ACTION RESEARCH AS HISTORY-MAKING

Review of: Charles Spinosa, Fernado Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997, pp.222. ISBN 0-262-19381-7 (hbk).
In Concepts and Transformation: International Journal of Action Research and Organizational Renewal, 2:3, pp.279- 286, 1998.

The first sentence of this book is: 'This book does not present a theory of entrepreneurship, democratic action, and solidarity production. Nor is it a manual that will tell you how to succeed in these domains' (p.1). The key to understanding its whole approach is, I think, to accept that all the activities of importance to us that it discusses - all our everyday practices that usually remain unnoticed in the background to our lives - take place in a third, strange, intermediate and indeterminate in between what we currently speak of as either behavior or action. Everything looks different from within this third realm. Occurrences within it can neither be seen as 'just happening events', nor as 'purposeful, planful actions'. They occur as spontaneous, unreflective, lived, culturally specific, bodily reactions to environmental events. Thus they cannot be explained by causal theories as natural events, nor hermeneutically, in terms of individual people's interpretations or their reasons for their actions. Their central feature is their very lack of specificity, their lack of any wholly-predetermined order, and thus their openness to being further specified by those involved in them, between themselves, in practice. Thus, rather than presenting any new theories, principles, policies, or maxims to be put into practice, the aim of this book is quite different: it attempts 'to develop sensitivities, not knowledge' (p.39), and in particular, 'to retrieve sensitivity to... the special skill that underlies entrepreneurship, citizen action, and solidarity cultivation [that the authors call] history-making' (pp.1-2). And it is in this indeterminate zone of events and activities that this skill is located. Thus, rather than trying to understand natural processes in a cause and effect way, or to understand individual human actions in terms of meanings and interpretations, this book's aim is practical - true action research. It is to help you (as its readers) put certain kinds of new practices into your old practices - with the goal of helping you to expand 'your ability to appreciate and engage in the ontological skill of disclosing new ways of being' (p.1). The ontological skills that are described and discussed - to which I will turn in a moment - can be applied from within our old, already existing practices to extend, refine, elaborate, and improve them in many ways.

By starting like this, from within our already existing ways of going on, Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus (hereafter SF&D) do not start with any foundational assumptions. Instead, they want to begin by directing 'our thinking away from the mistake of starting where philosophers are inclined to start - that is, with our Cartesian preconceptions of what we and things are - and begin with how we, in fact, deal with ourselves and things in our everyday coping. Here we must begin by noticing that we do not, for the most part, encounter mere stuff to which we then assign some sort of meaning... [but] that we encounter meaningful things' (p.17). In other words, in making history, we never have to start from scratch. Whether we explicitly accept the fact or not, we are always working out from within our already existing, shared human practices. And we make sense of our practices to ourselves in terms of:

  • i) the kind of 'worlds' or 'realities' (world of medicine, mathematics, music, food, etc.) within which they are practiced;
  • ii) the kinds of identities we can have in such a world (as doctors, carpenters, engineers, etc.); as well as
  • iii) the kind of selves we can be (as involved, engaged participants, or as detached thinkers or systematic observers).
Central to the authors's account of the activities involved our practices, is what they call a disclosive space - the third realm of occurrences I have already mentioned above.

Crucial to understanding the role played by such a space in their account is that, although the actions we perform in dealing with our fellow humans are skillful actions, we do not do them by following rules. They take on their skillful form from quite another source: 'One of the chief aspects of skills,' SF&D say, 'is that they are receptive. Skillful comportment responds to solicitations in the environment... Skilled practitioners respond appropriately to small perturbations that rule-followers miss' (p.179). Attention to the ways in which we are spontaneously responsive in a bodily manner, both to each other, and to the rest of our surroundings - which we explicitly deny ourselves in those of our intellectual practices inspired by Descartes - is crucial to an understanding of SF&D's notion of a disclosive space.

SF&D begin in this way - by focusing our attention on the disclosive spaces immanent in our everyday background practices - because, as they see it, in our current everyday coping, we face two pervasive tendencies working against the effort to retrieve a sensitivity to our history-making skills: the Cartesianism still at work in our everyday practices, and the gradual growth of some aspects of postmodernism. Cartesianism suggests to us that only knowledge acquired from an external observer, uninvolved, disengaged point of view, i.e., objective facts, should have rational currency in our lives. But, as SF&D point out, this commitment works to direct all our attention to the development of decontextualized techniques which lead us to ignore our background practices, so that we now 'no longer all share the fact that we share Cartesian practices' (p.8). These practices not only work 'to hide from us what it is like to work with people' (p.9), but also the effort to achieve 'mastery over [a] domain, always leaves the Cartesian behind the curve because what counts as facts is changing' (p.10) - the Cartesian only comes on the scene after the major disclosive work has been done. Postmodernism also, in suggesting that we can think of ourselves as fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, flexible, and forever in process - a member of this community for a while and then of that one - contributes toward the decline and atrophy of our history-making skills. For we fail to stay in any one disclosive space long enough to be receptive to the anomalies and disharmonies apparent only in its subtleties. Thus, as the authors see it, 'the choice for us now is between a style of flexibility toward which we seem to be drifting and a resuscitation of our historical skills' (p.15).

If, in an attempt to resuscitate our historical skills, we do turn toward this third realm of occurrences - in which people are spontaneously responsive to each other and their surroundings whether they like it or not - we notice that everything done by an individual is, so to speak, 'infected' by occurrences in his or her environment. He or she cannot not be responsive to them, and in being responsive, cannot not relate themselves to them in one way or another. Indeed, to the extent that anything done by a living individual is done in spontaneous response to the others or othernesses around him or her, we cannot think of them as wholly controlling the outcome of their actions. Yet it has not been wholly brought about by any causes external to them either. Such spontaneously responsive reactions are in fact a complex mixture of many different kinds of influences: they have neither a fully orderly, nor a fully disorderly structure; a neither completely stable, nor an easily changed organization; a neither fully subjective, nor fully objective character. This indeterminacy, however, does not mean that we cannot, from within our own involvement in them, develop and refine them - at least to an extent. But it does mean that we can only do it in certain, limited ways: from a question, an answering response can be developed; from a smile in response to a smile, a friendship can be cultivated; from a scowl, an antagonism can grow; from an other's puzzlement as to 'what' we are doing, we can 'go on' to 'account' for our actions to them; and so on. It is as if each disclosive space in which we find ourselves had 'its own requirements', so to speak. Thus, 'it' lives us as much as we live 'it'.

SF&D capture this aspect of a disclosive space in terms of 'it' as having a style. They caricature (their word) what they mean by this in describing how Japanese mothers spontaneously respond to their babies in ways quite different from American mothers: 'For example, Japanese mothers tend to place babies in cribs on their backs so they will lie still, lulled by whatever they see, whereas American mothers tend to place babies on their stomachs, which encourages them to move around more effectively. Japanese mothers tend to be soothing and mollifying, whereas American mothers tend to encourage passionate gesturing and vocalizing' (p.20). And SF&D carry this caricature further to go on to suggest that 'Japanese adults seek social integration, whereas American adults strive to satisfy their individual desires' (p.21). Different styles work to reveal or disclose quite different worlds.

Whether the facts here are as SF&D claim, what is clear is that central to a disclosive space are understandings of a kind very different from those we have grown to expect in our academic lives. Instead of a theoretical understanding of generalities given in terms of 'dead' pictures or representations, which require interpretation if we are to apply them correctly, involved in our practices are ongoing unique understandings of a practical kind related to continuously changing surrounding circumstances. They are perhaps best characterized as responsive understandings of the detailed relations between particularities, i.e., as a relational-responsive rather than as a representational-referential kind of understanding. For, it is a kind of living understanding which is only displayed by skilled practitioners as they responsively 'go on', moment by moment, connecting and relating everything they do in coping with continually changing circumstances, in terms of a common style. And, as we have seen, what SF&D emphasize as crucial in the skillful conduct of a practice, is not only the development of a sensitivity to details, but in particular, to disharmonies and anomalies.

This is, perhaps, the greatest change in our intellectual attitudes that SF&D require of us if we are to follow them in their claims. For, instead of still seeking what in the past has been our main goal in our intellectual inquiries, namely, accurate representations of what is repeatable and regular, thus to solve problems, SF&D do not see the issue as problem-solving at all. They prize the noticing of anomalies in our practices. They take the term anomaly from Thomas S. Kuhn, and say that they mean by it, 'a disharmony between [practitioners's] understanding of what they do and what in fact they do' (p.193, n25).

To make clear to us what this means in our practices, SF&D give us a certain set of selected, paradigm examples. Indeed, to emphasize what has already been said above about SF&D's very active avoidance of theories, it is worth noting the new intellectual practice they themselves are pursuing here. 'We do not set out any theory,' they say, 'Rather, we look closely at what happens when change is produced' (p.39) - where the examples SF&D produce have the effect of reminding us that, in similar such circumstances, we also can have similar such detailed sensitivities. The examples they give us work to highlight people's sensitive responses to disharmonies in their surroundings. 'It is only after the fact,' SF&D add (and theorists should note!), 'that deliberative thinking makes clearer what they [practitioners] have done' (p.179).

Turning to their examples, we find that the successful entrepreneur - SF&D use the example of King C. Gillette's invention of the disposable razor blade, among others - begins by becoming 'captivated by an anomaly' (p.66); continues by holding on to it long enough to work out a new meaning for it; and then studies how others respond to that new meaning. In democratic action, the political action group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began with the disharmony between: i) drivers knowing that drinking will impair their driving, knowingly drinking, and ii) the law often treating any death of a child that resulted as more or less an accident. While Martin Luther King, in building solidarity, began with the obvious anomaly between the everyday concern for equality in the U.S.A., and the way it was in fact being ignored in the technical working out and implementation of the law. Each case is an example of people noticing an anomaly or disharmony missed by others, of them holding on to it long enough for its meanings to become clear, and then of them acting to reduce the disharmony by changing the style of the disclosive space in which it initially appeared. Gillette, for instance, SF&D suggest, came to sense the bluntness of the traditional, cut-throat razor as unusual, as something to be changed; he sensed, suggest SF&D, 'that he and other men were willing to give up their masculine rituals not only for the sake of convenience in the domain of removing facial hair but also for the sake of having a different relation to things in general' (p.42). In other words, Gillette was sensitive not only to pragmatic matters but to historical issues too, for, to be successful, he had to sense that the whole style of our practices in the domain of shaving could be changed: that razors which had been passed down the generations, or purchased by fathers for their sons, were no longer desired.

In all these three cases people resolved disharmonies within currently ongoing practices by helping to develop new practices. But how specifically did they do this? SF&D suggest that there are 'at least three ways one can change one's disclosive space in response to the realization that one's practices are not in harmony: these are articulation, reconfiguration, and cross appropriation' (p.24). Articulation is the process of making explicit what is already implicit within an ongoing practice but not yet noticed by everyone. When Martin Luther King spoke in his famous line, of not judging a man by the color of his skin but by the character of his conduct, he drew explicit attention to an already accepted implicit concern. 'Recognizing this,' SF&D remark, 'transformed a confused 'we' into a more sharply focused 'we'' (p.165). But such an articulating activity as this does not produce a whole new way of seeing and dealing with things and people. To do that, reconfiguration is needed, as when Gillette reconfigured our practices surrounding shaving. This, as SF&D see it, is the central disclosing activity of entrepreneurs. Interestingly in this respect, SF&D discuss a model entrepreneur who, although he began as an executive-level director of national economic planning, and was trained to produce the economic models used to guide the efficient functioning of all the economic institutions in his society, seldom found the time to do this. Instead, he found himself constantly talking: explaining this and that, to that and this person, putting A in touch with B, holding press conferences, and so on. 'He came to realize that this anomalous aspect of his work was actually its central feature' (p.46). As a result, the entrepreneur reconfigured the goal of his office as not now to do primarily with producing economic models; that became merely a means to a new primary goal of helping people to talk with each other more effectively. The third way of transforming disclosive spaces, cross-appropriation, occurs when practices used successfully by a group in one disclosive space are appropriated by another for use elsewhere. Here, SF&D cite feminists's appropriation of practices from the regime of patriarchy (work-related practices), from socialist politics (social justice), as well as bringing women's practices - enabling negotiation in terms of situational care - into contexts where patriarchal standards of universal justice only work to produce stalemates. In all these situations, people work not as theorists but as historically sensitive practitioners.

In drawing their book to a close, SF&D discuss a new form of higher education aimed at 'producing entrepreneurs, virtuous citizens, and culture figures [which] should be organized around the nature of disclosing and the spaces in which it occurs' (p.172). This is the sphere in which action research would also have a role to play. In their curriculum for disclosing they imagine three sets of courses. A first set is to do with showing how Westerners developed, and then concealed, an understanding of how we transform our background practices through history- making. Western ways would be brought out by contrast with non-Western ways. Another whole set of courses would be to do with understanding communication, not as the exchange of information, but as the working out of how further to coordinate the separate practical activities of people, already to an extent coordinated by a style. While a third set of courses would be to do with the study of 'the ontological skills of theory-making that decontextualize everyday phenomena from everyday concerns and then recontextualize them according to the internal structure of a specific domain' (p.172) - only after this training in this final set of courses would students be taught the skills, procedures, and knowledges of the various natural sciences. It is in this third set of courses that students would be trained in the methods and procedures of what we now call action research. But they would not be trained as the kind of 'free- standing' action researchers we now try to be. They would go on to be trained as practitioners who could also, at various moments in their own practices, become their own action researchers.

What SF&D have shown us in their book - through a new intellectual practice that works through examples to sensitize us both to the subtle details not immediately evident in our everyday background practices, and to the ways in which they contain anomalies - is the beginnings of a whole new form of cultural, history-making activity. We are at our best, they say, when 'we become sensitive to anomalies that enable us to change the style of our culture' (p.181). There are many ways in which one might be critical of this book in an academic review of this kind. Indeed, others might want to be critical of me for not being critical. But this, as I see it, is not now the way forward that we need - criticism does not work to create new disclosive spaces. Like theory, criticism is after the fact and beside the point. What is first required is an appreciative noticing of previously unnoticed subtle details (the noticing of anomalies can only come later), and this is what I have tried to do in this review - to bring reader's attention to the details of importance to us that SF&D outline in this book. At this moment in history, this book is revolutionary, and it deserves to be read widely by the action research community. If it is successful, it will succeed in changing the style of our current intellectual practices by resuscitating our ontological skills at history-making: the skill of noticing anomalies and disharmonies; fashioning new meanings which dissolve them; and communicating with others in ways that bring them to see these new meanings in practice (not just in theory).

John Shotter
Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3586
U.S.A.