Tag Archives: GH Mead

Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows. Continue reading


The social brain

The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) has begun a Social Brain Project which intends challenging the idea that we are rational, isolated individuals acting autonomously. Bringing together insights from neuroscience and the behavioural sciences the project will research what difference it makes to assume that we are social inter-dependent beings for a broad range of social provision. This project appears to be making an interesting contribution to thinking about social selves and draws on the work of Antonio Damasio, amongst others. Damasio’s research demonstrates that emotions play a significant part in our cognitive processes.

These insights will already be familiar to readers of this and other blogs which have taken up the work of GH Mead, Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu and others, whose writings are based on the idea of social selves, the ‘we’ of society being made up of interdependent ‘I’s. Continue reading

Accountability to whom?

‘He who would do good to another’, wrote the poet William Blake, ‘must do so in the minute particulars’. I was reminded of this quotation when undertaking some work recently in an NGO, which, like many NGOs has an explicit moral mission, and where this mission is adduced by managers in support of various schemes of management. Such and such an initiative is being undertaken because of our commitment to be accountable to the poor and marginalised, or this particular change is needed so that we can demonstrate our accountability to our beneficiaries. As we have noted in previous posts, these broad, idealised values are very important and make us who we are. In this case there is an attempt to broaden the circle of empathy beyond the ambit of our immediate acquaintance to include the poor and excluded about whom it is easy to forget in the hurly burly of our privileged lives.

However, my suspicion is always aroused when senior managers justify certain actions with an appeal to such broad and abstract idealisations, particularly if in so doing they then end up by treating people badly in their immediate organisation.  An appeal to values or a moral mission is also a form of social control. The initial moral impulse is used to justify subsequent actions which can themselves be questionable. It is good to be reminded of our commitments to what in international development is known as the majority world, but empathy and compassion towards a collective is not separable from empathy and compassion towards the people I am immediately working with, it arises out of it. It is hard to maintain a commitment to a generalisation, which is why human interest stories in the media and in charitable fundraising material makes more concrete what it is that moves us about the human experience of others like ourselves. In the philosopher GH Mead’s terms, it enables us to take the attitude of the other – we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Continue reading

Leading groups: participation and improvising into the unknown

I have been invited to talk to a disparate group of managers about leadership. I have no idea what people’s experience of leadership is, what they think they are coming to, or how they will react to what I have to say. I tell them that one of the themes of my talk is that leadership is a social experience. Given the ungrounded nature of most of the literature on leadership, as I have discussed in previous posts, the best definition of what it is that we are talking about might be that leadership is a social phenomenon that we all recognise when we experience it. A leader is someone whom we recognise  leading.

If this is the starting point, one of the principles of running the session, where I will be temporarily leading them in a discussion of leadership, is that we all actively participate together, so that we can reflect upon what it is we are engaged in. This will involve me restraining myself from telling them what leadership is for hours on end, but engaging them in a way that recognises their experience so that we might explore together what we mean by what we say. I talk and pause, talk and pause, and in the pauses participants begin to react to what I’ve been saying, sometimes to challenge it, sometimes to agree and develop the argument, sometimes to say something which is completely tangential to what I have been talking about. These varying responses present me with dilemmas about how to go on, what to respond to in the sometimes quite lengthy questions/statements that people offer. Given that this event is about trying to engage whomsoever chooses to come, I try to respond in some way, to recognise, whatever people have to offer. Continue reading

Being transparent

windowIn the world of international development the concept of  ‘transparency’ is what the philosopher GH Mead called a cult value. On the one  hand, Mead said, cult values are part of our heritage and make us what we are: so our belief in fairness, for example  has played an important part of how we think of ourselves and how our society has developed. However, cult values are idealisations shorn of all constraint and describe states which we are very unlikely ever to achieve. They become cult values in Mead’s terms when there is a threat of exclusion for those who express disagreement with or dissention from the value. In the United States it is a serious charge to be thought of as being anti-business, in the UK it is a serious accusation to be thought of as cheating. So in the world of international development it would be hard to make a case against being transparent.

Predominantly transparency has been taken up as an issue between those governments and donors from the North and institutions in the South who receive money from them.  In other words, donors require those they are donating to, to be transparent with what they are doing with the money. More recently the theme of transparency has become more reflexive as staff in donor agencies have begun to think about how they can make their practices more transparent to their partner agencies in the South and those communities ultimately they aim to benefit. In general, those likely to be the least transparent are those large and powerful institutions who are making demands of transparency of others.

On the one hand there is clearly a lot to commend the idea of opening up our practices to those we work with, and for them to do so to us so that we might increase trust and the quality of our working relationship. However, to believe that this is always possible, or even desirable in all cases is to ignore the power relationships between people which constrain total openness. Equally,  day to day secrets and partial disclosures are necessary to maintain organisational life. Even with long term and trusted colleagues there are sometimes areas of the relationship which are difficult to address and it may not even be productive to do so.

I was recently supporting two teams who had been working together on a project and who had met together to discuss how this had gone. The discussion seemed to me, as a sympathetic outsider, to be very frank and open, but then found myself being drawn into side conversations by staff from one team or another about what they thought was really going on. To a certain extent this is inevitable and may even sustain the more public conversation which is taking place. It was not a way of plotting against, or decrying members of the other team, but a way of making sense of what was being said and rehearsing and testing out how open and transparent to be.

So it is between organisations, often in the South, who receive money and those who donate it. When one side is in need of money and the other side has it there is automatically a relationship of power which will condition the way that transparency is practised. There will be all kinds of situations where both sides will be wrestling with what transparency actually means in the day to day engagement: how much to say, how much to leave unsaid and how much actively to cover over. To do so is a requirement of generative relations. Those in less powerful situations have a lot more to lose by being fully transparent and are also exposed to greater humiliation and shame, particularly if the transparency is unequal.

In situations where there is an accusation of a ‘lack of transparency’ there is often a lot more going on than simple dishonesty. As an ideal transparency can only be particularlised in particular situations between particular people who will have their own evolving history of engagement. And it takes a lot more negotiation seriously to understand what might be going on.

Why reflect? Managing without foundations

There is a struggle going on in the UK at the moment between the talking therapies, counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and the government. The government would like to regulate those offering therapy and get them to become members of the Health Professions Council, the main regulatory body of all health professionals except doctors and nurses, who have regulatory bodies of their own. The government’s preferred intervention for the public’s mental health is cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, which as the name suggests is based in behaviourist theories of human action. The effectiveness of CBT is more demonstrable and therefore more scientific, the government would claim, because changes in behaviour are observable, and therefore measurable. In order to regulate the talking therapies the governement has produced draft legislation which describes some hundreds of rules which an encounter between those seeking therapy and those offering it would be required to meet. Without such explicit rules and standards, the government would argue, there is no way of objectively regulating what is going on.

Supporters of the talking therapies have responded with indignation. Their arguments are that the encounter between therapist and those seeking therapy is an improvisational and exploratory conversation, the outcome of which is not specifiable in advance. The therapeutic relationship is not necessarily a problem-solving relationship: it may not primarily be about trying to stop smoking, or having panic attacks in public, but it is a relational journey of joint discovery, although ‘problems’ might be ‘solved’ along the way. Exploration may simply lead to more exploration, questioning to more questioning. The ‘outcome’ will arise out of the quality of the relationship of those embarking together on the conversation.

The arguments for  talking therapies and what they might mean for human development and learning are similar to some of the arguments for reflective and reflexive practice that I have been setting out in this blog, arguments which can sometimes be reduced and made simplistic. For example, recently the Broker online magazine summed up a paper I had written by putting forward the idea that my conclusion was simply to recommend reflection, reflection, reflection. But why reflect, and what kind of working method does it imply? To make sense, reflection requires a little more reflection itself.

Reflection in the professional domain is not directly intended to give rise to therapeutic outcomes, although this is not to say that these do not sometimes happen. The case for it is similar to that being made by supporters of the talking therapies in the UK, however, that is intended to be open ended, improvisational and undertaken with no particular end in view. In this sense, unlike most management methods which are taken up in organisations, it does not aim for optimisation: there is no abstract quest for the ideal system, or ways of working based in ‘best practice’. There is no ‘broken society’ waiting to be fixed, as the leader of the opposition in the UK would have it. Reflection dwells upon lived experience with the intention of intensifying it, and in doing so the reflector can sometimes come to understand themselves and their relationships anew: they become reflexive. The kind of knowledge that is most likely to arise from reflective practice, both individual and collective, is self-knowledge, rather than the instrumentalised understanding that one can sometimes derive from knowledge-oriented writing that somehow all knowledge is action or problem-oriented.

Reflection is not necessarily inclined towards answers, solutions and conclusions, but rather to doubt, questioning and uncertainty. This is in no way a despairing uncertainty however, simply one which implies further openness to experience. It assumes that things are mutable, ever-changing, without permanent foundations. In this sense there is a profound discipline here, and a dialectical method of never being satisfied with answers that would close off further questioning. Being open to new collective meaning-making  is a recognition of our inter-dependence and the otherness of others. In reflecting with others we are using our conscious and self-conscious capacity which is what most distinguishes us as being human, our ability as GH Mead said, to take ourselves as an object to ourselves.

Reflective and reflexive practice will incline us towards doubting the very instruments of management that have become so ubiquitous in organisations that we have come to take them for granted. In order to respond to the new and the unexpected, our inevitably changing circumstances, we may want to explore instead managing without foundations.