Category Archives: intermediary

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

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Poets and clowns

Metaphor.
It’s time.

I was chairing a conference on knowledge management yesterday and here’s (moreoreless) how I ended.

One of the most useful frames for making sense of this woolly subject is Max Boisot’s thoughts on knowledge. He suggest that we operate continuously in an information and knowledge continuum with conversation at one end and commodity at the other. An awareness of the continuum allows us to make the dynamic of the flow that much more effective – we can work it, and it will work for us, so to speak.

But the real moment of knowledge is when that continuum is located in a new environment and does work there.

So, for example, lets look at an article in the free newspaper Metro from 19th September 2007.

‘Patch needles out pain’

A revolutionary skin patch using printer cartridge technology coudl soon put an end to painful injections. The new ‘smart patch’ is similar to a nicotine patch and uses hundreds of tiny needles to deliver medication directly into a patient’s bloodstream.’

Nozzes from an HP printer cartridge were redeveloped. Here then, in one sense, the metaphor of a printer is transferred into the medical world and put to work (not so different to those old polio jabs of my youth though?)

Here’s the bit I didn’t get into with the delegates as I had no time.

Lets think about this as new conversation spaces. Habermass says in his theories of communication that conversations between people need to take place in a new space, unfamiliar to either.

And this, for me is where the muscle of metaphor can really show.

And I mean muscle literally (I’m back on the conference talk, we’ll come back to Habermass many times no doubt.)

Jonathon Miller’s book ‘The body in question’ is a beautiful masterpiece I’d recommend to anyone. And in it, writing about the heart, he talks of the role that metaphor played in understanding the heart. Doctors were puzzled, they couldn’t work out what the chambers were for or how the heart functioned and they got stuck. Then the invention of the steam engine came along and the metaphor of the technology of a pump allowed them to step outside their own world of understanding and see it from the viewpoint of that metaphor, leading to the insight that the heart itself was a pump.

So that’s where metaphor can play a transformative role of the very best kind.

In small ways it allows us to know how to behave in certain spaces too. So David Gurteen’s knowledge cafe, with which the conference ended, allows us, through the terminology, moreoreless to know what David expects of us in the session and we can settle into that.

Of course we can settle into that too far, or use metaphors in superficial branding attempts or allow the tired cliches of overused, out of the box, blue sky, black box metaphors to thud on the floor and lie there wriggling. There should be a ban. We once ran a session which my colleague calls ‘wank word bingo’ to flush these out and the glee of making a kind of dartboard of organisational jargon made for a lively time.

The metaphors which abound in knowledge management, a discipline (or often in-discipline) in search of a common language, also knock around doing as much harm as good.

I’ve lovely metaphors to go and fish out about fish, in fact which recast how we see time and story and ideas – Virginia Woolf, William Golding. But I’ve run out of time for now.

And there are metaphors and images (look at the way appreciative inquiry asks its questions ) which, well handled, illuminate the parts of emotion and difficult feeling, or allow for honest channels to convey negative thoughts without being aggressive. I’ll come back to that. But try, at the end of a lessons learned interview, asking people if an image or metaphor comes to mind that for them sums up the project and find out then the truths than can be conveyed in this more delicate way.

Darn it, must dash. I had so much more to say.

I’ll be back.

Let’s end with Ivan Illich again. Tools for Conviviality. So much an essential reader for our time.

‘Poets and clowns have always risen up against the oppression of creative thought by dogma. They expose literalmindedness with metaphor. They demonstrate the follies of seriousness in a framework of humour. Their intimate wonder dissolves cdrtainties, banishes fear, and undoes paralysis….Poetry intuition, and theory can offer intimations of the advance fo dogma that may lead to a revolution in awareness.’

Peel me another ant

I’m finding the bubbling and brewing of possible threads of thinking which I need to fumble into writing quite a torment. At the risk of mixing my metaphors too greatly I’m finding the hints of ideas and piles of old scraps and scribbles bouncing around, sometimes bouncing off each other, sometimes sticking to each other to make a fuzzy kind of chain of enquiry. It always ends with more questions that’s for sure.

And somehow I notice with some alarm I’m ducking metaphor, even though I need it, because I can’t wrestle it into a place where I can see it clearly, let alone write anything down Although I’ve a nice article I’ve kept on dog-whistling politics as a way into writing about it.

And then, I’m wondering about bias in narrative enquiry and documentation, how we select memories, how we recall, what role remeniscence plays in opening up future possibility.

I’ve also got a nice little riff building which tries to link Elias Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ with the recent news that Fiona Reynolds is going to take the National Trust into being an environmental activitist, and a small article in the newspaper on the same day about how sex-workers are clubbing together to give foreign sex-workers English lessons to make them a bit safer. (I once shared a childminder with Fiona, a long time ago, and I can tell Gordon Brown and whoever now runs DEFRA, I wouldn’t be in their shoes.)

And then again, I’m tormented (almost to sleeplessness) by the stupidity of having taken on a 7,000 word commission to write about knowledge intensive firms, knowledge work and knowledge workers. But I don’t even know where to begin with it. I realise after 12 years I know nothing, nothing about what knowledge work is, or knowledge workers. Do I start with the knowledge economy and move down, as it were, into the day-to-day? Do I try and make a distinction between knowledge and information. I lay awake in bed last night trying to work out which of the following were knowledge workers:
architect, structural engineer, site project manager, bricklayer, electrician, plasterer
consultant, doctor, nurse, volunteer
lawyer, compliance officer
office of fair trading policy maker, callcentre manager, call centre worker
clothes designer, shop manager, shop assistant
scientist, researcher
librarian, knowledge manager, information officer
web designer, code writer
professor, phd student, mba student, undergraduate
sushi chef, maitre d’, waiter, plongeur
or what about a health and safety officer?

Or do we all slide in and out of knowledge work? Say the scientist is really only a scientist until he works in a multi-disciplinary team and has to shape his independent contribution to be collaboratively effective without being watered down? The waiter is only a waiter when he serves table, but a knowledge worker when he knows exactly where a particular guest likes to be seated? A call centre worker is an information worker until he has to handle a difficult call from an angry customer with a long history of difficult dealings which needs unravelling and piecing back together so the right actions can be taken? A plasterer is only a plasterer when he does an odd job or works under instruction, but a knowledge worker when he works in a team who have to construct a house? Is it knowledge work for the help desk woman to say ‘have you turned it off and back on again?’ I was down the Orange shop the other day because I couldn’t hear people ringing me and they couldn’t hear me. The very helpful man undid the back of the phone, blew hard into it and reassembled it and it worked fine. Last time something was wrong he got the SIM card out, got a children’s eraser and rubbed off whatever static had built up and that worked too. Is that knowledge work? I think so. It takes a lot of knowledge to know something so simple is the answer.

I am hanging on by the merest thread here of being able to make any sense at all of the distinctions, only slightly helped by an article I read in an Irish business magazine I picked up while idling my way back from Geneva on a plane yesterday. It talks of Ireland as a knowledge economy.

‘[An] example is the change that has been going on in medical technology. Go back 20 years and we were producing disposable items – products that would be used once in a hospital and thrown away. Now we are producing cardiac stems and we are producing orthopaedic instruments. What has happened with all of those is that tehy are high-value-added products that require good engineering and technical skills. So instead of paying operatives E.25,000 to E.30,000, they are now employing engineers and technicians that earn E.40,000 to E100,000 each. That is the change to the high knowledge economy. The people employed now have to have skills. More importantly for us, they are people who innovate. They aim to improve processes and do things better and apply that knowledge.’

Would that make, say Jamie Oliver a knowledge worker (chef, TV, restaurants, social responsibility) and my local Italian delicatessen/cafe, restaurant not? Even though there’s probably been as much entreprenuership, hard work, know-how, innovation and risk taking down the road to get that off the ground?

Or is knowledge work about connecting people, brokering links. There’s a danger that, in our energy to identify, profile the jobs of, list competences for and upskill these people, whoever they are, we make it essential that they are both busy and seen to be busy, always on the go, always meeting in third spaces, wi-fired up, always updating themselves on the world, and the world on them, responding to email enquiries on their blackberries, constantly foraging for the networks which will compensate for the lack of social capital and thinking time they could build if they were allowed to sit in one place (cold desk?), put up pictures of their family and go home at five. I remember once, in a piece of work on physical knowledge spaces, somebody told me that when she really wants to think, she doesn’t stay at her own desk. Too many interruptions. She goes and hides at a hot desk.

I can’t help thinking of bee colonies. It’s the dumb old workers, the dones who get to do all the work while the queen lounges around shouting ‘peel me another ant’ while she contemplates the mystery and philosophy of the bee hive and its associated rituals and hierarchies over the millennia. I bet she gets more knowledge work done than they do.

I’m reminded of a rather excellent book by Jane Jacobs on which I’m sure I’ll write more and on which I’ve written before in the good old days of knocking out never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width papers with Clive to force us to think on different subjects. (Rather charmingly, he rang last week after a long silence to say it’s time we wrote our potboiler.) Jane Jacobs is a very interesting woman. ‘Systems of Survival’ is a very interesting book, essential, in my view to getting to some clear thinking in this muddled domain of knowledge management and knowledge sharing. In the smallest of nutshells, she writes that there are two, and only two, human systems. One is the Guardian system, conservative, looks after it’s own, fuelled by tradition, ritual and the stories which hold the present community clearly linked to the past, not comfortable with strangers, deal with each other through bonds of trust not legal contract. The other is the Trader sytem, explorers, travellers, deal-doers, contracters, they go out, encounter new worlds and people, they strike deals, make money, acquire capital of various kinds. Big businesses are Trader systems. the Public sector providers have largely been a Guardian system. To try and mix the two is to try to mix oil and water. They don’t. I’m not going to unpeel the layers here, except to say that, in my view, in our knowledge management world, we’ve not done enough to understand the implications of this. We bungle about, with our snatched bits of Einstein and Peter Drucker, our magpied scraps of theory from different philosophies of knowledge and schools of management theory, culted gurus, and make out like knowledge work sits comfortably simultaneously in both the Guardian and the Trader systems. But where does a community of practice end and a marketplace begin? Are the knowledge workers the boundary people who are uniquely competent to see both worlds and pass from one to another and back again?

I don’t know. I’m in a state of entire not-knowing. My best hunch though is to flick through the literature on the subject, so as not to get caught out by how others have seen it, but let it pass through not rest in me, and to look for my inspiration in other places. I’m going to look at people and places and businesses and things I admire and try to see the knowledge work in it and see where that takes me, rather than start with abstract notions of knowledge work and knowledge worker.

I must go and lie down now.

Fiction as a place of truth

I’ve written on this before and I’m bound to write on it over and over again because it’s at the very heart of our work as narrative enquirers in an organisational context.

It comes up for me again now because of the literary festival currently going on in London which has the theme of saying the unsayable A session I missed was with Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam. In an article preceding the session in the Guardian Kamila Shamsie writes of growing up in a censoring dictatorship in Pakistan, an era when the ‘absence of truth was often possible without recourse to lies.’. She writes of the thrill of the effect of Shame, by Salman Rushdie, a book about politics in Pakistan:

‘Shame was never going to attract a vast readership in Pakistan, but for me – at 10 too young to read the book – it was the first indication that fiction was a place of truth, more trustworth than the news.’

She goes on to say that fiction writers can go to places which news reporters and historians fear to tread. And all the same, the emotional truth which becomes possible through fiction is not possible without facts:

‘You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can’t make up context, only the shapes that fill it.’

Another take on the truth and fiction comes in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. The subversive women’s book club she sets up reads first ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. Nafisi says:

‘I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novles provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free’.

So for Nafisi, rather in the Chinese way, the dislocation of time and space and examination of the big stories of birth, death, love, freedom, oppression, through literature creates a freedom for the reader to see their own life through the window of another experience.

But what about another challenge of the truth – it’s relative dullness. In his brilliant book ‘Stuart, a life backwards’ Alexander Masters starts, in chapter 0, with a disappointed conversation with his subject (Stuart, Shorter: thief, hostage-taker, psycho, addict, raconteur):

‘Stuart does not like the manuscript.
Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
‘It’s bollocks boring.”

And he suggests
‘Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’

And so that is what Masters does. Triumphantly. It is an extraordinary story. Stuart’s life backwards, and Alexander Master’s own growth and change through the challenge of grappling with both finding out this life and struggling with a way to structure and convey it. And not only that, in the background, as he learns of the bigger issues of homelessness, addiction, abuse, and the institutitions involved, an extraordinary, vibrant, informed picture grows of this whole issue of homelessness which transforms the reader’s insight. So fact, fiction, story structure, biography, autobiography all blend to convey a far greater truth than either the facts or the story on their own. An embrace of narrative and analysis.

Dave Eggers faced the same kind of issue in trying to share the story of Valentino Deng, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. In the Guardian Review of 26th May, there is a long, fascinating article called ‘It was just boys walking’ which details his struggle to wrestle the facts, gaps and partial recollections of his subject into a form which would engage the reader:

‘Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Franciso, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth…..I had been working on a book of oral hsitories from the lives of publics chool teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemlbe the book from his words. I even imagined for a while – much of our first year together – that I would simply be the editor of the book, not it’s author.’

But at the end of the first year Eggers realised that the material he had ‘did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaer articles already avaialbel to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes.’

After huge labours and an emotional rollercoaster, Eggers finally did four things to make a window through which the truth and strength of the story could be conveyed:

1. He did source research himself, going to Sudan to fill in the gaps and increase the richness of the description
2. He wrote it as fiction

This raises some interesting issues for Thomas Jones, reviewing the book in the London Review of Books. In a genuinely favourable review, he raises some pertinent questions about authorship and ownership, which I’ll write more about another time:

‘And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a ‘variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.’

3. He used the more recent experiences of Deng, being mugged in his own home in the US by people he didn’t know as a framing device:

‘It was at this time I knew the book needed to be not only about Valentino’s expeirences in Sudan ajd the camps, but also about the many unforeseen struggles of his life in the US.’

And finally, he underpinned the structure with an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan, which gave the book it’s final title ‘What is the What’

And then this today from Knowledge at Wharton on Michael Crichton’s new book ‘Next’. The article is called ‘A Novel on Genetic Research: It’s ‘Fiction, Except for the Parts That Aren’t’

A few extracts to get the juices rising, my bold:

‘In Next, published in November 2006, Crichton takes up genetic engineering again, this time from the vantage point of the law.

Next weaves together several storylines in order to trace the complex and confusing interplay of scientific innovation, legal loopholes, moral limits and economic opportunity.

Together, these real and imagined stories create a troubling portrait of a teeming biotech industry marred by corporate greed, legal confusion and moral uncertainty. Crichton’s is a world in which marketing executives promote the idea of using genetically modified animals to sell their products. It’s a world in which lawyers debate whether one’s body parts might actually be the highly profitable property of someone else. And it’s a world in which no one knows how to think through the biological and ethical dilemmas posed by a science that can rearrange natural boundaries at will. What people in this world are left with, in the absence of scientific and moral clarity, is the corrupting promise of unlimited economic opportunity and a legal system that is frighteningly ill-equipped to cope with the kind of ethical puzzles genetic research raises.

Crichton’s point is that as science outpaces the understanding of lawyers, judges, and government officers, our ability to maintain a coherent legal position on it is being radically compromised. And, as the examples cited above show, he has written convincingly on this point for some time. In Next, he crafts a novel around this argument as a way of painlessly developing it (a fast-paced story is always easier to follow than a complicated analysis). This might sound like cheating. And from an analytical viewpoint it does leave something to be desired. But a novel offers Crichton something nonfiction does not: It provides him with a way to help readers use their imaginations to grasp the implications of the law as i now stands

.’

it’s evident in new kinds of scientific research, futures work and horizon scanning, this kind of blend of fact and fiction, present reality and future imagined states will become a necessary form, because only through hybrid vehicles of this kind can we have the kinds of debate and be moved to the necessary actions which we need to have as a society, a nation, and beyond national, cultural and educational boundaries. It’s worth taking a look at some of the work done by Defra (and in part commissioned from Sparknow) in their Horizon Scanning and Futures unit to explore this further.

I feel strongly that all these structural devices, the blend of fact, fiction, biography, autobiography, metaphor, myth, folktale, legend, traditional stories, the reorganising of time from liner to parallel to reversed, must all be explored by us who seek to do work using story and narrative in the context of organisations, to find ways to show people themselves and others, the worlds and systems they live and work in, the differences they can make. We must not be sucked into the pointlessness of the business case study in our attempts to render our lives, and the lives of others, truthfully. I’ll just keep on coming back, over and over again, to Clifford Geertz but Clifford Geertz plus.

‘In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.’

[From the introduction to Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia by Clifford Geertz, 1968]

In our narrative enquiry, we must hold onto our role as miniaturists and act as custodians who find ways to get people to see and hear and feel those tiny moments which hold huge difficult truths. And to do this we must play with new forms of representation to make sure what we make tears in the fabric that has been so cunning woven, which deludes us that the way organisations report on themselves, because apparently factual is truthful. It is not.

I’ve always liked, in this respect, the Buddhist notion of having a deep grasp of the past and taking a long view of the future in order to understand the now.

‘You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool of water, and you were afraid of drowning’

One of the challenges in narrative interviewing is the defended interviewee. This, from some Sparknow materials on narrative research.

‘In any research topic, there are two overarching questions that have to be addressed: what is the object of the enquiry and how can it be enquired into.’ [Doing qualitative research differently: free association, narrative and the interview method’ Hollway, Wendy and Jefferson, Tony, Sage 2000]

Hollway and Jefferson draw examples from their Economic and Social Research Council project on ‘Gender difference, anxiety and the fear of crime.’ The authors aim is to recognise and question generalisations of fear and crime from the British Crime Survey (BSC) e.g. Are women afraid of the dark? The problem is that if you ask a woman if she is afraid of the dark, you are likely to be asking altogether the wrong question to find and in some way be able to assess her experience comparatively with those of other interviewees.

Some of the things we have learned about about how to find the essential story, rather than have people leap over it include

• be a good listener and the interviewee is a storyteller, not just a respondent to an interview question
• use open ended not closed questions, and use the questions as storytelling invitations
• avoid ‘why’ questions, they lead to intellectualisations, abstractions, disconnections (this comes from appreciative inquiry)
• seek not to be a visible asker of questions, instead to be an almost invisible, facilitating catalyst to stories – if necessary find indirect and gentle ways to pick up on gaps, omissions, hesitations and pauses to give you, as an interview pair, a chance to go deeper and find their meaning
• seek not to offer judgements, or lead, but use the subject’s ordering and language to retain their meaning frames without offering interpretations or judgements
• invite metaphor and vivid language which might deepen and enrich insight into aspects of the experience which would probably not be visible by using more traditional methods (what does fear feel like? what does pain feel like? these emotions are only accessible to the listener through metaphor and analogy)
• allow the story to emerge uninterrupted – leave it until later to follow up on facts, omissions, spellings, details which trigger curiosity
• take extensive fieldnotes

The narrative enquirer is always tussling with questions of accuracy, comparability and representativeness. How the storytellers motivations, memories and anxieties affect the telling? How do the tellers assumptions about what the listener is looking for, or about some social gap between teller and listener affect the story? How does the listeners need for coherence and patterns close their ears to the importance of fragments, trailings off, pauses and omissions?

There are particular, ironic, challenges in narrative research, in that the tendency is to recall a well rehearsed story. And a well rehearsed story or ‘whole’ episode is likely to contain drama. Indeed the insight we seek may not qualify, in the mind of the subject, as a story at all. So we need to look for gaps and hidden qualities and apparent ‘nothings’, as well as the more evident something which story-seeking questions throw up.

There is something beyond the ‘nothings’ which is the hiddens, and these may, or may not be, easy or appropriate to identify. In his book ‘The Gate of the Sun’ Elias Khoury weaves together true life stories of Lebanese refugee camps into a fictional setting. At one point, the narrator is talking to a someone in a coma and he says

‘You only spoke about one woman, and even that one you only talked about a little. Piecing the tale together and arranging or scattered sentences, I turned it into a story. But you only mentioned love incidentally. You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool and you were afraid of drowning.’

This can happen with narrative research too. Sometimes, interviewees will jump over the essential story ‘as though it was a pool’ and the interviewer must judge whether it is appropriate to pay attention to this or not.

There is also the temptation to draw on other observations, outside the actual product of the interviews between researcher and subject. There needs to be agreement as to the degree to which inference is valid or peripheral vision – things noticed which creep beyond the scope of the specific piece of research – should be permitted.

In addition, the positioning of the researchers needs to be considered. They need to be seen as clearly kinds of episodes collected through narrative research are, in part, skewed by the assumption of an authority figure and the relationship of the subject with faceless authority figures in general. One challenge we have found in our interviewing and facilitation work is the casting of our interviewers and facilitators as witnesses, not as pushers or snoops for the mangers who generally commission us.

The challenges of developing consistent standards in this kind of approach are compounded by Sparknow’s particular leaning towards collaborative enquiry, working in partnership with untrained volunteers in the client to build a sharper provocation and a deeper set of insights, while risking a more uneven, subjective and rawer approach. We take the view that this kind of situated learning has a value in its own right. But it’s not easy to pull off.

Travelling storytellers as miniaturists.

Charlie Beckett wrote on opendemocracy yesterday on the dangers of formulaic narrative journalism, the codification of small snatched soundbites and imagebites into packaged materials whose liberal intent is not in doubt, with the consequence that we hold back from challenging the context and validity of what we are seeing, hearing and being told. He says:

“The evidence of a problem, one that crosses broadcasting boundaries, is not hard to find. Take Unreported World on Channel 4. Each week, brave young independent journalists are seen in some unpleasant part of the globe contradicting the title of the programme. From Haiti to Darfur they dodge bullets and meet up with intimidating guerrilla leaders. Their commitment and courage is evident. Sometimes they display excellent language skills and sometimes good local knowledge. But it can end up feeling like breathless travel journalism with flak-jackets because the formula becomes dominant over analysis, reflection or context. Just because the subject is Sri Lanka or children in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean that it is a “progressive” or even valuable programme. By emphasising a narrative-driven structure it can become as predictable a formula as the two-minute piece on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news.”

Breathless travel jounalism with flak jackets is the unhealthy tendency of those of us who consult to organisations too: punch at the expense of considered thought and a weighing and reweighing of the fragments of evidence, narrative and metaphor which might illuminate a greater truth. Not only is it what consultants offer. They offer it because it’s what clients commission. Clients often want to commission something which will tidy things up for them, not make them messier. A former colleague once pointed me at Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968) in which he says, of the anthropologist’s role:

“In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.”

There isn’t time, it seems, with deadlines and budgets and the voracious cuckoo of the media to be constantly fed, to stumble on special truths while sorting through special cases. Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, written between the World Wars in 1936 regrets the passing of the art of storytelling:
“..the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is experessed. It is as if somethign that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

He proposes that this is because experience has fallen in value, that our picture of the external and of the moral world had been damaged by the first world war, which impoverished communicable experience while unleashing floods of information;

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchagned but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile, human body.”

He goes on to draw a distinction which I’ve used repeatedly between the storytellers who are travellers and those who are stayers:

“people imagine the storyteller as someone who comes from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”

But what we often have is a passing journalist or aid worker listening to the man who has stayed at home and the apparently interesting bits (told no doubt through an interpreter, perhaps in a workshop even) or even been seduced into carrying a story performed only for his benefit, as those who stay at home and need aid from afar find ways to couch their stories so as to get attention and aid. There is a kind of unhealthy complicity here between the original tellers and those who travel with the stories and put them to work and this can often turn into the misappropriation of stories, turning them into externalised objects constructed without proper thought. I’m reminded of a brief moment in ‘The Reporter’, a play just on at the National Theatre, by Nicholas Wright, just before end of first half when the senior BBC bloke is giving a coded instruction to Jim Mossman (the journalist whose life and suicide is being investigated by himself) about what he choses to communicate to the press as the story about the death of his gay lover from an overdose:

“It is in the nature of every tragedy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is what we can’t afford. What is essential both for you and the Corporation is to focus down these multiple contradictions into a single story that can be easily understood and soon forgotten. Now, I’ve told you the truth as it seems to me but I can’t instruct you. If the truth for you is the story of drink and shared medication and a troubled relationship with a younger man, then you must tell it like that.”

I hold that it is the complexity, ambiguity, discomfort and unease in storytelling (contextualised appropriately through facts and evidence) that is the point. It should not speed up transmission. It should slow transmission, make things messier, harder to grasp, so that the listener/viewer must absorb layers of complexity and develop his or her own judgements about how to act in the light of the experience of receiving the story. Charlie Beckett says in his article yesterday:

“And where the complexity of the story is greatest, surely new media with its ability to link and to source and to refer can provide a more attenuated, more informed and more intelligent rendition of the situation? Instead of endless headlines about icecaps melting and capital cities drowning, the internet allows a multilayered reportage of climate change, from the scientific data to the implications for each family’s household.”

Exactly so. So there are two very importantly different things going on here. One is to embrace the emergent patterns, cross linkages and complex reverberations offered by the existence of many amateur and professional authors, journalists and commentators and use these to find more intelligent renditions of of the human condition. The other is to pay a great deal more attention to our role as witnesses.

As intermediaries, interpreters, translators, witnesses, some of whom have voices which are loud and can echo round the world, we have a custodial duty to do our best to act as thoughtful miniaturists, seeking to communicate the essence of the big picture in our careful selection of the small illustrations which will illuminate it. And yes, we must use delicate strokes.