Thinking smaller

One of my consistent problems over the course of this dissertation has been one of over-reaching.

I started out with a very grand vision of what my topic could be but through a mixture of being overwhelmed by the task and cajoling from Richard, Guy and a few others the final result will be much more managable and more in keeping with the level of study.

I’m not quite sure where this over-ambition comes from. It’s quite uncharacteristic of me!

It was certainly something that came across in my latest supervisor session (‘supersesh’?) with Guy who advised me to wrap up delving into case study methodology and just get on with the case study. His advice was to think about what Robert Yin proposes, measure what I’ve been doing up against his criteria but also to provide a critique of it in light of my particualr study.

I also set my net too wide for my reading, intending to spend a portion of the lit review on the pedagogy of DS. I had thought that, as most DS activity was taking place in teacing and learning within the education sector I needed to outline this. In fact, this pedagogical perspective has very little direct influence on my study, save that it give me a source of some examples of where DS is being put into practice.

Once again, this is making my task a bit more managable.

Literature Review drafting using Evernote

Given that my deadline for this dissertation is now effectively March next year I’m having to get a wiggle on.

The literature review has been intimidating me slightly at the thought of trying to communicate what I’ve been reading so I’ve taken Richard’s suggestion of just writing anything regardless of quality (at this stage at least).

I’m using Evernote to do this as it’s available on my home and work computers as well as my mobile. I’ll also be able to use it to tag notes according to the emerging themes.

Here’s the (very) rough set of notes I’m using to structure what is likely to become the section on Narrative in the literature review.

Drefinitely work in progress.

Retaining what I’ve read has been a problem, especially with the unterruptions to the dissertation in the last 12 months. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to slot what I read into the categories I’ve set out as I go. If it looks like my initial structure isn’t going to work it should be fairly easy to rearrange things.

All in all, I’m hoping it will make the process of actually writing the finished article a lot more painless than previous pieces of work!

Jerome Bruner – Making Stories

I’m typing this on a train so apologies for the brevity, spelling and all the rest.

This is just a short post to try and capture what I’ve learnt from reading Jerome Bruner’s Making Stories: law, litarture, life (2002)

He has a great way of explaining about defining story,  the problems encountered in it’s use and most importantly seems to propose a theory (really a theory? Can it be tested?) of what narrative is for in a cultural sense.

His main standpoint is to understand the cultural origins and function of story to better inform the use of narrative in a legal context (p11-12).

Bruner discusses how our capacity for story is ingrained in our neurophysiology (p30)  and our ability to form stories seems to be something that starts before we fully acquire the language to express them (do we ever fully acquire that? Have I yet? Did Jane Austen? ;)) (p32) and is based on the seemingly unique human trait of mimetic sense; the ability to imitate or re-enact events from future or past (p97).

“ We seem, then, to have some predisposition, some core knowledge about narrative right deom the start.” (p33)

Perhaps it is this which makes narrative sense so innate that it makes it difficult to explain

“For our intuitions about how to make a story or how to get the point of one are so implicit, so inaccessible to us, that we stumble when we try to explain to ourselves what makes something a story rather than, say, an argument or a recipe.” p3

So he descontructs what makes a story so we can identify them. He uses Kenneth Burke’s “Dramatistic Pentad” as a way of isolating the elements of a story. To paraphrase…

A story needs:

·         An agent who performs

·         An action to achieve

·         A Goal in a recognisable

·         Setting by the use of certain

·         Means

The story is driven by a misfit between any of those elements (p34)

He refers to this misfit to something Artistotle defined as “peripeteia”, a reversal in circumstances (p5). He also refers to it in Burns’ terms, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay.”

Stories arise when there is a break from normality in some way. He says narrative is dialectic between what was expected and what came to pass (p15). If what comes to pass is what was expected, then there’s no story.

He also points out the curious aspect of culture, that it is what informs the idea of normal but also celebrates the “transgressions” (p15). Back to this later…

The main problem he identifies with stories are to do with intent. A story is not just something that is told; it is told with a purpose and that purpose is not necessarily benign (p24), it is “susceptible to ulteriority” (p5). It is not innocent.

He refers to verisimilitude in stories which I think means  it’s appearance of truthfulness. I’m not sure I want to use that term too much but lots of our discussions at work have been around authenticity (p14).

So what does he see as the purposes of storytelling?

The focus on peripeteia suggests that stories are not about solutions so much as problems, the journey more than the destination, about “plight” and “the road, rather than the inn to which it leads. (p20) “Great narrative is an invitation to problem-finding, not a lesson in problem solving.” (p20)

He says that stories reassert a sort of conventional wisdom (those cultural norms) on extraordinary circumstances in an attempt to render them meaningful (p31). For some reason this made me think about an alien invasion film where the motives of the aliens are never explained and how much tension that would generate. Most films like this seem to suggest a reason behind the behaviour. Cloverfield is an example of a monster movie that never explains anything about its monster – leaving the story to focus on the human protagonists. Anyway…

So does this mean stories are a rehabilitation process? Something happens that is outside the norm and defies easy explanation so we turn it into narrative to make it understandable, so bringing it back into normality.

“A shared narrative is what matters. Reason alone will not do the trick” (p107) He’s talking about a specific situation of occupational therapy with children but it’s a great motto for storytelling.

I’m arriving at Kings Cross now so further thought on this will have to wait.

“Motives that shape autobiographical narratives”

Following on from my previous post that started to look at narrative as the search for meaning, I wanted to focus on one article about the motives behind constructing narrative and think how it might apply the idea of project teams telling stories.

Baumeister and Newman (1994) delve a little deeper into the psychology behind personal stories by trying to determine what it is that makes the telling of stories so compelling. If creating stories is such an innate impulse (Garcia and Rossiter 2010) then it must be fulfilling some sort of need.

The last post looked at it as a way of creating meaning out of experiences and Baumeister and Newman add to that by offering 4 needs that drive the creation of stories. Some of these deal with the need to make sense of experience but to this they add the idea of “interpersonal manipulation” as a means of influencing others.

The four needs

  1. The need for purposiveness
  2. The need for justification and value
  3. The need for efficacy and control
  4. The need for self worth

Purposiveness in stories (1994, p681) is seeing a series of events as leading up to a particular goal as a way of making meaning out of experience; a way of saying that events in the past have been leading up to a particular future goal. For exmaple, I might talk about how being made redundant by T-Mobile in 2000, which at the time seemed like a metaphorical block in the road, was instrumental in moving me on in the next step of my career, firstly staying in the corporate world where I became disillusioned and so leading to working in education again, having left teaching in 1997.

With justification (1994, p683), we see stories framed by a sense of right and wrong, where we justify our actions on the understanding that “what one does is right and good.” The authors illustrate the powerfulness of this aspect of story in arguing our legal system is “based on exchanging, comparing, and corroborating narratives of crucial events” (1994, p685).

We use stories as a way of showing that we have the ability to shape our environments, have control over them rather than be at the mercy of them. When Hull and Katz (2006) talk about writing stories as a way of “creating an agentive self”, they are saying that the story, as well as showing how an individual had an effect on their situation, it reinforced this in the individual’s mind so it became part of their self-narrative. It’s interesting to think of this as a positive feedback loop.

Finally, with self-worth, “people make and tell stories to portray themselves as competent and attractive. Stories about past disasters (like being made redundant?) are defused to limit the damage to self worth. The authors contrast this with the second need by saying the need for justifation is seen terms of individual actions, whereas self-worth concerns affect the whole person.

Can this apply to stories of organisational change?

The first thing to be wary of is that this analysis is about autobiographical, personal stories, not stories about groups or projects but there still might be mileage in drawing comparisons or even just from a better understanding of what it is about stories we find attractive. Even so, I’m going to to limit my comparisons to thinking analogously for the moment.

Secondly, I’d be wary of explicitly talking about these “needs” as part of any support activities as the terms involved sound a bit underhand; “interpersonal manipulation”, “control”, “justification”.

But I think there is value in seeing stories as a way of engaging an audience to see the outcome of a project as having achieved a meaningful purpose and that it is considered “the right thing to have done” both in the case of the steps taken (justification) and the overall reason behind doing the project in the first place (self-worth). These projects are about acheiving change on various levels so they need to have efficacy. When it comes to idea of “manipulation” or influence, one of the hoped-for outcomes of these projects is that they will provide templates for adoption by other organisations and the story might be the route to a better understanding by those third parties of how and why they should proceed.

Also interesting is how the authors talk about stories in relation to memory, how narrative is container for abstract concepts (1994, p676). They conclude.

“Despite the apparent informational superiority of abstract propositions and generalizations, people often prefer naratives.” (1994, p688)

I’ll revisit this idea when I start examining the pedagogical apsects of storytelling.

Baumeister R and Newman L (1994) How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences: motives that shape autobiographical narratives, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, pp 676-690