Systemic practice / Social Constructionism / Meaning-making / Coordination

A segment of a social network
A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


§ Introduction:

I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am writing this blog entry as a British/Polish professional male (45), single child of a single parent family from London. In my early career I studied information and communication systems and worked in the City of London and across Europe as a technical design consultant of wide area networks. My family life is shared with my partner and our children. We both live and work in East Anglia.

I work as a psychotherapist & family practitioner in private practice. My core clinical training was in Humanistic & Psychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy. I hold postgraduate degrees in Information Technology, Psychoanalytic History and Psychology.

For the last five years I have been deeply impressed by the systemic/relational approaches, methods and techniques and a concerted concern – more than ever, perhaps – with the patterns of connection which exist between people (Bateson, 1972), and, by implication, patterns of disconnection (Oliver, 2004).

Reflection in action: I should like to acknowledge my approach to personal and professional areas of my life as in transition; starting from a position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) of locating problems under intrapsychic psychologism I have shifted inexorably toward a systemic position using the communication perspective (i.e. both intrapsychic and interpersonal). I am grateful for the opportunity to come to this revised position so early in my therapeutic career and acknowledge the importance of the communication perspective in using the CMM lens to look at my relationships with others).

The coordinated management of meaning (CMM) rests upon the pragmatic concept that both meaning and action (i.e. meaningful action – pace Dewey), coextensively, inform how people make meaning, how they respond bodily and how they feel. For CMM these patterns of feeling, interpretation and action lead to possibilities and constraints in our shared communication and the creation of our social worlds. CMM allows us to position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) ourselves reflexively in relation to ourselves, others and the patterns and stories that we make (Oliver, 2004);

CMM can be thought of as a meta-theory derived from a postmodern communication perspective (see below); it is systemic, social constructionist, polysemous, critical, appreciative, subtle and complex.

§ Historical background

Post-psychoanalytic work from Bateson’s communication theories (e.g. Bateson, 1972, 1979) helped to instantiate a widely used approach to communication research (e.g. Bateson described levels of meaning in human systems as (1972: 201) “hierarchies of orders of recursiveness.”)

Therapists and researchers in the Palo Alto tradition shared a common view of therapy and research in that they understood both processes as being interactional and contextual. Their selection of these metaphors to study therapy remains a strong influence in the field to this day. Works like ‘Pragmatics of Human Communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes’ (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967/2011), offered a popular new model for strategic/solution-focused therapies, as presented in books such as ‘Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution’ (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974/2011) and ‘The Tactics of Change: Doing Therapy Briefly’ (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1982).

The clinical work of Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson viewed from a linguistics and language metaphor perspective contributed to the Strategic, Solution-Focused and Brief Solution-Focused and Neuro-Linguistic Programming approaches (Bandler & Grinder, 1975, 1979; Grinder & Bandler, 1981) to therapy and a formal notational system for human interaction (Grinder & Bandler, 1976). Bandler and Grinder matched the clinical work of Satir and Erickson with a multi- dimensional view of communication and language to produce a complex method to practice and describe therapeutic process.

In the Systemic-Milan-CMM tradition, Karl Tomm’s collaboration with Pearce and Cronen and other communication exponents (e.g. McNamee, Lannamann, & Tomm, 1983) contributed to a number of projects and papers created from a confluence of the circular notions of Milan therapy (Selvini-Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1980) with the circularity of a communication research approach proposed by CMM (Cronen, Johnson, & Lannamann, 1982; Pearce, 1976; Pearce & Cronen, 1980). As a result, Milan-style circularity in therapy took a reflexive turn with Tomm’s work (1987a, 1987b, 1988), and a turn towards curiosity with Gianfranco Cecchin’s therapy (Cecchin, 1987). A change in research, such as the notion of questions as interventions in therapy (Tomm & Lannamann, 1988), helped lead to the suggestion that research questions may also be seen as interventions and possibly as therapy (McNamee, 1988) and consultation tools, such as, reflexive inquiry (Oliver, 1992, 1996, 2004).

§ Social Constructionism

Burr (1995) acknowledges the major influence of Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) in the development of social constructionism (SC). In turn Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) acknowledge the influence of Mead, Marx, Schutz and Durkheim on their thinking. Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) therefore constitute a synthesis of these and other influences – for instance, de Beauvoir (1949/1972), when she writes: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

The origins of social constructionism can be traced in part to an interpretivist approach to social thought. Mead (1934), one of the originators of symbolic interactionism, and first wife of Gregory Bateson, can be viewed as forging a bridging narrative between the two fields. However, while SC and interpretivism may seem to share common philosophical roots, social constructionism does appear distinct from interpretivism. In common with constructionists, interpretivists in general focus on the process by which meanings are created, negotiated, sustained and modified (Schwandt, 2003). Proponents share the goal of understanding the world of lived experience from the perspective of those who live in it. Both arose as a challenge to scientism and have been influenced by the postmodernist movement. Interpretivism differentiates between the social and natural sciences and has as its goal the understanding of the meaning of social phenomena. While interpretivists value the human subjective experience, they seek to develop an objective science to study and describe it. There is then a tension evident between objective interpretations of subjective experiences. In other words, they attempt to apply a logical empiricist methodology to human inquiry. Thus, for Schwandt (2003) symbolic interactionism is an interpretative science.

Constructionists view knowledge and truth as created not discovered by the mind (Schwandt 2003) and supports the view that being a realist is not inconsistent with being a constructionist. One can believe that concepts are constructed rather than discovered yet maintain that they correspond to something real in the world. This is consistent with the idea of Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) and the subtle realism of Hammersley (1992) in that reality is socially defined but this reality refers to the subjective experience of everyday life; how the world is understood rather than to the objective reality of the natural world. As Steedman (2000) notes, most of what is known and most of the knowing that is done is concerned with trying to make sense of what it is to be human, as opposed to scientific knowledge. Individuals or groups of individuals define this reality. This branch of constructionism is unconcerned with ontological questions or questions of linear causation. It is worth emphasising this, since a lot of the criticisms of constructionism arise from ascribing claims to it made beyond this social understanding of the world.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) are concerned with the nature and construction of knowledge; how it emerges and how it comes to have significance for society. They view knowledge as created by the interactions of individuals within society as central to constructionism (Schwandt, 2003). For Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991), the division of labour, the emergence of more complex forms of knowledge and what they term economic surplus gives rise to expert knowledge, developed by people devoting themselves full-time to their subject. In turn, these experts lay claim to novel status and claim ultimate jurisdiction over that knowledge. For example, Hunter (1991) makes this claim for medicine, in that it has in time assumed much more control over defining illness and as a result has assumed control in situations well beyond its original mandate and so, enjoys a privileged position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) in society.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) view society as existing both as objective and subjective reality. The former is brought about through the interaction of people with the social world, with this social world in turn influencing people resulting in a form of habituation. That is, a frequently repeated action becomes cast into a pattern which can be reproduced without much effort. This habituated behaviour frees people to engage in innovation rather than starting everything anew. In time, the meaning of the habituated behaviour becomes embedded as a routine, forming a general store of knowledge. This knowledge is institutionalised by society to the extent that future generations experience this type of knowledge as objective. In addition, this form of objectivity may be continuously reaffirmed in the individual’s interaction with others.

The experience of society as subjective reality is achieved through primary, and to a lesser extent, secondary socialisation. The former involves being given an identity and a place in society. Indeed, Burr (1995) suggests that our identity originates not from inside the person but from the social realm. Socialisation takes place through significant others who mediate the objective reality of society, render it meaningful and in this way it is internalised by individuals (Berger & Luckmann, 1966/1991). This is done through the medium of language. Burr (1995) suggests that within social constructionism language makes thought and ideation possible and not the other way around. In SC Language is suggested to predate concept and provides a means of structuring the way the world is experienced.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) maintain that conversation is the most important means of maintaining, modifying and reconstructing subjective reality. Subjective reality is comprised of concepts that can be shared easily with others. That is, there is shared meaning and understanding (i.e. grounded theory), so much so that concepts do not need to be redefined each time they are used in everyday conversation and come to assume a reality which is more or less taken for granted.

Reflection in action: SC bricklaying analogy

• Layer one: Labelling, naming, defining of social phenomena
• Layer two: How the social world is categorised into different groups
• Layer three: How we value those different categories; and how we order those categories
• Layer four: How we reinforce or challenge the valuation of those orderings or categories; how we contest value; how power and power differentials may contest value

§ CMM: A Rule-based Theory of Interpersonal Communication (1976)

Pearce’s (1976) early interest in interpersonal communication sets out to provide an interpretive heuristic; that is to say, it is, says Pearce (1976: 18) in his words, “unabashedly theoretical, deliberately based on a set of assumptions different from recent orthodoxy, and self-consciously two levels of abstraction away from observable exchanges of messages.”

Pearce (1976) considers that the orthodox understanding of interpersonal communication has held to a view, according to Harré and Secord (1973: 27-28) cited in Pearce (1976: 18), informed by a set of assumptions (1.) a mechanistic model to account for humans (2.) a lineal conception of causality (3.) a positivist methodology. Pearce (1976) contrasts his [heterodox] theoretical perspective for CMM as (1.) a diverse set of models (2.) a set of alternative modes of explanation for human action (3.) social science characterised as pluralistic and naturalistic.

For Pearce (1976) the transactional nature of interpersonal communication goes beyond a listing of the rules or a description of how individuals follow rules since the outcome (i.e. verbal or non-verbal communication) is the result of a non-totalising input from more than one individual – i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thus a conversation which occurs may not resemble the rule-governed behaviours of either person seen independently. As a result, therefore, Pearce (1976) situates CMM as an explanation which must be able to account for [both] the effect of each person [locutor] on the other as well as [and] each person’s rule-governed behaviour.

One might say that for Pearce (1976) inclusiveness of different types of rules is an acknowledgement and an embrace of an important both/and position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) toward communication, that is, a holding-in-mind of the conceptual difference and reciprocity between how we communicate (process) and what we communicate (content).

Working from an assumption that human action is diverse and complex, and that each type of behaviour necessitates a different form of explanation, Pearce (1976) is led to a conclude that “a science which is appropriate for studying interpersonal communication must be pluralistic and naturalistic.” Here Pearce (1976) is explicitly contrasting normal science (i.e. natural science) (see Kuhn, 1970) – with its reliance on scientific method (objectivity, falsifiability, replication of results and hypothetico-deductive inferences) – against the state of social sciences at the time of writing. Pearce’s (1976: 19) call for “plurality and naturalism” in the study if interpersonal communication has its forebears in the privileging of the interpersonal realm within sociolinguistic theories of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard as well as chiming with the wider movements within the emergent paradigm of postmodernist thought (i.e. post-structuralism and deconstructionism).

Pearce (1976: 20) helps us to better understand interpersonal communication problems by locating these problems as problems at the level of both meaning-making (within episodes) and coordination (across episodes) (see below). Here episodes are defined as, following Harré and Secord (1973: 153): “any part of human life, involving one or more people, in which some internal structure can be determined.” It is clearly an imprecise definition, useful precisely because of its imprecision: for episodes can be enacted and/or determined by actors rather than observers, episodes may vary widely in scope and breadth, and the definition is interpersonal (intersubjective) not merely personal (subjective). Pearce (1976: 21) goes on to differentiate between three “referents” for episodes as he sees them and indicates that problems occur in their coordination: Episodes1, Episodes2 and Episodes3.

• Episodes1 “consist of patterns of meaning and behaviours which are culturally sanctioned and which exist independently of any particular individual or dyad.” These include social institutions and ritualised behaviours. (Pearce states that these are public symbols identical with the concept of “significant symbols” outlined by Mead (1934))

• Episodes2 “consist of patterns of meanings and behaviours in the minds of individuals and are similar to discussions of images, plans, acts, or definitions of situations” These are private symbols which express intention or actions relating to how one participates in social interaction.

• Episodes3 “consist of the communicators’ interpretation of the actual sequence of messages which they jointly produced.” They are “episodes-as-coenacted following Cicoural’s (1974) notion for an “assumption of reciprocal perspectives” and Garfinkel’s (1967) notion of background expectancies.”
Pearce (1976) uses Kelly’s (1955) psychological theory of personal constructs (Constructive Alternativism) to elaborate the importance not just of coordination between and across episodes, but, also, in the service of predicting divergent outcomes in terms of agreement and disagreement, and, confirmation and disconfirmation. This prediction of divergence and polysemy is not also without considerable meaning to Pearce (1976), and is an important feature of his thinking put to the service of better understanding the as yet unexpressed with meaning-making, as we shall see later.

For Kelly (1955) we may recall his general theory of personal constructs, where he suggested that even within a culture, individuals tend to develop their own idiosyncratic ways of characterising others. The influence of Kelly’s (1955: 3) Constructive Alternativism on CMM and more generally on social science cannot be understated owing to his considerable influence on interpersonal communication:

Reflection in action: implications of Kelly’s (1955) PCT

• Objective reality is less important than intersubjective reality (for social sciences)
• Emphasis on how events are construed
• People choose different construal’s
• Choice underpins people’s meaning-making and actions

Thus to Kelly’s (1955) thought people possess different personal construct systems which develop adaptively over time and these people are in-themselves likely to become habituated towards these constructs when forming their understanding from the perceived impression of others. Constructs are in turn reliant upon Anticipation/Prediction and Construct. (These two processes were mapped by Kelly (1961a) onto a grid termed the repertory grid technique.)

Nonetheless, having noted the important implications (i.e. plurality and polysemy) freighted by Kelly’s (1955) personal construct theory and the implications for better coordination and the challenges to coordination obtaining from this premise, Pearce (1976: 26-27) goes on to examine rule-governed behaviours from a naturalistic perspective and uses the terms constitutive rules and regulative rules. Here constitutive rules are defined as the rules in establishing acts/meanings which are required for the episode to be enacted and regulative rules as the array of allowable acts from which the person may choose from. Both of these descriptions of rules may be validated by comparing them to the actors’ perceptions and behaviours, although the actors themselves should not also be expected to be fully aware of or able to articulate either set of rules or their meanings.

Thus if communicators (interlocutors) are following the same rules their coordination problems are easy and an observer could readily describe their conversation (episode3) by identifying the rules. However problems may arise in coordinating the management of meaning and describing the ensuing conversation when the communicators follow different rules (e.g. their episodes2 are different) (Pearce, 1976: 28). Pearce (1976: 28) suggests that “a researcher must identify those sequences which are based on consensually shared rules and those which are not.”

Pearce (1976: 29) offers a practical syllogism (see Von Wright, 1971) as an explanatory tool for exploring each person’s rule governed actions.

1. A wishes B to occur;
2. A knows/believes that he must do X if B is to occur;
3. Therefore A does X.


A is a person
B is an episode, and
X is a particular behaviour given meaning by its location in the episode.

For Pearce the coordination problem is one traced to a difference in one or both of the premises (1. or 2.), and the communication problem may be explained by contrasting those syllogisms which explain the behaviour of each individual (3.).

In this way Pearce (1976:30-31) is able to address the scientifistic concern of those critics of CMM’s capacity to predict and confers at least some ability to control – “but in a special way consistent with its own assumptions” – interpersonal communication. A theory of social action, such as CMM, may therefore “develop propositions about communication situations in which coordination problems are likely, about persons who will be more or less able to coordinate their management of meanings with specific others, and about the effect of using particular coordination strategies.” Moreover, entirely consistent with the premise of pluralism mentioned earlier (p. 18), some propositions may or may not conform to a linear causal explanatory model – indeed, Pearce (1976: 31) acknowledges that some on-going patterns of interpersonal communication may be accounted for as systemic in nature (Watzlawick et al., 1967 in Pearce, 1976). In so doing Pearce (1976) is clearly aware of the actuality that from a systemic perspective communication does not necessarily find purchase through reliance on a linear causal explanation (but rather on a reliance upon both teleological and circular – recursive – causal explanations).

In addition, emergent propositions, such as those located through the systemic view of communication – say, the use of metacommunication as a negotiation strategy using CMM – lead Pearce (1976: 31) to surmise “an irreversible increase in the level of their [clients] self-awareness” and “an assumption of causality (or necessary interdependency) among the components of the communication system.”

That is, not only does Pearce (1976) firmly hold to a belief that self-awareness is a beneficial corollary affect, but also, and importantly, that he is led to suggest the presence of a necessary interdependency (or alternative causal relation) among the various component episodes which in concert form the basis of the CMM theory of interpersonal communication. This is a single, barely explicated sentence in the overall text written in a scholarly passive tense, yet it is one, I believe, where the impact of the sentiment conveyed could so easily be overlooked; to my thought this small section of the text represents an ecliptic reference to what Pearce later in the endnotes alludes to as reflexivity (1976: 33n6).

§ CMM – Research base & “the communication perspective” (1980)

Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) book on CMM expands upon suggestions made earlier by Pearce (1976) and Cronen, Pearce and Snavely (1979) that took seriously the empirical possibility for social research from a “communication perspective.” That is, Pearce & Cronen (1980) is written from a meta-theoretical perspective which might provide an overarching edifice from which all of the social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology, linguistics, communications theory, etc.) might be surveyed.

Pearce and Cronen (1980: 273-283) used a serpentine (timeline) model to track both (‘Jan’ and ‘Dave’ study) participants interpretations of sequential episodes over time. This study provided empirical support for the somewhat counterintuitive suggestion that ‘good’ communication does not necessarily require understanding. It soon became clear that CMM could produce some quite unexpected results. In another study (p. 216-223) Harris, Cronen & Lesch asked students to describe the communication competences of “newly met conversationalists.” The results obtained suggested shifting patterns in which individual competence correlated to the structure of the social system.

This finding was suggested to support CMM’s perspective on interpersonal communication as a complex, fluid and plastic concept rather than supporting a mechanistic, linear view of social action.

A’s social world:

Story of self: confident, successful

Relationship: mutually supportive Episode: damage control

Episode: annual performance review Relationship: victim/victimizer

Episode: annual performance review

Relationship: purely professional

Self: competent and tired of having to cover for Bill’s mistakes

B’s social world:

Adapted from Pearce (2006) Serpentine model

§ Cronen, Johnson and Lannamann (1982)

This article presented a new theory of reflexivity in systems of social meaning and action. Cronen et al. (1982) argue that Russell’s Theory of Logical Types, which formed the basis of the early work of the Palo Alto group (e.g. Bateson, Haley, Weakland, etc.), rests upon an inappropriate and largely outdated epistemology. The theory offered here by Cronen et al. (1982) rejects the assumption that reflexivity and paradox have the same or coincident boundaries. It is further argued that reflexivity is a natural and necessary feature of human systems of meaning. New analytic tools are offered for discerning problematic from nonproblematic reflexive loops. Their new tools take the form of a symbol that can be used to represent the rules that organize reflexive relationships. Cronen et al. (1982) theory also contains a set of statements designed to restrict conditions under which problematic reflexive loops have consequences for a person’s mental wellbeing.

§ Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985)

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) introduce the possibility of offering a dialectical account of higher order social change without advancing a fixed overarching grammar for social change, whilst, preserving qualities of radical transformation and continuity based on a natural and plural basis. Their choice is CMM theory.

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) believe that radical transformation takes place (i.e. phase 4 in their 0-7 phase model) where an inversion of hierarchical order takes place. In this way episodic patterns have become inverted with life scripts and family scripts – at the next higher orders of context. The practical example is offered of family A, whom, it seems, have become habituated to examining every instance of life script and place in the family myth from within a [dislocated] context of each particular social encounter. As a consequence they are quite stuck in unwanted repetitive patterns (URPs) between, on the one hand, what they do and how they relate to others, and their life scripts and family myth on the other.

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm’s (1985) paper neither offers nor suggests a deterministic or probabilistic law of change. Rather it is the case that Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) do offer a CMM-based modelling option of and for higher order change using a suite of principles concerning time, consciousness, action, hierarchy, and recursivity.

§ Post-Milan: from Neutrality to Curiosity (1987)

Just as Maria Selvini Palazzoli (1974) had described her transition from psychoanalysis to systemic practice under the influence of Haley (1963) and Watzlawick et al. (1967) so too Gianfranco Cecchin (1987; 1992) describes the evolution of his approach from structure toward constructionism.

Cecchin (1992) outlines the evolution in his theory and practice as informed by three main shifts in his emphasis and, therein, his approach:

• Energy to Information
• Entities to Social constructions
• Family to therapist

A closer look at the shifts in emphasis in Cecchin’s work may reveal much about how he, in a position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) of systemic trainer and theorist, might explain the evolution in his systemic ideas.

In 1987 Cecchin wrote what was later to become a seminal systemic paper. Entitled, Hypothesizing, Circularity, and Neutrality Revisited: An Invitation to Curiosity, Cecchin’s (1987) paper subtly delivered an epistemological bombshell in the form of a reply to the Milan teams’ paper describing the foundation of their working principles (Hypothesizing – Circularity – Neutrality, Selvini et al., 1980).

In his paper, Cecchin (1987) sought to re-examine the principle concepts contained in Selvini et al (1980) Milan systemic manifesto and instead assert his new conviction that therapeutic neutrality in action and language was nothing more or less than an ideal – for family system and therapist alike – which simply could not ever be realised. Cecchin feels impelled to make it clear that he now knows that it is impossible to be neutral.

Cecchin (1987) had looked back upon his former foundational principles of working (i.e. hypothesising, circularity and neutrality) and made the following observations:

• Hypothesising is a technique
• Curiosity is a framework for working (i.e. a systemic approach)
• Hypotheses are stories told (i.e. only of use for as long as they remain relevant)

Thus, looking again at Selvini et al. (1980) one might be drawn to summarise as follows:

• Approach – Neutrality
• Method – Circularity / Paradox
• Technique – Hypothesis

Whereas, a close look at Cecchin (1987; 1992) might result in a subtle difference with quite significant contextual implications for systemic work:

• Approach – Curiosity / Reflexivity toward co-constructed meaning
• Method – Circularity / Questions replacing statements
• Technique – Hypothesis

Cecchin (1987) goes on to reposition the concept of curiosity as defining his approach to systemic thought and action. Cecchin argues that once the ideal approach of therapeutic neutrality is no longer tenable it ought to be replaced by something – curiosity – inherently more flexible and characteristic of an openness toward lived experience and the uncertainties of lived experience, for only then are we more able to become better helpers and/or systemic practitioners; not worse, not stuck merely in a series of techniques without ever questioning their or our own efficacy (Cecchin, 1987: 5): “… when our neutral position ceases to help us generate hypotheses, we have, no doubt, lost our curiosity and become social controllers.”

He continues by proposing a framework, an approach, to systemic practice, which he views as the crucial – though unexplored – underpinning for the original Milan team’s (see Selvini et al., 1980) founding principles, he writes (1987: 5): “If we are curious, we question premises – our own and those of the family we are treating. A family’s interactions with us should facilitate questioning our own premises. Not only are we intervening in their systems, but families are also intervening in our systems – helping us to become better systemic thinkers. The idea of a recursive relationship among neutrality, hypothesizing, and circularity, as guiding principles, proposes a framework that invites us to be more curious about symptoms in therapy – those of families as well as of therapists.”

§ Neutrality – an irreducible moral dimension: Lang, Little & Cronen (1990)

Lang, Little and Cronen (1990) suggest a consistent view with which to identify different types of action/activity from a systemic position of co-constructed realities. They lean heavily on Maturana’s (1985) concept of domains of knowledge: aesthetics, explanations and production. Long et al. (1990) are led to conclude that an appreciation of Maturana’s (1985) domain concept raises vital questions about the nature of neutrality within and across the domains which he views as spanning the professional systemic field.

Lang et al. (1990) suggest that ‘morality’ and ‘a moral posture’ are necessary features of any approach which spans the domains of aesthetics, explanation or production. In so doing they recall Aristotle’s (see Poetics) concept of a position in relational context across and between theory and practice, praxis. Lang et al. (1990) conclude that as systemic practice is intimately interested in human action – and by definition in these domains of knowledge (see above) – then a moral posture ought to be a necessary principle of any systemic approach/framework.

§ Approach Method and Technique: A model for identifying differences (1992)

Burnham’s (1992) paper outlines a coherent model for differentiating between types of systemic activity and how those activities might be viewed as relating when working within a systemic practice framework. We will then see whether and how Burnham’s (1992) AMT model might also be useful to understand both the movement of approaches, methods and techniques from Milan (e.g. Selvini et al., 1978) to post-Milan (e.g. Cecchin, 1987) and CMM (e.g. Pearce and Cronen, 1980; Cronen, Johnson and Lannamann, 1982; Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) in the service of a coherent structure for a more general understanding of the implications of social constructionist thought on systemic thought during this period.

In his paper Burnham (1992) suggests that his systemic understanding can be explained using an Approach – Method – Technique (AMT) model. The AMT model seeks to make clear both the context for and the implications of deriving meaning from a hierarchically organised, theoretically and clinically coherent, and recursively connected systemic model of working (following CMM, see below). Burnham’s (1992) influences are many and varied, however he plainly locates meaning as something derived from a context (pace Bateson 1972) and the two terms themselves (i.e. context and meaning) as acting in a recursive relation to one another (pace Pearce & Cronen, 1980; see below CMM).

Burnham (1992) locates and offers to define each term in the AMT model in the following way:

• Approach – Lenses and dispositions in a recursive relation; Reliant upon abstraction – learning to learn (see Bateson, 1974); e.g. family system understood as if a human system.
• Method – Different practices which serve to organise an approach e.g. use and appreciation of circularity (both in terms of questioning and causality).
• Technique – Different activities organising a method through practices, tools, training and therapeutic skills; Reliant upon rote learning (see Bateson, 1974); e.g. hypothesising.

And, thus, we might chose to visualise Burnham’s (1992) AMT model using the following three tier hierarchy:

• Approach
o Method
 Technique

It is worth noting that just as an overarching context (i.e. A →M) acts by contextual force in a downward direction upon the meaning of a sub context, so too, there might also exist an implicative force acting upwards upon and changing the meaning of the contextual setting above (i.e. T→M).

Given this relation between a strong contextual force and a weaker implicative force it is possible to designate the relation between AMT as hierarchical, coherent and recursive (i.e. A↔M↔T) following Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) suggestion for coordinating and managing systemic thought and practice.

§ Tracking: Hedges (2005)

Hedges (2005) is interested to investigate how it is that in co-constructing futures we (as systemic practitioners) are attending to the minutiae of grammar, metaphor, noticing the hidden-obvious and slowing ourselves in our work. Hedges (2005) is keen to point out that using these techniques allows us to better track the episodes of our work with families, and, therein, to expose the myth surrounding the notion of systemic work as somehow discreet from depth/exploratory work (i.e. psychodynamics).

He introduces and questions the possibility of a greater correspondence between notions of ‘depth’ and ‘breadth’. He questions whether the demarcation of ‘depth’ as a psychodynamic preserve is sustainable in the light cast by philosophy of language (e.g. Wittgenstein, 1953), systemic thought (e.g. Anderson, 1997) and co-constructionist (CMM) theories (e.g. Cronen, 1990; Cronen & Pearce, 1991) of making/managing social reality and meaning which would indicate otherwise.

Hedges (2005) utilises Bruner’s (1986) notion of metaphor as a ‘crutch’ to begin his investigation into the tracking techniques which might bring mutual benefit or insight. Bruner (1986) suggests that metaphor enable us to navigate meanings that, once utilised, can be discarded or hidden from view. Hedges (2005) suggests that in tracking metaphors – others’ and our own – is crucial to the better exploration and questioning of the co-construction of meaning in the work. Indeed, Hedges (2005) links metaphor and their use to the collective folk wisdom (see C. G. Jung) of the contextual background culture/society. Adding to this rich gestalt the clear difficulties which arise when/if one allows metaphor to remain unexplored, invisible or untold (see LUUUTT model of CMM).

Following Anderson (1997), Hedges (2005) also suggests that tracking an episode also requires slowing down the stories told. That is, slowing the natural pace of a normal dialogical flow. This technique is suggested as a counter measure to ‘knowing’, and, by implication only, may increase curiosity.

Attending to language does not mean only attending to spoken language. Non-verbal communication is a powerful form of communication which Hedges is keen to explore, again, in the service of techniques which can help in the exploration of co-constructed meaning-making. We must, urges Hedges (2005), attend carefully to exploring the range of full bodily communications of the other (see Tom Anderson, 1990).

Tracking also entails noticing. Hedges (2005) suggests that simplicity and familiarity can act to hide aspects of actual experience. That is to say, familiarity can sometimes obfuscate noticing what is in front of one’s nose. Hedges (2005) reiterates the importance of the notion of noticing bodily communications (i.e. non-verbal communications) as these can give us vital information to enrich the meaning/s available in a specific episode. However, Hedges (2005) is swift to point out that when one is noticing things are not simply found, instead, they are always co-constructed through joint action (see Shotter, 1993; 1995). This insight into the technique of noticing allows Hedges (2005) to conclude that episodes are always temporary, unfinished and composed of punctuations (pace Jackson and Bateman in Watzlawick et al., 1967).

Hedges (2005) recalls Pearce’s (1994) notion that ‘social worlds are too complex to perceive … all at once’ and thus reminds his reader of Bateson’s (1972) suggestion that ‘we divide experiences into frames’. By pointing to frames theory, Hedges (2005) is also following Goffman’s (1974) notion that frames turn what would otherwise be meaningless into something that is meaningful. Not so dissimilar one might say to Bateson’s (1972; 1974) famous ideas about the intimate relation and multi-laying which exists between context and meaning.

Frame theory closely looks at our frames of reference, say:

• Time
• Boundaries / Liminality
• Structure

It is, for Hedges (2005), in the appreciation of the multi-laying of episodes (see Bateson, 1974; Cronen and Pearce, 1982) which allows for a broader, deeper construal of the co-constructed and recursive (reflexive) nature of both episodes and frames. Hedges (2005) provides the following example of multi-layered frames and contexts which may commonly appear in an episode:

• Stories about the (current) relationship
• Stories related to the clients family
• Personal identity stories
• Religious stories
• Gender stories
• Cultural, ethnic, racial, colour stories
• Cultural and societal stories

The example above appears to be a good fit with the LUUUTT model of CMM (see LUUUTT model; Pearce Associates, v1.1, 1991). But what if, Hedges (2005) asks, one feels like one ought to act in certain way under certain circumstances regardless for any evidence that acting in that way is or has ever been beneficial? Here then, Hedges (2005) is calling our attention to the presence of so-named de-ontic logic in lived experience. An example might be something which informs our understanding and situates us towards certain contexts and seemingly automated responses – much like morality can shape our actions because of preconceptions of what is received to be ‘right’ or ‘good’ (see G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 1993).

§ Making Social Worlds: Pearce (2007)

Pearce (2007) stresses the importance of the communication perspective. He strongly suggests that one ought to look at this perspective and not merely through it. That is, Pearce (2007: 1) urges the reader to “develop our ability to identify (critical moments) and act wisely in these moments.” Pearce is convinced that powerful forces are pulling us forward and backward as a species and he invites us to consider some communication abilities – a communication perspective – which might in fact move us upwards.

Pearce (2007) appears keen to look into the future; a future where he apprehends a growing tension across societies between the demands of communication and technology. Pearce (2007) cautions his reader not to follow blindly in the tracks of those who have acted in the name of progress by repeating the same mistakes over and over. Instead, Pearce (2007) states his conviction that real progress comes from a re-positioning towards difference.

Pearce (2007) might be suggesting that progress is often viewed in first-order terms – when, for instance, we ought to be able to recognise a moral dimension (see Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) which may necessitate a greater, wider sense of urgency. Pearce (2007) leans on Gladwell’s (2000) notion of a ‘tipping-point’ and situates his concern for the adoption of the communication perspective as acting upward progress in terms of upward evolutionary progress.

Pearce’s (2007) retelling of the tragic events of 11th Sept 2001 is poignant and subtle insofar as drawing his readers’ attention to the important background information lacking from most media sources of the time. Pearce (2007) sees these gaps as important mistakes in communicating a story with seemingly little regard paid to how apportioning blame, victimhood and persecution might affect the lives of a great many innocent people with no connection to the disaster save their common cultural identity.

He provides a framework of a different approach as possessing the following characteristics:

• Constructing a richer narrative of the other, ourselves and the historical context
• Constructing a more systemic description of events; beyond the jejune use of misleading binary oppositions, such as ‘us’ and ‘them’ / ‘win’ and ‘lose’ / ‘good and ‘evil’
• Facilitating awareness of implicative and contextual forces and noting responsibility for contributing to the pattern in which we find ourselves; also, noting the opportunities for acting in new, novel ways – not merely reacting in obvious familiar ways.
• Changing the context of ‘ground theory’
• Attending to generative (‘appreciative’) narratives as far more productive than degenerative (‘deficit’) narratives e.g. “Your culture lacks …”, or “Your culture is wrong because …”

Reflection in action: I use this model regularly to track episodes in my work with families.

Stories lived


Stories told

Stories told by clients sometimes exhibit a limitation of vocabulary in the area of description connecting meaning and action. The concept of deontic logic (see von Wright, 1971) produces a heuristic model of the “oughtness” that people may feel within specific moments (or episodes). The combination of this oughtness is termed the “logical force.”

Context 1 (e.g., self-concept)
Context 2 (e.g., relationship)

Context 3 (e.g., episode)

Antecedent act action Consequent act

There are recurrent patterns in communication which may create difficulties. Using CMM theorists have become aware (e.g. Cronen, Johnson & Lannamann, 1982; Cronen, Pearce & Tomm, 1985; Oliver, 2004) of these patterns and developed a number of ways to invite clients to escape them. These patterns include unwanted repetitive patterns (URPs), strange loops, charmed loops, unanticipated consequences and reciprocated diatribes (Pearce 2006).

Cultural story / Relationship story / Identity story

Episodic pattern

Feeling: I feel pressured ≠ I feel relief

Interpretation: I don’t feel confident I feel confident

Action: I should not speak ≠ I can speak freely

Adapted from Oliver (2004) revised strange loop model

Here in the example above the episodic pattern is one of a polarizing defensive pattern which has been termed a ‘strange loop’. The strange loop is a kind of hypothesis or narrative (story) which can take the form of a paradoxical figure-of-eight pattern.

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One thought on “Systemic practice / Social Constructionism / Meaning-making / Coordination

  1. Thanks Paul for the experience of affinity when I met you on line
    I am an elementary school counselor in Vancouver Canada who views the world within communicative praxis. Will return
    Larry purss

    Liked by 1 person

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