Narrative & Weapons of the Weak

May 10, 2011

My love of narrative and the sharing of stories predated my introduction to Cognitive Edge.

When I first learnt of CE’s operating methodology – that of using narrative and anecdotal material – drunk from immersion into the literature and suffering my social scientific hangover, I remember drawing many parallels of Cynefin and narrative-abductive research to works and scholars I had previously encountered. Of these, the first name that floated to mind was Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of habitus; quite naturally, considering my personal obsession with him.

Another name that followed quickly after was James C. ScottWeapons of the Weak.

In the tradition of anthropology, sociology and traditional forms of ethnographic research, Scott immersed himself as an external observer into the social world of Southeast Asian peasants in the 1970s – where he believed new insights could be borne. In Weapons of the Weak, he studies the stories and rumours shared among peasants. These stories tell of small acts of resistance toward the elite among them; such as feet dragging, stealing of chickens out of the coops of pro-elite households and the burning of tractors which replaced their labour with mechanised forms.

The stories in themselves, provide rich contextual tapestry into the inner workings of the peasant moral economy. More interestingly though, is the way the sharing of these stories amongst peasants is seen as a ritualistic way of maintaining the balance of that moral economy. Individuals who were seen as not conforming to the dominant peasant mentality suffered the cruel brunt of being the subject of rumours.

In short, the sharing of stories and the purpose of gossip and rumours served as means of reinforcing, changing and auditing ways of life.

Scott’s purpose in this work was to overturn traditional Gramscian beliefs in hegemonic ideology and false consciousness – implying that subjects are mere passive receivers of ideology. As was discovered, there is a thread of ideological resistance in every level of subjective ontology. Conformance to hegemony is often carefully calculated, and seldom unthinking. Symbolic resistance takes place in manners which make “commonsense” to the agent in the system, and the narratives serve to provide the moral meaning for their actions.

This “commonsense” is, as we realise, not so common. Sense, or “rationality” to adopt a more scientific term, is a subjective experience – a sort of acquired taste. Or verstehen, as Max Weber calls this appreciation of these different forms of “commonsense” or “rationality”. No “rationality” is common to all – as the fiasco of neo-classical economics has displayed. Rational choice theory is not so “rational”. Human beings are fundamentally social and cultural – hot-blood and hormones, instinctive and habitual – rather, than objective calculators of utility. We make choices based on what makes “sense” to us; and this sense is coloured by culture, context, upbringing and learnt experience. These differ from individual to individual.

Although the peasants in Scott’s work did calculate how much they should conform to dominant ideology, they also did so based on their personal moral calibrations, reinforced by other agents in their environment. Their calculations involved careful balancing against how much they could involve themselves in small acts of symbolic resistance, and against what they would need to gain favour with other peasants. Their “moral economy” was in no way common, nor would it pass as “rational” if unschooled in their “commonsense”.

The study of narrative, I believe, provides that rich cultural smorgasbord that allows for the ability to temporarily disrupt accepted reality, step out of your version of “commonsense” and “rational”, to sample and understand the intricacies of someone else’s, and attempt to make sense of things through those lenses.


This, if I may so humbly offer, is my version of the Cognitive Edge approach.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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