Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Where is the participation in PNI?

Here's a thought. I saw a reference to participatory narrative inquiry recently that said it's participatory because during the return phase of a PNI project, stories return to the community.

I thought: that's true, but the return phase isn't the only place a PNI project can be participatory. There is a place for participation in every phase of a PNI project. So it seemed like an interesting exercise to explore those places. Let's try it and see what happens.

Story collection

Some might say the story collection phase of PNI is participatory because people tell stories in it. But that doesn't work; you could say the same thing about narrative inquiry, and maybe about traditional qualitative research as well. If you call your method participatory, you can't say things about it that are equally true of methods that don't call themselves participatory. So story collection cannot be in itself participatory.

Story collection is participatory when people can hear (or read) other people's stories as they talk (or write), so that at least some people are responding not to questions but to stories. This is typically done in a face-to-face group session, but it can also be handled in a facilitated chat, or even a web form on which people can respond to other people's stories as well as answer questions. In any of these cases, people are participating in a conversation with other people, not just with an interviewer.

Story collection can also be participatory when people have a chance to truly reflect on the stories they tell, and not just answer questions other people want the answers to. If people come out of telling a story and say "I got something out of that" or "I never thought about it that way before," the story collection has been (at least a little bit) participatory. But be careful: whether answering questions is participatory can be seen only in retrospect. You can't say a story collection has been participatory until you've gathered reactions to what the storytelling has been like for the people who experienced it. They get to say whether it was participatory. You don't.

If you are collecting stories for PNI and you don't have either of those factors in your project (people responding to other people's stories, people saying they reflected productively on their stories), you don't have participation in that part of your PNI project. It doesn't have to mean your entire project is not participatory. There are other places for participation to come in.


I think of sensemaking as the primary way in which people participate in PNI projects because the best results come out when people get a chance to work with their own stories. But not every project can involve all or even most of the people who told the stories. Sometimes the people who told the stories aren't willing or able to participate in sensemaking. This happens when stories are collected from visitors or employees or customers who aren't willing or able to give up more than a few minutes of their time.

Of course, sometimes the storytellers do care and would participate, but the project funders don't want to extend the umbrella of participation in sensemaking. They'd rather their group of experts or people-in-charge make sense of what's in the stories the project collected. Whoever's doing the project can also set limits on participation, because of how they want to frame or report the research, or because they don't feel capable of facilitating such a group.

Do you recognize these three groups: the participants, funders, and project organizers? I've mentioned them before. They are described in one of my favorite passages on participatory action research. It's from a 1998 paper by Yoland Wadsworth and goes like this:
In typical research there might be one or more ‘researchers’, there might be people who are ‘researched’, and there might be people who are ‘researched for’ - such as those who are to be informed or influenced by findings, or, at a more fundamental level, those who have a problem on which the research is to cast light. 
Even though the three groups are considered "co-researchers" in participatory action research (and in participatory narrative inquiry), there are still differences between them in practice. They may have  different views on what the project should be, and they may have different sorts of influence on how the project goes. Any of the three groups can limit the amount of participation you can include in a PNI project, whether their part lies in allowing participation to happen, facilitating participation, or simply showing up. It's like the saying "it takes two to tango" except with three groups.


The return of stories to the community can take many forms. People might read stories in a report or newsletter, or they might talk about a story collection or sensemaking session they attended, or they might discuss the project's outcomes, or they might just talk (or think) about the story they told.

In an ideal return phase, lots of interested people keep talking about the stories and the project for years afterward. This doesn't always happen, for the same reasons cited above. Sometimes the funders want to keep the project's results to themselves. Sometimes the facilitator is too busy or wants to move on. Sometimes the information is made available but nobody cares to pick up on it. There is never no return phase, even if it's limited to random fleeting thoughts about "that survey I took last month." But if a project wants to support the return phase its three dance partners have to be willing and able to keep things going.


Now we turn to the optional phases of PNI. I always like to put these after the essential parts to remind myself that a PNI project can turn out perfectly well without any of the optional parts.

How can people participate in a PNI project's planning phase? In lots of ways. They might be part of a pilot story collection. The could be part of some initial testing-the-waters sensemaking. They might give feedback on early project plans and question designs. How much of the planning process to open up to participation is something the project organizers and funders have to decide early on. Too little participation in the planning phase can cause a project to miss the mark, for example by collecting stories in a way that people don't respond well to. I've seen quite a few projects fail to meet their potential by putting too little attention into participation during planning.


Narrative catalysis seems like the least likely place to find participation in a PNI project. At least the way I've learned to do it, it looks like me in my office staring at a computer screen for dozens of hours. I suspect it looks that way for most other people who do it (I think at least a few other people do this...) But having one expert create catalytic materials is not the only way to do catalysis. There are definitely benefits to having a naive outsider explore avenues others would abandon, and say things that cannot be said, but if people are willing to be surprised by their own stories, I think a group of people can do catalysis as well as or even better than an expert outsider.

If I was asked to facilitate a group catalysis session, here's how I would do it. First and foremost, I would attempt to retain all of the catalysis principles (separate statements, provide provoking perspectives, maintain mischief, explore exhaustively, prepare for participation). How? I would embody each of these things in group processes. For example, to maintain mischief I would give some people or groups a "red team" or "devil's advocate" role, and ask them to use the stories and other collected material to tear apart assumptions. To explore exhaustively, I would ask people to choose beforehand which graphs they would create, and then stick to the plan. And so on.

The most critical of the five principles for participatory catalysis work is, I think, providing provoking perspectives. For this one it would be important to make sure that all pairs or trios of competing perspectives come from the same people. In other words, it would not work to say "we'll make up a set of competing perspectives by getting one from each person in the group."

First, that might turn the catalysis session into a shouting match, which is not the point of catalysis. The point is to prepare thought-provoking materials for sensemaking. Catalysis cannot replace sensemaking, because it's what you do with the materials you create that matters most. Nor can catalysis be interleaved with sensemaking, because every bit of sensemaking will affect the catalysis that comes after it, which will affect the next bit of sensemaking, and so on. No, the creation of catalytic materials has to be a distinct phase that requires different rules.

Second, it is the practice of stretching one mind to find competing interpretations that makes catalysis work. In fact, you could argue that spreading out the work of catalysis among participants in a project could be the best intervention of all, if you can get people to put the time in. Doing this work for years has certainly changed my habitual response to apparent facts. Everything bounces around in here. As is usually the case, the expert doing the work gets more benefit from the work than the people for whom the work was done.

If you're interested in exploring participatory catalysis, let me know. I would love to find a bunch of willing participants who would like to play with the idea.


Finally we get to the part of PNI that is the most participatory of all, because it is geared toward changing the stories people tell themselves. When you slot in narrative therapy or appreciative inquiry or participatory theatre, you're asking people to rise to a higher level of participation than in other phases of PNI.

When people tell a story, they participate at what I call a "micro-participation" level, especially if they tell the story in a simplified form such as on a web form. When people participate in sensemaking or catalysis, the participation is higher, but it's still anchored in a space of discovery and exploration. Being asked to actively change the way you look at things, as you do when you participate in any of the "slotted in" methods I mentioned above, is the highest degree of participation. Sure, some change might emerge at the end of sensemaking, and often it does. But its potential for transformation is lower. That's why I think PNI works well as a ground-truthing preparation for a number of methods that ask people to change the way they think. It's a way to prepare to change by orienting yourself in the past and present.

Of course, intervention in PNI does not have to require any of those more elaborate and more participatory methods. It can be as simple as twenty stories appearing in a weekly newsletter. Or it can be a campaign commercial. Or it can be a report on sensemaking made available on a web site and open to comment. Some of these options can be as micro-participatory as the telling of isolated stories, or even more so. So I would say that participation in the intervention phase is not the highest, but has the highest range of possibility. That works, because intervention is an optional phase to begin with.


The main conclusion I can draw from this exploration is that PNI can be (maybe has to be) participatory in as many ways as there are PNI projects. The precise shape of participation in a PNI project has to depend on the precise needs and goals of the project. I can imagine two projects that are tempted to call each other "not very participatory" because their participation shapes are so different. I like that idea. It means that PNI is not a key; it's a skeleton key. Or it's a key that changes its shape as it approaches each door. This is fitting, because every door in PNI is a different door.

Okay, so here's a bouncing-around thought: could participation damage PNI? Can a PNI project be too participatory? Yes, but not in general; in specific places. There are spots along the shape of the key that can damage the ... the lock or the door or something.

I can think of two times when I've seen too much participation damage PNI projects: during the planning phase, and during the start of participatory workshops. These are both times when nascent plans are fragile and need to be put into practice, not examined. These are "stop talking about it, just do it" moments. Having too much participation at times like these would be like giving the chickens the run of the garden when the first seedling leaves are poking their heads out of the soil. The result would be no garden at all, just an empty plot.

I've never actually seen this happen in a PNI project, mind you, because the usual problem is people not including enough participation in the planning phase. But I can imagine a project that dies an early death because people ask for so much feedback at the start that nothing ends up solidifying. I do remember asking people for feedback up front in a few early workshops and feeling like it was a bad idea to "talk about how the sausage is made" instead of just getting people going on tasks. Not only did the energy in the room plummet, but people thought I was stupid for asking, and the discussion trailed off into not-very-productive debates over "pedagogy" and "facilitation design." Some people just got bored and left.

So it's entirely appropriate, I think, for the participation in a participatory method to rely heavily on some spots of non-participation to work. They are the spots of yang in the yin that keep the wheel turning. Right? Make sense?

Okay, I'm done musing for now. It was fun. Thanks for reading, and I'm interested in your thoughts, as always.

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