The landscape of narrative

September 9, 2018

Back in 2014 I wrote the entry on organisational story telling for the Sage Handbook on Action Research. I wasn’t wild about the title at the time as I felt that was only one aspect of the field. However I got away with writing something more general in a limited word count and blogged some of my reflections at the time. As a part of that I produced a three way triangle to get a better understanding of the field and I’m going to assume familiarity with the basics of that in this post. If you are not familiar then use the link in the last sentence before proceeding! The essence of what I did then stands, although I indulged myself a little in creating a better image for this post and centred the triangle (something which is not in the Sage handbook) with distributed ethnography and sense-making (with a hyphen). The image of a spiders web in the background is intentional.

Now the context of my writing is my participation in an online ’summit’ which starts tomorrow and goes onto the end of the month. I was interviewed for it last week and I’m featured in week two One the edge of practice. A group that includes my former colleague and co-author Cynthia Kurtz and friends such as Victoria Ward. Agreements and disagreements will abound and my never knowingly uncontroversial heuristic is in play; the mature ones should be OK with that! It’s a free event but for a subscription you can have ongoing access to the material. A very broad range of speakers but with a notable absence of the key academics in the field: no Yiannis or Barbara or even (God help us) Boje. Looking through the facebook group I see I’ve already been labeled as iconoclastic which often means difficult or uncomfortable to deal with. So in that spirit I thought I would lay out some issues in advance.

  1. The ideological turn in narrative, by which story is held to be something good of itself. Story telling is described in quasi religious terms as having transforming capacity verging on claims of transcendence.
  2. The neo-colonial school which has a distinct (generally white, liberal, anglo-saxon) take on the sort of stories that people should tell and/or that society needs.
  3. Facilitation is an end in itself, the desire of the facilitator to bring out the stories of participants.    Participative Action Research has been heavily criticised in recent years for attracting the usual suspects, people who match the culture of the facilitators.
  4. The Always look on the bright side school, often the industrialisation of the original valuable work of Cooperrider into a process of palliative management of the latest corporate change initiative.
  5. Reducing apprentice models of learning to one or two day training courses.   A traditional story teller serves an apprenticeship of several years.  Yes you can improve the capacity of Executives to communicate, more importantly to listen but you can’t make them story tellers overnight and neither should you attempt it.
  6. Focusing on the story rather than a pattern of anecdotes and linked to that the nonsensical idea that stories are memes, like the idea if a selfish gene, a rather quaint throwback to an early form of greek atomism.  The old english word  trope, or to get philosophical an assemblage (Deleuze) represents a pattern of anecdotal material from which people cannot escape and which cannot be replaced, but can only be disrupted.
  7. The tyranny of the explicit, in part a consequence of the coach as councillor focus, in which the meaning of a story has to be brought out and expressed rather than just used.
  8. The Lotus Eaters, who faced with the horror of unacceptable dominant narratives in the wider world retreat into a safe space where they tell stories about things should be to like minded people.
  9. The go deeper school who believe that facilitated processes of getting to deeper meanings will result in significant change – maybe in counselling at an individual level but in society its the superficial pattern of multiple anecdotes that we have to deal with.
  10. The ‘primitive calvinist school who think we are justified by story telling alone and who fail to realise that actions generate stories (and anti-stories).  Getting a leader to do something which creates stories is better than teaching them to tell a story; taking action at a street level that changes the anecdotal pattern of your community is better than meeting the elect to talk about their stories.  (For those not into the history of religion this is a reference to the justification by faith or works argument)

The idea that (sorry about this guys) that It’s time for a new story falls foul of several of these. It represents the classic systems thinking error of defining how things should be based on some idealistic set of principles rather than dealing with the reality of how things are.

Now there is a lot more to come here and I expect to post through the period although how much I will be able to attend is uncertain. But I do want to address some specific issues here in the blog:

  1. The potential for liminality in Story
  2. The use of story as scaffolding for change
  3. Power in narrative use

More will doubtless occur to me over the next few weeks but I thought I would lay a marker down. I’d also encourage anyone to take part in the event – and not just as recipients of the stories told.

Banner picture by Wendy van Zyl from Pexels

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