(This is the first in a series of articles introducing the principles that underpin Appreciative Inquiry, and their implications)
The Constructionist Principle, derived from ‘Social Constructionist’ theory, states that the language we use shapes our social reality. Meaning is made in conversation, and what emerges as knowledge is a broad social agreement created among people through communication.
Four assumptions of Social Constructionism (from Kenneth Gergen’s An Invitation To Social Construction):
- The terms by which we understand our world and our self are not required or demanded by “what there is”
- Our modes of description, explanation, and/or representation are derived from relationship
- As we describe, explain, or otherwise represent, we also fashion our future
- Reflection on our forms of understanding is vital to our future well-being
The Constructionist Principle recognises that there are many different ways of viewing social reality and many truths, and that we can replace “absolutist claims or the final word with the never-ending collaborative quest to understand and construct better options for living” (David L Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution In Change).
What does this mean in practice? Life is full of ‘social constructs” – phenomena which exist because people agree to act as if they exist. ‘Social status’ would be one example; paper money is another.
When people decide to change their beliefs around a particular social construct, reality changes – as in the recent credit crisis where people decided to stop believing that ‘credit default swaps’ were valuable assets that could act as security for loans.
Organisations are made up of social constructs: conventions, rules, and assumptions that usually go unchallenged and unreflected on. Decisions are made, expectations of the future are formed, and information is interpreted within the frame of those unchallenged assumptions.
Implications: If social reality is shaped by how we talk about it, it makes sense to talk about what is working, what we are proud of, what gives life to the organisation, and what we want.
Question: What changes could you make to what you talk about, or the way you talk about it, to get the best from your team, your colleagues, or your boss?
What specific changes will you try out in:
- the questions you ask;
- the stories you tell?
Appreciative Inquiry principles: 1. The Constructionist Principle