened?

Well, the editor phoned me. I mean they don’t usually get letters like that, right? People don’t…


You can say, “Well, I can do that because I have a reputation.” I say I do that because I’m old and it doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. But if people started doing that, journal editors would have a real problem on their hands because when push comes to shove, they have a production schedule to meet. And if people start pulling lots of papers from their journal because the review process isn’t helpful, suddenly they’ve got a problem.

We’re running out of time, so let me ask you one last question – what advice would you give to people starting out?

I would tell them what I tell my students: the reason we chose this career is because – aside from having a great lifestyle which you rapidly discover is not as great as it looks like from the outside – you want to understand things. You want to generate knowledge and diffuse it. Don’t ever let that be displaced by the goal of publishing papers and putting marks on your vita because that’s when it stops being fulfilling. It seems to me that it’s better to have fewer papers that are good then lots of papers that are mediocre. That would be my advice. But that’s me. I come from a family where I was the first kid to go to college. So I’ve always figured that no matter what happens to me, I can never be as bad off as my family was, right? So if for one reason or another I didn’t get tenure, I would certainly have been disappointed but I would still have had a better life than my life chances were when I was born. I don’t know how to answer this philosophically… Life is a series of paths and there is no one perfect path. Ultimately, are you able to do something that makes you feel like you contributed? Did it put a roof over your head, food on your table, did it allow you take care of your children? Because that’s really what it’s about. And that’s all that really matters in the end, right?

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.


*Barley, Stephen R. (2011); Building an institutional field to corral a government: A case to set an agenda for Organization Studies; Organization Studies; 31 (6); p. 777.


Barley, Stephen R. and Gideon Kunda (1992); Design and devotion: The ebb and flow of rational and normative ideologies of control in managerial discourse; Administrative Science Quarterly, 37: 1-30.

Barley, Stephen R., Gordon W. Meyer, and Debra C. Gash (1988); Cultures of culture: Academics, practitioners, and the pragmatics of normative control; Administrative Science Quarterly 33: 24-60.

Barley, Stephen R. (1986); Technology as an occasion for structuring: Evidence from observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 31: 78–108.

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.

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