By Alfredo Ortiz Aragón
In my last post I shared how an organizational leader, “Ana”, called out my co-researcher Juan Carlos and me for not following through on problematic machista (male chauvinistic) behaviors that she periodically brought up in the action research (AR) process I was leading. In that post I simply reflected on the enormous, often unspoken power that facilitators and researchers have to include or exclude. In this post I wish to share some interesting implications this has regarding how extended epistemologies (i.e. multiple ways of knowing) actually generate the diversity needed to shift patterns of communicative interaction (see this post for another example).
Hearing the voice of diverse perspectives
Whether or not the facilitators or other participants attracted around the machista theme, machismo is clearly a recurring problem theme in this organization’s programmatic work and in Peruvian society more generally (and everywhere else!). In retrospect it is clear that the AR process Juan Carlos and I co-facilitated did not in fact address machismo as an organizational problematic theme. In other words, our methodology did not help give voice to an important perspective. The term “give voice” is not arbitrary. In their study on women’s ways of knowing, Belenky et al (1986, 1997) identified different characteristics of ways of knowing that were common to the women in their study (common, but not exclusive to women). An important early distinction they made was that “voice” was more than shorthand for women’s perspective. Instead, “voice” was connected to women’s understanding of their own intellectual and ethical development: ‘[T]he development of a sense of voice, mind and self were intricately intertwined’ (ibid). Many of the things the women in that study spoke about to describe their lives centered on voice and silence, for example: ‘ “speaking up”, “speaking out”, “being silenced”, “not being heard”, “really listening”, “really talking”, “words as weapons”, “feeling deaf and dumb”, “having no words”, … “listening to be heard”, and so on’ (ibid). This raises the question of how well the methods Juan Carlos and I chose took into account female voices at all (i.e. even beyond Ana’s contention). In other words, did the two males who were in charge of most methodological decisions (with enormous power to enable, constrain, include or exclude with our decisions) give any thought to women’s preferred learning styles, or did we assume that pedagogical techniques appropriate for men are appropriate for women (Belenky et al., 1986, 1997: 5)?
Creative and reflective methods are not enough
Although Juan Carlos and I never intentionally approached an exercise from an explicitly feminine perspective, it is possible that some of the “creative” and reflective techniques we did use may have been compatible with some women’s ways of knowing, just as it is possible that some methods did not speak to or give voice to some men, or other identity groups in the action research. José, for example, told us in in a workshop that he was feeling a “drawing overload” of sorts. A debate in another workshop generated strong feelings of exclusion with some participants. The problem is that we as designers and facilitators assumed that creative techniques generally respond to people’s needs and learning styles and help grapple with complexity.
I can now see that this is not necessarily the case. We did not think enough about what sorts of methods might generate specific diversity that was important for understanding complex realities, and for giving voice to diverse participants. Yet there is much to be learned about what different ways of knowing really means to different people with different views of reality. Some common elements of women’s ways of knowing might be helpful for engaging in “fluid conversation”—a communicative state akin to “edge of chaos” in which patterns of organizational interaction may be predisposed to shift into a new attractor (Stacey, 2007). For example, an emphasis on connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate (Belenky et al., 1986, 1997: 229) are useful attributes to consider regardless of gender, but they didn’t naturally emerge from mine and Juan Carlos’ methodological selection!
Open questions for action researchers
How do action researchers (including capacity building facilitators) deal with new ideas and both see and hear perspectives that need voice—including deviant or eccentric behaviors, or unofficial ideologies, that may be helpful in undermining problematic power relations (Stacey, 2007: 446). How might action research not only utilize extended epistemologies, but actually introduce methods that speak from neglected perspectives (or ask those that bring the issue forward to do so)? Whose experiences and complexity does a given action research method favor and whose does it exclude? With whose ways of knowing does it resonate? To what extent does it help surface the diversity that is needed to challenge dominant patterns of relating; to what extent does it reinforce those patterns? These questions have both practical and ethical consequences, and require ongoing critical reflection.
Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is an IDS PhD graduate. His research investigated how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building? How should capacity building be different in complex environments?
BELENKY, M. F., CLINCHY, B. M., GOLDBERGER, N. R. & TARULE, J. M. 1986, 1997. Women’s Ways Of Knowing: The Development Of Self, Voice, And Mind New York, Basic Books.
STACEY, R. D. 2007. Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity, Harlow, Pearson Educational Limited.
 It is important to not generalize half the world’s population to specific “types” of ways of knowing. All people have different levels of both masculine and feminine ways of knowing, although many of these are culturally rooted-out early in life. I simply wish to point out that some ways of knowing are different between diverse participants, and gender—in all of its combinations—is a source of this diversity that is often neglected by capacity building facilitators and action-researchers.