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Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life



This chapter presents a conceptual refiguration of action-research based on a "sociorationalist" view of science. The position that is developed can be summarized as follows: For action-research to reach its potential as a vehicle for social innovation it needs to begin advancing theoretical knowledge of consequence; that good theory may be one of the best means human beings have for affecting change in a postindustrial world; that the discipline's steadfast commitment to a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination and contribution to knowledge; that appreciative inquiry represents a viable complement to conventional forms of action-research; and finally, that through our assumptions and choice of method we largely create the world we later discover.
David L. Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva
This chapter presents a conceptual refiguration of action-research based on a
"sociorationalist" view of science. The position that is developed can be summarized
as follows: For action-research to reach its potential as a vehicle for social innovation
it needs to begin advancing theoretical knowledge of consequence; that good theory
may be one of the best means human beings have for affecting change in a
postindustrial world; that the discipline's steadfast commitment to a problem-solving
view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination and contribution to
knowledge; that appreciative inquiry represents a viable complement to conventional
forms of action-research; and finally, that through our assumptions and choice of
method we largely create the world we later discover.
Research in Organizational Change and Development, Vol.1, pages 129-169.
Copyright © 1987 by JAI Press Inc.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.
ISBN: 0-89232-4749-9
We are sometime truly to see our life as positive, not negative, as made up of
continuous willing, not of constraints and prohibition.
Mary Parker Follett
We are steadily forgetting how to dream; in historical terms, the mathematicist and
technicist dimensions of Platonism have conquered the poetical, mythical. and
rhetorical context of analysis. We are forgetting how to he reasonable in
nonmathematical dialects
Stanley Rosen
This chapter presents a conceptual reconfiguration of action research. In it we shall
argue for a multidimensional view of action-research which seeks to both generate
theory and develop organizations. The chapter begins with the observation that action-
research has become increasingly rationalized and enculturated to the point where it
risks becoming little more than a crude empiricism imprisoned in a deficiency mode of
thought. In its conventional form action-research has largely failed as an instrument for
advancing social knowledge of consequence and has not, therefore, achieved its
potential as a vehicle for human development and social-organizational
transformation. While the literature consistently signals the worth of action-research as
a managerial tool for problem solving ("first-order" incremental change), it is
conspicuously quiet concerning reports of discontinuous change of the "second order"
where organizational paradigms, norms, ideologies, or values are transformed in
fundamental ways (Watzlawick, et al., 1974).
In the course of this chapter we shall touch broadly upon a number of interrelated
concerns-scientific, metaphysical, normative, and pragmatic. Linking these streams is
an underlying conviction that action-research has the potential to be to the
postindustrial era what "scientific management" was to the industrial. Just as scientific
management provided the philosophical and methodological legitimacy required to
support the bureaucratic organizational form (Clegg & Dunkerly, 1980; Braverman,
1974), action-research may yet provide the intellectual rationale and reflexive
methodology required to support the emergence of a more egalitarian
"postbureaucratic" form of organization. Unlike scientific management however, which
provided the means for a technorational science of administration, action-research
holds unique and essential promise in the sociorational realm of human affairs. It has
the potential to become the paradigmatic basis of a truly significant-a humanly
significant-generative science of administration.
In the first part of the essay it is suggested that the primary barrier limiting the
potential of action-research has been its romance with "action" at the expense of
"theory." This tendency has led many in the discipline to seriously underestimate the
power of theory as a means for social-organizational reconstruction. Drawing largely
on the work of Kenneth Gergen (1978; 1982), we reexamine the character of
theoretical knowledge and its role in social transformation, and then appeal for a
redefinition of the scientific aims of action-research that will dynamically reunite theory
and practice. The aim of science is not the detached discovery and verification of
social laws allowing for prediction and control. Highlighted here instead, is an
alternative understanding that defines social and behavioral science in terms of its
"generative capacity," that is, its "capacity to challenge the guiding assumptions of the
culture, to raise fundamental questions regarding contemporary social life, to foster
reconsideration of that which is 'taken for granted' and thereby furnish new
alternatives for social actions" (Gergen, 1978, p. 1346).
Assuming that generative theory is a legitimate product of scientific work and is, in
fact, capable of provoking debate, stimulating normative dialogue, and furnishing
conceptual alternatives needed for social transformation, then why has action-
research till now so largely downplayed creative theorizing in its work with
organizations? Here we will move to the heart of the chapter and argue that the
generative incapacity of contemporary action-research derives from the discipline's
unquestioned commitment to a secularized problem-oriented view of the world and
thus to the subsequent loss of our capacity as researchers and participants to marvel,
and in marvelling to embrace, the miracle and mystery of social organization. If we
acknowledge Abraham Maslow's (1968) admonition that true science begins and ends
in wonder, then we immediately shed light on why action-research has failed to
produce innovative theory capable of inspiring the imagination, commitment, and
passionate dialogue required for the consensual re-ordering of social conduct.
Appreciative inquiry is presented here as a mode of action-research that meets the
criteria of science as spelled out in generative-theoretical terms. Going beyond
questions of epistemology, appreciative inquiry has as its basis a metaphysical
concern: it posits that social existence as such is a miracle that can never be fully
comprehended (Quinney, 1982; Marcel, 1963). Proceeding from this level of
understanding we begin to explore the uniqueness of the appreciative mode. More
than a method or technique, the appreciative mode of inquiry is a way of living with,
being with, and directly participating in the varieties of social organization we are
compelled to study. Serious consideration and reflection on the ultimate mystery of
being engenders a reverence for life that draws the researcher to inquire beyond
superficial appearances to deeper levels of the life-generating essentials and
potentials of social existence. That is, the action-researcher is drawn to affirm, and
thereby illuminate, the factors and forces involved in organizing that serve to nourish
the human spirit. Thus, this chapter seeks to enrich our conception of administrative
behavior by introducing a "second dimension" of action-research that goes beyond
merely a secularized problem-solving frame.
The proposal that appreciative inquiry represents a distinctive complement to
traditional action-research will be unfolded in the following way: First, the role of theory
as an enabling agent of social transformation will be considered; such consideration
can help to eliminate the artificial dualism separating theory from practice. Second, we
will challenge the problem-oriented view of organizing inherent in traditional definitions
of action-research, and describe an affirmative form of inquiry uniquely suited for
discovering generative theory. Finally, these insights will be brought together in a
general model of the conceptual underpinnings of appreciative inquiry.
The current decade has witnessed a confluence of thinking concerning the
paradigmatic refiguration of social thought. As Geertz (1980) notes, there is now even
a "blurring of genres" as many social scientists have abandoned without apology the
misdirected quest to mimic the "more mature" physical sciences. Turning away from a
Newtonian laws-and-instances-type explanation rooted in logical empiricist
philosophy, many social theorists have instead opted for an interpretive form of inquiry
that connects organized action to its contextually embedded set of meanings, "looking
less for the sorts of things that connect planets and pendulums and more for the sorts
that connect chrysanthemums and swords" (Geertz, 1980, p.165).
In the administrative sciences, in particular, this recent development has been
translated into observable movement away from mechanistic research designs
intended objectively to establish universal causal linkages between variables, such as
organizational size and level of centralization, or between technology, environment,
and organizational structure. Indeed, prominent researchers in the field have publicly
given up the logical positivist idea of "certainty through science" and are now
embarking on approaches to research that grant preeminence to the historically
situated and ever-changing "interpretive schemes" used by members of a given group
to give life and meaning to their actions and decisions (Bartunek, 1984). Indicative of
the shift away from the logical positivist frame, researchers are converging around
what has been termed the "sociorationalist" metatheory of science (Gergen, 1982).
Recognizing the symbolic nature of the human universe, we now find a flurry of
innovative work supporting the thesis that there is little about human development or
organizational behavior that is "preprogrammed" or stimulus-bound in any direct
physical or biological way. In this sense, the social universe is open to indefinite
revision, change, and self-propelled development. And, this recognition is crucial
because to the extent to which social existence is situated in a symbolic realm,
beyond deterministic forces, then to that extent the logical positivist foundation of
social science is negated and its concept of knowledge rendered illusionary.
Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the variety of works concerned with such
topics as organizational paradigms (Brown, 1978; McHugh, 1970); beliefs and master
scripts (Sproull, 1981; Beyer, 1981); idea management and the executive mind
(Srivastva, 1983; 1985); theories of action and presumptions of logic (Argyris & Schon,
1980; Weick, 1983); consciousness and awareness (Harrison, 1982; Lukes, 1974);
and, of course, an array of work associated with the concept of organizational or
corporate culture (Ouchi & Johnson, 1978; Schein, 1983; Van Maanen, 1982; Deal &
Kennedy, 1982; Sathe, 1983; Hofsteede, 1980). As Ellwood prophetically suggested
almost half a century ago, "This is the cultural view of human society that is [or will be]
revolutionizing the social sciences" (Ellwood, 1938, p.561).
This developing consensus on the importance of the symbolic realm-on the power of
ideas-by such independent sources embracing such diverse objectives reflects the
reality of organized life in the modern world. However reluctantly, even the most
traditional social thinkers are now recognizing the distinctiveness of the postindustrial
world for what truly is-an unfolding drama of human interaction whose potential seems
limited or enhanced primarily by our symbolic capacities for constructing meaningful
agreements that allow for the committed enactment of collective life.
Never before in history have ideas, information, and beliefs-or theory-been so central
in the formulation of reality itself. Social existence, of course, has always depended on
some kind of idea system for its meaningful sustenance. The difference now, however,
is that what was once background has become foreground. Today, the very fact that
society continues to exist at all is experienced not so much mechanistically (an
extension of machines) or even naturalistically (a by-product of fateful nature) but
more and more humanistically as a social construction of interacting minds- "a game
between persons" (Bell, 1973). And under these conditions-as a part of the change
from an agrarian society to a goods-producing society at first and then to an
information society-ideas and meaning systems take on a whole new life and
character. Ideas are thrust center stage as the prime unit of relational exchange
governing the creation or obliteration of social existence.
This line of argument applies no less potently to current conceptions of social
science. To the extent that the primary product of science is systematically refined
idea systems-or theory-science too must be recognized as a powerful agent in the
enhancement or destruction of human life And while this presents an unresolvable
dilemma for a logical empiricist conception of science, it spells real opportunity (and
responsibility) for a social science that wishes to be of creative significance to society.
Put most simply, the theoretical contributions of science may be among the most
powerful resources human beings have for contributing to change and development in
the groups and organizations in which they live. This is precisely the meaning of Kurt
Lewin's early view of action-science when he proposed: "There is nothing so practical
as good theory" (1951, p. 169).
Ironically, the discipline of action-research continues to insist on a sharp separation of
theory and practice, and to underrate the role of theory in social reconstruction. The
irony is that it does so precisely at a time when the cultural view of organizing is
reaching toward paradigmatic status. The sad and perhaps tragic commentary on
action-research is that it is becoming increasingly inconsequential just as its
opportunity to contribute is on the rise (Argyris, 1983).
Observers such as Rappaport (1970) and Bartunek (1983) have lamented the fact
that action-researchers have come to subordinate research aims to action interests.
Levinson (1972) has gone even further by branding the discipline "atheoretical." And,
Friedlander and Brown (1974) have noted that the definition of action-research in
classic texts give virtually no mention to theory-building as an integral and necessary
component of the research/diagnostic process, or the process of organizational
change. Whenever theory is mentioned, it is almost always referred to as a
springboard for research or diagnosis, not the other way around. Bartunek (1983, p.3-
4) concludes that "even the most recent papers that describe action-research
strategies tend to focus primarily on the process of action-research and only
secondarily on the specific theoretical contributions of the outcomes of such research"
(e.g., Frohman, Sashkin, & Kavanaugh, 1976; Shani & Pasmore, 1982; Susman and
Evered, 1978; see Pasmore and Friedlander, 1982, for an exception). For those of us
trained in the field this conclusion is not surprising. Indeed, few educational programs
in organizational behavior even consider theory-building as a formal part of their
curriculum, and even fewer place a real premium on the development of the
theoretical mind and imagination of their students.
According to Argyris (1983), this lack of useful theorizing is attributable to two major
factors. On the one hand practice-oriented scholars have tended to become so client-
centered that they fail to question their clients' own definition of a problem and thereby
to build testable propositions and theories that are embedded in everyday life.
Academics, on the other hand, who are trained to be more scientific in their bent, also
undercut the development of useful theory by their very insistence on the criteria of
"normal" science and research-detachment, rigor, unilateral control, and operational
precision. In a word, creative theorizing has literally been assaulted on all fronts by
practitioners and academic scientists alike. It must also be noted that implicit in this
critique by Argyris (1983), and others (e.g., Friedlander & Brown, 1974), is an
underlying assumption that action-research has built into it certain natural conflicts that
are likely to lead either to "action" (consulting) or "research" (diagnosis or the
development of organizational theory), but not to both.
The situation is summed up by Friedlander and Brown (1974) in their comprehensive
review of the field:
We believe that research will either play a far more crucial role in the advancement
of this field, or become an increasingly irrelevant appendage to it . . . . We have
generally failed to produce a theory of change which emerges from the change
process itself. We need a way of enriching our understanding and action
synergistically rather than at one or the other's expense-to become a science in which
knowledge-getting and knowledge-giving are an integrated process, and one that is
valuable to all parties involved (p.319).
Friedlander and Brown concluded with a plea for a metatheoretical revision of science
that will integrate theory and practice. But in another review over a decade later,
Friedlander (1984) observed little progress coming from top scholars in the discipline.
He then put words to a mounting frustration over what appears as a recurring problem:
They pointed to the shortcomings of traditional research and called for
emancipation from it; but they did not indicate a destination. There is as yet no new
paradigm that integrates research and practice, or even optimizes useful knowledge
for organizations ....I'm impatient. Let's get on with it. Let's not talk it, write it, analyze
it, conceptualize it, research it. Instead let's actively engage and experiment with new
designs for producing knowledge that is, in fact, used by organizations (p.647).
This recurrent problem is the price we pay for continuing to talk about theory and
practice in dualistic terms. In a later section in this chapter another hypothesis will be
advanced on why there is this lack of creative theorizing, specifically as it relates to
action-research. But first we need to look more closely at the claim that social theory
and social practice are, indeed, part of a synthetic whole. We need to elaborate on the
idea that scientific theory is a means for both understanding and improving social
practice. We need to examine exactly what it means to merge the idea and the act,
the symbolic and the sociobehavioral, into a powerful and integral unity.
The Sociorationalist Alternative
As the end of the twentieth century nears, thinkers in organizational behavior are
beginning to see, without hesitation, why an administrative science based on a
physical science model is simply not adequate as a means for understanding or
contributing in relevant ways to the workings of complex, organized human systems
(see, for example, Susman and Evered, 1978; Beyer & Trice, 1982). Kurt Lewin had
understood this almost half a century earlier but his progressive vision of an action
science fell short of offering a clear metatheoretical alternative to conventional
conceptions of science (Peters & Robinson, 1984). In-deed, the epistemological
ambiguity inherent in Lewin's writing has been cited as perhaps the critical
shortcoming of all his work. And yet, in hindsight, it can be argued that the ambiguity
was intentional and perhaps part of Lewin's social sensitivity and genius. As Gergen
(1982) suggests, the metatheoretical ambiguity in Lewin's work might well have been
a protective measure, an attempt to shield his fresh vision of an action science from
the fully dominant logical positivist temper of his time. In any event, whether planned
or not, Lewin walked a tightrope between two fundamentally opposed views of science
and never did make clear how theory could be used as both an interpretive and a
creative element. This achievement, as we might guess, would have to wait for a
change in the intellectual ethos of social science.
That change, as we earlier indicated, is now taking place. Increasingly the literature
signals a disenchantment with theories of science that grant priority to the external
world in the generation of human knowledge. Instead there is growing movement
toward granting preeminence to the cognitive processes of mind and the symbolic
processes of social construction. In Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge
(1982), Kenneth Gergen synthesizes the essential whole of this movement and takes
it one crucial step beyond disenchantment to a bold, yet workable conception of
science that firmly unites theory with practice-and thereby elevates the status of
theoretical-scientific work. From a historical perspective there is no question that this
is a major achievement; it brings to completion the work abruptly halted by Lewin's
untimely death. But more than that, what Gergen offers, albeit indirectly, is a
desperately needed clue to how we can revitalize an action-research discipline that
has never reached its potential. While a complete statement of the emerging
sociorationalist metatheory is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is important at least
to outline the general logic of the perspective, including its basic assumptions.
At the heart of sociorationalism is the assumption of impermanence-the fundamental
instability of social order. No matter what the durability to date, virtually any pattern of
social action is open to infinite revision. Accepting for a moment the argument of the
social constructionists that social reality, at any given point, is a product of broad
social agreement (shared meanings), and further granting a linkage between the
conceptual schemes of a culture and its other patterns of action, we must seriously
consider the idea that alterations in conceptual practices, in ways of symbolizing the
world, hold tremendous potential for guiding changes in the social order. To
understand the importance of these assumptions and their meaning for social science,
let us quote Gergen (1982) at length:
Is not the range of cognitive heuristics that may be employed in solving problems
of adaptation limited only by the human imagination?
One must finally consider the possibility that human biology not only presents to
the scientist an organism whose actions may vary in an infinity of ways, but it may
ensure as well that novel patterns are continuously emerging . . . variations in Hunan
activity may importantly he traced to the capacities of the organism for symbolic
restructuring. As it is commonly said, one's actions appear to be vitally linked to the
manner in which one understands or construes the world of experience. The stimulus
world does not elicit behavior in an automatic, reflex-like fashion. Rather, the symbolic
translation of one's experiences virtually transforms their implications and thereby
alters the range of one's potential reactions. Interestingly, while formulations of this
variety are widely shared within the scientific community, very little attention has been
paid to their ramifications for a theory of science. As is clear, without such regularities
the prediction of behavior is largely obviated . . to the extent that the individual is
capable of transforming the meaning of stimulus conditions in an indeterminate
number of ways, existing regularities must be considered historically contingent-
dependent on the prevailing meaning systems of conceptual structure of the times. In
effect, from this perspective the scientist's capacity to locate predictable patterns of
interaction depends irnportanty on the extent to which the population is both
homogeneous and stable in its conceptual constructions (pp. l-17).
While this type of reasoning is consistent with the thinking of many social scientists,
the ramifications are rarely taken to their logical conclusion: "Virtually unexamined by
the field is the potential of science to shape the meaning systems of the society and
thus the common activities of the culture" (Gergen, 1978, p.1349). Virtually
unexamined is the important role that science can-and does-play in the scientific
construction of social reality.
One implication of this line of thought is that to the extent the social science
conceives its role in the logical positivist sense, with its goals being prediction and
control, it not only serves the interests of the status quo (you can't have "good
science" without stable replication and verification of hypotheses) but it also seriously
underestimates the power and usefulness of its most important product, namely
theory; it underestimates the constructive role science can have in the development of
the groups and organizations that make up our cultural world. According to Gergen,
realization of this fact furnishes the opportunity to refashion a social science of vital
significance to society. To do this, we need a bold shift in attention whereby theoretical
accounts are no longer judged in terms of their predictive capacity, but instead are
judged in terms of their generative capacity-their ability to foster dialogue about that
which is taken for granted and their capacity for generating fresh alternatives for social
action. Instead of asking, "Does this theory correspond with the observable facts?" the
emphasis for evaluating good theory becomes, "To what extent does this theory
present provocative new possibilities for social action, and to what extent does it
stimulate normative dialogue about how we can and should organize ourselves?" The
complete logic for such a proposal may be summarized in the following ten points:
1. The social order at any given point is viewed as the product of broad social
agreement, whether tacit or explicit.
2. Patterns of social-organizational action are not fixed by nature in any direct
biological or physical way; the vast share of social conduct is potentially stimulus-free,
capable of infinite conceptual variation.
3. From an observational point of view, all social action is open to multiple
interpretations, no one of which is superior in any objective sense. The interpretations
(for example, "whites are superior to blacks") favored in one historical setting may be
replaced in the next.
4. Historically embedded conventions govern what is taken to be true or valid, and to
a large extent govern what we, as scientists and lay persons, are able to see. All
observation, therefore, is theory-laden and filtered through conventional belief systems
and theoretical lenses.
5. To the extent that action is predicated on ideas, beliefs, meanings, intentions, or
theory, people are free to seek transformations in conventional conduct by changing
conventional codes (idea systems).
6. The most powerful vehicle communities have for transforming their conventions-
their agreements on norms, values, policies, purposes, and ideologies-is through the
act of dialogue made possible by language. Alterations in linguistic practices,
therefore, hold profound implications for changes in social practice.
7. Social theory can be viewed as a highly refined language with a specialized
grammar all its own. As a powerful linguistic tool created by trained linguistic experts
(scientists), theory may enter the conceptual meaning system of culture and in doing
so alter patterns of social action.
8. Whether intended or not, all theory is normative and has the potential to influence
the social order-even if reactions to it are simply boredom, rebellion, laughter, or full
9. Because of this, all social theory is morally relevant; it has the potential to affect the
way people live their ordinary lives in relation to one another. This point is a critical
one because there is no such thing as a detached technical/scientific mode for judging
the ultimate worth of value claims.
10. Valid knowledge or social theory is therefore a communal creation. Social
knowledge is not "out there" in nature to be discovered through detached, value-free,
observational methods (logical empiricism); nor can it be relegated to the subjective
minds of isolated individuals (solipism). Social knowledge resides in the interactive
collectivity; it is created, maintained, and put to use by the human group. Dialogue,
free from constraint or distortion, is necessary to determine the "nature of things"
In Table 1 the metatheory of sociorationalism is both summarized and contrasted to
the commonly held assumptions of the logical empiricist view of science. Especially
important to note is the transformed role of the scientist when social inquiry is viewed
from the perspective of sociorationalism. Instead of attempting to present oneself as
an impartial bystander or dispassionate spectator of the inevitable, the social scientist
conceives of himself or herself as an active agent, an invested participant whose work
might well become a powerful source of change in the way people see and enact their
worlds. Driven by a desire to "break the hammerlock" of what appears as given in
human nature, the scientist attempts to build theories that can expand the realm of
what is
Table 1. Comparison of Logical Empiricist and Socio-Rationalist
Conceptions of Social Science
Dimension for Comparison Logical Empiricism Socio-Rationalism
1. Primary Function of
2. Theory of Knowledge
and Mind
3. Perspective on Time
Enhance goals of
understanding, prediction,
and control by discerning
general laws or principles
governing the relationship
among units of observable
Exogenic--grants priority to
the external world in the
generation of human
knowledge (i.e., the
preeminence of objective
fact). Mind is a mirror.
Assumption of temporal
irrelevance: searches for
transhistorical principles.
Enhance understanding in
the sense of assigning
meaning to something,
thus creating its status
through the use of
concepts. Science is a
means for expanding
flexibility and choice in
cultural evolution.
Endogenic--holds the
processes of mind and
symbolic interaction as
preeminent source of
human knowledge. Mind is
both a mirror and a lamp.
Assumption of historically
and contextually relevant
meanings; existing
4. Assuming Stability of
Social Patterns
5. Value Stance
6. Features of "Good"
7. Criteria for Confirmation
or Verification (Life of a
8. Role of Scientist
9. Chief Product of
Social phenomena are
sufficiently stable,
enduring, reliable and
replicable to allow for lawful
Separation of fact and
values. Possibility of
objective knowledge
through behavioral
Discovery of
transhistorically valid
principles; a theory's
correspondence with fact.
Logical consistency and
empirical prediction;
subject to falsification.
Impartial bystander and
dispassionate spectator of
the inevitable; content to
accept that which seems
Cumulation of objective
knowledge through the
regularities in social order
are contingent on
prevailing meaning
Social order is
fundamentally unstable.
Social phenomena are
guided by cognitive
heuristics, limited only by
the human imagination: the
social order is a subject
matter capable of infinite
variation through the
linkage of ideas and action.
Social sciences are
nonobjective. Any
behavioral event is open to
virtually any interpretative
explanation. All
interpretation is filtered
through prevailing values of
a culture. "There is no
description without
Degree to which theory
furnishes alternatives for
social innovation and
thereby opens vistas for
action; expansion of "the
realm of the possible."
Persuasive appeal, impact,
and overall generative
capacity; subject to
community agreement;
truth is a product of a
community of truth makers.
Active agent and co-
participant who is primarily
a source of linguistic
activity (theoretical
language) which serves as
input into common meaning
systems. Interested in
'breaking the hammerlock"
of what appears as given in
human nature.
Continued improvement in
theory building capacity;
improvement in the
capacity to create
10. Emphasis in the
Education of Future Social
Science Professionals
production of empirically
disconfirmable hypothesis.
Rigorous experimental
methods and statistical
analysis; a premium is
placed on method (training
in theory construction is a
Hermeneutic interpretation
and catalytic theorizing; a
premium is placed on the
theoretical imagination.
Sociorationalism invites the
student toward intellectual
expression in the service of
his or her vision of the
conventionally understood as possible. In this sense the core impact of sociorationalist
metatheory is that it invites, encourages, and requires that students of social life
rigorously exercise their theoretical imagination in the service of their vision of the
good. Instead of denial it is an invitation to fully accept and exercise those qualities of
mind and action that make us uniquely human.
Now we turn to a question raised earlier: How does theory achieve its capacity to
affect social practice, and what are some of the specific characteristics of generative
The Power of Theory in Understanding Organizational Life
The sociorationalist vision of science is of such far-reaching importance that no
student, organizational scientist, manager, educator, or action-researcher can afford to
ignore it. Good theory, as we have suggested, is one of the most powerful means we
have for helping social systems evolve, adapt, and creatively alter their patterns over
time. Building further on this metatheoretical perspective we can talk about five ways
by which theory achieves its exceptional potency:
1. Establishing a conceptual and contextual frame;
2. Providing presumptions of logic;
3. Transmitting a system of values;
4. Creating a group-building language;
5. Extending visions of possibility or constraint.
1. Establishing a Perceptual and Contextual Frame
To the extent that theory is the conceptual imposition of order upon an otherwise
"booming, bustling, confusion that is the realm of experience" (Dubin, 1978), the
theorist's first order of business is to specify what is there to be seen, to provide an
"ontological education" (Gergen, 1982). The very act of theoretical articulation,
therefore, highlights not only the parameters of the topic or subject matter, but
becomes an active agent as a cueing device, a device that subtly focuses attention on
particular phenomena or meanings while obscuring others In the manner of a
telescope or lens, a new theory allows one to see the world in a way perhaps never
before imagined.
For example, when American eugenicists used the lens of biological determinism to
attribute diseases of poverty to the inferior genetic construction of poor people, they
literally could see no systematic remedy other than sterilization of the poor. In
contrast, when Joseph Goldberg theorized that pellegra was not genetically
determined but culturally caused (as a result of vitamin deficiency and the eating
habits of the poor), he could discover a way to cure it (Gould, 1981). Similarly, theories
about the "survival of the fittest" might well help executives locate "predators," "hostile
environments," and a world where self-interest reigns, where it is a case of "eat or be
eaten." Likewise, theories of leadership have been known quickly to facilitate the
discovery of Theory X and Theory Y interaction. Whatever the theory, it provides a
potential means for members of a culture to navigate in an otherwise neutral,
meaningless, or chaotic sea of people, interactions and events. By providing an
"ontological education" with respect to what is there, a theory furnishes an important
cultural input that affects people's cognitive set. In this sense "the world is not so
constituted until the lens is employed. With each new distinction the groundwork is laid
for alterations in existing patterns of conduct" (Gergen, 1982, p.23).
As the reader may already surmise, an important moral issue begins to emerge here.
Part of the reason that theory is, in fact, powerful is that it shapes perceptions,
cognitions, and preferences often at a preconscious level, much like subliminal
communications or even hypnosis. Haley (1973) talks about how Milton Erickson has
made this a central feature of this psycho-therapeutic work. But Lukes (1974) cautions
that such thought control may be "the supreme and most insidious exercise of power,"
especially when it prevents people from challenging their role in the existing order of
things and when it operates contrary to their real interests.
2. Providing Presumptions of Logic
Theories are also powerful to the extent to which they help shape common
expectations of causality, sequence, and relational importance of phenomena within a
theoretical equation. Consider, for example, the simple logic underlying almost every
formal performance-appraisal system. Stripped to essentials, the theoretical
underpinnings run something like this: "If you want to evaluate performance (P), then
you must evaluate the individual employee (E); in other words, 'P = E'." Armed with
this theory, many managers have entered the performance-appraisal meeting shaking
with the thought of having to pass godlike judgment on some employee. Similarly, the
employee arrives at the meeting with an arsenal of defenses, designed to protect his
or her hard-won self-esteem. Little genuine communication occurs during the meeting
and virtually no problem-solving takes place. The paperwork is mechanically
completed, then filed away in the personnel office until the next year. So powerful is
this subtle P = E equation that any alternative goes virtually unnoticed, for example
the Lewinian theory that behavior (performance) is a function of the person and the
environment (in this case the organizational situation, the "OS" in which the employee
works). Following this Lewinian line, the theory underlying performance appraisal
would now have to be expanded to read P = E >< OS. That is, P # E. To adequately
assess performance there must be an assessment of the individual in relation to the
organizational setting in which he or she works and vice-versa. What would happen to
the performance-appraisal process if this more complete theory were used as a basis
for redesigning appraisal systems in organizations throughout the corporate world?
Isn't it possible that such a theory could help shift the attribution process away from
the person-blame to systems analysis?3
By attributing causality, theories have the potential to create the very phenomena
they propose to explain. Karl Weick, in a recent article examining managerial thought
in the context of action, contends that thought and action are part and parcel of one
another; thinking is best viewed as a kind of activity, and activity as the ground of
thought. For him, managerial theories gain their power by helping people overlook
disorder and presume orderliness. Theory energizes action by providing a
presumption of logic that enables people to act with certainty, attention, care, and
control. Even where it is originally inadequate as a description of current reality, a
forceful theory may provoke action that brings into the world a new reality that then
confirms the original theory. Weick (1983) explains:
Once the action is linked with an explanation, it becomes more forceful, and the
situation is thereby transformed into something that supports the presumed underlying
pattern. Presumptions [theories) enable actions to be tied to specific explanations that
consolidate those actions into deterministic events.
The underlying explanation need not be objectively "correct." In a crude sense
any old explanation will due. This is so because explanation serves mostly to organize
and focus the action. The focused action then modifies the situation in ways that
confirm the explanation, whatever it is.
Thus, the adequacy of any explanation is determined by the intensity and
structure it adds to potentially self-validating actions. More forcefulness leads to more
validation and more perceived adequacy. Accuracy is subordinate to intensity. Since
situations can support a variety of meanings, their actual content and meaning are
dependent on the degree to which they are arranged in sensible, coherent
configurations. More forcefulness imposes more coherence. Thus, those explanations
that induce greater forcefulness become more valid, not because they are more
accurate, but because they have a higher potential for self-validation . . . the
underlying explanations they unfold (for example, 'This is war") have great potential to
intensify whatever action is underway (1983, pp.230-232).
Thus, theories are generative to the extent that they are forceful (e.g., Marx), logically
coherent (e.g., Piaget), and bold in their assertions and consistency (e.g., Freud,
Weber). By providing a basis for focused action, a logic for attributing causality, and a
sequence specification that grounds expectations for action and reaction, a theory
goes a long way toward forming the common expectations for the future. "And with the
alteration of expectation, the stage is set for modification of action" (Gergen, 1982,
3. Transmitting a System of Values
Beyond abstract logic, it is often the affective core of social theory that provides its
true force and appeal, allowing it to direct perception and guide behavior. From the
tradition of logical positivism, good "objective" theory is to be value-free, yet upon
closer inspection we find that social theory is infused with values and domain
assumptions throughout. As Gouldner (1970) 50 aptly put it, "Every social theory
facilitates the pursuit of some, but not all, courses of action and thus, encourages us
to change or accept the world as it is, to say yea or nay to it. In a way, every theory is
a discrete obituary or celebration of some social system.''
Nowhere is this better exemplified-negatively-than in the role scientific theory played
in the arguments for slavery, colonialism, and belief in the genetic superiority of certain
races. The scientific theory in this case was, again, the theory of biological
determinism, the belief that social and economic differences between human beings
and groups-differences in rank, status, political privilege, education privilege-arise
from inherited natural endowments, and that existing social arrangements accurately
reflect biological limits. So powerful was this theory during the 1800s that it led a
number of America's highest-ranking scientific researchers unconsciously to
miscalculate "objective" data in what has been brilliantly described by naturalist
Steven Jay Gould (1981, p.54) as a "patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear
interest of controlling a priori convictions". Before dismissing this harsh judgment as
simple rhetoric, we need to look closely at how it was determined. One example will
When Samual Morton, a scientist with two medical degrees, died in 1851, the New
York Tribune paid tribute saying, "Probably no scientific man in America enjoyed a
higher reputation among scholars throughout the world than Dr. Morton" (in Gould,
1981, p.51). Morton gained this reputation as a scientist who set out to rank racial
groups by "objectively" measuring the size of the cranial cavity of the human skull
which he regarded as a measure of brain size. He had a beautiful collection of skulls
from races throughout the world, probably the largest such collection in existence. His
hypothesis was a simple one: The mental and moral worth of human races can be
arrived at objectively by measuring physical characteristics of the brain; by filling skull
cavities with mustard seed or lead shot, accurate measurement of brain size is
possible. Morton published three major works which were reprinted repeatedly as
providing objective, "hard" data on the mental worth of races. Gould comments:
Needless to say, they matched every good Yankee's prejudices-whites on top,
Indians in the middle, and blacks on the bottom; and among whites, Tuetons and
Anglo-Saxons on top, Jews in the middle, and Hindus on the bottom. . . . Status and
access to power in Morton's America faithfully reflected biological merit (p.54).
Morton's work was undoubtedly influential. When he died, the South's leading medical
journal proclaimed: "We of the South should consider him as our benefactor, for aiding
most materially in giving the Negro his true position as an inferior race" (in Gould,
1981, p.69). Indeed Morton did much more than only give "the Negro his true
position," as the following remarks by Morton himself convey:
Negroes were numerous in Egypt, but their social position in ancient times was the
same as it is now, that of servants and slaves.
The benevolent mind may regret the inaptitude of the Indian civilization . . . [but
values must not yield to fact). The structure of his mind appears to be different from
that of the white man, or can the two harmonize in social relations except on the most
limited scale. (Indians) are not only averse to restraints of education, but for the most
part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects (in Gould,
1981, p.53).
The problem with these conclusions-as well as the numerical data which supported
them-was that they were based not on "fact" but purely and simply on cultural fiction,
on Morton's belief in biological determinism. As Gould meticulously shows, all of
Morton's data was wrong. Having reworked it completely, Gould concludes:
Morton's summaries are a patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear interest
of controlling a priori convictions. Yet-and this is the most intriguing aspect of the
case-I find no evidence of conscious fraud, indeed, had Morton been a conscious
fudger, he would not have published his data so openly.
Conscious fraud is probably rare in science. . . The prevalence of unconscious
finagling, on the other hand, suggests the general conclusion about the social context
of science . . . prior prejudice may be found anywhere, even in the basics of
measuring bones and totaling sums (pp.
Morton represents a telling example of the power of theory. Theory is not only a
shaper of expectations and perceptions. Under the guise of "dispassionate inquiry" it
can also be a peddler of values, typecasting arbitrary value as scientific "fact." Along
with Gould, we believe that we would be better off to abandon the myth of "value-free"
science and that theoretical work "must he understood as a social phenomenon, a
gutsy, human enterprise, not the work of robots programmed to collect pure
information" (Gould, 1981, p.21). Even if Morton's data were correct, his work still
could not be counted as value-free. His data and theories were not only shaped by the
setting in which he worked; they were also used to support broad social policy. This is
akin to making nature the source of cultural values, which of course it never can be
("What is" does not equal "what should be").
4. Creating a Group-Building Language
The sociorationalist perspective is more than a pessimistic epitaph for a strictly logical
positivist philosophy. It is an invitation to inquiry that raises the status of theory from
mere appendage of scientific method to an actual shaper of society. Once we
acknowledge that a primary product of science-theory-is a key resource for the
creation of groups, the stage is set for theory-building activity intended for the use and
development of human society, for the creation of human options.
Students of human behavior have been aware of the group as the foundation of
society since the earliest periods of classical thought. Aristotle, for example, discussed
the importance of bands and families. But it was not until the middle of the present
century that scientific interest in the subject exploded in a flurry of general inquiry and
systematic interdisciplinary research (for a sample review of this literature see Hare,
1976). Among the conclusions of this recent work is the crucial insight that:
The face-to-face group working on a problem is the meeting ground of individual
personality and society. It is in the group that personality is modified and socialized;
and it is through the workings of groups that society is changed and adapted to its
times (Thelen, 1954, p. vi).
Similarly, in the field of organization development, Srivastva, Obert, and Neilsen
(1977) have shown that the historical development of the discipline has paralleled
advances in group theory. And this, they contend, is no accident because:
Emphasis on the small group is responsive to the realities of social change in
large complex organizations. It is through group life that individuals learn, practice,
develop, and modify their roles in the larger organization. To enter programmatically at
the group level is both to confront and potentially co-opt an important natural source of
change and development in these systems (p.83).
It is well established that groups are formed around common ideas that are
expressed in and through some kind of shared language which makes communicative
interaction possible. What is less clear, though, is the exact role that science plays in
shaping group life through the medium of language. However, the fact that science
frequently does have an impact is rarely questioned. Andre Gorz (1973) offers an
explosive example of this point.
In the early 1960s a British professor of sociology by the name of Goldthorpe was
brought in from a nearby university to make a study of the Vauxhall automobile
workers in Luton, England. At the time, management at the factory was worried
because workers in other organizations throughout the United Kingdom were showing
great unrest over working conditions, pay, and management. Many strikes were being
waged, most of them wildcat strikes called by the factory stewards, not by the unions
themselves. Goldthorpe was called in to study the situation at Vauxhall, to find out for
management if there was anything to worry about at their factory. At the time of the
study there were at Vauxhall no strikes, no disruptions, and no challenges by workers.
Management wanted to know why. What were the chances that acute conflict would
break out in the "well-managed" and "advanced" big factory?
After two full years of research, the professor drew his conclusions. Management, he
said, had little to worry about. According to the study, the workers were completely
socialized into the system, they were satisfied with their wages and neither liked or
disliked their work-in fact, they were indifferent to it, viewing it as boring but inevitable.
Because their job was not intrinsically rewarding, most people did it just to be done
with it-so they could go home and work on other more worthwhile projects and be with
their family. Work was marginal and instrumental. It was a means to support other
interests outside the factory, where "real life" began. Based then on his observations,
Goldthorpe theorized that management had nothing to worry about: Workers were
passively apathetic and well integrated into the system. They behaved according to
middle-class patterns and showed no signs of strength as a group (no class-
consciousness). Furthermore, most conflict with management belonged to the past.
The sociologist's report was still at the printer's when some employees got hold of a
summary of his findings. They had the conclusions copied and distributed reports to
hundreds of co-workers. Also at around this time, a report of Vauxhall's profits was
being circulated, profits that were not shared with the employees. The next day
something happened. It was reported by the London Times in detail:
Wild rioting has broken out at the Vauxhall car factories in Luton. Thousands of
workers streamed out of the shops and gathered in the factory yard. They besieged
the management offices, calling for managers to come out, singing the 'Red Flag,' and
shouting, 'String them up!' Groups attempted to storm the offices and battled police
which had been called to protect them (quoted in Gorz, 1973).
The rioting lasted for two days
All of this happened, then, in an advanced factory where systematic research showed
workers to be apathetic, weak as a group, and resigned to accept the system. What
does it all mean? Had the researchers simply misread the data?
To the contrary. Goldthorpe knew his data well. He articulated the conclusions
accurately, concisely, and with force. In fact, what happened was that the report gave
the workers a language with which to begin talking to one another about their plight. It
brought them into interaction and, as they discussed things, they discovered that
Goldthorpe was right. They felt alike, apathetic but frustrated; and they were apathetic
because they felt as individuals working in isolated jobs, that no one could do anything
to change things. But the report gave them a way to discuss the situation. As they
talked, things changed. People were no longer alone in their feelings, and they did not
want things to continue as they were. As an emergent group, they now had a means
to convert apathy into action, noninvolvement into involvement, and individual
powerlessness into collective strength. "In other words," analyzes Gorz, "the very
investigation of Mr. Goldthorpe about the lack of class-consciousness helped tear
down the barriers of silence and isolation that rendered the workers apathetic" (p.334).
The Vauxhall case is an important one for a number of reasons. At a general level it
demonstrates that knowledge in the social sciences differs in quality and kind from
knowledge generated in the physical sciences. For instance, our knowledge of the
periodic chart does not change the elements, and our knowledge of the moon's orbit
does not change its path. But our knowledge of a social system is different. It can be
used by the system to change itself, thus invalidating or disconfirming the findings
immediately or at some later time. Thus the human group differs from objects in an
important way: Human beings have the capacity for symbolic interaction and, through
language, they have the ability to collaborate in the investigation of their own world.
Because of our human capacity for symbolic interaction, the introduction of new
knowledge concerning aspects of our world carries with it the strong likelihood of
changing that world itself.
Gergen (1982) refers to this as the "enlightenment effect" of scientific work, meaning
that once the formulations of scientific work are made public, human beings may act
autonomously either to disconfirm or to validate the propositions. According to logical
positivist philosophy, potential enlightenment effects must be reduced or-ideally-
eliminated through experimental controls. In social psychology, for example, deception
plays a crucial role in doing research; enlightenment effects are viewed as
contaminants to good scientific work. Yet there is an alternative way to look at the
reactive nature of social research: it is precisely because of the enlightenment effect
that theory can and does play an important role in the positive construction of society.
In this sense, the enlightenment effect-which is made possible through language-is an
essential ingredient making scientific work worthwhile, meaningful, and applicable. It
constitutes an invitation to each and every theorist to actively participate in the
creation of his or her world by generating compelling theories of what is good, and
just, and desirable in social existence.
5. Extending Visions of Possibility
The position taken by the sociorationalist philosophy of science is that the conduct of
inquiry cannot be separated from the everyday negotiation of reality. Social-
organizational research is, therefore, a continuing moral concern, a concern of social
reconstruction and direction. The choice of what to study, how to study it, and what to
report each implies some degree of responsibility. Science, therefore, instead of being
considered an endpoint, is viewed as one means of helping humanity create itself.
Science in this sense exists for one singular overarching purpose. As Albion Small
(1905) proposed almost a century ago, a generative science must aim at "the most
thorough, intense, persistent, and systematic effort to make human life all that it is
capable of becoming" (pp.
Theories gain their generative capacity by extending visions that expand to the realm
of the possible. As a general proposition it might be said that theories designed to
empower organized social systems will tend to have a greater enlightenment effect
than theories of human constraint. This proposition is grounded in a simple but
important consideration which we should like to raise as it relates to the unity of theory
and practice: Is it not possible that scientific theory gains its capacity to affect cultural
practices in very much the same way that powerful leaders inspire people to new
heights? Recent research on the functioning of the executive mind (Srivastva, 1983;
1985) raises a set of intriguing parallels between the possibilities of a generative
science and the workings of the executive mind.
The essential parallel is seen in the primary role that ideas or ideals play in the
mobilization of diverse groups in the common construction of a desired future. Three
major themes from the research stand out in this regard:
a. Vision: The executive mind works largely from the present and extends itself out to
the longer-term future. It is powerful to the extent that it is able to envision a desired
future state which challenges perceptions of what is possible and what can be
realized. The executive mind operates beyond the frontier of conventional practice
without losing sight of either necessity or possibility.
b. Passion: The executive mind is simultaneously rational and intuitive, which allows
it to tap into the sentiments, values, and dreams of the social collectivity. Executive
vision becomes "common vision to the extent that it ignites the imaginations, hopes,
and passions of others-and it does so through the articulation of self-transcending
ideals which lend meaning and significance to everyday life.
c. Integrity: The executive mind is the mental muscle that moves a system from the
present state to a new and different future. As such, this muscle gains strength to the
extent that it is founded upon an integrity able to withstand contrary pressures. There
are three dimensions to executive integrity. The first, system integrity, refers to the fact
that the executive mind perceives the world (the organization, group, or society) as a
unified whole, not as a collection of individual parts. The second type of integrity is
moral integrity. Common-vision leadership is largely an act of caring. It follows the
"path of the heart," which is the source of moral and ethical standards. Finally, integrity
of vision refers to consistency, coherence, and focus. Executive vision-to the extent to
which it is compelling-is focused and unwavering, even in the midst of obstacles,
critics, and conflicting alternatives.
Interestingly, these thematic dimensions of the executive mind have their
counterparts in recent observations concerning the utilization of organizational
research. According to Beyer and Trice (1982), the "affective bonding" that takes
place during the research largely determines the attractiveness of its results and
generates commitment to utilize their implications. For example, Henshel (1975)
suggests that research containing predictions of an appealing future will be utilized
and preferred over research that points to a negative or repelling future: "People will
work for predicted states they approve of and against those they detest" (p.103).
Similarly, Weiss and Bucavalas (1980) report that results which challenge the status
quo are most attractive to high-level executives be-cause they are the persons
expected to make new things happen, at least on the level of policy. And, with respect
to passion and integrity, Mitroff (1980) urges social scientists to become caring
advocates of their ideas, not only to diffuse their theories but also to challenge others
to prove them wrong and thus pursue those ideas which have integrity in action.
This section has explored a number of ways in which social theory becomes a
powerful resource for change and development in social practice. The argument is
simple. Theory is agential in character and has unbounded potential to affect patterns
of social action-whether desired or not. As we have seen, theories are not mere
explanations of an external world lying "out there" waiting to be objectively recorded.
Theories, like powerful ideas, are formative. By establishing perceptual cues and
frames, by providing presumptions of logic, by transmitting subtle values, by creating
new language, and by extending compelling visions of possibility or constraint-in all
these ways social theory becomes a powerful means whereby norms, beliefs, and
cultural practices may be altered.
The key point is this: Instinctively, intuitively, and tacitly we all know that important
ideas can, in a flash, profoundly alter the way we see ourselves, view reality, and
conduct our lives. Experience shows that a simple economic forecast, political poll, or
technical discovery (like the atomic bomb) can forever change the course of human
history. Thus one cannot help but be disturbed and puzzled by the discipline of action-
research in its wide-ranging indifference to theory. Not only does it continue to
underrate the role of theory as a means for organizational development (Friedlander &
Brown, 1974; Bartunek, 1983; Argyris, 1983) but it appears also to have become
locked within an assumptive base that systematically distorts our view of
organizational reality and inadvertently helps reinforce and perfect the status quo
(Brimm, 1972).
Why is there this lack of generative theorizing in action-research? And, more
importantly, what can be done to rekindle the spirit, excitement and passion required
of a science that wishes to be of vital significance to organizations? Earlier we talked
about a philosophy of science congenial to the task. Sociorationalism, it was argued,
represents an epistemological point of view conducive to catalytic theorizing. Ironically
though, it can be argued that most action-researchers already do subscribe to this or a
similar view of science (Susman & Evered, 1978). Assuming this to be the case, it
becomes an even greater puzzle why contemporary action-research continues to
disregard theory-building as an integral and necessary component of the craft. In this
section we shall broaden our discussion by taking a look at some of the metaphysical
assumptions embedded in our conventional definitions of action-research-
assumptions that can be shown to govern our thought and work in ways inimical to
present interests.
Paradigm I: Organizing As A Problem to be Solved
The intellectual and spiritual origins of action-research can be traced to Kurt Lewin, a
social psychologist of German origin who coined the term action-research in 1944.
The thrust of Lewin's work centered on the need to bridge the gap between science
and the realm of practical affairs. Science, he said, should be used to inform and
educate social practice, and subsequent action would then inform science: "We
should consider action, research, and training as a triangle that should be kept
together" (Lewin, 1948, p.211). The twofold promise of an action science, according to
Lewin, was to simultaneously contribute to the development of scientific knowledge
(propositions of an if/then variety) and use such knowledge for bettering the human
The immense influence of Lewin is a complete puzzle if we look only to his writings.
The fact of the matter is that Lewin published only 2 papers-a mere 22 pages-
concerned directly with the idea of action-research (Peters & Robinson, 1984). Indeed,
it has been argued that his enduring influence is attributable not to these writings but
to the sheer force and presence of the man himself. According to biographer Alfred
Marrow (1968), Lewin was a passionate and creative thinker, continuously knocking at
the door of the unknown, studying "topics that had been believed to be psychologically
unapproachable." Lewin's character was marked by a spirit of inquiry that burned
incessantly and affected all who came in contact with him, especially his students. The
intensity of his presence was fueled further by the belief that inquiry itself could be
used to construct a more democratic and dignified future. At least this was his hope
and dream, for Lewin had not forgotten his experience as a refugee from fascism in
the late 1930s. Understanding this background, then, it is clear why he revolted so
strongly against a detached ivory-tower view of science, a science that is immersed in
trivial matters, tranquilized by its standardized methods, and limited in its field of
inquiry. Thus, the picture we have of Lewin shows him to have been a committed
social scientist pioneering uncharted territory for the purpose of creating new
knowledge about groups and societies that might advance the democratic ideal (see,
for example, Lewin, 1952). It was this spirit-a relentless curiosity coupled with a
conviction of the need for knowledge-guided societal development-that marked
Lewin's creative impact on both his students and the field.
Much of this spirit is now gone from action-research. What is left is a series of
assumptions about the world which exhibits little, if any, resemblance to the process of
inquiry as Lewin lived it. While many of the words are the same, they have been taken
too literally and in their translation over the years have been bloated into a set of
metaphysical principles-assumptions about the essence of social existence-that
directly undermine the intellectual and speculative spirit. Put bluntly, under current
norms, action-research has largely failed as an instrument for advancing social
knowledge of consequence and now risks being (mis)understood as little more than a
crude empiricism imprisoned in a deficiency mode of thought. A quick sketch of six
sets of assumptions embedded in the conventional view of action-research will show
exactly what we are talking about while also answering our question about the
discipline's lack of contribution to generative theory:
Research equals problem-solving; to do good research is to solve "real problems." So
ingrained is this assumption that it scarcely needs documentation. Virtually every
definition found in leading texts and articles equates action-research with problem
solving-as if "real" problem solving is virtually the essence of the discipline. For
example, as French and Bell (1978) define it, "Action-research is both an approach to
problem solving-a model or paradigm, and a problem-solving process-a series of
activities and events" (p. 88)4 Or in terms of the Bradford, Gibb, and Benne (1964)
definition, "It is an application of scientific methodology in the clarification and solution
of practical problems" (p.33). Similarly, Frohman, Sashkin, and Kavanaugh (1976)
state: "Action research describes a particular process model whereby behavioral
science knowledge is applied to help a client (usually a group or social system) solve
real problems and not incidentally learn the process involved in problem solving"
(p.203). Echoing this theme, that research equals problem solving, researchers at the
University of Michigan's Institute in Social Research state,
"Three factors need to be taken into account in an organization development
action-research effort: The behaviors that are problematic, the conditions that create
those behaviors, and the interventions or activities that will correct the conditions
creating the problems. What is it that people are doing or not doing, that is a problem?
Why are they doing or not doing these particular things? Which of a large number of
possible interventions or activities would be most likely to solve the problems by
focusing on why problems exist?" (Hausser, Pecorella & Wissler, 1977, p.2).
Here it is unmistakeably clear that the primary focus of the action-research approach
to organizational analysis is the ongoing array of concrete problems an organization
faces. Of course, there are a number of differences in the discipline as to the overall
definition and meaning of the emerging action-research paradigm. But this basic
assumption-that research equals problem solving-is not one of them. In a recent
review intended to discover elements of metatheoretical agreement within the
discipline, Peters and Robinson (1984) discovered that out of 15 different dimensions
of action-research studied, only 2 had unanimous support among leaders in the field.
What were these two elements of agreement? Exactly as the definitions above
suggest: Social science should be "action-oriented" and "problem focused."
Inquiry, in action-research terms, is a matter of following the standardized rules of
problem solving; knowledge is the result of good method. "In essence," write Blake
and Mouton (1976), "it is a method of empirical data gathering that is comprised of a
set of rather standardized steps: diagnosis, information gathering, feedback, and
action planning" (pp.101-102). By following this ritual list, they contend that virtually
any organization can be studied in a manner that will lead to usable knowledge. As
Chiles (1983) puts it, "The virtue of the model lies in the sequential process. . . . Any
other sequence renders the model meaningless" (p.318). The basic idea behind the
model is that "in management, events proceed as planned unless some force, not
provided against by the plan, acts upon events to produce an outcome not
contemplated in the plan" (Kepner & Tregoe, 1973, p.3). Thus, a problem is a
deviation from some standard, and without precise diagnosis (step one) any attempt to
resolve the problem will likely fail as a result of not penetrating the surface symptoms
to discover the true causes. Hence, like a liturgical refrain which is seldom questioned
or thought about, Cohen, Fink et al. (1984) tell the new student that knowledge is the
offspring of processing information through a distinct series of problem-solving stages:
Action-research begins with an identified problem. Data are then gathered in a
way that allows a diagnosis which can produce a tentative solution, which is then
implemented with the assumption that it is likely to cause new or unforeseen problems
that will, in turn, need to be evaluated, diagnosed, and so forth This action-research
method assumes a constantly evolving interplay between solutions, results, and new
solutions. . This model is a general one applicable to solving any kind of problem in
an ongoing organization (pp. 359~360).
Action-research is utilitarian or technical; that is, it should be initiated and designed to
meet a need in an area specified by the organization, usually by "top management,"
The search is controlled by the 'felt need" or object of inquiry; everything that is not
related to this object should be dismissed as irrevelant. As we are beginning to see,
action-research conventionally understood does not really refer to research per se but
rather to a highly focused and defined type of research called problem solving. Taken
almost directly from the medical model, the disease orientation guides the process of
inquiry in a highly programmed way. According to Levinson (1972), diagnostic action-
research, "like a therapeutic or teaching relationship should be an alliance of both
parties to discover and resolve these problems. . . . [The researcher] should look for
experiences which appear stressful to people. What kinds of occurrences disrupt or
disorganize people" (p. 37). Hence in a systematically limiting fashion, the general
topic of research is largely prescribed-before inquiry even begins. As we would guess:
Typical questions in [action-research] data gathering or "problem sensing" would
What problems do you see in your group, including problems between people that
are interfering with getting the job done the way you would like to see it done? And
what problems do you see in the broader organization? Such open-ended questions
provide latitude on the part of respondents and encourage a reporting of problems as
the individual sees them (French, 1969, pp. 183-185).
In problem solving it is assumed that something is broken, fragmented, not whole,
and that it needs to be fixed. Thus the function of problem solving is to integrate,
stabilize, and help raise to its full potential the workings of the status quo. By
definition, a problem implies that one already has knowledge of what "should be"; thus
one's research is guided by an instrumental purpose tied to what is already known. In
this sense, problem solving tends to be inherently conservative; as a form of research
it tends to produce and reproduce a universe of knowledge that remains sealed. As
Staw (1984) points out in his review of the field, most organizational research is
biased to serve managerial interests rather than exploring broader human and/or
social purposes. But even more important, he argues, the field has not even served
managerial interests well since research has taken a short-term problem focus rather
than having formulated logics of new forms of organization that do not exist. It is as if
the discipline's concept of social-system development means only clearing up
distortions in current functioning (horizontal development) and does not include any
conception of a stage-based movement toward an altogether new or transformed
reality (vertical development or second-order change).
Action-research should not inquire into phenomena that transcend the competence of
human reason. Questions that cannot be answered should not be asked and issues
that cannot be acted upon should not be explored (i.e., action-research is not a branch
of political philosophy, poetry, or theology). This proposition is a "smuggled-in"
corollary to the preceding assumptions. It would appear that once one agrees with the
ground rules of a pragmatic problem-solving science, the universe for inquiry is largely
predetermined, defined, and delimited in scope. Specifically, what one agrees to a
secularized view of a human universe that is predictable, controllable, and rational,
one that is sequentially ordered into a series of causes and effects. As both a credit
and a weakness, the problem-solving mode narrows our gaze in much the same
manner that a blinder over one eye narrows the field of vision and distorts one's
perception of depth. As a part of a long-term movement evidenced in social sciences,
contemporary action-research embodies the trend toward metaphysical skepticism
and denial (Quinney, 1982). That is, it operates out of a sacred void that cuts off
virtually any inquiry into the vital forces of life. Indeed, the whole promise of modern
science was that it would finally banish illusion, mystery, and uncertainty from the
world. An inquiry process of immediate utility (problem solving), therefore, requires an
anti-religious, secular spirit that will limit the realm of study to the sphere of the known.
And because of the recognition that the formulation of a problem depends largely on
one's views of what constitutes a solution, it is not surprising to find that research on
the utilization of research shows a propensity for social scientists and organizations to
agree on studying only those variables that can be manipulated (Beyer & Trice, 1982).
As one might imagine, such a view has crippling implications for generative theorizing.
For example, as typically practiced, action-research does little in the way of theorizing
about or bringing beauty into organizational life. Does this mean that there is no
beauty in organizing? Does this mean that the realm of the esthetic has little or
nothing to do with organizational dynamics?
The tidy imagery of the problem-solving view is related to what Sigmund Koch (1981)
has called, in his presidential address to the APA, the syndrome of "ameaningful
thinking." One element of this syndrome is the perpetuation of the scientistic myth
which uses the rhetoric of prediction and control to reassure people that their lives are
not that complex, their situations not all that uncertain-and that their problems are
indeed manageable through causal analysis. In the process, however, science tends
to trivialize, and even evade, a whole class of issues that 'transcend the competence
of human reason" yet are clearly meaningful in the course of human experience. One
way in which the field of inquiry is restricted, according to Koch, has to do with one's
choice of methodology:
There are times and circumstances in which able individuals, committed to
inquiry, tend almost obsessively to frustrate the objectives of inquiry. It is as if
uncertainty, mootness, ambiguity, cognitive infinitude were the most unbearable of the
existential anguishes....Ameaningful thought or inquiry regards knowledge as the
result of "processing" rather than discovery. It presumes that knowledge is an almost
automatic result of a gimmickry, an assembly line, a 'methodology"....So strongly does
it see knowledge under such aspects that it sometimes seems to suppose the object
of inquiry to be an ungainly and annoying irrevelance (1981, p.259).
To be sure, this is not to argue that all action-research is "ameaningful" or
automatically tied to a standardized problem-solving method. Likewise, much of the
success achieved by action-research until now may be attributed to its restricted focus
on that which is "solvable." However, it is important to recognize that the problem-
solving method of organizational inquiry quite systematically paints a picture of
organizational life in which a whole series of colors are considered untouchable. In this
way the totality of being is obviously obscured, leading to a narrowed conception of
human nature and cultural possibility.
Problems are "out there" to be studied and solved. The ideal product of action-
research is a mirror-like reflection of the organization's problems and causes. As
"objective third party," there is little role for passion and speculation. The action-
researcher should be neither a passionate advocate nor an inspired dreamer (utopian
thinker). One of the laudable and indeed significant values associated with action-
research has been its insistence upon a collaborative form of inquiry. But
unfortunately, from a generative-theory perspective, the term collaboration has
become virtually synonymous with an idealized image of the researcher as a facilitator
and mirror, rather than an active and fully engaged social participant. As facilitator of
the problem-solving process, the action-researcher has three generally agreed-upon
"primary intervention tasks' ':
to help generate valid organizational data; to enable others to make free and informed
choices on the basis of the data; and to help the organization generate internal
commitment to their choices. Elaborating further, Argyris (1970) states:
One condition that seems so basic as to be defined as axiomatic is the generation
of valid information....Valid information is that which describes the factors, plus their
interrelationships, that create the problem (pp.16-17).
Furthermore, it is also assumed that for data to be useful there must be a claim to
neutrality. The data should represent an accurate reflection of the observed facts. As
French and Bell (1978) describe it, it is important for the action-researcher to stress
the objective, fact-finding features: "A key value inculcated in organizational members
is a belief in the validity, desirability, and usefulness
of the data" (p.79). Then through feedback that "refers to activities and processes that
'reflect' or 'mirror' an objective picture of the real world" (p. 111), the action-researcher
facilitates the process of prioritizing problems and helps others make choices for
action. And because the overarching objective is to help the organization develop its
own internal resources, the action-researcher should not play an active role or take an
advocate stance that might in the long run foster an unhealthy dependency. As French
and Bell (1978) again explain, an active role "tends to negate a collaborative,
developmental approach to improving organizational processes" (p.203).
As must be evident, every one of these injunctions associated with the problem-
solving view of action-research serves directly to diminish the likelihood of imaginative,
passionate, creative theory. To the extent that generative theory represents an
inspired theoretical articulation of a new and different future, it appears that action-
research would have nothing to do with it. According to French and Bell (1978) "Even
the presenting of options can be overdone. If the [action-researcher's] ideas become
the focal point for prolonged discussion and debate, the consultant has clearly shifted
away from the facilitator role" (p.
At issue here is something even more important. The fundamental attitude embodied
in the problem-solving view is separationist. It views the world as something external
to our consciousness of it, something "out there." As such it tends to identify problems
not here but "over there": Problems are not ours, but yours; not a condition common to
all, but a condition belonging to this person, their group, or that nation (witness the
acid-rain issue). Thus, the action-researcher is content to facilitate their problem
solving because he or she is not part of that world. To this extent, the problem-solving
view dissects reality and parcels it out into fragmented groups, families, tribes, or
countries. In both form and substance it denies the wholeness of a dynamic and
interconnected social universe. And once the unity of the world is broken, passionless,
mindless, mirror-like inquiry comes to make logical sense precisely because the
inquirer has no ownership or stake in a world that is not his or hers to begin with.
Organizational life is problematic. Organizing is best understood as a historically
situated sequence of problems, causes, and solutions among people, events, and
things. Thus, the ultimate aim and product of action-research is the production of
institutions that have a high capacity to perceive, formulate, and solve an endless
stream of problems.
The way we conceive of the social world is of consequence to the kind of world we
discover and even, through our reconstructions, helps to create it. Action-researchers,
like scientists in other areas, approach their work from a framework based on taken-
for-granted assumptions. To the extent that these assumptions are found useful, and
are affirmed by colleagues, they remain unquestioned as a habitual springboard for
one's work. In time the conventional view becomes so solidly embedded that it
assumes the status of being "real," without alternative (Morgan, 1980; Mennhiem,
1936). As human beings we are constantly in symbolic interaction, attempting to
develop conceptions that will allow us to make sense of and give meaning to
experience through the use of language, ideas, signs, theories, and names. As many
have recently shown, the use of metaphor is a basic mode under which symbolism
works and exerts an influence on the development of language, science, and cognitive
growth (Morgan, 1980; Ortony, 1979; Black, 1962; Keely, 1980). Metaphor works by
asserting that A equals B or is very much like B. We use metaphors constantly to open
our eyes and sensitize us to phenomenal realities that otherwise might go unnoticed.
Pepper (1942) argues that all science proceeds from specifiable "world hypotheses"
and behind every world hypothesis rests the boldest of "root metaphors.
Within what we are calling Paradigm I action-research, there lies a guiding metaphor
which has a power impact on the theory-building activity of the discipline. When
organizations are approached from the deficiency perspective of Paradigm I, all the
properties and modes of organizing are scrutinized for their dysfunctional but
potentially solvable problems. It is all too clear then that the root metaphor of the
conventional view is that organizing is a problem. This image focuses the researcher's
eye on a visible but narrow realm of reality that resides "out there" and is causally
determined, deficient by some preexisting standard-on problems that are probably
both understandable and solvable. Through analysis, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-
up evaluation the sequential world of organizing can be kept on its steady and
productive course. And because social existence is at its base a problem to be solved,
real living equals problem solving, and living better is an adaptive learning process
whereby we acquire new and more effective means for tackling tough problems. The
good life, this image informs, depends on solving problems in such a way that
problems of utility are identified and solutions of high quality are found and carried out
with full commitment. As one leading theorist describes:
For many scholars who study organizations and management, the central
characteristic of organizations is that they are problem-solving systems whose
success is measured by how efficiently they solve problems associated with
accomplishing their primary mission and how effectively they respond to emergent
problems. Kilmann's approach (1979, pp.214-215) is representative of this
perspective: "One might even define the essence of management as problem defining
and problem solving, whether the problems are well-structured, ill-structured,
technical, human, or environmental In this view, the core task of the executive is
problem management. Although experience, personality, and specific technical
expertise are important, the primary skill of the successful executive is the ability to
manage the problem-solving process in such a way that important problems are
identified and solutions of high quality are found and carried out with the full
commitment of organizational members (KoIb, 1983, pp.109-110).
From here it is just a short conceptual jump to the idealized aim of Paradigm I
Action-research tends to build into the client system an institutionalized pattern for
continuously collecting data and examining the system's processes, as well as for the
continuous review of known problem areas. Problem solving becomes very much a
way of organizational life (Marguiles and Raia, 1972, p.29).
I have tried in these few pages to highlight the almost obvious point that the
deficiency/problem orientation is pervasive and holds a subtle but powerful grasp on
the discipline's imagination and focus. It can be argued that the generative incapacity
of contemporary action-research is securely linked with the discipline's guiding
metaphor of social-organizational existence. As noted by many scholars, the
theoretical output of the discipline is virtually nonexistent, and what theory there is is
largely problem-focused (theories of turnover, intergroup conflict, processes of
dehumanization. See Staw, 1984 for an excellent review). Thus, our theories, like
windsocks, continue to blow steadily onward in the direction of our conventional gaze.
Seeing the world as a problem has become 'very much a way of organizational life."
It is our feeling that the discipline has reached a level of fatigue arising from
repetitious use of its standardized model. Fatigue, as Whitehead (1929) 50 aptly
surmised, arises from an act of excluding the impulse toward novelty which is the
antithesis of the life of the mind and of speculative reason. To be sure, there can be
great adventure in the process of inquiry. Yet not many action-researchers today
return from their explorations refreshed and revitalized, like pioneers returning home,
with news of lands unknown but most certainly there. Perhaps there is a different root
metaphor from which to work.
Proposal for a Second Dimension
Our effort here is but one in a small yet growing attempt to generate new perspectives
on the conduct of organizational research, perspectives that can yield the kind of
knowledge necessary for both understanding and transforming complex social-
organizational systems (Torbert, 1983; Van Maanen et al., 1982; Mitroff & Kilmann,
1978; Smirchich, 1983; Forester, 1983; Argyris, 1970; Friedlander, 1977). It is
apparent that among the diverse views currently emerging there is frequently great
tension. Often the differences become the battleground for fierce debate about
theories of truth, the meaning of "facts," political agendas, and personal assertions of
will. But, more fruitfully, what can be seen emerging is a heightened sensitivity to and
interdisciplinary recognition of the fact that, based on "the structure of knowledge"
(KoIb, 1984), there may be multiple ways of knowing, each of them valid in its own
realm when judged according to its own set of essential assumptions and purposes. In
this sense there are many different ways of studying the same phenomenon, and the
insights generated by one approach are, at best, partial and incomplete. According to
Jurgen Habermas (1971) different perspectives can be evaluated only in terms of their
specified 'human interests," which can broadly be differentiated into the realm of
practical rationality and the realm of technical rationality. In more straightforward
language Morgan (1983) states:
The selection of method implies some view of the situation being studied, for any
decision on how to study a phenomenon carries with it certain assumptions or explicit
answers to the question, What is being studied?', Just as we select a tennis racquet
rather than a golf club to play tennis because we have a prior conception as to what
the game of tennis involves, so too, in relation to the process of social research, we
select or favor particular kinds of methodology because we have implicit or explicit
conceptions as to what we are trying to do with our research (p.19).
Thus, in adopting one mode over another the researcher directly influences what he or
she will finally discover and accomplish.
It is the contention of this chapter that advances in generative theorizing will come
about for action-research when the discipline decides to expand its universe of
exploration, seeks to discover new questions, and rekindles a fresh perception of the
extra ordinary in everyday organizational life. In this final section we now describe the
assumptions and philosophy of an applied administrative science that seeks to
embody these suggestions in a form of organization study we call appreciative inquiry.
In distinction to conventional action-research, the knowledge-interest of appreciative
inquiry lies not so much in problem solving as in social innovation. Appreciative inquiry
refers to a research perspective that is uniquely intended for discovering,
understanding, and fostering innovations in social-organizational arrangements and
processes.5 Its purpose is to contribute to the generative-theoretical aims of social
science and to use such knowledge to promote egalitarian dialogue leading to social-
system effectiveness and integrity. Whatever else it may be, social-system
effectiveness is defined here quite specifically as a congruence between social-
organizational values (the ever-changing normative set of values, ideas, or interests
that system members hold concerning the question, "How should we organize
ourselves?") and everyday social-organizational practices (cf. Torbert, 1983). Thus,
appreciative inquiry refers to both a search for knowledge and a theory of intentional
collective action which are designed to help evolve the normative vision and will of a
group, organization, or society as a whole. It is an inquiry process that affirms our
symbolic capacities of imagination and mind as well as our social capacity for
conscious choice and cultural evolution. As a holistic form of inquiry, it asks a series of
questions not found in either a logical-positivist conception of science or a strictly
pragmatic, problem-solving mode of action-research. Yet as shown in Figure 1, its
alms are both scientific (in a sociorationalist sense) and pragmatic (in a social-
innovation sense) as well as metaphysical and normative (in the sense of attempting
ethically to affirm all that social existence really is and should become). As a way of
talking about the framework as it is actually practiced, we shall first examine four
guiding principles that have directed our work in the area to date:
The reader may imagine arrows going downward and through each of the points on
the chart.
is scientific/theoretical
Seeks sociorational
knowledge (interpretive)
Grounded Observation
Best of "What Is"
is metaphysical
Seeks appreciative
knowledge of miracle of
Vision logic
Ideals of "What Might
is normative
Seeks practical
Collaborative dialogue
and choice
Consent of "What Should
is pragmatic
Seeks knowledgeable
Experiencing of "What
Can Be"
Figure 1. Dimensions of Appreciative Inquiry
Principle 1: Research into the social (innovation) potential of organizational life should
begin with appreciation. This basic principle assumes that every social system "works"
to some degree-that it is not in a complete state of entropy-and that a primary task of
research is to discover, describe, and explain those social innovations, however small,
which serve to give "life" to the system and activate members' competencies and
energies as more fully functioning participants in the formation and transformation of
organizational realities. That is, the appreciative approach takes its inspiration from
the current state of "what is" and seeks a comprehensive understanding of the factors
and forces of organizing (ideological, techno-structural, cultural) that serve to heighten
the total potential of an organization in ideal-type human and social terms.
Principle 2: Research into the social potential of organizational life should be
applicable. To be significant in a human sense, an applied science of administration
should lead to the generation of theoretical knowledge that can be used, applied, and
thereby validated in action. Thus, an applicable inquiry process is neither utopian in
the sense of generating knowledge about "no place" (Sargent, 1982) nor should it be
confined to academic circles and presented in ways that have little relevance to the
everyday language and symbolism of those for whom the findings might be applicable.
Principle 3: Research into the social potential of organizational life should be
provocative. Here it is considered axiomatic that an organization is, in fact, an open-
ended indeterminate system capable of (1) becoming more than it is at any given
moment, and (2) learning how to actively take part in guiding its own evolution. Hence,
appreciative knowledge of what is (in terms of "peak" social innovations in organizing)
is suggestive of what might be and such knowledge can be used to generate images
of realistic developmental opportunities that can be experimented with on a wider
scale. In this sense, appreciative inquiry can be both pragmatic and visionary. It
becomes provocative to the extent that the abstracted findings of a study take on
normative value for members of an organization, and this can happen only through
their own critical deliberation and choice ("We feel that this particular finding is [or not]
important for us to envision as an ideal to be striving for in practice on a wider scale").
It is in this way then, that appreciative inquiry allows us to put intuitive, visionary logic
on a firm empirical footing and to use systematic research to help the organization's
members shape the social world according to their own imaginative and moral
Principle 4.. Research into the social potential of organizational life should be
collaborative. This overarching principle points to the assumed existence of an
inseparable relationship between the process of inquiry and its content. A
collaborative relationship between the researcher and members of an organization is,
therefore, deemed essential on the basis of both epistemological (Susman & Evered,
1978) and practical/ethical grounds (Habermas, 1971; Argyris, 1970). Simply put, a
unilateral approach to the study of social innovation (bringing something new into the
social world) is a direct negation of the phenomenon itself.
The spirit behind each of these four principles of appreciative inquiry is to be found in
one of the most ancient archetypes or metaphorical symbols of hope and inspiration
that humankind has ever known-the miracle and mystery of being. Throughout history,
people have recognized the intimate relationship between being seized by the
unfathomable and the process of appreciative knowing or thought (Marcel, 1963;
Quinney, 1982; Jung, 1933; Maslow, 1968; Ghandi, 1958). According to Albert
Schweitzer (1969), for example, it is recognition of the ultimate mystery that elevates
our perception beyond the world of ordinary objects, igniting the life of the mind and a
"reverence for life":
In all respects the universe remains mysterious to man. . . . As soon as man does
not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably
mysterious, thought begins. This phenomenon has been repeated time and time again
in the history of the human race. Ethical affirmation of life is the intellectual act by
which man ceases simply to live at random. . . . [Such] thought has a dual task to
accomplish: to lead us out of a naive and into a profounder affirmation of life and the
universe; and to help us progress from ethical impulses to a rational system of ethics
(p~ 33).
For those of us breastfed by an industrial giant that stripped the world of its wonder
and awe, it feels, to put it bluntly, like an irrevelant, absurd, and even distracting
interruption to pause, reflect deeply, and then humbly accept the depth of what we can
never know-and to consider the ultimate reality of living for which there are no
coordinates or certainties, only questions. Medicine cannot tell me, for example, what
it means that my newborn son has life and motion and soul, anymore than the modern
physicist can tell me what "nothingness" is, which, they say, makes up over 99 percent
of the universe. In fact, if there is anything we have learned from a great physicist of
our time is that the promise of certainty is a lie (Hiesenberg, 1958), and by living this
lie as scientistic doctrine, we short-circuit the gift of complementarity-the capacity for
dialectically opposed modes of knowing, which adds richness, depth, and beauty to
our lives (Bohr, 1958). Drugged by the products of our industrial machine we lose
sight of and connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation, an ultimate
power beyond rational understanding.
In the same way that birth of a living, breathing, loving, thinking human being is an
inexplicable mystery, so too it can be said in no uncertain terms that organizing is a
miracle of cooperative human interaction, of which there can never be final
explanation. In fact, to the extent that organizations are indeed born and re-created
through dialogue, they truly are unknowable as long as such creative dialogue
remains. At this point in time there simply are no organizational theories that can
account for the life-giving essence of cooperative existence, especially if one delves
deeply enough. But, somehow we forget all this. We become lulled by our simplistic
diagnostic boxes. The dilemma faced by our discipline in terms of its creative
contribution to knowledge is summed up perfectly in the title of a well known article by
one of the major advocates of action-research. The title by Marv Wiesbord (1976), has
proven prophetic: "Organizational diagnosis: six places to look for trouble, with or
without a theory." Content to transfer our conceptual curiosity over to "experts" who
finally must know, our creative instincts lie pitifully dormant. Instead of explorers we
become mechanics.
This, according to Koch (1981), is the source of "ameaningful" thinking. As
Kierkegaard (1954) suggests, it is the essence of a certain dull-minded routine called
"philistinism' ':
Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial
province of experience as to how things go, what is possible. . Philistinism
tranquilizes itself in the trivial (pp. 174-175).
As we know, a miracle is something that is beyond all possible verification, yet is
experienced as real. As a symbol, the word miracle represents unification of the
sacred and secular into a realm of totality that is at once terrifying and beautiful,
inspiring and threatening. Quinney (1982) has suggested with respect to the
rejuvenation of social theory, that such a unified viewpoint is altogether necessary,
that it can have a powerful impact on the discipline precisely because in a world that is
at once sacred and secular there is no place, knowledge, or phenomenon that is
without mystery. The "miracle" then is pragmatic in its effect when sincerely
apprehended by a mind that has chosen not to become "tranquilized in the trivial." In
this sense, the metaphor "life is a miracle" is not so much an idea as it is-or can be-a
central feature of experience enveloping (1) our perceptual consciousness; (2) our
way of relation to others, the world, and our own research; and (3) our way of
knowing. Each of these points can be highlighted by a diverse literature.
In terms of the first, scholars have suggested that the power of what we call the
miracle lies in its capacity to advance one's perceptual capacity what Maslow (1968)
has called a B-cognition or a growth-vs-deficiency orientation, or what Kolb (1984) has
termed integrative consciousness. Koib writes:
The transcendental quality of integrative consciousness is precisely that, a
'climbing out of". . . . This state of consciousness is not reserved for the monastery,
but it is a necessary ingredient for creativity in any field. Albert Einstein once said,
'The most beautiful and profound emotion one can feel is a sense of the mystical. . . .
It is the dower of all true science" (p. 158).
Second, as Gabriel Marcel (1963) explained in his William James lectures at Harvard
on The Mystery of Being, the central conviction of life as a mystery creates for us a
distinctly different relationship to the world than the conviction of life as a problem to
be solved: -
A problem is something met which bars my passage. It is before me in its entirety.
A mystery on the other hand is something I find myself caught up in, and whose
essence is therefore not before me in its entirety. It is though in this province the
distinction between "in me" and "before me" loses its meaning (p.80).
Berman's (1981) recent analysis comes to a similar conclusion. The re-enchantment
of the world gives rise to a "participatory consciousness" where there is a sense of
personal stake, ownership, and partnership with the universe:
The view of nature which predominated the West down to the eve of the Scientific
Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all
seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The
cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. A member of this cosmos was not an
alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was
bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life.
Third, as so many artists and poets have shown, there is a relationship between what
the Greeks called thaumazein-an experience which lies on the borderline between
wonderment and admiration-and a type of intuitive apprehension or knowing that we
call appreciative. For Keats, the purpose of his work was:
to accept things as I saw them, to enjoy the beauty I perceived for its own sake,
without regard to ultimate 'truth' or falsity, and to make a description of it the end and
purpose of my appreciations.
Similarly for Shelley:
Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world . . it
exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful . . . it strips the veil of familiarity from
the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is in the spirit of its
And in strikingly similar words, learning theorist David Koib (1984) analyzes the
structure of the knowing mind and reports:
Finally, appreciation is a process of affirmation. Unlike criticism, which is based on
skepticism and doubt (compare Polanyi, 1968, pp. 269ff.), appreciation is based on
belief, trust, and conviction. And from this affirmative embrace flows a deeper fullness
and richness of experience. This act of affirmation forms the foundation from which
vital comprehension can develop. . Appreciative apprehension and critical
comprehension are thus fundamentally different processes of knowing. Appreciation of
immediate experience is an act of attention, valuing, and affirmation, whereas critical
comprehension of symbols is based on objectivity (which invokes a priori controls of
attention, as in double-blind controlled experiments), dispassionate analysis, and
skepticism (pp.104-105).
We have cited these various thinkers in detail for several reasons: first, to underscore
the fact that the powerful images of problem and miracle (in)form qualitatively distinct
modes of inquiry which then shape our awareness, relations, and knowledge; and
second, to highlight the conviction that the renewal of generative theory requires that
we enter into the realm of the metaphysical. The chief characteristic of the modern
mind has been the banishment of mystery from the world, and along with it an ethical
affirmation of life that has served history as a leading source of values, hope, and
normative bonding among people. In historical terms, we have steadily forgotten how
to dream.
In contrast to a type of research that is lived without a sense of mystery, the
appreciative mode awakens the desire to create and discover new social possibilities
that can enrich our existence and give it meaning. In this sense, appreciative inquiry
seeks an imaginative and fresh perception of organizations as "ordinary magic," as if
seen for the first time-or perhaps the last time (Hayward, 1984). The appreciative
mode, in exploration of ordinary magic, is an inquiry process that takes nothing for
granted, searching to apprehend the basis of organizational life and working to
articulate those possibilities giving witness to a better existence.
The metaphysical dimension of appreciative inquiry is important not so much as a
way of finding answers but is important insofar as it heightens the living experience of
awe and wonder which leads us to the wellspring of new questions-much like a wide-
eyed explorer without final destination, Only by raising innovative questions will
innovations in theory and practice be found. As far as action-research is concerned,
this appears to have been the source of Lewin's original and catalytic genius. We too
can re-awaken this spirit. Because the questions we ask largely determine what we
find, we should place a premium on that which informs our curiosity and thought. The
metaphysical question of what makes social existence possible will never go away.
The generative-theoretical question of compelling new possibilities will never go away.
The normative question of what kind of social-organizational order is best, most
dignified, and just, will never go away, nor will the pragmatic question of how to move
closer to the ideal.
In its pragmatic form appreciative inquiry represents a data-based theory-building
methodology for evolving and putting into practice the collective will of a group or
organization. It has one and only one aim-to provide a generative-theoretical
springboard for normative dialogue that is conducive to self-directed experimentation
in social innovation. It must be noted, however, that the conceptual world which
appreciative inquiry creates remains-despite its empirical content-an illusion. This is
important to recognize because it is precisely because of its visionary content, placed
in juxtaposition to grounded examples of the extraordinary, that appreciative inquiry
opens the status quo to possible transformations in collective action. It appreciates the
best of "what is" to ignite intuition of the possible and then firmly unites the two
logically, caringly, and passionately into a theoretical hypothesis of an envisioned
future. By raising ever new questions of an appreciative, applicable, and provocative
nature, the researcher collaborates in the scientific construction of his or her world.6
What we have tried to do with this chapter is present conceptual refiguration of action-
research; to present a proposal arguing for an enriched multidimensional view of
action-research which seeks to be both theoretically generative and progressive in a
broad human sense. In short, the argument is a simple one stating that there is a need
to re-awaken the imaginative spirit of action-research and that to do this we need a
fundamentally different perspective toward our organizational world, one that admits to
its uncertainties, ambiguities, mysteries, and inexplicable, miraculous nature. But now
we must admit, with a certain sense of limited capability and failure, that the viewpoint
articulated here is simply not possible to define and is very difficult to speak of in
technological, step-by-step terms. From the perspective of rational thought, the
miraculous is impossible. From that of problem solving it is nonsense. And from that of
empirical science, it is categorically denied (Reeves, 1984). Just as we cannot prove
the proposition that organizing is a problem to be solved, so, too, we cannot prove in
any rational, analytical, or empirical way that organizing is a miracle to be embraced.
Each stance represents a commitment-a core conviction so to speak-which is given to
each of us as a choice. We do, however, think that through discipline and training the
appreciative eye can be developed to see the ordinary magic, beauty, and real
possibility in organizational life; but we are not sure we can so easily transform our
central convictions.
In sum, the position we have been developing here is that for action-research to
reach its potential as a vehicle for social innovation, it needs to begin advancing
theoretical knowledge of consequence; that good theory may be one of the most
powerful means human beings have for producing change in a post-industrial world;
that the discipline's steadfast commitment to a problem-solving view of the world is a
primary restraint on its imagination, passion, and positive contribution; that
appreciative inquiry represents a viable complement to conventional forms of action-
research, one uniquely suited for social innovation instead of problem solving; and that
through our assumptions and choice of method we largely create the world we later
1. While we draw most of our examples from the Organization Development (OD)
school of action-research, the argument presented here should be relevant to other
applications as well. As noted by Peters and Robinson (1984), the discipline of action-
research has been prevalent in the literature of community action, education and
educational system change, and organization change, as well as discussions of the
social sciences in general.
2. As physicist Jeremy Hayward (1984) has put it, "I'll see it when I believe it," or
oppositely, "I won't see it because I don't believe it.,, The point is that all observation is
filtered through belief systems which act as our personal theories of the world. Thus,
what counts as fact" depends largely on beliefs associated with theory and therefore,
on the community of scientists espousing this belief system.
3. A group of colleagues and we are engaged in a two-year study of a major industrial
plant where introduction of this simple theory has led to changes in job design, work
relations, training programs, motivational climate, and hierarchical ideology. For an
introduction to this work see Pasmore, Cooperrider, Kaplan and Morris, 1983.
4. Emphasis in this and the following definitions are ours, intended to underscore the
points being made. Earlier we noted the importance of language as a subtle cueing
device. Keeping this in mind, the reader is asked to pay special attention to the
language of problem solving, and perhaps even count the sheer number of times the
word problem is used in relation to definitions of action research.
5. Following Whyte (1982), a social innovation will be defined as: (1) a new element in
organizational structure or interorganizational relations; (2) innovative sets of
procedures, reward systems, or interaction and activity and the relations of human
beings to the natural and social environment; (3) a new administrative policy in actual
use; (4) new role or sets of roles; and (5) new belief systems of ideologies
transforming basic modes of relating.
6. For an example of the type of theory generated through appreciative inquiry, see
'The Emergence of the Egalitarian Organization" (Srivastva and Cooperrider, 1986).
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________________________ ____________________
Research in Organizationa l Change and Development,
Vol.1, pages 129-169.
Copyright © 1987 by JAI Press In c.
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ISBN: 0-89232-4749-9
... Hence, this collection of dialogic methods -i.e. appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987), future search (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995), open space technology (Owen, 1992), and world café (Brown & Issacs, 2005)gained a collective momentum within and across a variety of OD practitioner networks. Although Bushe & Marshak defined this cluster of discursive methods as 'dialogic', this was a form of retrospective labelling. ...
... Traditional action research (Whyte & Hamilton, 1964); Structural intervention (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1969); Job design (Hackman & Oldham, 1980); Contemporary action research (Bradbury, 2015), Appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987), Future search (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995), Open space technology (Owen, 1992), World café (Brown & Issacs, 2005) Main Focus (Bushe & Marshak, 2016) Changing behaviour and what people do ...
This chapter explores how ‘discourse’, as a process concerned with the production and consumption of talk and text, has been embraced within the field of organizational change and development (OCD). We present six ways of thinking about the role of discourse in OCD (namely: ‘discourse as component’, ‘discourse as process’, ‘discourse as analysis’, ‘discourse as method’, ‘discourse as mindset’, and ‘discourse as style’). Although the advent of dialogic OD has raised awareness of discourse, we demonstrate that it remains a marginal and under-utilized area of interest. We conclude by making a case for a more expansive role for discursive modes of analysis and engagement within OCD.
... approach (AI), which focuses on strengths and aspirations rather than problems and weaknesses. The AI approach was primarily created as a tool for business organisational development to shift mindsets from analysing problems to charting positive possibilities (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987;Russell & Harshbarger, 2003) and developed as a research framework (e.g. Reed, 2007). ...
Studies found that rapid decline of biodiversity and ecosystems globally have adversely affected an estimated 1.6 billion rural people whose livelihoods both directly and indirectly depend on forests. To halt the loss of forests and other natural ecosystems that simultaneously support rural livelihoods, various external programmes have been developed and applied, including market‐based and rights‐based approaches. However, rapid biodiversity and ecosystem decline continues, and better incentives or more secure rights have not always led to local community participation and improved livelihoods. This suggests the need to better explain local communities' motivations in nature stewardship. We conducted a study of local communities in two villages in Sulawesi who voluntarily maintain forests but showed resistance to participation in formal Social Forestry programmes. The study aimed to identify motivations and underlying reasons of community preferences, guided by two research questions: (i) how did local people value forest landscapes? and (ii) how did those values interact with externally driven Social Forestry programmes? We applied the Relational Values concept to understand a community's relations with the forest (or its elements) and land and identified points of value divergence. Data collection involved in‐depth semi‐structured interviews, focus group discussions framed by the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, participant observation and land use/land cover change analysis. Our findings show that people value their forests in relation to their identity, ancestral heritage, sense of place and spiritual values. We also identified the points of value divergence and their underlying reasons of resistance towards externally driven forestry programmes. This study thus contributes to the broader conceptualisation of values in conservation and community participation by providing empirical evidence on the importance of the Relational Values framework in understanding the motivation and behaviour of nature stewardship and in the evaluation of value conflicts. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.
The combined challenges of climate change, urban densification, and pandemic-related isolation and stress have strengthened the case for increased greening in cities where their social and environmental benefits have captured the interest of policy-makers. Green roofs, walls, and facades (GRWF) are an established solution in many space-constrained northern hemisphere cities. This is not the case in Australia where GRWF sector growth is slower. To understand how to accelerate the uptake of GRWF, we ran appreciative inquiry summits in Sydney and Melbourne. We examined (1) actions for flourishing GRWFs and (2) collaboration for rapid innovation. Our results highlight collaborative learning and link this to phases of sector evolution through government-led research partnerships, policy, and incentives; a national body advocating, and supporting, engaging, and developing expertise; and cross-sector co‑leading for alignment and building sector capacity and knowledge. We integrate these into our model, revealing adoption, legitimation, and diffusion and sector growth phases, finding stalled progress and new initiatives signalling recent change. This work is relevant to GRWF and other forms of green infrastructure in cities where these technologies are new or not widely implemented.
Background Nursing is becoming an increasingly stressful occupation, identified by high rates of burnout, compounded by a worldwide nursing shortage. Differing solutions to combat burnout have not provided long-term positive outcomes. This research explored emergency nurses’ perspectives and experiences of one potential solution, known as joy in work, or professional joy. Methods A qualitative, descriptive design was used to conduct semi-structured interviews with six registered nurses from two New Zealand emergency departments. Thematic analysis techniques were used. Findings Professional joy was frequently experienced, despite the difficulties faced in the emergency environment. Joy was identified as being like a spark which provided an uplift. The experience of joy positively impacted the nurse, and beyond, and potentially provided a buffer that assisted with mitigating the daily challenges. Recalling or sharing experiences of joy evoked a sense of wellbeing in the nurse, which in turn provided motivation to keep on nursing. This research identified a link between nurse wellbeing, joy and the importance of a healthy work environment. Conclusion While this study was relatively small, the findings highlight the significant positive impact the experience of joy had on these nurses. Further research is recommended to gain greater understanding of this important topic.
A clear and explicitly communicated learning model is at the heart of the learning enterprise for a university. In this chapter, the authors present an inclusive teaching and learning model and discuss how its evolution expresses the values and mission of the university and guide it in outlining the behaviors and expectations that the university places on faculty, staff, and learners with respect to supporting inclusive learning relationships, recruiting faculty and staff, professional development, and performance management.
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Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an innovative methodology and a process for facilitating positive change in organizations, groups, and communities (Cooperrider, Srivastva, 1987). This approach has been successfully implemented worldwide in management, the non-profit sector, health care, education, community development and other fields. Problem- solving gets replaced with innovation and by identifying the positive core that gives life to an organisation, a group, or a community when it is vital, effective, and successful. The concept is based on the heliotropic principle: that people move toward those things that give them energy and life. AI starts from the inquiry of the inner values of an individual and his/her positive images of the future that motivate and drive him/her towards affirmations and positive visions of the future. This paper considers the possibilities of implementation of AI in the field in which it has not been applied so far: in victims' support programmes. The first part of the paper presents the principles, methodology, and phases of AI. Examples of good practices are presented in the second part of the paper. The third part introduces possibilities, methods, and expected outcomes of the implementation of AI in victims' support programmes. The author concludes that AI has great potential to be implemented in victims' support programmes as an additional programme for their empowerment and envisioning optimistic expectations in future. It is expected that AI workshops would empower victims to successfully overcome the consequences of victimisation and achieve personal growth at the same time. The paper aims to consider the potential of AI regarding its implementation as additional content in victims' support and assistance programmes.
County Extension offices are responsible for the majority of programming delivered in the United States. The purpose of this study was to identify and explore assets influencing the quality of county Extension programs. A basic qualitative research design was followed to conduct constant comparative analysis of five Extension county program review reports. Using the appreciative inquiry process as the lens through which to view the county program review reports revealed multiple assets leading to quality programming. Assets of the reviewed county Extension programs were found to cluster within the following themes: competent and enthusiastic Extension faculty, community partnerships, engaged and supportive stakeholders, effective resource management, sufficient and stable workforce, meeting stakeholder needs, positive reputation, access to facilities, positive relationships between county and state faculty, and innovative practices. The use of both needs-based and assets-based paradigms will provide Extension organizations with a more holistic understanding of its assets and a research-based foundation from which to make decisions about strengthening the organization at all levels.
Full-text available
Criminology has conventionally focussed on the onset and punishment of crime. Less attention is paid to how offenders reintegrate, exist, cope and move away from crime. However, there is a growing body of research interested in reintegration and desistance from crime. The literature on sex offender reintegration and desistance is limited but emerging, with studies exclusively involving child sex offenders remaining scarce. Therefore, this thesis has been designed to evaluate the reintegration experiences of child sex offenders in a community in England and Wales. Using a qualitative, semi-structured, individual interview approach, data were collected from 10 men (the participants) who had at least one current and at least one previous child sexual offence conviction. The index offences ranged from internet related charges, to rape. Data were additionally obtained from 11 professionals working with child sex offenders in the community. The professionals worked for either the National Probation Service (NPS), the police or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). The themes of resettlement, risk management and stigma were discussed, and an illustrative model of child sex offender reintegration was developed. The findings suggest the participants were vulnerable. They shared experiences of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of non-sex offenders, loss, fear, isolation and pressure. They were not afforded the opportunities to reintegrate with success in comparison to other offender types, with internet offenders' opportunities being lessened further. They used a variety of coping methods, including self-risk management, identity passing, avoidance and appropriate offence disclosure. In addition, the illustrative model highlighted how the men were active agents of their reintegration journey, rather than being passive. They shaped and negotiated their way through life in the community as men with child sexual offences in different and interesting ways, whilst being mindful of the stigma associated with this offence type.
This article presents the author's views on scientific research. According to the author more and more of those who study science are coming to understand that to be scientific does not mean to be free of all biases, opinions and strong convictions. Rather, to be scientific is to be more aware of one's biases and how they influence what one studies. The author along with researcher James Emshoff worked out a method for strategic planning that explicitly recognizes the role that such biases play and that attempts to take positive advantage of them.
[The study of decision making] is complicated by the difficulties of assessing to what extent... rational devices actually are used in making decisions, particularly by higher-ups... The CEO of Covenant Corporation [pseudonym for a company in the US which is a large conglomerate], for instance, sold the sporting goods business from one of his operating companies to the president of that company and some associates in a leveraged buyout. The sale surprised many people since at the time the business was the only profitable operation in that particular operating company and there were strong expectations for its long-term growth. Most likely, according to some managers, the corporation was just not big enough to hold two egos as large and bruising as those of the president and the CEO. However, the official reason was that sporting goods, being a consumer business, did not fit the ‘strategic profile’ of the corporation as a whole. Similarly, Covenant’s CEO sold large tracts of land with valuable minerals at dumbfoundingly low prices. The CEO and his aides said that Covenant simply did not have the experience to mine these minerals efficiently, a self-evident fact from the low profit rate of the business. In all likelihood, according to a manager close to the situation, the CEO, a man with a financial bent and a ready eye for the quick paper deal, felt so uncomfortable with the exigencies of mining these minerals that he ignored the fact that the prices the corporation was getting for the minerals had been negotiated 40 years earlier. Such impulsiveness and indeed, one might say from a certain perspective, irrationality, is of course always justified in rational and reasonable terms.