Relational constructionism

by Dian Marie Hosking

Change work

I focus on relational change work that emphasizes and values alternatives to Subject-Object ways of relating. This suggests a radical change in change work, but I believe that such a shift might be more useful in an increasingly interconnected, fragmented, and unequal (relational) world. There is also an ethical or moral reason for this shift, namely, a (contingent) valuing of ways of relating opens up to multiple voices and ontologies rather than (necessarily) imposing some Subject’s ‘power over’ other(s). As we shall see, such alternatives involve many interrelated and - in some sense -‘small’ changes. Together these may open up new possible ways of ‘going on’ in relationship.

Others have had much to say about how humans may (have) conduct(ed) their affairs without constructing S-O relations. Reflections of this sort have been offered both in relation to Science and in relation to other “communities of practice”. In outline, changework of this sort might include (a) opening up to possibilities rather than closing down through problem identification, solutions, and generalized change programs and (b) constructing a changed, ‘weaker’, community-based view of rationality grounded in “unforced agreement” as reflected in coordinated action (e.g., Rorty, 1991). Other discussions stress (c) relational processes as the location for constructing “(im)moral” (and all other) criteria. Being “for the other” - rather than “with” - now may be viewed as the “starting point” so to speak – prior to the construction of “hard”, subject-object differentiation (Bauman, 1993). If so, perhaps the ‘best’ that many can do to be “reasonable” and “moral” is to “discuss any topic… in a way which eschews dogmatism, defensiveness, and righteous indignation” (Rorty, 1991, p37). This seems to be an argument for opening up to multiple realities - rather than imposing one local-cultural-historical reality over others.

Underneath are some generic themes in relational constructionist change work. In the case of inquiry (now also viewed as intervening) practices that may construct inclusive, different but equal relations include participative action research, co-inquiry, collaborative inquiry (e.g., Reason, 1994) and approaches to community social psychology (see e.g., Hosking, 1999; McNamee, 1989). In the case of change work explicitly intended to be transformative and non S-O, approaches may include, for example: appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider and Shrivastva, 1987), narrative and re-storying approaches (Barry, 1997), co-creative Process of Inquiry (e.g. Takanen & Petrow, 2010), working with metaphors (e.g., Barrett & Cooperrider, 1990), performative work using drama (e.g., Boal, 1992; Holzman, 1999), and dialogical work that addresses how people talk with one another (see e.g., Anderson-Wallace, Blantern, and Boydell, 2001; Barrett, Thomas, and Hocevar, 1995; Isaacs, 1993).

Some generic themes

  • Knowing and influencing are left joined. Work recognises and gives importance to the potential for influence of all acts - asking questions, voice tone, words used, posture… including ‘artefacts' - interview findings, percentage summaries, diagnostic classifications… Any of these may contribute to the social construction of reality when supplemented . All acts now are seen to have the potential to change how processes ‘go on’ and change agency is ‘located’ in ongoing processes and not in ‘a change agent’.

  • Multiple, equal voices. Renaissance polyphony replaces plainchant in the performance of multiple, equal voices (see Bouwen, 1997). Ways are looked for to generate and work with multiplicity rather than to suppress or homogenise it through the application of statistical procedures or through management drives to “consensus”. In general terms, polyphony may be constructed by working in non-hierarchical ways that recognise and support difference and that construct ‘power to’ rather than what I earlier called power over. This may mean including everyone who has an involvement in some issue e.g., through participative change-work (e.g., Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, Interlogics). However, it must be stressed that the point of participation is no longer to increase the likelihood of acceptance of someone else’s decision, or to increase the quality of a (consensus) solution. Rather it is a way of including and enabling multiple realities (as ontology).

  • Possibilities and positive values are centered. The view that coordination processes construct realities has major implications all change work. For many (though not all) it means working with what is positively valued i.e., working “appreciatively” (Cooperider and Shrivastva, 1987 ) rather than re-constructing a world which IS problematic… a world of deficits, failure, and blaming. The shift to possibilities invites, for example, change work that helps participants learn how better to improvise and helps participants to imagine new ways of going on together (for example “Imagine Chicago” and other similar projects ). This also may mean evaluating participatively and appreciatively, building in reflexive evaluation as an ongoing quality of change work (see van der Haar, 2002).

  • Inquiry and intervention are left joined. Since relational processes construct realities there is no requirement (although of course one could) to narrate activities as either inquiry or intervention; a ‘both-and’ approach is enabled and the received view of science (see earlier) is de-centred. This ‘repositions’, for example, conventional approaches to action research that use scientific inquiry to gather data which then will be fed back and used as the basis for interventions. In non S-O approaches the language of “transformation” is often used – rather than intervention – to better capture the notion of change ‘from within’. Further, rather than focus on and ‘fix’ ‘inquiry’, attention shifts, for example, to:

  • Careful questioning & careful listening are essential. A changed role and significance is given to asking questions, to how they are asked, why, and by whom. Questioning now is seen, for example, as forming - good questions are those that help to enlarge possible worlds (see Harding, 1998) and possible ways of being in relationship. For example, Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider and Shrivastva, 1987) gives very careful attention to the appreciative question around which the process will be based. Equally, careful attention to listening to Other is a key feature of many dialogical approaches such as the Public Conversations Project, the MIT Dialogue Project (Isaacs, 1993), and Inter-Logics’ work with “conversational architectures”.

  • Constructing in conceptual and non-conceptual performances. Part of what is involved in our concern with careful questioning and listening is the wider recognition that realities and relations are constructed in performances that include, but are not confined to, conceptual language. So, for example, many of us work with how people talk with, to, and about one another and construct their wider realities and relations. Is the universe friendly? What are the prevailing metaphors – business is war or..? Who talks the most, interrupts, claims authority and expertise, on what basis..? Other possibilities include (re)enacting local realities, for example with the help of professional actors, or through narrative approaches in which participants learn how to re-story their lives - perhaps learning how to open up to new possible ways of ‘going on’ in relation. Learning how to learn, getting ‘unstuck’, constructing “power to” are central to these approaches and inclusive, performative, change-work achieves a changed significance.

  • A deep ecological approach now is warranted. When self and other are seen as co-constructed, care of other is constructed as care of the (moral)self. So, for example, discourses of care no longer have to be understood in relation to ‘soft’ Humanist narratives and opposed to a ‘hard’ (factual) world of e.g., economic ‘realities’ and relations that are (rationally) instrumentalised, secularised, and dis-embodied (see Hosking, 2000). The universe is both friendly and unfriendly… how would you like to participate..?