OMT WebOrganization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management
First awarded in 2012, the Best Paper on Environmental and Social Practices (E&S) recognizes research that advances our understanding of environmental and social dimensions of organizing. The 2016 winner is A. Wren Montgomery (University of Windsor) with her paper “Think Global, Drink Local: Field Configuring Interactions and the Detroit Water Crisis”.
Congratulations on winning the OMT Best E&S Paper Award! Can you briefly highlight what your paper is about?
Thank you very much! I am thrilled to have received the award, and I am also excited about the other papers nominated and the research that is being done on such important topics in our division.
My paper examines multi-level field change processes, specifically how a macro-level change – the passage of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation at the United Nations in 2010 – impacted micro-level and individual actions and change. I undertook this study in the city of Detroit, Michigan, from 2013 through 2015. In the spring of 2014 the bankrupt city began to shut off water services to households who were behind on their bills. Over 33,000 households had their water disconnected in 2014 alone. I made use of a variety of qualitative data, including interviews with key local actors, observations and discussions at demonstrations and meetings, media sources, meeting minutes, and reports and press releases. By combining these sources, I identify several specific stages of change in the understandings, positions, and rules of the field at the local level. I then go on to develop theory on the key events and mechanisms that led to shifts from one stage to the next, highlighting the importance of interactions between ideas and actors across levels of the field.
How did this paper evolve and how did you become engaged with this great project?
That is a great question as I started out in a slightly different direction than where I ended up with this paper. I was broadly interested in field change and in the emerging water crisis. As there are numerous issues around water, I narrowed my focus down to municipal water services, i.e. the utilities that provide your drinking water. These water services had been publicly owned in the U.S and much of the Western world for over a century, but were beginning to face pressures to privatize, especially in the economically depressed U.S. ‘rust belt’ states of the Midwest. So I chose two cities where I had heard rumors of privatizations, Detroit and Chicago, for my dissertation research. While I was in the field, the Detroit water shutoffs began and made international news for several weeks as 33,000 households had their water disconnected in 2014. I hate to say I was ‘lucky’ to be in the right place at the right time and gather such interesting data, as it was a tragedy for so many people and for the city and state more broadly, but I was fortunate to be able to capture and tell the story of what happened before and during these important events.
Your paper undertakes a qualitative multi-level analysis of how understandings, positions, and rules of a field change. Can you briefly elaborate on your key learnings for undertaking such an analysis?
One of the key learnings of the paper is something that struck me shortly after going into the field to collect my data, and that really inspired this paper. I went into my initial interviews with a few questions about the Human Right to Water and how it was impacting organizing on the ground, public understanding, etc. What I was met with were a lot of blank stares, which I was not expecting! Very few people, even those working in water management or social and environmental justice issues at the local level had even heard of the passage of the U.N’s Right to Water. Those who had heard of it often said it was “too abstract” and they didn’t have time to figure out how to use it in their work on the ground. Yet, while I was in the field key interactions (visits, press releases, media coverage) with the United Nations and other global movements began to spread this idea quite rapidly. Within a few months I was seeing signs at protests, hearing chants, and even seeing graffiti stating that “Water is a Human Right”. What I try to capture in this paper is this disconnect between changes at the macro- and micro-levels, where what I thought was a huge change had in reality not yet had an impact at the local level, at least in Detroit. I then explore how the change came about and examine both the importance of interactions across the field and a series of unique mechanisms that allowed macro-level changes to be understood and begin to make structural changes at the local level. These local events in turn fueled global attention to, and interest in, water access and affordability issues.
Would you like to share any challenges you faced during the research process? If so, how did you overcome them?
As you can imagine, there were a number of challenges here. First of all the people of Detroit have been poked and prodded by numerous journalists and academics, so can understandably be a bit hesitant to share their time and trust. Of course this is exacerbated by severe income inequalities and a long history of racism and race-based conflicts in the city. With all this in mind I was very unsure how I would be received as an outsider – a white, female, Canadian – coming into the city. I overcame this in a few ways. First, I went to great lengths to find introductions from my personal network. For example, the name of one key contact who had been involved in environmental and social justice causes was able to get me a meeting with a key local organizer in Detroit, and everything snowballed from there. Without that connection, and the introductions, stamp of approval and trust that came with it, the great access I had to key local organizers and leaders would have been almost impossible. But knowing I had this contact was one of the reasons I chose the site I did, so thinking this through ahead of time was key.
Second, I read up on everything I could ahead of time but mainly just listened. This is always important but I think was especially so in this case. I needed to build trust, and people’s stories were so rich and their histories and perspectives so different than mine that I found I got the best response with just a few fairly open-ended questions. I also think it was clear to participants that I wanted to hear their stories and was genuinely interested in what they had to say, which I think built the trust that was essential to gathering this data.
Third, while I thought being an outsider would be a detriment it turned out to be a positive. I actually had a few participants tell me that they and others were willing to trust and speak to me because I was a Canadian, and therefore wasn’t seen as in any way linked to the difficult history of the city. I also often had many questions after interviews about the Canadian healthcare system, social programs, gun ownership etc. With Detroit just across the river from Canada I certainly didn’t expect my participants to be as curious about me as I was about them.
Lastly, I think one of the biggest challenges is one I am still facing. How to tell these stories respectfully with the complexity and nuance they deserve, but still get it all into 40-page papers and make a theoretical contribution. I am still struggling with overcoming that one!
The empirical setting of your study is the city of Detroit, Michigan. How do public managers respond when you tell them about the results of your research?
I have had a great deal of interest from across sectors. Public managers are mainly very appreciative of any growing interest in water services, and water more generally. Policy-makers at various levels have been frustrated for a long time with the lack of public interest and investment in water infrastructure, which is in a state of decay in most municipalities. For a long time water was also very inexpensive for citizens, but it is getting increasingly expensive due to shortages, pollution, and needed infrastructure investments, which leads to another set of challenges for municipalities. Some of my work inspired the State of Michigan to include discussion of access and affordability issues in their draft water strategy for the state, even before the Flint crisis.
Private managers are very aware of many of these issues and the impact that water scarcity and access challenges will have on their businesses. From these managers there is a great deal of interest in better understanding behaviors around water, some of the emotional attachments to water which I describe in this paper, as well as the factors that influence local interest and attention to water issues which I am investigating in related research.
From NGOs and social movement managers and leaders there is also considerable interest in increasing public awareness of water quantity and quality issues, resource and infrastructure management and control, and the human and environmental impacts of water crises.
Again, congratulations for winning the award! Are there any comments about the paper and its development that you would like to share?
I am very glad that the OMT division has introduced the award on environmental and social practices as a dimension of organizing, and recognizes their importance. However, I think it is essential that we not continue to think of these issues as distinct from general management. One thing that struck me with this research is that the many top executives I spoke with about water issues, many at large global and Fortune 100 companies, are keenly aware that the water crisis and the social and environmental implications of water scarcity will have massive and direct impacts on their bottom lines. Understanding and managing many social and environmental issues is not philanthropy, symbolic management, or corporate social responsibility, it is quite simply corporate strategy and good business. If we as researchers do not fully grasp the vital importance of many of these issues---water is just one---we are doing ourselves, our students, and managers a disservice.
Finally, do you have any advice for colleagues who aspire to receive the award in the future?
I really want to emphasize that this paper is far from finalized and there are still many theoretical holes, but despite this it has attracted a great deal of interest. I think there are a few reasons for that, and I hope they may inspire others to take a chance on something a little different. First, people are intrigued by the context. We hear a great deal about Detroit but rarely get much insight into what life is like on the ground, how organizations are impacted, and how people organize, and how they survive. It was a challenge to do research here but was very rewarding. Second, when I started this research I was driven by my personal interest in emerging challenges around water. Because this interested me and I followed these issues, I noticed that little if any management research was addressing the huge impact water crises, in various forms, will have on business, society and the environment. Third, I think my genuine interest in both the topic and the context really came across to interview participants. This helped with access and trust and I believe the data, as a result, are very open, honest, and raw and give unique insight into people’s lives and the real impact of this crisis, which readers find intriguing.
All in all, my advice is to follow your interests and not be afraid to choose a context or topic that is slightly off the beaten path. So much of the research that I love has great theory but is also just plain interesting to read and gives me insight into something new. I think if you find a context or topic that inspires you, your passion will come through in the richness of the data and in your writing, and will make for unique research and insights that people want to read – even if the theory isn’t yet perfect!
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