Contested Practice

Being “Wise” in an Age of Uncertainty

In: Practice Wisdom
Author: Nita L. Cherry
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Between them, science and technology have allowed people to experience relatively high levels of agency in dealing with the world. Techno-rationalism and evidence-based practice have served enterprise and government in getting things done. Being an expert means being credentialed and being able to participate effectively in the projects of enterprise and government. But rapidly changing contexts challenge us to look again at our understandings of wise and responsible professional practice. Paradoxical and unresolvable issues are created by multiple and diverse stake-holders. Public and academic authority are also increasingly challenged by social media, the contesting of facts and claims of “false news”. Uncertainty abounds.

Commentators have offered stimulating descriptions of emergent practice complexity, framing it as fuzzy and ambiguous, a fertile but potentially dangerous terrain vague (van Schaik, 1999) informed by troublesome knowledge that generates serious new problems in the process of solving existing ones. Wicked problems produce dilemmas that emerge only when we try to engage with them, when trying to do something useful triggers unexpected and unwanted consequences. There can be serious consequences whether one takes further action or no action at all.

Briggs (2007) argues that intractable wicked problems are now so commonplace that they are accepted as inevitable, characterised by chronic failure of government policy and by decades of academic failure to appropriately explore them. But while the “death of truth” might be accepted by some politicians, philosophers and academics, the sheer scope and scale of social media suggest that many people remain furiously attached to particular views of how the world works and how we should deal with its problems. As Stacey (2012) has observed, uncertainty is just as likely to produce rigid thinking, divisive morality and rage, as it is to produce learned helplessness and resignation. These outcomes could make practitioners struggle to accept accountability for even trying to engage with uncertainty and complexity.

In this context, what does it mean to be a wise practitioner? What is the responsibility that professional practitioners have in trying to be effective and helpful? And how is wise and responsible practice to be developed and sustained in the face of both public cynicism and aggressive social commentary? This chapter explores how professional practitioners might examine the ways in which their own sense of wise and responsible practice is being tested, and dimensions of wise being and becoming that they can cultivate.

The Dimensions of Practice Under Conditions of Uncertainty

Over the last three decades, the conceptual framing of geo-political, social, economic and technological issues as complex has been developing more momentum. Peters (1990) predicted that organisations, as practice environments, would resemble a “floating crap game” of projects embedded amid multiple and ambiguous networks. This thinking resonates with Bauman’s (1992) framing of a liquid modernity, suggesting several dimensions of modern uncertainty that follow when economies are globalised, privatised, deregulated and mobile. One is the speed with which many social structures that appear to be entrenched and enduring can “decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them” (Bauman, 2000, p. 1). Seemingly strong borders become penetrable, as when information considered secure to high standards of commercial and military integrity is regularly hacked. Bauman also described rapid shape-shifting, such as capital raising that trashes currencies and assets overnight, triggering boom and bust cycles. As a result, national governments struggle to protect citizens and workers from dynamics that impact their jobs, assets and standard of living. In theory, individuals are free to make choices but this freedom is not matched by their capacity to understand and live with the decisions they make. Even so, they must accept responsibility for them. This has significant moral as well as practical consequences:

The ethical paradox of the postmodern condition is that it restores to agents the fullness of moral choice and responsibility while simultaneously depriving them of the comfort of the universal guidance that self-confidence once promised. (Bauman, 1992, p. xxii)

Bauman (2007) also described the replacement of long-term thinking with “swift and thorough forgetting” (p. 3); the undermining of stable interpersonal connections and social capital; avoidance of accountability by both government and corporations; diminishing human agency; and lack of transparency in power and control dynamics.

What is valued today … is the ability to be on the move, to travel light and at short notice. Power is measured by the speed with which responsibilities can be escaped … Power is increasingly mobile, slippery, shifty, evasive, and fugitive. (Bauman, 2000, p. 14)

This fluid and rapid cycle of stabilising and de-stabilising, of construction and re-construction, discourages attachment to anything and continually questions notions of commitment and trust. This applies as much to professional practitioners as anyone else. Contemporary dynamics of both traditional and social media reflect that nothing is sacred, that everything can be either defended or discredited, that fake news is one of the catch cries of the day and that the truth of the matter is infinitely malleable. The paradox paradigm (Lewis, 2000) now frames human experience as inherently involving unresolvable tensions. Barnett (2012) suggest an even more uncompromising practice world of super-complexity that is essentially unknowable. Contentions that problem solving creates problems, that troublesome knowledge produces uncertainty, that both professional and life practice are essentially paradoxical and unresolvable, and that super-complexity renders the practice world unknowable, collectively presents serious provocations for wisdom and responsibility in contemporary practice. So how is the practice world responding?

Being Professionally “Wise” and Responsible in a Contested World

Human beings often have limited tolerance for dilemmas that can’t be resolved through decisive intervention. Instead, we often prefer to simplify the complexities of what and how, retreating to strongly held ideological positions, emotional indignation and high moral ground when the what is elusive, and clinging strenuously to rules, technical prescriptions and existing logic when the how is unclear (Stacey, 2012). But emergent and unresolvable issues don’t go away, coming back to confront us, sometimes when and where we least expect. This produces its own anxieties, the projection of fears onto others, blaming and anger, on the one hand, or entrenched cynicism, apathy and helplessness, on the other.

Practice communities dealing regularly with disaster and distress develop shared ways of limiting anxiety when even the best care and technique can’t make things better. For example, police and nursing cultures have characteristic ways of dealing with unconscious anxiety in the face of complexity. Pervasive use of the managerial calculus (Evans, 2010) in modern organisational life also provides a powerful way of engaging with contemporary uncertainties. The calculus works by providing detailed descriptions of problems and opportunities. Wise and responsible practice comes down to serious calculation of risk on behalf of those who own and invest resources. The calculus is essential in assessing situations, planning and executing action, and defending those diagnoses and actions if they go wrong.

Evans (2010) argued that it is now impossible to imagine organisations – and therefore professional practice – without the managerial calculus. It underpins global practices of decision making and governance in almost every area of collective human effort, extending beyond business to public administration, health services, the arts, sports and the non-profit sector. Its success rests on widely shared understanding and expectations of managerial and professional practices that can be rationally explained and defended, no matter where or when, and irrespective of who happens to be involved. Wise and responsible practice, in this scenario, invites individuals to participate in a continuous negotiation of what should be done, between people from different professional and cultural backgrounds, in ways they can all understand. This has had profound implications for the ways in which we conceive of skilled professional practice. Wilensky (1964) saw the writing on the wall when he pronounced that in modern organisations “everyone is a professional”.

To participate in the calculus, practitioners must possess the intellectual skills to turn data into workable options and undertake ongoing risk management. They must also be able to communicate with multiple stakeholders and colleagues across the room and across the globe. Thanks to the global proliferation of business schools over the past 60 years, a homogenised universal language of organisational practice now exists. Its success in shaping dominant modern organisational processes is one of the great modern academic successes. It is certainly a very powerful form of the enactment of wisdom and responsibility. At its very best, the calculus provides an organised and speedy way of mobilising thinking from all around the world.

The calculus also has serious implications for professional agency and influence. More and more people participate in the assessment of what can and should be done. But individual practitioners cannot expect an automatic right to be heard on the grounds of their qualifications and expertise alone. Professional wisdom involves sustained enactment with many other players. Linehan and Kavanagh (2006) have noted that even the more benign language of communities of practice and collegiate learning can’t disguise the potential for dumbing down of professional practice and responsibility in these contexts, as the actors learn to play the game, withdrawing from risk, resisting change and becoming marginalised.

Other aspects of modern organisation also undermine individual and collective agency: boundary-less careers, temporary and casual jobs, and virtual teams (Kotter, 1995). Gabriel (2002) invokes the “glass cage in which many people work, where external surveillance combines with continual self-surveillance and discipline, through total exposure to the eye of the customer, the fellow employee, the manager” (p. 176). A continually becoming professional self, routinely scrutinised by self and others, becomes fragile, to use Gabriel’s term, or even corroded: a “pliant self, a collage of fragments unceasing in its becoming, ever open to new experience … these are just the psychological conditions suited to short-term work experience, flexible institutions and constant risk-taking” (Sennett, 1998, p. 133).

The speed and reach of social media exacerbate these dynamics. Their power in building identities of convenience for self and others, then destroying them, extends from cyber-bullying through to constant questioning of professional credibility. A boundary-less world means the professional self becomes a site for endless negotiation that can progress over months or overnight. These media don’t force us to re-think the context of practice alone, but also what individual or collective practices actually represent. The challenges presented to practitioners and educators who seek to be wise and responsible in their practice are especially poignant.

Wisdom and Learning as Complex Practice: The Call for Pedagogies of Liquidity, Being and Becoming

These perspectives undermine many of the stable and generalisable mappings previously assumed (Lineham & Kavanagh, 2006). Barnett’s (2012) assertion of the world as essentiality unknowable kicks away a solid viewing platform from which to observe the flow. In a liquid world, the effective agency of individuals, organisations and nations is seriously compromised. For some thinkers, mastery, wisdom and accountability are illusions and the individual disappears altogether. Even the managerial calculus can struggle in this context, oversimplifying public messages about what is possible and creating distorted expectations about what organisations will actually take responsibility for when circumstances change. Organisations look substantial, trustworthy and wise, right up to the moment they fail, when their identity, assets, accountabilities and liabilities become liquid and blurred. Most public commentary blames government and corporations for failures of regulation and governance, while others point to more shadowy agents, less easily named and shamed. Some have noted the failure of business schools to anticipate the Global Financial Crisis, arguably one of the greatest manifestations of a lack of knowing recently.

But while daunting at first glance, the implications of a volatile, uncertain and even unknowable modernity suggest exciting opportunities for transformations in how we understand and enact wise and responsible practice. For many, these provocations have been a clarion call to avoid simplification and denial, and to explicitly acknowledge the uncertain and unresolvable nature of many issues. Barnett has been even more emphatic, inviting practitioners and educators to reclaim and refresh their professional agency, wisdom and responsibility through direct and deliberate engagement with the existential dilemmas for learning, practising and educating that are posed by uncertainty:

Under these conditions of uncertainty, the educational task is, in principle, not an epistemological task; it is not one of knowledge or even knowing per se. It is not even one of action, of right and effective interventions in the world. For what is to count as a right or an effective intervention in the world? Amid super-complexity, the educational task is primarily an ontological task. It is the task of enabling individuals to prosper … amid a situation in which there are no stable descriptions of the world, no concepts that can be seized upon with any assuredness, and no value systems that can claim one’s allegiance with any unrivalled authority. This is a curricular and pedagogical challenge that understands, therefore, that terms such as ‘fragility’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘instability’ are as much ontological terms as they are epistemological terms. Accordingly, this learning for uncertainty is here a matter of learning to live with uncertainty. (Barnett, 2012, p. 69, italics in original)

A range of nuanced ways of understanding and engaging with the challenges of contemporary uncertainty and complexity have emerged. These are based on explorations of the ways in which things become problematic in the first place. The emerging complexity literatures differentiates first and second order complexity: that is, the properties of the system under study as compared with the way we experience, construct and represent that complexity as human beings. This distinction goes to the heart of the ontological debates between objectivist, subjectivist and radical understandings, and for the ways in which they frame agency and wisdom. There have been several significant shifts in ontological thinking about human agency and practice. The practice turn, discursive turn, paradoxical turn, transdisciplinary turn, and virtual turn have all provided stimulating ways of engaging with uncertainty. Significant agency is created by understanding that how we frame issues and what we do about them, are inextricably part of those issues.

In a masterful summary of the practice turn, Schatzki (1996) cites the contention of philosophical thinkers like Wittgenstein (1958), that practices underlie both subjects and objects, and transcend rigid, action-structured oppositional thinking. Cultural theorists referred to practices in order to depict language as discursive activity, in opposition to structuralist and poststructuralist conceptions of language. These were important contributions that radically questioned the idea of individual action and agency and their status as building-blocks of social phenomena.

While taking several paths, influenced by several lines of ontological thinking, the discursive turn is a distinctive paradigm focused on the performativity of language (Bozatzis, 2014). Like other turns, it has implications for ways of understanding the dynamics of practice wisdom and responsibility. The cognitive view that language is a precursor to action is replaced with the notion that language is action, constructive rather than representative. The longstanding position that it takes experience and practice to recognise and engage with opportunities for innovation is turned upside down: such opportunities are thought to emerge through experience and practice, not the other way around (Schatzki, 1996).

The paradoxical turn (Lewis, 2000) questions “either-or” ways of understanding things that oversimplify the dynamics of practice. Dilemmas suggest that the risks and consequences of choices can be separated, calculated and managed. Paradoxes, on the other hand, pose dynamics that are contradictory, interdependent, self-reinforcing and perpetual. Action inevitably triggers opposing reactions, just as making a choice resolves nothing. Paradoxical tensions are inevitably created when human beings attempt to mobilise collective energy and skills to get things done. Smith and Lewis (2011) suggest that the paradox perspective operates at the level of meta-theory or paradigm, and contrast it with the contingency paradigm so dominant in management disciplines. The Taoist symbol of yin and yang captures the essence of paradox: boundaries don’t just include some things and exclude others; rather, what is included is defined by what is excluded.

Some fundamental and recurring paradoxes are suggested. Paradoxes of learning can occur when past practice wisdom is challenged. When the familiar needs to be left behind, the familiar fights back: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Wisdom that was a source of strength in the past can limit fresh engagement with the new. Paradoxes of organising involve the contradictions of encouraging trust, empowerment, commitment and creativity while maintaining control, efficiency, discipline and order. The dynamics of this paradox produce Foucault’s (1977) panopticon: practices that make visibility a means of control, producing compliant and docile populations. Lineham and Kavanagh (2006) note the paradoxical commitment to preserving human rights, safety and privacy through regulations, protocols and relentless tracking through electronic surveillance. Paradoxes of belonging highlight tensions inherent in a group becoming cohesive, influential and distinctive while maintaining separate identities, values, roles and worth. This last is essentially the paradoxical challenge created through the managerial calculus, as it makes everyone a professional and simultaneously undermines individual agency and responsibility. The fundamental connections between mutually reinforcing cycles are not easy to recognise, the key indicators being separated in time and space. Skilled practitioners might believe they are dealing with contingencies of specific situations that call for discerning assessment of the pros and cons of certain actions, unaware that whatever they do, they are likely to add to the problem. Awareness of paradoxes opens up different options.

The transdisciplinary turn encourages multiple and blended disciplinary perspectives, and the use of macro, meso and micro analyses. One of these is the capability of modern neuroscience to map many aspects of human awareness, sense-making and behaviour. Others have revived interest in older ways of understanding human behaviour such as psychodynamic theory, which painted a vivid picture of unconscious battles playing out to defend people from the flood of anxiety that would otherwise overwhelm them if their true vulnerability were to be fully realised.

Meanwhile, the virtual turn (Savin-Baden, 2007) asks how digital practices, including social media, challenge existing theories of identity (actual and virtual personalities) and practice (plugging individuals into virtual worlds and plugging others into them). Schön (1987) recommended virtual worlds as contexts for experiments in which usual blocks to reflection recede. He cited hand-drawn architectural sketches that reveal dimensions that could not have been imagined until the pen engaged. However, the distinction between the imagined world of Schön’s era and the world of social media which constructs and entraps, creates and destroys, is very clear. The capacity for accurate rehearsal and experimentation with the possible have very different meanings now. Privacy and safety in any online environment cannot be guaranteed. Its riskiness, however, is what makes it fertile.

There are many other intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual disciplines that try to fully engage with the frailty and uncertainty of human life, with its intrinsically unresolvable dimensions. Any one of the perspectives mentioned here offers profoundly interesting possibilities for our understanding of wise and responsible practice. All of them reinforce Barnett’s (2012) fundamental question for practitioners: what is the ontological premise on which your practice thinking and intervention is based? Wisdom and responsibility involve consideration of how particular ontologies are privileged, what we are attached to, and what our frames make figural, marginal, normal, problematic: a joke, a disaster, a storm in a teacup (Lineham & Kavanagh, 2006). As a result, living and practising wisely and responsibly in a state of uncertainty require ontological humbleness, acknowledgement of the possibilities opened up and those ignored. That means living with the idea that everything we think we know about ourselves and the world is contestable. But, central to this chapter, it does not mean living without confidence in personal and collective agency and accountability. How, then, is the capacity and confidence to act wisely and responsibly reclaimed and enacted? Barnett (2012) has suggested that this reclamation requires a state of being-for-uncertainty, based in human dispositions of carefulness, humility, criticality, receptiveness, thoughtfulness, courage and stillness. His notion of learning in-and-with-uncertainty requires people to thrive in situations where there are deeply contested value systems.

Practice of Practice: Framing Agency in Practice and Education

The quest is for practices for engaging with uncertainty and complexity without dumbing them down. Many pitfalls are implied in this endeavour. Indeed, when it comes to learning, a liquid modernity challenges many understandings of what education is and what it can achieve.

present-day challenges deliver heavy blows to the very essence of the idea of education … they put in question the invariants of the idea, the constitutive features of education that have thus far withstood all the past challenges … (Bauman, 2003, p. 19)

Obvious questions arise. How does one prepare and educate for an unknowable future? Can uncertainty be engaged with only in terms of situated local practice? If mastery is defined in local or individual terms, what happens to the idea of wisdom that can be generalised, or helpful to others? And what sort of practices are sustainable in the face of the vulnerability entailed in being-for-uncertainty? As noted, Gabriel (2002) has described the tensions to which the continually re-negotiated, continually becoming self is subject, and the resulting fragility and corrosion of personal and professional identity.

The idea of the practice of practice (van Schaik, 2003) opens up interesting possibilities for exploring wisdom and responsibility in the light of these questions. This is a multi-layered idea, used in music to convey that mastery requires insightful and skilled approaches to practising for performance, beyond repetition. It is also familiar in the development of performance in sport, where disciplines like interval training are continually reviewed and refined by specialists. And in professions that have taken up the work of reflective practice.

Schön (1987) suggested that many skilled professional behaviours cannot be taught. Wise practice is not just the application of technical prescriptions, or about one person simply handing to another a blueprint or vision of effective performance. The vision – if it exists – is often difficult to articulate, let alone to share or prescribe. Practice is about crafting something which emerges gradually, is enacted, supported by disciplined reflection. Schön’s examples were the masterclass in musical performance and the architectural studio. They illustrate the deep attention paid to what is being done, and the skilled facilitation that helps to turn the intrinsic uncertainty of the process into a source of energy and joy. Architecture and design not only illustrate this but add the dynamics of paradox. Their key challenge is to resolve the conflicting and contradictory requirements of the things we use and our life and work spaces. We mostly want these things to be functional, safe, sustainable in their manufacture and use, as well as affordable and aesthetically pleasing. To resolve these issues in a wise, masterful way is not to fall into easy polarisation, to prioritise one thing over another or to compromise, but to find a robust way to hold conflicting expectations and physical parameters in permanent tension.

The practice-of-practice embodies and embraces paradox and uncertainty. In design terms, it acknowledges the skills we develop as individuals simply do to make ourselves “comfortable” (which might include resourceful bricolage in its most basic forms), and at the same time entertains the possibility that our efforts might be useful to others in different circumstances. Universal uncertainties that are tackled locally can create microcosms of knowledge and wise practice (Linehan & Kavanagh, 2006) arising through individual or small group experience. Indeed, the practice-of-practice can be thought of as paradoxical practice in its own right. Lewis (2000) has paid attention to dynamics of engagement and learning that both empower people and at the same time render them ontologically humble and emotionally vulnerable. This is consistent with the Jungian view that only paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life and work, enabling deeper awareness of one’s being and creating generative spaces for becoming (Schneider, 1990). The famous paradox of change embedded in the gestalt tradition of learning and therapy asserts that only when I fully encounter things as they are and myself as I am, can I change. The gestalt view is that full appreciation and contact with what currently is, immediately triggers the energy for movement towards what might be.

Kelly’s (1970) personal construct theory also exemplifies the paradoxical dynamics of the practice-of-practice. Kelly’s contention was that complete understanding can only be accomplished by engaging with opposites. The starkest universal example of this is the existential paradox that being alive can only be fully appreciated if we allow ourselves to contemplate its opposite: non-being. Seen paradoxically, loneliness is experienced individually in many different ways: physical isolation, feeling invisible in a crowd or not having a lover. To resolve loneliness can mean very different things. The same principle is in play in Lewis and Dehler’s (2000) assertion that the way to challenge an existing either/or mindset is “immersion with the extremes” (p. 712), not to synthesise those extremes but to identify and hold their antithetical qualities. Most of us would have seen the figure and ground conundrum that presents us with an image that alternates the faces of an older and younger woman. The point is not to merge them but to see both clearly.

Taken together, these dimensions and possibilities of the practice-of-practice offer much but also demand much. The ambiguous, volatile, paradoxical, unknowable, wicked and unresolvable, can represent challenges that can be unbearable. Taking action can create or contribute to a wicked problem, with serious consequences whether one takes further action or no action at all, leaving practitioners to struggle with the ethical and moral dimensions of engagement, as well as the emotional, spiritual, analytical and operational ones. Denial, simplification, rigid logic, righteous indignation, helplessness, apathy and withdrawal, in all the forms they can take in professional practice, are understandable. For individuals, direct experience of uncertainty can be extremely uncomfortable: issues that seemed manageable when kept apart can become absurd and irrational when experienced together. Modern organisation mostly serves to maintain boundaries, but when boundaries become fuzzy and permeable, psychodynamic anxiety that is usually suppressed can be painfully visible in sudden episodes of emotional breaching or extended bouts of depression and withdrawal.

Any sustainable practice-of-practice must employ practical ways to cope with the patterns of behaviour that both practitioners – and those who help them – can readily default to under pressure. Fortunately, there are many powerful and delightful examples in the literature. They include holistic understandings of reflexivity based on radical reflexive phenomenology (Bleakley, 1999); appreciative and humorous post-modernism; of scaffolding (hanging over the precipice in a harness); the creative energies of liminal spaces and marginalia; the possibilities of story and enactment; and even an explicit pedagogy for paradox (Lewis & Delher, 2000). Bleakley (1999) has offered rich ontologically based perspectives on the business of reflective practice, meeting in advance the challenge laid down years later by Barnett. His contribution is outlined in some depth here because it is a masterful example of how notions of agency, and possibilities for wisdom and responsibility, can be enriched, rather than undermined. He explored how the development of reflective practices have been dominated by a number of the great ontological paradigms. He argued that reflective practice has been hijacked by techno-rational thinking and appropriated by human resources departments. When reflective practice is understood as a desirable functional competence, it becomes a:

technical-rational way of learning, with its developmental programs, progressivism, stages, steps, skills and knowledge hierarchies, spiral curricula, and overarching dogma that one must always proceed from the simple to the complex. Such developmental-ism denies the value of suffering the complex right from the start, perhaps relishing open-endedness, chaos, or unpredictability in learning, and valuing its ambiguities, paradoxes and twists. (Bleakley, 1999, p. 318)

In the humanistic paradigm, reflection has been framed as a critical stance on the status quo, and therefore a means of emancipation, autonomy and empowerment. Bleakley had a fundamental objection to this position, citing the dangers when reflection becomes a narcissistic cultural obsession with self:

thanks to our Cartesian legacy, [we] see reflectivity as an introspective bending in, to review mental life … Where reflection becomes a purely cognitive event – a fundamental mode of increasing or raising consciousness – this denies its grounding in sense, intuition and passion. As we get more sophisticated with this narcissistic pondering, so we may be less sensitive to the world around us, anaesthetised to other species, to deteriorating environments and … to the needs of others – less able to discriminate and tolerate ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’. (Bleakley, 1999, pp. 320–321)

Postmodern perspectives also questioned liberal humanism, but from a different position. Postmodernism sees personhood and subjectivity as being culturally constituted, and meaning as being constructed linguistically. Seen in this way, liberal humanism transforms recognisable outer control by external authorities into something more subtly insidious: self-control, made dangerous because it takes the form of self-surveillance and self-discipline while posing as emancipatory self-development (Foucault, 1977):

Normative … procedures formalised in the outer social and cultural life are reproduced in psychological life as a regulative self-discipline, thus paradoxically maintaining the status quo through a different set of discursive practices … (Bleakley, 1999, p. 320)

The problem is that postmodernism directly challenges the idea that self-hood, as usually experienced, involves personal agency and responsibility. To be wise and responsible on its terms is very challenging, Bleakley points out. We are asked to question our whole experience of ourselves as autonomous identities capable of purely personal agency, and to deconstruct the social and cultural process through which our subjective experience of ourselves as a self is constructed. It requires the capacity to think against one’s self: to go beyond the personal and question the very conditions under which our particular notions of identity, autonomy, personal agency and responsibility have developed within a particular culture. Ultimately, Bleakley himself proposed holistic reflexive practices that aren’t limited or lost in the privileging of language as the primary means of sense-making, nor absorbed by an essentially human-centric preoccupation. This moved him to an ontology of radical phenomenology, a view in which the agency and responsibility of the individual does not disappear but is not narcissistic, either. Rather, our own selves are presenced into being through interaction with things, a formulation in which reflection is not detached thought but rather a “critical, reflexive, ethical, aesthetic act of participation in the world, and one which is ecological, or sensitive to difference” (Bleakley, 1999, p. 328). In this way, Bleakley reclaimed the notion of agency in the ontological and existential terms demanded by Barnett (2012). Bleakley saw the practice-of practice not simply as an act of personal agency on a world (emancipatory empowerment), nor just as world-making through cultural construction and thinking against oneself (postmodern deconstructivism), but thinking with the world. It is a state of engaged agency with an outside-in, rather than an inside-out, focus:

Importantly, the reflective act can then be framed as a sensitivity … an aesthetic event rather than a functional or technical adjustment … This would give further meaning to Schön’s notion of ‘professional artistry’ – it is not just a ‘doing’ but a ‘being’, an apprehension’ … a play of sensitivity within a habitat, based on immediacy … It is … a mode of being grounded in passion and body rather than cognition and mind, with an outside-in, rather than inside-out, focus. Primarily it is eco-logical, rather than ego-logical: worldly rather than personal … reflection as action may be described as a thinking with the world, as an engaged agency. (Bleakley, 1999, pp. 323–324)

Bleakley offered the concept of reflection-as-action, enriching Schön’s notions of reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection, he suggests, “needs body, passion, sensitivity to context, and, above all, begs for style … a ‘hands-on’ business, rooted in the immediacy and heat of practice, the sticky moment of indecision, feeding on sudden shifts in circumstances” (Bleakley, 1999, p. 319). Together these notions of the practice-of-practice and holistic reflexivity are invigorating, enriching our conceptualisation of possibilities for practice wisdom.

Practices and Pedagogies of Being and Becoming

Bleakley’s account of reflexive practices in terms of agency is echoed in the work of Cunliffe (2002) who has argued that “critical approaches often dehumanise and disempower people by viewing them as occupants of discursive space, or products of systems of control” (pp. 40–41). She suggests that between tacit knowing and explicit knowledge is what she describes as “muddy water”. She highlights the moment in which we are struck, when things don’t add up, or we suddenly realise we are out of our depth, in a lonely or excitingly different place. In this moment of being struck, wise and responsible practice-of-practice doesn’t mean walking away, but jumping in to explore new possibilities, to make connections between tacit and explicit knowing. and to engage with problem framing rather than problem solving.

Lewis (2000) offers further insights into how wise and responsible professional agency might be enacted in the face of uncertainty. As a first step, people need to be able to recognise when paradoxical dynamics are in play. She has offered a number of suggestions as to how paradoxes can be conceptually “located and bracketed” (p. 771) drawing on narrative, psychodynamic and multi-paradigm perspectives. The objective in using these approaches is to help people read complexity, to see everyday life differently, notice contradictions and surface conflicting views, stories and feelings. By “critiquing oversimplified explanations and taken-for-granted, often nonsensical, conventions, students can be inspired to seek and accommodate opposing views, to creatively make sense of contradictions by transcending either/or logic and overcoming fears of sounding absurd” (Lewis, 2000). And in gestalt terms, contact with what is creates energy for creating what can be.

Agreeing that “the underlying aspects of daily work are rich with clues to cultural meaning and processes of sustaining social construction” (Hatch & Ehrlich, 1993, p. 251), Lewis suggests techniques borrowed from narrative analysis, such as using humour and irony as signs of paradox, which would otherwise be difficult to articulate. Humour helps to expose conflicting emotions, and the duplicity of meaning from which paradoxes arise, such as the example that “accepting a position as a guard makes one a prisoner” of a larger system (Hatch & Ehrlich, 1993, p. 517). Multi-paradigm approaches explicitly ask people to adopt different lenses to view a situation. Such lenses, Lewis suggests, can be contradictory, fragmentary or integrative, surfacing contradictions in ways that can be absurd, weird and fascinating. Lewis also draws on psychodynamic approaches, suggesting imagery techniques (drawing, mapping); construction of artefacts, modelling; and enactment (performance, role-play, psychodrama) that offer pathways to catching what is subtle, tacit, latent, interrupted, denied or absent from talk.

Usually people try to ignore, trivialise or rationalise the discomfort of paradox. This might work for some time, but ultimately makes things worse as tensions fester, sometimes producing dramatic eruptions in anger, blame and denial, or, in contrast, helplessness and withdrawal. So there is intrinsic paradox in educating for paradox: it involves intentionally creating some level of uncertainty and confusion, while maintaining sufficient comfort for learning to be possible. Lewis and Dehler (2000) developed a pedagogy for ambiguity and paradox which fosters this creative tension. People are supported to recognise the paradox for what it is, then to engage with the tension rather than struggle against it. Explorations might be gradual and even playful, drawing on the three approaches already mentioned. Randall and McKim (2008) suggest appreciative rather than de-constructive postmodernism, in which humorous and ironical playfulness allow the construction of alternative stories of our lives and professional practices. Others have tackled this challenge, suggesting ways for educators and mentors to work with their own anxieties, defences and need to control what is happening. Barrett’s (1998) framing of the Paradox Mind-Set asks educators to be open, sceptical, contrary, para-logical, imaginative and courageous, as they encourage students to do likewise. But this is easier said than done, and “it takes nerve not to flinch from or be crushed by the sight of one’s shadow, and it takes courage to accept responsibility for one’s inferior self” (Whitmont, 1991, p. 15).

This realisation has prompted ideas about holding environments, provisional resting places and scaffolding which protect us while still allowing us to engage in the midst of what puzzles, enrages or scares us. Holding environments and provisional resting places can be deliberately created apart from, or right in the midst of, action. They can often be articulated and enacted as a collective responsibility, as when a facilitator asks a group to ensure that all voices are listened to. Provisional resting places allow people to immerse themselves in a particular set of assumptions or ways of framing things, while knowing full well that it is a temporary state of affairs. Serious play and humour can offer comfort and create energy in the midst of uncertainty and risk. Creating and occupying liminal and marginal spaces (Higgs, 2016) also facilitate immersion in alternative ways of thinking, acting and feeling.

If, paradoxically, possibilities are revealed even as we discover and realise what is, the recognition of possibility can emerge through sharing vivid stories of practice, sensitively searching for weak signals, experimenting on a small scale and bricolage. Experimentation and improvisation entail getting the feel of things, using enactment as a way of rediscovering professional agency. This can range from role-playing and simulations to hearing your own voice and appreciating your self as conveyed through your voice. These approaches resonate with Schön and Bleakley’s sense of the importance of immersion and attending.

By way of conclusion to this section and to the entire chapter, the intention has been to share pathways for turning uncertainty into a source of energy, confidence and delight, as well as of wisdom and responsibility. We live in times that demand that we all find such pathways.


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Nita L. Cherry PhD

Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Business and Law

Swinburne University of Technology, Australia

Practice Wisdom

Values and Interpretations



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