Category Archives: everyday politics

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading

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Pragmatic inquiry and Brexit

I listened to the eminent evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins promoting his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, on the radio. He discussed the role of scientific method and evidence, particularly in relation to the Brexit vote. He began by saying that nothing so important as staying in, or leaving the EU should hinge on a binary yes/no vote. But he then went on to extol the virtues of scientific method, which in his radio interview, and in the introduction to the book, he argues should be the preeminent method for making decisions about the world, including Brexit. We should seek out the evidence, public and private, and make our decision according to that. For Dawkins, scientific method is predicated on removing prejudice and gut feeling, indeed all feelings, from rational decision-making and is as relevant to making political decision making as it is to discovering more about the natural world. The best example of a method which does this is the double blind randomised control trial, the gold standard of medical research. He declared that he didn’t want his politicians to be emotional, but rather he wanted them to make the best possible decision, rationally, and on the basis of the best possible evidence. Continue reading

Being our best selves at school

Most Saturday mornings when I’m here I go to the farmers’ market in the local primary school which my kids attended. I was intrigued to see this appended to the door.

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The first thing that struck me about it is how confusing it is: who, exactly is the audience? Is it the children, the staff, both?  What would a child of five or six make of it (given that this 50-something adult finds it difficult enough to comprehend)? Mostly the poster encourages us to live in the present – this is a new day, and we can make a new start on what happened yesterday. But surely today isn’t just a blank page for us to make an impression on because we are so bound up with others: there are all kinds of things unresolved from yesterday which may trip us up today. There are responsibilities and demands beyond learning in school to which we will need to respond. The poster invites us to learn from yesterday, although it’s not exactly clear what we might learn, and how we might do so if we’re exclusively focused on today. We’re encouraged to stop stressing about tomorrow, but we are supposed to stress about today. There are precisely 1440 minutes from which to extract the maximum, as if we were milking a cow. This creates what we might think of as the Extractor’s Paradox: that the more focused we are on getting the maximum out of our time, the less likely we are to do so. It’s just like the pursuit of the butterfly of happiness – the more you chase it, the more it eludes you. And 1440 minutes make 24 hours – shouldn’t we sleep? How anxiety-provoking to lie awake at night worrying about making the best of lying awake not sleeping. Today we’re going to be the best version of us, but how will we know? What happens if we’re not? Who decides? Will we find ourselves endless repeating the day over and over again, like Groundhog Day, until we reach enlightenment?

I realise that this is supposed to be harmless encouragement to everyone in a school to do their best. Unfortunately I find in it the conventional anxiety narrative of the neoliberal society: motivational, slight sinsiter platitudes as a veneer over relentless striving. Don’t rest; maximise; extract; be the best you can be; never stop remaking yourself; yesterday’s achievements count for nothing, because you have to prove yourself all over again today; the world’s your oyster; you can achieve anything.

I know that good schools, particularly ones with very young kids such as primary schools, accept kids however they turn up, ‘best self’, average self or even worst self, partly because they know kids bring with them all kinds of invisible baggage that has been packed for them, unconsciously at home. The school will cope with the cornucopia of selves who present. They acknowledge that school life can sometimes be tedious, that sometimes kids will be bored and will find themselves staring out of the window, and that they won’t be 100% motivated everyday. Kids are likely to enjoy playing and hanging out with their mates in the playground as much as learning in a committed way. They’ll be happy when they are completely absorbed in what they are doing, with no particular end in view. Learning will sometimes be deliberate, and sometimes accidental. And one of the most important lessons will be about learning to rub along with others, being in the mess of life with other people, noticing oneself in relation to others. We bring out the best in each other, we bring out the worst in each other: that’s what we have to learn to live with in school.

Working in groups : what practical difference does it make to take complexity seriously?

Complexity and Management Conference 2017 –

2nd– 4th June: Roffey Park Management Centre

Human beings are born into groups and spend most of their working lives participating in them. Groups can be creative and improvisational, transforming who we think we are, and they may also be destructive and undermining. They hold the potential for both tendencies.

Many employers emphasise the importance of teamwork, yet employees in organizations are often managed, developed and assessed as though they were autonomous individuals.  And although many organisational mission statements include aspirations to be creative and innovative, it is a rare to attend a  meeting without a particular end in view, where participants feel able to explore the differences and difficulties that arise when they work together.

Meanwhile organizational development (OD) literature tends to idealize, and assumes that the best kind of organizations are those where staff ‘align’ with each other and learn to communicate in ways which bypass power and politics. They are offered step-wise tools and techniques to help them communicate with ‘openness and transparency’, so they can speak the truth and understand each other harmoniously. Conflict and power struggles are then topics that are avoided or ignored. The danger of the individualizing and idealizing tendencies in organisations is that they may leave employees feeling deskilled and unconfident about how to work creatively in groups.

At the 2017 Complexity and Management Conference we will discuss practical ways of working in groups, which assume that human interaction is necessarily imperfect, ambiguous and conflictual, and this contributes to the complex evolution of organizational life.

Keynote speakers this year: Dr Martin Weegmann, Dr Karina Solsø Iversen and Professor Nick Sarra

Martin Weegmann is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, who has specialised in substance misuse and personality disorders and is a well-known trainer. His latest books are: The World within the Group: Developing Theory for Group Analysis (Karnac, 2014) and Permission to Narrate: Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis & Culture (Karnac 2016). He is currently working on a new edited book, Psychodynamics of Writing.

Karina Solsø Iversen is graduate of the Doctor of Management programme and an experienced consultant working in Denmark. Karina’s consultancy work is based on the practice of taking experience seriously as a way of working with leadership and organizational development. She has co-authored a Danish introductory book to the theory of complex responsive processes of relating, which has gained a lot of attention in Danish communities interested in complexity. Karina is also an external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School.

Nick Sarra is a Consultant Psychotherapist working in the NHS and a group analyst specialising in organisational consultancy,debriefing and mediation within the workforce. He works on three post graduate programmes  at the School of Psychology, Exeter University and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire.

Further details from c.mowles@herts.ac.uk. Booking begins early 2017.

Why appeals to nationalism involve narcissism and provoke runaway feelings, particularly towards non-members of the group – reflections on the referendum via Norbert Elias

I watched some of the final debate over Britain’s referendum to Remain/Leave last night and wondered at the wild clapping and cheering that greeted references to Britain’s putative ‘independence’ if we vote leave. Boris Johnson referred to this coming Friday morning as potentially Britain’s ‘independence day’. The setting was bound to amplify dynamics in a crowd of 6,000 or so people, particularly with a  debate which swtiches between poles. There is no middle position here: Britain will either remain, or leave. A large, public televised space is not a forum which naturally lends itself to nuance or subtle argument. But in thinking about the intense nationalist emotion that this debate stirs up, particularly for Leavers, I was reminded of Norbert Elias’ digression on nationalism set out in the The Germans. Continue reading

Prepare for rapture – complexity and the dawning of a New Age

A friend alerted me to a website for a consultancy which claims to be offering new insights on management for a new world of work. Apologies for what sounds like, and no doubt is, a caricatured paraphrase of what I found, but here is what I think the site is saying:

We live in a networked world. There’s a lot of change. There is going to be more change and top down command and control is now an old paradigm of management. Some of this change is good, some of it isn’t, but mostly it’s good. But what we need to do is be more aware of the changes and prepare to design more change of the kind that we want. This will mean spreading power around a bit more and being alert to complexity. Leaders need to have visions and set targets to achieve them, then they coach their followers. They will need to be deeply aware and mindful. Followers need to work out how to be empowered and of service. They too will need to be deeply aware and mindful. If we all trust each other a bit more and deal better with complexity we can have more meaningful conversations. Then we’ll get the future that we want. In a more networked world we need: Knowledge. Trust. Credibility.  A focus on results. Continue reading

Sack your coach

Here are three I ideas I take from reading Byung-chul Han’s The Burnout Society in relation to what interests me in complex social processes of identity formation.

The first is his idea that we live in an achievement society rather than a disciplinary society. Byung-chul Han may be taking Foucault to his logical conclusion when he argues that rather than being exploited we have now come to exploit ourselves voluntarily. In contemporary society there is no limit to the extent to which we are encouraged to be flexible accommodating and self-improving. We commit to stretch targets and KPI’s, more for less, smart working, efficiency savings and we make ourselves life-long learners. We focus on our own health and the habitual improvement of the body. Byung-chul Han argues that freedom and constraint now combine in the same individual so we are both the exploiter and the exploited as we endeavor to achieve more and more. As a result, he argues, we risk depression and burn-out. We are encouraged to commit to the dictum that ‘nothing is impossible’, but as a consequence the opposite is also true, that nothing is possible. We can go on improving ourselves, fitting in, meeting new and more exacting targets, getting more for less without end, until we hollow ourselves out. There is no-one else to look to for help or guidance if we are all to be self-starting entrepreneurs. We are entirely responsible for our own futures, we must depend on ourselves rather than others. Continue reading