Tag Archives: Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry II – AI and the positive psychology movement

In an article called ‘The Happy Warrior’, which draws on a poem by Wordsworth of the same name, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum takes aim at the positive psychology movement, which is one of the contributing influences on Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Nussbaum is drawn to Aristotle, Wordsworth and Mill because they develop a highly nuanced and subtle understanding of what is broadly termed happiness, or positive states of mind, in the positive psychology literature.  She is offended by what she terms the ‘conceptual breeziness’ of the positive psychology movement and argues that it is often highly reductive of what is a nuanced and subtle area of human concern. For Nussbaum, it is impossible to reduce the idea of happiness to a single, one-dimensional metric so that it suits the quantitative calculations of cognitive empirical research into subjective states, which is the bread and butter of positive psychology.

It is worth rehearsing some of her arguments here, since a lot of what she says also applies to AI, which focuses relentlessly on the positive to the exclusion of the more problematic aspects of organisational life.

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Appreciative Inquiry as a variety of religious experience

In an article in the journal AI (Appreciative Inquiry) Practitioner in 2012, the author and AI practitioner Gervase Bushe quotes from some of his personal correspondence with one of the founders of AI, David Cooperrider. They had both been deliberating over the reflexive turn that AI scholarship has taken during the last few years, where it has begun to acknowledge what it refers to as the ‘shadow side’ of organisational life, which practitioners have begun to worry may have been covered over by an appreciative approach, or even may be provoked by it. Cooperrider is tempted to resist this critical development, concerned as he is at the possible reintroduction of what he considers ‘deficit modelling’ and draws on William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience to describe a kind of ‘hot and alive’ state that he is trying to engender: ‘I think we are still on this quest for a full-blown non-deficit theory of change…Whether someone would call the initiating experience ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, the transformational moment is a pro-fusion moment when something so deeply good and loving is touched in us that everything is changed…I don’t think we  really understand the possibilities of that kind of change that kind of change yet and we aren’t going to until we take this to the extremes.’

Although he slightly mangles the quotation in Bushe’s article, Cooperrider  is drawing from one of James’ chapters on religious conversion, where he describes the psychological changes which occur when someone experiences a profound religious conversion: ‘All we know is that there are dead feeling, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crytallize about it.’ James argues that such experiences can be transformative and create new and stable states of equilibrium. The new state of conversion is experienced by the individual as overcoming a divided and wavering self, which has previously comprised a lower and higher part of him or herself. To experience religious belief is to identify with the higher part:

He becomes conscious that this higher part is coterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.

Cooperrider, via James, is making a direct claim for what he clearly considers to be the spiritual and transcendental potential of AI, that by enquiring into the good we can transform people, and institutions, to the good. Continue reading