Relational constructionism

by Dian Marie Hosking

Knowledge & learning

It is a mistake to think of a particular method – of research, change, teaching or learning… as constructionist (whilst others are not) or as necessarily more fitting or more desirable than others – in relation to constructionist premises. However, many ways of knowing (learning, changing, ‘going on’...) that were deemed irrelevant, fallible, or foolish in relation to entitative, subject-object constructions, now achieve warrant and as yet unimagined possibilities are opened up. Selected implications for learning are outlined here, implications for change management and leadership are discussed elsewhere.

Self reflecting ways

Relational processes necessarily involve the ongoing construction of self, other(s), and relationships. One implication is that participants might reflect on their ongoing (re)constructions and how they achieve them. For example, teacher and learner, change agent and client, often are constructed in relations where the former acts as the knowing expert who has stocks of knowledge/expertise they can apply to form the learner, research process, or intervention in a one-way relationship. However, such subject-object co-ordinations may not always be helpful. For example, lecturers may grumble that undergraduates lack initiative, do nothing but regurgitate what they are given, do so in an uncritical fashion and so on. Similarly, the client in therapy or organisation in ‘development’ might become dependent - a difficulty commonly constructed by practitioners - and might not learn how to learn for them selves. Constructionist themes suggest that these co-ordinations might be viewed as the learned reproduction of subject-object relations. Again, relational constructionist arguments suggest that - in addition to what ever else might be learned about self and/or other – participants’ learn a way of relating - one that might not be helpful. Indeed, perhaps the recent fashions for empowering and for organisational learning are indicative of the limits of subject-object ways of relating. Such fashions are more of the same unless they change the limits imposed by subject-object relations.
Constructing different but equal (not S-O) relations has been shown to be possible and helpful in relation to particular pragmatic projects. There is much work to be done to develop ways of constructing relations of this sort; perhaps at present it is easiest to say what to avoid, what not to do. However, as will be explored shortly, it is increasingly possible to identify relations of this kind being constructed in family therapy and organisation development.

Reflecting Frames

Many have drawn on the work of Bateson, Watzlawick and others to argue the value of reframing for learning and change. For example, Peter Reason (1994) speaks of the importance of a "reframing mind" reflecting on the frameworks constructed in language including presuppositions that hold particular constructions/practices in place. Other writers emphasise action and act-supplement co-ordinations as they frame and reframe, particularly co-ordinations that are not linguistically expressed. Constructionist arguments concerning the significance of frames also lend increased importance to careful theoretical work. This is because that which ‘the standard view of science’ calls method becomes broadly defined to include theoretical and pre-theoretical presuppositions (implicits), including assumptions about self-other relations, along with the questions so invited; theory and method are thoroughly intertwined. Deconstruction also is given a changed role and importance. Deconstruction makes it possible to learn the constraining contributions of language tools, taken-for-granteds, and methods - and shows that all methods ‘find’ what they are "tuned for". Deconstruction can be a particularly instructive way of working with, for example, students, clients in therapy, or groups in organisation development to identify e.g., taken-for-granteds that hold a particular ‘game’ or world view in place. Learning the importance of frames, deconstructing and reconstructing - explicitly or not – may open-up a world of yet to be imagined, yet to be created possibilities. So, for example, it becomes possible to see learning - including what traditionally has been called research, or studying, or organisation development - as a process (re)constructing subject-object co-ordinations (S acting from the ‘outside’, over O). Equally, it becomes possible to learn in dialectical ‘insider’ or co-operative relations - what John Shotter calls "knowing from within" - knowing between different but equal self and other. Reflecting and reframing can be done by shaking notions of defining characteristics and opposites, by working ‘in between’, with edges, so to speak. Some have spoken of constructing the "liminal" - where ‘what is’ is experienced as multiple possibilities teetering on so many ledges. Turner locates the liminal where "the past is momentarily negated, suspended, or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything, as it were, trembles in the balance". This is very different from the over-generalised, and recipe-oriented approaches increasingly characteristic of business school education; it is very different from knowledge management approaches that entify and fix knowledge whilst neglecting processes, possibilities and power. ‘Messing about’ with frames can be done in many ways. These include: playing the fool, mask work, and re-sculpting particular happenings; shaking up master scripts, or narratives e.g., by working with multiple narratives or by re-storying, and; constructing scenarios in which its possible to reflect on the many different constructions that can be made of ‘the same thing’. One potentially powerful method is "public reflection" in which different persons and group voice their different constructions for other to hear and e.g., dialogue with. Related methods involve voicing multiple constructions - where participants have a chance to hear how very differently others have constructed something and/or someone. The present author has used simulations and case studies to work in these ways e.g., with students - working with how a particular construction works. Lecturers, trainers, consultants…do not need to impose their ‘right answer’ or to seek consensus on problems and changes. Instead, they may use a variety of means to join with others to reflect on differences in: accounts; assumptions; what’s identified as a text (and what ignored); patterns of relations and the possibility of a "difference that makes a difference".

Reflecting questions

It was earlier proposed that theory and data can be viewed as intermingled and questions may be viewed as theory laden, reflecting local-cultural text-context relations. Questions, reflecting particular taken-for-granteds and pragmatic projects, constrain possible co-ordinations. Of course, this makes perfect sense when their job is to ‘find out’ what is (was, will be) in order e.g., to identify what happened and who is to blame... However, the "sense" is not so obviously "perfect" once we view questions as literally (re)constructing the world we know, ourselves, and our relations and not so much as finding out (about some pre-existing reality). Interviews can be used to illustrate some of the ways that question-answer co-ordinations construct realities, including the realities of some relationship – therapist-client, selector- job applicant, researcher and research objects. Consider the different kinds of relations that might be constructed depending e.g., on who asks questions and who answers, who decides on the relevant and acceptable constructs, whose implicit assumptions most structure the interaction and decide what’s important and what counts as an acceptable answer... Again, there is the possibility that ways of relating, whatever else they do, construct a Subject who is active, knowing, healing, teaching, developing ... in relation to Other who co-ordinates with these questions as a knowable and formable object. Readers who find these arguments persuasive might be ready to warrant the notion that these interactions (re)constructed the identities and relations of participants just as much as they ‘found out’ about them.Should different but equal relations and multiple knowledges be valued, how might this be done? Various so-called postmodern approaches e.g., to therapy, to ‘individual’ change work, and to organisation development (OD) provide considerable help. For example, it seems that questions might usefully be asked out of a not knowing stance e.g., to minimise constraints - to be open to new possibilities and to multiple realities – to negotiate locally rather than impose ‘outsider’ constructions may be less likely to reproduce existing assumptions and conventions. One obvious example would be the practices that seem to assume a knowing teacher, a ready to know student, transferable conceptual knowledge etcetera. Socratic dialogue may be employed to reflect on frames, and offers the possibility for multiple voices and new questions.

Everyday praxis constructing multiple knowledges

These relational constructionist arguments mean that everyday practices construct local ways of knowing and that which is to be known. Consider, for example, activities usually thought of as teaching or management development. Rather than viewing the process as that which mediates between sender and receiver it can be treated as interesting in its own right – both as a vehicle for knowing and that which is to be understood. Just as the meaning and importance of method were re-contextualised in relation to constructionist narratives, the same may be done with abstract theory and findings. To do so puts in question those teaching, training, and consulting practices that offer abstract theories and frameworks and generalisable findings as that which must be learned. Again, this often is the case in business schools, in standardised training packages, and in consulting that depends on generalising content from one context to another. It was earlier suggested that any praxis can be constructed in monophonic, subject-object relations or in polyphony where multiple knowledges may be constructed simultaneously in relations of different but equal. It is perhaps worthwhile pausing to emphasise that the sense some one makes of this depends on their ‘world view’, paradigm, or perspective. In the present variant of constructionism, talk of multiple knowledges does not refer to different constructions of ‘the same thing’ i.e., to multiple subjectivities as variants around objective knowledge. Rather multiple knowledges are theorised as different local ‘fixings’ of different patterns of possibilities where each fixing affords participants different ways of being and different possible supplements in ongoing relations. Further, such differences can perfectly well co-exist, despite the common notion that e.g., shared notions of reality or at least shared goals are necessary for co-ordinated action. For example, lecturer and students may construct many different and perhaps conflicting narratives about a lecture but these do not necessarily get co-ordinated. Instead the lecturer may very likely talk and enough students will co-ordinate by staying quiet i.e., will stay within conventional limits of what is an acceptable co-ordination, such that the lecture can go on. To continue with this point, it may or may not seem obvious that multiple knowledges can co-exist in a marriage, in therapy, and in organisational life without any intentional ‘fixing’ e.g., to agree or impose one version of reality. Indeed, there may be many pragmatic standards in relation to which not voicing multiple knowledges in some sense ‘works’. For example, experienced negotiators know that it often is wise not to raise a divisive issue that could not be resolved. This said, imposing one dominant voice may ‘work’ in relation to some reality constructions or local fixings. For example, when considered from some points of view (and perhaps not others) it might ‘work’ to impose and attempt to ‘fix’ some organisation-wide mission, or the framing of some activity as ‘research’. Indeed, the construction that things are ‘not working’ is often accompanied by attempts to ‘remove’ differences. However, it seems increasingly evident that "homogenised knowledge" and knowledge that is "fast" may have disastrous consequences, more quickly and more extensively than ever before – before globalisation, the web, agri-business, the dominance of marketing, world-wide travel...

Deep knowledge and patterns

These arguments have reflected on the common and conventional separations of theory and practice and on the heavy reliance (by some) on conceptual language as a tool for representing knowledge. With respect to the theory-practice relation, these relational arguments make way for many local (indigenous) experts and locally grounded knowledges. This, in turn, may make the space for diverse gender and ethnic voices to participate in different but equal relations, constructing locally meaningful ways of knowing and local definitions of development. This is true whether we are thinking of e.g., individual, organisational, or community development. These reflections on conceptual knowledge suggest that social constructionism too often gets absorbed with words, with grammars, with linguistically expressed metaphors, and written narratives... Conceptual language, like all ways of relating, constructs limits. The pattern that connects does so not only in language but includes ways of participating that reclaim the body e.g., through physical disciplines like Tai Chi, connected breathing, and meditation. These methods also may allow experience of the world unmediated by language, unmediated by a sense of ‘I’. Such methods may allow participation in what some speak of as non-ordinary realities.

Slow knowledge, future participation

The present arguments have joined with those who have suggested that there might be might be a "myth for our times" that could be more useful - in relation to certain projects - than the entitative myth. This would be to put to one side the entitative narrative of subject-object relations, its reliance and emphasis on language as representation, and its centring of a singular, and in some degree knowable, real world. Writers have used terms such as "future participation" and "slow knowledge" to speak of many relevant themes. This said, relational constructionist arguments also suggest it is wise to avoid becoming too attached to any paradigm. Knowing/acting slowly, participatively, involves living with possibilities rather than certainty; including multiple voices - including voices without words; taking care of patterns, constructing forms of practice with other in mind. Perhaps learning - be it in the context of education, training, development or change – will offer most future possibilities when inclusive, slow, and mindful.