Relational Responsibility: Resources for Sustainable Dialogue


Sheila McNamee & Kenneth J. Gergen

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Relational Responsibility

    Part 2: Expanding the Dialogue

    Part 3: Continuing the Conversation

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    Preface: Situating the Conversation

    There is much talk percolating through the intellectual world these days on “the end of theory.” Much of this concern is spurred by social constructionist arguments bearing on the relationship between word and world. For centuries, we have viewed theory as the crowning achievement of scholarly and scientific activity. It is one thing to document specific cases, to note this fact and describe that event. However, it is through theory, we have believed, that we collate, integrate, synthesize, and emerge with an understanding of the whole. And it is through theoretical understanding that we can generate ever more accurate understanding and prediction. In terms of Kurt Lewin's famous dictum, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” However, times have changed; the dialogue has moved on. If, as social constructionists now propose, there is no ultimately privileged relationship between “what there is” and our accounts of it—if there are myriad possible descriptions and explanations for any condition and no means outside community standards to chose among them—then what is the function of theory? Theory does not reflect the nature of the world; rather, it serves as a linguistic forestructure from which we presume the world to be what it is. Theory does not provide us worthy marching orders for a fructuous future, for theory in itself tells us nothing about how and when it is applicable. Theory loses its special privilege.

    Yet unlike some of our colleagues, we do not wish to abandon theory on this account. If words gain their meaning through their use within relationships, an idea to which we shall return shortly, then there remain many significant functions for theory. Theoretical language can, for example, draw disparate communities together, give intelligibility to the world, and furnish a sense of moral direction. For those who participate in the language game of any particular theory, there is a sense of a common relational network. At the same time, this use-based view of language also reminds the social researcher that he or she is also a practitioner. Whether in the university or on the streets, languages constitute social practices. We do things together with words—for good or ill. It is this latter phrase that is most important to us in the present volume. We have been less than satisfied with the limits of social science inquiry to cross the borders into the practices of the culture. We are all too skilled at documenting and theorizing the world for our own colleagues, using words to carry out professional relationships (e.g., gaining us tenure, promotion, merit increases, awards, fellowships, grants, and so forth). The present attempt is to cross the borders more directly and ultimately, to illuminate a range of conversational practices that may be pressed directly into social life. To be sure, we will “do our traditional thing” and furnish a theoretical context for our work; as indicated, we do feel there is a need for theory in lending intelligibility and worth to the endeavor. However, it is not specifically the theory we wish to “give away” in this instance but rather, a range of linguistic practices. Theory may stimulate the imagination and help it to take wing. However, in the end, the question is whether one comes away enriched in practice.

    There is a second dialogue to which this volume attempts to speak. It is a dialogue concerning the place of moral and political commitment within scholarly work and more specifically, it is the common charge of moral relativism frequently directed at constructionist scholars. On the one hand, because social constructionists argue for the intelligibility of any form of morality within its particular community of origin, constructionists themselves seem to take no moral stand. Furthermore, because constructionists hold that there is no privileged relationship between word and world, then the ontological foundations are removed from any group that wishes to rebuke and reject “real” injustice, oppression, or intolerance. Constructionists not only seem to stand nowhere but pull the rug out from any other moral or political standing. Such criticisms are partially lodged in misunderstandings. There is no attempt in constructionism to establish a universal ethic or politics; this may be true enough. But who would wish their ethics and politics to be annunciated elsewhere? Would a constructionist ethic not constitute another form of imperialism? Furthermore, there is nothing in constructionism that argues against taking moral stands and criticizing injustice. All that is removed is an ultimate foundation, a grounds from which all other voices may be silenced and dialogue may be displaced by monologue. However, these constructionist rejoinders are ultimately insufficient. They blunt critique but offer no alternatives, no openings, no departures. The present exploration of relational responsibility moves toward answering this challenge.

    The concept of relational responsibility derives from what might be viewed as a first premise of social constructionism: Meaningful language is generated within processes of relationship. In effect, all that we propose to be real and good (ontology and morality) is born of human interchange. From this perspective, there can be no moral beliefs, no sense of right and wrong, no vision of a society worth struggling for without some basis in relational process. As we shall propose in what follows, the tradition of individual responsibility—in which single individuals are held blameworthy for untoward events—has a chilling effect on relationships. It typically isolates and alienates and ultimately invites the eradication of the other—a step toward nonmeaning. In what follows, we thus shift the focus to relational responsibility, that is, toward means of valuing, sustaining, and creating forms of relationship out of which common meanings—and thus moralities—can take wing. By using the term responsibility, we are not sounding the trumpet for the individual's responsibility to relationship; as we shall propose, individuals are such only by virtue of their creation in relationship. Rather, we use the term responsibility here not as a moralistic wedge but as a conversational resource; it is a term that may enter conversations in ways that might sustain and support the process of constructing meaning as opposed to terminating it. The term does indeed draw moral force from our longstanding tradition of individualist morality; in the present case, we simply hope to enlist such force to render more urgent the invitation. Relational responsibility, then, lies within the shared attempt to sustain the conditions in which we can join in the construction of meaning and morality.

    A final moment of context setting: If words are forms of social practice, what kind of relationships do we foster in the way we write? For example, do our words generate implicit hierarchies of knower versus the ignorant, active versus passive, leader versus follower; do they place distance between author and reader or function to reduce alienation? Such questions are doubly significant in light of our earlier credos: This is a book devoted to practice, specifically the practice of mental health, organizational development, politics, judicial systems, and education, but also the practice of everyday living as it concerns relational responsibility.

    To that end, we have attempted to create and structure a volume that, itself, might serve as an illustration of relational responsibility in action. Our argument centers on the relational construction of meaning. How, then, might we write about relational responsibility and simultaneously realize the very different modes of relating to others that it invites? Relational responsibility, as we propose here, is not solely about blame and credit but is moreover about entirely different ways of engaging with others and thus of creating our worlds. Our own attempt to engage differently as scholars interested in practice as well as theory has taken an unusual form in this volume.

    After writing an initial two chapters on relational responsibility, we invited a variety of other voices into conversation with us. Consistent with our thesis, we imagined that these responses would shape, extend, and amplify or redirect our proposal for relational responsibility. We asked both practitioners and theorists to read our chapters and to respond to us in a way that they imagined would keep the conversation going. We encouraged each to break from academic tradition in their replies.

    In response to many of their comments, we have added in this volume a presentation of what we consider a difficult case (Chapter 3). It is within this context—the context of the painful issue of child sexual abuse—that we have attempted to further illustrate relational responsibility in action. The inclusion of this case in Chapter 3 is directly responsive to our commentators' requests.

    Their entries into conversation with us follow this case. We have grouped their comments into three genres of response: (a) those that resonate with our initial essay (Resonance and Refiguration), (b) those that employ critique as the dominant mode of expression (From Antagonism to Appreciation), and (c) those that offer tangential but expansive commentary (Bringing Parallels to Play). Our groupings provide us with a more focused way of responding to varying voices that, although unique, share particular rhetorical styles and specific points of contact with our original essay. We end the volume with a rejoinder to our colleagues. Here, we attempt to draw from them in ways that might themselves give further insight into relational responsibility. As we shall find, the initial thesis does grow in dimension and self-reflection as a result of this discussion. In this sense, we see the final chapter not as the final word but as a point of departure.

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    About the Authors

    Sheila McNamee, PhD, is Professor and Chair of Communication at the University of New Hampshire. She is also a founding member of the Taos Institute. She is editor of Therapy as Social Construction with Kenneth Gergen and has authored numerous chapters and journal articles on social constructionist theory and practice. McNamee consults internationally to organizations, including nongovernmental organizations, and to mental health professionals.

    Kenneth J. Gergen, PhD, is the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College. As a central exponent of social constructionism in the social sciences, he is author of several books, including The Saturated Self (1991), Realities and Relationships: Soundings in Social Construction (1994), and Toward Transformation of Social Knowledge (2nd ed., 1992). Gergen is a founding member of the Taos Institute, a group of academics and practitioners dedicated to applications of social construction in organizational and therapeutic practices, and consults to organizations internationally.

    About the Contributors

    Harlene Anderson, PhD, is a founding member of the Houston Galveston Institute and the Taos Institute. She is the author and coauthor of numerous publications, including Conversations, Language and Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach to Therapy.

    Ian Burkitt is a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Psychology in the Department of Social and Economic Studies, University of Bradford. He is the author of Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality and is currently working on issues of social relations and embodiment.

    David L. Cooperrider, PhD, is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and co-chair of the SIGMA Program on Global Change at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Cooperrider's most recent research centers on social innovations in global management, which includes processes of policy making, governance, decision making, relationships among professional groups, and organizational design. He has served as consultant to many international organizations. He is author of articles and book chapters on appreciative inquiry.

    Robert Cottor, MD, is Co-Director of the Family-Business Roundtable, Inc. As a family therapist and organizational consultant, he has emphasized resolving individual, group, and organizational issues within the context of the relationships in which the issues have arisen. He has worked with many family and closely held businesses since establishing his practice in Phoenix in 1971. He is also an associate of the Taos Institute.

    Sharon Cottor, MSW, is a principal in the Family-Business Roundtable, Inc., and an associate of the Taos Institute. She has been consulting since 1971 and employs innovative approaches to problems and challenges presented by organizations of all sizes and types. She is well known for her creative thinking and her ability to generate effective change even under the most difficult circumstances. She believes that our strongest and most renewable resource is our capacity to think imaginatively.

    Stanley Deetz, PhD, is Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches courses in organizational theory, organizational communication and communication theory. He is author of Transforming Communication, Transforming Business: Building Responsive and Responsible Workplaces and Democracy in an Age of Corporate Colonization: Developments in Communication and the Politics of Everyday Life and is editor or author of eight other books and numerous articles. He has lectured widely in the United States and Europe. In 1994, he was a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Sweden and has served as a consultant for several major corporations. He served as President of the International Communication Association, 1996–1997.

    Steve Duck, PhD, has written or edited 32 books on relationships and one on television; founded and edited, for 15 years, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships; edited two editions of the Handbook of Personal Relationships; was the founding cochair of the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships; and subsequently, the first President of the International Network on Personal Relationships. He has been the Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, where he is the Daniel and Amy Starch Research Professor.

    Walter Eggers, PhD, is presently Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire. He is a Shakespearian scholar and father of five. This is the first time he has talked in print about the responsibilities of the parental relationship. His interest in literary theory extends to teaching, and he has published on teaching and academic administration.

    Marilyn Frankfurt was, at the time of this writing, a senior faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for the Family, where she taught and codirected the Writing Project with Peggy Penn. She has coauthored several papers with Penn, among them “Creating a Participant Text: Writing, Multiple Voices, Narrative Multiplicity” in Family Process. Marilyn is now in private practice in New York.

    Mary Gergen is Associate Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University, Delaware County Campus, Philadelphia, as well as Division Head of Psychology for the Commonwealth College. She is editor of Toward a New Psychology of Gender with Sara N. Davis and coauthor of textbooks in social psychology, introductory psychology, and statistics. Other recent publications have focussed on narrative psychology and autobiography. Her research interests include women's adult development and public notions of safety and security. Impious Improvisations: Feminist Reconstructions in Psychology is in press. She teaches undergraduate courses in psychology and is active in Division 35, The Psychology of Women, of the American Psychological Association. With Kenneth Gergen, she is exploring forms of performative psychology. She is a founding member of the Taos Institute.

    Arlene M. Katz is an instructor in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a psychologist specializing in family therapy and consultation. She has created several video productions, including The Patient as Teacher: Multiple Perspectives on the Interview Process and another honoring Harry Goolishian. She has presented and written on the “voice” of the “patient” in health care, and her training and research interests include cultural responses to illness and a dialogical approach to the patient-doctor relationship, community practices in health care, and the process of mentorship.

    John W. Lannamann, PhD, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire, is both a critic of the social sciences and an optimist about the possibility of a socially engaged form of communication research. His writing appears in a number of communication and family therapy journals, including Communication Monographs, Communication Theory, The Journal of Communication, Family Process, and The Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies.

    Michael J. Mazanec earned his BA and MA degrees from California State University, Fresno, in Speech Communication. He is presently a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa Department of Communication Studies, working in the areas of relational agency and performative practices of sexuality and identity.

    Maurizio Marzari is on the faculty of the Milan Family Therapy Center. He also teaches at the University of Urbino. He is Director of Organizational Development at the Bologna Department of Health.

    Peggy Penn, former Director of Training and Education at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, now directs a research project on Language and Writing in Psychotherapy. She has written on love and violence, chronic illness, future questions, circular questions, models for consultation, love and language, and narrative therapy. Her most noted publications include “Creating a Participant Text: Writing, Multiple Voices and Narrative Multiplicity” and her coauthored book, Milan Systemic Family Therapy: Conversations in Theory and Practice. She is also a published poet.

    Eero Riikonen, MD, Psychiatrist, MScD, has worked in the public mental health sector and as a manager of the Finnish Suicide Prevention Centre. He was a Researcher and Development Manager in Helsinki's Rehabilitation Foundation. Since 1996, he has been Development Manager at the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health (Stakes). His interest is in developing resource-oriented approaches to client work. His work is directed toward the planning of national mental health projects, outlining the European Mental Health Agenda, and coordinating the activities of the European Network of Mental Health Policy. His most recent books are, Re-Imagining Therapy with G. Smith and, with V. Lehtinen and E. Lahtinen, Mental Health Promotion on the European Agenda.

    Sallyann Roth, LICSW, a family therapist, is a founding member of the Public Conversations Project. She has presented widely in the United States and abroad on narrative therapies and the Public Conversations Project's approach to divisive public conflicts and has authored numerous journal articles and book chapters on these subjects. Named the Rappoport Distinguished Lecturer at Smith College School for Social Work in 1993, she is Co-Director of the Program in Narrative Therapies of the Family Institute of Cambridge and currently serves as Acting Co-Director of the Institute. She is Lecturer on Psychology, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge Hospital.

    John Shotter is a professor of interpersonal relations in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire. He is the author of Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social Constructionism, Rhetoric, and Knowing of the Third Kind and Conversational Realities: The Construction of Life ThroughLanguage. He is also coeditor with Kenneth J. Gergen and Sue Widdicombe of the series, Inquiries in Social Construction. In 1997, he was an Overseas Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and a visiting professor in the Swedish Institute of Worklife Research in Stockholm.

    Karl Tomm, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Calgary where he founded and directs the Family Therapy Program. He is well-known for his work in explicating the Milan Systemic Approach in the early 1980s. He has published and presented widely and has introduced a number of influential ideas and approaches to the family therapy field. He is currently developing and refining his ideas about psychiatric assessment with his “pathologizing interpersonal patterns” and “healing interpersonal patterns” approach.

    William J. White (MCIS, Rutgers University, 1993) is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication, Information, and Library Science at Rutgers University. His research interests focus on scientific communication and the interactions of science and society.

    Diana Whitney, PhD, is president of Whitney Consulting and a founding member of the Taos Institute. She is an international speaker and consultant whose work focuses on organization transformation, strategic culture change, communication, and leadership development for corporate, nonprofit, and governmental organizations. Whitney applies social constructionist theory to mergers and acquisitions, organization development, and strategic planning and works collaboratively and creatively with executives, managers, and organization members to build teams and support them in the construction of the organization's future.

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