“Is my research making any difference in the world?” “Might my practice be enriched by emerging research findings?” If you have ever asked these questions, a treasure awaits you in Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research.
In the forward to Systemic Inquiry, Mary Gergen aptly and poetically characterizes this collection of essays as a polyphonic symphony of voices with a “lush, tonal and exotic quality.” In the closing essay, Sally St. George and Dan Wulff invite the reader to bring their own instrument to the symphony. It is an invitation to “enlarge the conversation” about research and practice to “generate alternative understandings” from a spirit of inquiry that privileges curiosity.
A unique gift of Systemic Inquiry is that it crosses continents and streams of practice. Alex Chard characterizes this as “creating a fusion between Action Research, Social Construction and Systemic Thinking.” In this case, the outcome is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. Each of these streams is enriched and deepened by its engagement with the others. Systemic Inquiry defines a new chapter in reflexive, reflective and relational research and practice.
Critiques of the limitations of modernism and positivist frames for inquiry are abundant. Habermas states that “modernism is dominant, but dead.” Systemic Inquiry gives hope that the dominance of modernism and dualistic frames may be ending with the emergence of a new compelling paradigm of relational practices. In the emerging world foreshadowed by Systemic Inquiry, ideas are actions in service of co-constructing a better world.
The anchoring for this new paradigm is laid in the foundational work of systemic thinking and social constructionist scholars. In Systemic Inquiry, Sheila McNamee eloquently frames the conversation about “the centrality of processes to the creation of knowledge.” Knowledge is neither value-free nor fixed. Harlene Anderson inspires collaborative-dialogic research that invites the unexpected and dispels the “illusion of certainty.” Gail Simon goes a step further to suggest that inquiry done well, might cause us to question our most deeply held beliefs. She asks the compelling question: “Are we willing to be changed by what we find in the inquiry process?”
The work of John Shotter is a grounding thread that weaves through the previous essays. It forms a compelling bridge from the theoretical frame of systemic methodologists to the application of innovation in systemic inquiry. Shotter does not allow us to get lost in our heads and the world of ideas. He suggests that “bodily movements out in the world are more important to us than our thinkings.” We must “think participatively.” His notion of with-ness calls forward answerability to others, intuitiveness, and responsibility.
How are we answerable to others for our research? In her solidarity approach, Vikki Reynolds gives us no escape into the halls of academia. Liberatory theororizing holds the promise of justice-doing. It compels us to stand in the trenches with the marginalized, the abused and those whose voices are silenced. It is a revolutionary call to “dismantle hierarchy and power structures” in the service of creating a more just world.
Systemic inquiry is not all work and no play. Saliha Bava reminds us that systemic inquiry is a world of surprises that invites playfulness in learning. In the “messy and chaotic process” we might well step into the performative aspects of learning together.
Systemic Inquiry shares generous examples of structured methodologies. Anne-Margreth Olsson describe the impact of Dialogical Participatory Action Research (DPAR). The metaphor of the research process as a tour grows from her own lived-experience in the cycling/touring world. It is a rich metaphor for “riding in the ocean of systemic ideas.”
Christine Oliver describes using Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) to encourage and support “narratives of purpose.” Our inquiry must be inclusive of our very processes and forms of communication.
Organization and research consultants and supervisors will find in Systemic Inquiry compelling ways to deepen their consultancy work. Jacob Storch and Karina Solsø reflect on the emerging process of becoming research consultants. Andreas Juhl offers pragmatic insights for knowledge creation in organizations. He echoes the call of Schön that we be reflective practitioners and gives substance to what that might mean.
Kevin Barge, Carsten Hornstrup and Rebecca Gill challenge us beautifully to cultivate “the appreciative ear and eye” as a way to connect us to our future dreams. Improvised conversations open the doorway to actionable knowledge.
I found great affirmation and inspiration for my own work as a writer, in the piece by Lisen Kebbe on Writing Essays as Dialogical Inquiry. Her work challenges me as a writer and reviewer to be cognizant of the compelling question: “What dialogues and narratives do you want to open up and why?”
I trust that in sharing this review, I have opened up a dialogue that highlights and calls attention to the value of Systemic Inquiry for both research and practice. This work foreshadows the day when the two will indeed be one and the same.
I am delighted that Systemic Inquiry introduces me to new authors and new applications of relational practices. In reviewing this work, I find myself flipping repeatedly to the biographies of the authors arranged in the back of the volume along with their pictures. It is a reflection of their willingness as writers to engage openly with the readers. I appreciate that each shares their contact information inviting a continuing of the dialogue and ongoing reflective practice.
I am honored to recommend this work to researchers and practitioners and those who hold a vision that the two will one day be one. I further recommend it to anyone keen to understand the shifting paradigm in the social sciences and the helping professions and the emergence of life-enhancing new approaches. It would serve as a richly textured course introduction to innovation in action research, social constructionist thought, systemic inquiry, and the interplay of the three.
I invite you to add to my reflections on this work. Might relational approaches to inquiry serve the cause of creating a more just and equitable world? What happens when doing-inquiry and justice-doing walk hand-in-hand in the public square of dialogue? Please share your reflections and perspective and join the conversation. It has only just begun!
Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research is available from Amazon by following this link. Samuel Mahaffy invites your responses to this review by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.