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Best. Paper. Ever.

Posted by Robin Abrahams  May 16, 2008 08:54 AM

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I have read a lot of academic journal articles in my life. Not as many as my friends who actually stayed in academia, or who are more single-mindedly focused than I (not a difficult state to be in) but a lot. So it means something when I say:

This is the greatest paper I have ever read.

The title should give you some idea of its brilliance:

David Sims, "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations," Organization Studies 26, no. 11 (2005): 1625-1640.

Dr. Sims is a professor at Cass Business School in London. Here he is:

sims.jpg

Dr. Sims makes the following points:

1) Sometimes, especially in organizational life (usually work, though this could presumably mean any sort of committee or organized groups), you run into someone who just seems a bad 'un, and you can't come up with any other interpretation of their behavior than an appeal to the person's innate evil. In Dr. Sims' words:

There are times when any relativism of view disappears in a cloud of heartfelt indignation. Then an interested, exploratory stance to what the other person thinks they are doing becomes impossible. The internal discourse changes from on e in which the other person is "construed as behaving strangely," or as "seeing the world differently," or even as mistaken; the discourse becomes one in which they are "wrong," "wicked," "simply a bastard," and should be treated as such.

2) It is upsetting when we have to conclude that someone is "simply a bastard." Partly, we are upset because of the initial offense that led us to conclude that. But we are also upset because, as tolerant, educated, broad-minded, empathetic people, we want to have a better explanation. We want to be able to attribute people's behavior to legitimate differences in philosophies, perspectives, cultures, priorities. When we cannot, we feel that we have failed, and we are angry at having been put into such a narrow-minded, thoughtlessly reactive position.

3) Thus, when we conclude someone is "simply a bastard," we feel both relief (because we have finally hit on a way of interpreting their behavior that makes sense) and guilt (because we feel we ought to have done better).

4) Few people write academic articles about this phenomenon , because it is hard to write about indignation without becoming emotionally aroused. Again, in Dr. Sims' inimitable words:

If I recall my own experiences of intense indignation I will usually find that, at the time of recall, I have exhibited many of the physical signs of indignation that I would have exhibited in the original situation. This is not conducive to the writing of an academic paper. By the time I have calmed down again enough to be able to write considered prose the experience is dissipated, and I cannot fully recall what the indignation felt like.

I'm so glad he worked through that.

Mr. Improbable and I are going to London in early June, and I dearly hope to buy Dr. Sims a cup of tea or a warm beer or whatever ineffably British beverage his heart desires. For you, if you have access to a college or university library, do yourself a favor and look this up. If any of you are performance artists, I guarantee that a dramatic reading of this paper would be more entertaining than the work of almost any stand-up comic.

And I've seen a lot of those, too.

UPDATE: We shall indeed be meeting Dr. Sims in London! He is apparently a fan of Mr. Improbable's work and looks forward to meeting up as well. What a happy thing.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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