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In the positivist view of organizational research, organizations are "out there" to be observed, and the research act need not affect the organization or the researcher's observations.(1) In contrast, the subjectivist orientation regards both researcher and organization member as persons who actively interpret all encounters, including the research act.(2) In this view, organizational research consists of a series of personal encounters, which may be close or distant, reciprocal or one-sided, egalitarian or hierarchical, deep or shallow, and so forth. No matter how researchers try to structure the relationship, both they and those they meet continue to enact their basic personality orientations, but some encounters allow subjects greater spontaneity and let the researcher recognize whole persons more easily. Throughout, however, how the researcher approaches others influences how they react.
This article draws from my research in organizations to hypothesize about how people in organizations respond to field research. The analysis is psychoanalytic, in the subjectivist tradition. It looks at unconscious relations between the researcher and organizational member, with a focus on how a member unconsciously transfers to the researcher assumptions from earlier relationships and how these transferences affect the member's willingness to participate in the research.(3)
The next section examines how field research poses risks for organizational members and how they may react transferentially to researchers. The following section describes my research approach, including ways I may affect the people I study. The next two sections look at instances of negative and positive transference in my work. A concluding section draws implications.
ORGANIZATIONAL FIELD RESEARCH AND TRANSFERENCE
Researchers usually invite themselves into organizations. Unlike consultants who are asked to solve organizational problems, researchers bring their own questions and ask to interview people, observe their actions, and read documents to look for answers. Then they leave and publish their findings.
Researchers encourage people in organizations to think of themselves as collaborators, and members may realistically benefit from new organizational knowledge. Nevertheless, participation in research can be costly and risky. It takes time from normal activities. It opens the organization and individuals to scrutiny. Publications may jeopardize marketing or political strategies, evoke public criticism, or unsettle complex, sensitive relationships. Even if nothing were published, any investigation forces members to see themselves and one another anew and raises questions that will stay after the researcher is gone.
A realistic decision about admitting a researcher to an organization would include such considerations, and an organization may research the researcher before deciding. However, people never have perfect information. They may have little experience with research and not know what to expect. They may lack the time or access to find out what they want to know. And, as they often recognize, every project is unique. For all these reasons, they may see a study as risky.
Centrally, a researcher disturbs workers' activities, relationships, and sense of who they are. By unsealing identities and relationships, he arouses anxiety. He looks at people, forcing them to wonder if they look "right."(4)
People react to such disturbances by trying to determine who the newcomer is and how it is reasonable and safe to act. They may observe him, interview him, and then fall in missing information with inferences from similar situations. As well, they may unconsciously draw analogies from past relationships. Although similarities may be superficial and unrealistic, the emotional significance of persons in the past encourages someone to react to unknown persons in the present as if they were the others. Even if this process makes the newcomer seem dangerous, his identity and the dangers he brings become defined. This is transference (Freud, 1917/1977; Orr, 1954; Racker, 1968).
All this is familiar in the clinical setting. To those with psychodynamic orientations, it is increasingly clear in organizations (Baum 1987; Diamond, 1993; Hirschhorn, 1988; Hirschhorn & Barnett, 1993; Hodgson, Levinson, & Zaleznik, 1965; Kets de Vries & Associates, 1991; Kets de Vries & Miller, 1984; Levinson, 1972; Schwartz, 1990). Members of an organization may act toward one another, for example, as if they were family members (Baum, 1991). They may treat a consultant or researcher as if she or he were someone in their past, a contemporary organizational member whom they equate with someone in the past, or, simply, the same as themselves.
A researcher may suspect that a subject is relating to him transferentially when the subject acts on apparently unrealistic assumptions about the researcher.(5) However, even if this seems so, the meaning of the transference must be clarified. For example, a worker may identify the researcher with what the worker assumes about one of his parents. If this were all that were involved, analysis of the transference would suggest something simply about a worker's personality. However, because a researcher approaches the worker in the organization, organizational norms and relationships, including transferences to bosses and co-workers, also affect how the worker sees the researcher. Thus a transference will reveal something about the organization as well if individual and organizational meanings can be unraveled.
Both agreement and refusal may be realistic answers to research requests. The examples here involve positive and negative responses that seem based at least in part on transference. That they involve transference is clearer than the meanings of the transferences. Greater and different contact with the research subjects would be necessary to test what must be considered speculative interpretations. But such speculation is necessary because the focus here is the brief encounter in which a potential research subject agrees or refuses to participate in a study.
A RESEARCH APPROACH
Researchers choose fields for study both because they appeal to conscious theoretical interests and because they respond to unconscious conflicts. They select methods that satisfy voyeuristic and other desires while defending them from anxiety-arousing encounters or topics. And they are more likely to see phenomena that gratify them intellectually or emotionally than phenomena that would unsettle them (Berg, 1985; Devereux, 1967).(6) In psychoanalytic terms, a researcher's approach reflects in part his countertransference toward organizational members in which his unconscious alms incline him to confuse these members with others early in his life (Kernberg, 1965; Orr, 1954; Racker, 1968).(7)
In general, a researcher may take pleasure from seeing through, into, under, or around others, or from exposing them as something other than what they seem or pretend to be. Depending on the researcher, these targets may be, for example, persons of power or persons at least unconsciously arousing erotic feelings. Unconsciously, such research acts may satisfy Oedipal wishes to unseat the father or "know" the mother. In particular, researchers may focus on topics that allow them, perhaps only unconsciously, to analyze their own conflicts. For example, someone inhibited about acting aggressively may study persons who exercise power. Or someone burdened by shame about inadequacies may study persons of low status to see how they are still worse off. Researchers will tend to avoid subjects that make them anxious. For example, someone who fears acting aggressively may fall to see the ways people exercise even a little power (including, perhaps, deciding not to act aggressively) and may instead see them as only or mainly passive victims.
Such unconscious desires and anxieties are always part of a researcher's approach. They influence not only how one chooses the topic and method but how one comes across to subjects and, in turn, how they react to the researcher and how the researcher interprets what happens. If researchers are aware of unconscious interests that conflict with research aims, they may try to avoid acting on them or, at least, recognize how they may affect what happens in the research encounter and how that encounter is interpreted.
I study organizations to understand how power is exercised and how unconscious relationships among members affect possibilities of people understanding one another and working together. I use field research methods because they offer the best opportunity to see and hear how people think and act both consciously and unconsciously. I approach possible subjects in a way that values …