EXCERPT FROM: Chapter Six in Westwood & Linstead's (in press) Language and Organization Book

Reclaiming Story in Organization Narratologies and Action Sciences

By David M. Boje, Rossana C. Alvarez and Bruce Schooling

New Mexico State University

September 29, 1999


This excerpt contrast Appreciative Inquiry, Restorying, Emery-Search Conference, and Hopewell's Congregation approaches to storytelling and change. As you will see the approaches are based on quite different narratologies (press here for Table One).

1. Appreciative Inquiry is a very different social construction narratology that has an expanding following. It is less eclectic and more applied. For Ludema, Wilmot & Srivastva (1996), Srivastva, Cooperrider et al, 1990, and Cooperrider & Srivastva (1987) appreciative inquiry is thought to achieve positive transformation outcomes by side-stepping negative inquiry and the negative influence of problem stories. Appreciative inquiry puts negative stories aside and moves directly to constructing a new and more positive array of stories through guided acts of participation and inquiry. This is done by asking members to only recall positive stories and move beyond any negative context analysis. They are asked to dream and invent the narrative they want to live. According to the editorial position of Global Social Innovations (Wilmot, 1996: 7), a journal of Case Western Reserve’s OD program professors and Ph.D. candidates,

… appreciative inquiry is premised on the logic that organizations move in the direction of what [people] study. For example, when groups study human problems and conflicts, they often find both the number and severity of complex and problematic issues has grown. In the same manner, when groups study high human ideals and achievements, such as teamwork, quality or peak experiences, these phenomena, too, tend to flourish in human systems [additions ours].


One assumption of the Case Western OD program is that all forms of negative inquiry are not breathing positive life into organization. This privileges being positive over being critical of narratives within for example a critical theory reading of the political economy. For example, in the GSI publication (Wilmot, 1996: 7), readers are told that GEM consultants work with top management teams in "appreciative interviews" with each other about their original attractions to the organization, peak experiences, core values, and wishes for the organization’s future.

At the 1997 Academy of Management meeting, I chaired a session in which the deconstructionists (Boyce, Luhman, Dennehy, Rosile, Barry) debated the appreciative inquiry people (Ludema, Sorensen and Yaeger). Then our discussant, Joanne Martin, challenged us to learn to get along because we have much in common, and pointed out our premise for the session, a debate, was a duality in need of deconstruction. Why not remove the duality? This would mean looking at some of the narrative deconstruction practices in the following section along with the appreciative storytelling.

2. Restorying Narratives originates in narrative family therapy practices in Australia and New Zealand (and now around the world) in which the deconstruction approach of White (1989, 1991, 1992) and Epston (1989) is prominent. Narrative therapy (White & Epston, 1990) is increasingly being applied to organizational studies (Barry, 1997; Barry & Elmes, 1997; Boje et. al, 1997). Barry (1997) for example is applying narrative family therapy practices to organizational consulting. His application from family to organization might look at how stories are typically "problem-saturated" in dysfunctional organizations as they are in dysfunctional families. Narrative therapy assumes that people’s lives are strongly influenced by their story sensemaking and that poor relations are embedded in the structure of these stories (Barry, 1997).

Narrative therapy assumes each story is ideological and each representation of reality is ideological (White, 1987: 148). Stories are not individually authored—there is always the individual and someone else--within the context of a family, organization or broader society. And within these embedded contexts of and family structures, organizations, and societies there is much in life that is inconsistent, discrepant, incoherent, disharmonious, muddled and irrational (this parallels the assumptions of the microstoria approach discussed earlier). In narrative therapy it is the excluded material from the more oppressive and debilitating narratives that can be restoried, after deconstructive exploration (again White and Epston have their own interpretation of Derrida’s practices). The idea is to recall and rehearse microstories of resistance to the dominant storyline. Deconstruction plays a role in loosening the grip of a dominant story.

In Western culture there is a dominant story about what it means to be a person of moral worth. This story emphasizes self-possession, self-containment, self-actualization and so on. It stresses individuality at the expense of community and independence at the expense of connection. These are culturally specific values which are presented as universal, "human" attributes to be striven for. The attempt to live up to these dominant prescriptions can have profoundly negative consequences for people’s lives" (Aboriginal Health Council (hereafter AHC), 1995: 19).


Deconstructions allows the dominant stories to be named and externalized (e.g. "put down stories," "injustice stories"), its hierarchy effects to be explored (e.g. loss of self-esteem): "Many Aboriginal people have had put on them negative stories about who they are" (AHC, 1995: 20). Narrative therapy reverses the claims (claiming strengths in face of domination), and the story to be restoried and resituated in preferred stories of being (reclaiming Aboriginal ontologies).

Characterizations in dominant stories (e.g. the role of women in the workplace, rights of managers over workers) do not tell the complete story and distort people’s sense of self in debilitating ways. Narrative therapy addresses questions such as, "What has been silent in the organization’s account of you?" "Can an alternative characterization of the self be told?"

An example may help illustrate the application. The Aboriginal Health Council put out a newsletter (1995) titled "Reclaiming Our Stories, Reclaiming Our Lives" The government was investigating pain and suffering of relatives of Aboriginal people who died in custody. The idea was to reclaim Aboriginal knowledges about ways to respond to grief and pain, to honor Aboriginal healing knowledge. Narrative therapy was "identified by Aboriginal health works in different parts of Australia as more appropriate to Aboriginal culture than the more conventional Western mental health approaches" (AHC 1995: 3). Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal counselors trained in narrative therapy gathered with family groups to hear their stories and recommendations. For five days family groups (26 adults) told their stories of deaths in custody, effects on the family, the healing knowledge of those experiences in Aboriginal culture, and the context most appropriate to further discussion, including recommendations for future counseling services to Aboriginal people. Narrative therapists acted as facilitators for the small group discussions.

There is a relationship between narrative therapy and seeing the story as living with place, time, and mind (TwoTrees, 1997). One example:

The history of genocide, loss of land, removal of children form their parents and families, and the forcible destruction of community and family traditions lives on in an immediate way in the lives of the Aboriginal people participating in this project… Injustices experienced by past generations are carried actively in the form of shame and sadness by the present generation, and have real effects on their lives" (AHC, 1995).


This describes the sense of living story in a community. Aboriginal children are "regularly stopped and questioned for no particular reason other than their race" and there were stories of "adolescent girls being strip-searched by male police without anybody else being present" (AHC, 1995: 7). One more story:

One woman reported asking the police if she could see the cell in which her brother had died, because she needed to do this in order to be able to put his spirit to rest. When this was refused, she committed an offsense so that she would be arrested. She was then able to personally experience what her brother had been through – having her pockets emptied, her belongings taken away, and she was actually put in the cell where her brother had died. She felt that, by doing this, she was able to get a much better sense of what may have happened to her brother, and to release his spirit so that it was a peace (AHC, 1995: 8).


Storytelling is part of how Aboriginal, and other people, share and care about their feelings of pain, hurt, and injustice over the last 200 years. As part of the group process, "listening teams" formed to reclaim the strengths of Aboriginal culture. These included humor, self-pride, determination and hope, turning negatives into positives, pride in Aboriginal identity, family connections, "seeing myself in my family’s eyes," "being strong for my family," the old people, reconnecting at this camp, spirituality, Aboriginal organizations, naming injustice, caring and sharing, remembering, Aboriginal ways and knowledges, and sharing stories.

Reclaiming our stories was said to be "the ability to share their own stories and hear other people’s stories" and was identified as a major theme of the five day event" (AHC, 1995: 16). Stores and storytelling are an essential part of Aboriginal culture. Present deaths are connected to past and present injustices, such that storytelling and hearing allows memories to be sifted to reclaim self-esteem. "Within the context of the camp, people felt freer to start remembering those things they wanted to remember about the people they had lost, rather than only remembering the loss and the injustice" (AHC, 1995: 16). "Narrative therapy places a great deal of importance on finding ways in which an audience can be invited to play a part in authenticating and strengthening the preferred stories that are emerging in therapy" (AHC, 1995: 19). This includes finding people to contact who experience us in ways that manifest our preferred stories.

To bring this back to organizations and OT, the Aboriginal restorying examples point to how people are affected by state organizations and to examples of how just appreciating a new story does not in and of itself change the political and economic context. Restorying allows for resistance to the dominant context.

In this next section, we will contrast two self-defined pragmatist approaches that are both rooted in Pepper's (1942) work (refer to Table Two). Contextualism (Pepper, 1942) has been applied to organizations by Fred and Merrelyn Emery and by James Hopewell (1987).


3. Emery's Search Conference. For the Emerys, contextualism is one of the open systems theory concepts that serve as a foundation of the Search Conference method for organizational strategic planning. The method was specifically developed to operationalize organizational action in complex, ever changing (Type IV) turbulent environments. Within the Search Conference, there are calls for narration such as relating the history and probable future of the environment.

Their work is rooted in pragmatism narratology. For example, to the Emerys contextualism is the most adequate world hypothesis because, as Pepper (1942: 243) points out,

Change goes on continuously and never stops. Change is a categorical feature of all events; and, since on this world theory all the world is events, all the world is continuously changing in this manner. Absolute permanence or immutability in any sense is, on this theory, a fiction (p. 243). F. Emery (in M. Emery, 1993: 37) asserts that contextualism had to be there


Paradigm because it’s the only one that’s appropriate to what is happening culturally and in action research. . . . It’s the only paradigm, which has ever taken change as the reality from which we start, the others have all started from static substances as the real world.


As a method grounded in contextualism the Search Conference is a model of the evolving environmental features that fundamentally determine the conditions required for active adaptation and development of a human system. The Emerys’ method for strategic planning is a wholehearted and consistent commitment to, and demonstration and learning of, contextualism and thereby pragmatism.

Pepper (1942: 107) asserts that "Peirce and James intuited the pragmatic, or contextualistic, root methaphor." In fact, "contextualism is commonly called ‘pragmatism’" (p. 141) which, in the form of contextualism, "has thickened into . . . a world theory" (p. 268). The Emerys are contextualist systems thinkers that, like Peirce’s pragmatic-realism, anchor their premises in the objective world of matter. Peirce offered a number of definitions for pragmatism. In examination of his work Feibleman (1946: 295, 296) lists seven. Out of the seven definitions, Feibleman asserts that the following is "the clearest of all:"

[Pragmatism is a] maxim for obtaining clearness of apprehension: . . .‘In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception’ (p. 295).


According to Feibleman, under this maxim, pragmatism "is a method of reflection having for its purpose to render ideas clear." It is a method that would bring to an end those prolonged disputes among researchers and philosophers "which no observations of facts could settle, and yet in which each side claims to prove the other side in the wrong" (p. 296). Pragmatism is a method of ascertaining the meanings of intellectual concepts—those which essentially carry some implication concerning the general behavior of people and so convey the "would-acts", "would-dos" of habitual behavior— upon the structure of which arguments concerning objective facts may hinge (Feibleman, 1946: 297). Thus, when a proposition implies human conduct (e.g. the learning and planning actions of the Search Conference), pragmatism "makes thought ultimately apply to action exclusively—to conceived action" (Peirce, 5.403).

For the Emerys, in complex, ever changing environments, a model of "humans-as-machine" is inadequate (F. Emery, 1977: 69). What is adequate is a model of "humans-as-ideal seeking" systems (open perceptual systems that learn from the environment). F. Emery (1997b: 148) points out that the conception of a model of man as an ideal seeking system emerged when Russ Ackoff and himself (Ackoff & F. Emery, 1972) "got at the top of the problem" they had when they were "struggling to formulate a model of man as a purposeful being." Thus, the distinction lies in the sense that with purposeful systems the key is making choices between alternative goals that are simultaneously present. With ideal seeking systems, on the other hand, the key is to recognize that purposeful systems can be confronted by choice between purposes or objective of those purposes. Here lies the narrative relevance of the Emerys’ model of humans.

The Emerys’ model of man specifically incorporates Pierce’s idea of meaning which involves reference to a purpose, a very natural idea for a pragmatist (Pierce, 5.166). From Pierce’s perspective, a purpose is something that lies outside language. Purpose is referent to the external world thereby linking interpretation in accordance to a given meaning. Purpose is directly related to Pierce’s term of "lithium" which denotes "prescribing what you are to do [your purpose] in order to gain a perceptive acquaintance with the object of the word" (Pierce, 2.330).

But where is the relationship to narrative? It is by means of Piece’s concept of "unlimited semiosis" which Ecco (1990: 37) asserts cannot be conceptually equivalent to "the deconstructive drift." This is because unlimited semiosis is confronted with something external to it in at least two cases. In one case we have the act of indication (e.g., my purpose is . . .) whereby we point our finger toward a given object—indices are linked to the extralinguistic world. In the other case, we have the fact that the very semiotic act is determined by a "dynamic object," a thought, an ideal, a feeling, a belief. Therefore, the text is uttered by the person according to his or her actual intention which is motivated by the dynamic object.

One more point which specifically relates to the Emerys’ model of humans. For Pierce, the dynamic object can never be attained. It can only be known through the immediate object. This is what ideals are all bout, they are "endlessly approachable but unattainable in themselves" (F. Emery, 1997b: 149). It is for this reason that Pierce views semiosis as perception whereby the world becomes understandable to us under the form of an immediate object. Here is where Pierce’s endless series of representations are clarified. The dynamic object (e.g. humanity as an ideal) is always absent because we focus in the immediate one (e.g. acceptance of aboriginal identity). Thus, we have an endless series of representations (diversity, understanding of ethnicity, and so forth) each representing the one behind it (they are all geared towards humanity). Thus, the final logical interpretation involves "habit." That is, a disposition to act upon the world. This is why the Emerys’ assert that an ideal is "an ultimately intended outcome," one that "can never be obtained but can be approached without limit" (Ackoff & F. Emery; 1972: 57). Ideals, while ultimately unattainable, provide context and meaning for all planning activity. When doing active adaptive planning in complex environments, we can expect the effects of choice to be manifest in a core set of universal ideals from their related parameters of choice or decision making (F. Emery, 1977). Ideals enable people:



4. Congregational Narratives. James F. Hopewell (1987) was influenced by the structuralist and formistic theories of Northrop Frye, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Stith-Thomkins. Frye’s work provided the narrative categories to classify romantic, comic, tragic, and ironic plot structures. While White and Hopewell each use Frye’s typology in conjunction with Pepper’s world hypotheses typology, the renditions are quite different. And Hopewell’s application is not the same as that of the Emerys. Hopewell makes the narrative connection to formism in Pepper's classification (see Table Two), while Emerys make their consulting approach (which includes story collection and construction) to contextualism.

Hopewell collected structural images and plot structures from local congregations so that he could classify them. As with White, Hopewell also explored the ideological differences. Hopewell also consulted to their congregational life by analyzing how their narrative (formistic) worldview differed from other congregations. Hopewell (1987: 164) believed that church members identified with the "plot of its corporate activity and also an attraction, through that history, to the Other whom the congregation proclaims its Lord." Church members he argued, participated in "narrative reflection and storied praxis" (p. 164). The story life of each church "even when it recounts pedestrian and trivial activity, is the legend of God’s plan, if only its sounds and signs can be heard and read" (Wheeler, 1986: xiv).

In sum, a variety of narratology positions are being applied to organization consultation work. Stephen Pepper’s (1942) typology has had a significant influence on the approaches of the Emerys and Hopewell in different ways. The Emerys focus on contextualism while Hopewell stays with formalism. Both adopt structuralist approaches, but Emerys prefer the pragmatism of Peirce, while Hopewell seeks to use Frye’s plot structures and Pepper’s formistic contrasts as a way to read God’s plan. The other approaches reviewed were narrative therapy that is rooted in poststructuralist and appreciative inquiry in social constructionist narratologies. Appreciative inquiries like Hopewell’s approach aims toward spiritual implications of the story consultation. In the next section we conclude with a brief contrast between approaches to organization story and narrative that cross several narratologies.