The Postmodern Turn form Stories-as-Objects to Stories-in-Context Methods

David M. Boje

Published in 1998 Academy of Management, Research Methods Forum #3, (Fall) Robert Gephart, Editor



Stories are being studied as if they were objects. Subjects are asked to retell a story to an interview who either records it verbatim or checks of some scaled questions about the story: "did it have a hero?" "Is the big boss made m ore human?" The key assumptions are: (1) the presence of the interviewer does not materially change the telling of the story, (2) the story is being retold in ways similar to how it is performed in the natural context, (3) the performance context i s not very important to understanding the meaning and import of the story, and (4) the story is not intertextual in its relation to other stories or embedded in more historical ways.

Methodologically, stories are being approached as artifacts and not as constitutive of organization. Epistemologically, this assumes that organizations exist outside or as "other" to the storytelling context. Methodologically this leads to such tactics as scoring the story, which serves to displace the "actual" story and reconstitute it as a qualitative code or a surrogate measure of non-story variables (e.g. counting the types of claims as evidence for certain other features of o rganization). After, giving examples of stories-as-objects method, we will examine an alternative, stories-in-context methods, I will conclude with the relevance of the postmodern turn in qualitative research to this distinction of methods. In short, th e methodological practices need to transition so stories may be viewed as constitutive of organizational realities, rather than mere measures of something else.

Stories-as-Objects Methods. In our field, the earliest studies treated stories-as-objects in ways that raise several method problems:

Together, these three qualities are what I term the stories-as-objects research tradition of early survey, laboratory and historical case study research. In effect, stories were ripped from their natural performance contexts and objectified as disembo died social facts. Story-as-object methods can be seen in early organization theory narrative-studies, where the scientist rated subjects stories on bi-polar scales (Wilkens, 1979), in lab studies where story content was manipulated to measure memory (Mar tin, 1982; Martin & Powers, 1979; Martin, Patterson, & Price, 1979; Martin, Patterson, Harrod, and Siehl, 1980), or in studies of stories taken as cultural indicators (Martin, Feldman, Hatch, and Sitkin, 1983).

This resulted in stories being defined as integrated totalities, in voices being ignored in the studies, and stories being taken out of context. Martin et al (1983), for example, abstracted stories from books, the stories were told with beginnings, mid dles, ends and morals. Martin et al (1983) sought to trace how markedly similar story texts, abstracted from organizational histories and CEO biographies manifested themselves in different types of organizations without examining how the stories were us ed or whose voice was privileged in their telling. There was also no direct field observation or systematic on-site data collection to unravel the origins or import of the story. Wilkens (1979) dissertation relied upon story-interviews, (but also did no t record the text of the stories or the performance context) as raters registered reconstructed accounts on survey scales. There is also the problem of voice. Early case histories also relied upon second- and third-hand accounts of stories, typically to ld from management’s point of view. For example, Clark’s (1972) historical (saga) accounts of organizational uniqueness were texts without performance data. Similarly, Lombardo’s (1986), and McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison’s (1989) interviews with 86 execu tives as they recalled stories provided interesting life-history work, but did not afford a behavioral analysis of in situ performance or other voices. In sum, stories-as-objects investigations do not weave direct field observation or systematic on-site data collection to unravel the origins or import of the story, the voices of the story, or the contextual import of each story.

Stories-in-Context Methods. There has been overlooked, early work done on storytelling in organizations from other disciples. In folklore, Kirshenblatt-Gimglett (1975), Hymes (1975), Jones, Moore, & Synder (1988), and especially Georges (19 69, 1980a, 1980b, 1981) that looked at the undifferentiability of story and context. Organizational folklorists point out convincingly, "the story" has no existence apart (and is indeed inseparable) from the context during which the story is pe rformed. It matters if a manager or a subordinate is telling a story. It matters if stories are being told to outsiders such as in the current research. One group's version of the story can oppress and marginalize others.

Our Methods Have Moved On. Using stories as indictors to get at cultural variables is passe (See reviews by Boje, Alvarez & Schooling, 1998; Boyce (1995, 1997), Kaye (1996) and research by Boje (1991, 1995), Jones (1991), Brown (1986), Gepha rt (1991), Jordan (1997) etc.). Martin’s (1990) more recent work deconstructs the micro in situ story of a pregnancy in economic, gender, and racial contexts (See also Martin & Knopoff’s in press deconstruction of gender in Weber). Wilkens & Tho mpson (1991) have also moved to a more multi-storied position by looking at fine-grained differences in storytelling behaviors. The field is currently questioning synthetic and totalized author-accounts based in stories-as-objects theory. Hatch (1997) ha s also moved to a multinarrator position looking at you the author narrates. My own work (1991) challenged the stories-as-objects tradition in collecting tape recordings of stories told in situ, defined stories at partial, fragmented, and extended across multiple conversations involving many folks.

What are the methodological implications? If stories are defined as wholes with beginnings, middles, and ends then much that is important about stories is not being researched. For example, in partial tellings, stories are coded so that outsiders do n ot know what is being told. In partial tellings, the collective combines to tell the fuller story, but across time and in different spaces. The implication is that researchers need to track stories across settings and capture its invocation even where f ew story features are visible. This was the basic assumption of the office supply study (Boje, 1991): to look at glosses, more terse tellings, and shifts in the telling of events to construct different power alignments. I had to trail around my particip ants and record who said what to whom and when and where. Methodologically this involves attempts to hear the story as naturally told by a variety of culturally meaningful groups or actors, not just key informant, who oftentimes is the CEO.

Stories-As-Constituting Organizations. Stories are not indicators, they ARE the organization. . The insight that stories constitute organization (and environment) became a "storytelling organization theory" (hereafter, STO) of the fir m. For example, in a historical study of Disney (Boje, 1995), where even the story of Walt’s signature and who was the author of Mickey Mouse had hegemonic tellings. By hegemonic I mean the hierarchical domination of one story over another in ways that are outside active awareness. The key features of STO are: organizational storytelling is the collective rehistoricizing (memory) of the institution; the STO is an ongoing (re)negotiation as the present is unfolded into the past (attention), and the (re) visioning (expecting) the future (Boje, 1991: 111, 1995: 1000); the organization is a storytelling system in the co-production of new "synchronic" stories formed by successive encounters between researchers, managers, employees, customers, vendors, and pa ssersby, with each powerfully-influencing the construction; the telling of the simultaneous stories of their fragmented contextually-based, encounters with one another (Gabriel, 1995); and storytelling is fundamental to power and knowledge shifts. Stori es-in-context research is the favored method of the STO model. Research conducted to date, ranges from Boje’s office supply (1991) and Disney (1995) studies, Boyce’s (1995) study of a non-profit organization, Kaye’s (1996) extension to OD, and Czarniaws ka,s (1997) Swedish public sector organizations.

it becomes incumbent upon the researcher in this field to demonstrate empirically how stories are told within the organization (Weick & Browning, 1986; Hatch 1997). Rather than studying stories as uniform understandings, in STO, understandings are quite disparate, negotiated, on-going, and hegemonic. Hegemonic, in the sense that some voices, interpretations, and restoryings are more privileged than others in subtle ways (Barry & Elmes, 1997). Listeners (including researchers) may draw very di fferent points from a story than the teller imagined. Important organizational behavior is devoted to negotiating the "official" story-line interpretation and collectively processing the many sides to stories to make sense of organizational chan ge. Current methods need to attend to partial tellings, terse-tellings, and the interplay of alternative tellings of similar themes. As outsiders, researchers often lack contextual experience and are not in a position to read between the lines of a seemi ngly innocent story.

Why has this view emerged? I think it comes down to story voice and ownership. In the recent studies, there is more attention paid to who owns the story of an organization. Do we take CEOs as the key informants? Do we contrast insider stories with ou tsider stories collected from customers and vendors? What happens when workers and managers tell different stories? The attention to ownership has resulted in definitions of stories that are polysemous and polyvocal, and a focus on the disputed meanings that define the organization as a "storytelling organization" (as in the Tamara metaphor of the storytelling organization). The implication of this trend is for methods that include many voices in the production of the research text. Recent w ork is looking at the storied encounters of multiple storytelling organizations (Boje et. al, 1998; Boje, 1998). The transition is also taking place because stories change in the telling over time and place. The in situ storytelling approaches traces on-g oing and very proactive set of practices whereby organizational participants restory and rehistoricize prior events to reinterpret the meaning of present and anticipated future events.

Depending on which of the definitions you accept, stories-as-objects and stories-in-context, the findings and substantive focus of a study would change. The former, stories-as-objects approach takes an etic (outsider imposes the categories and interpr ets the stories outside their performance context such as in an interview or survey) rather than the currently-favored, emic (insider has the categories and stories are performed within their lived context) perspectives.

The Postmodern Turn. In postmodern storytelling research, the focus is to link local story to embedded social, economic, and cultural context The postmodern turn has several key method assumptions. First, humans as storytelling animals act towa rd their organization and environments based upon their storied interpretations of self, other, organization, and environment. Second, story making is a collective process of social interaction in which story meanings change over time. Third, story mean ing changes with the context of the telling as storytellers select, transform, and reform the meanings of stories in light of the context of the telling. Fourth, in STO theory the individual is part of the collective enterprise of constructing and transf orming stories told to the world and stories of the environment being constructed. This is different from a structural-functionalist model of organizations in which story functions as measures of variables of an abstract structure. Fifth, the inquirer is a story-reader who upon entering the story-making world changes the story-making processes by being there at all.

The method implications of the postmodern turn is the need to trace how supposedly universal and ideological understandings are evoked-rhetorically and resisted in the narrative moment in organization documents, speeches, and other texts. Postmodern e thnography, for example, is a cooperatively evolved text between researcher and insider, that foregoes the tale of the past as error and denies the myth of the future as utopia" (Tyler, 1986: 138). The "Present-day ethnographers hope to separ ate themselves from the history of Western conquest and reject the earlier ethnographies as hopelessly biased" (Vidich & Lyman, 1994: 26). Boyce and Fraknklin (1997) argue that a similar turn can be made in organization studies.


Stories-as-object methods lead to the development of indicators and a concern for generalizability, whereas stories-in-context methods lead to thicker descriptions of storytelling practices and settings. Upon initiating thicker descriptions, I think storytelling behavior will be viewed as a collective enterprise. When this happens, studies, which take a key informant approach, will become more problematic. Storytelling is organization. The next agenda for a postmodern turn is to look at the embeddedness of STO in the storied environment.


Czarniawska, Barbara