Shining a light on critical action learning with the work of Pierre Bourdieu

pbA couple of years ago I became intrigued by the interaction between the theory of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the practice of action learning, a process of facilitated group coaching. In other words, how the theory of one might shine a light on the practice of the other. The aspects of Bourdieu theory that I was intrigued about was habitus and field. Habitus being a generative process of habit and repetition, but not one that implies an automatic reflex; instead it is a condition of practice that short cuts the numerous options available to the novice to a narrower range of reasonable contextual possibilities. This being dependent on field, an array of externalities and relations in which one has to move. Each player whose relations constitute the field of a particular practice has their own internalised expression of habitus. This gives everyone in the field an individualised sense of their next step, sensible or not, that needs to be reacted to by others. The field is therefore a complex dynamic affected by power, reputation, tradition, gestures and so on. In short, the ordinary goings on of organisational life of what we might see as common sense hitting a brick wall of unfathomable objection that makes us ask the question: why? Or as we have called it ‘social friction’, a process of noticing between our taken for granted practice and how this is reacted to by others who have their own assumptions and practice too.

Over the past year it has been great to work with Janet McCray and Douglas Board to explore these ideas drawing on interviews with nine medical consultants having gone through and action learning based leadership programme. Following a number of conferences (a notable highlight being the British Sociological Association’s first conference on Bourdieu last year) and workshops our work has now been published in Action Learning: Research and Practice.

To read our paper click here.


Through difference comes a deeper confidence

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngThis week I was at conference in Bristol, UK on the ‘contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu’ where I presented my paper on the connections and opportunities between Bourdieu’s thinking and action learning. It was one of the best conferences I had been to drawing people from all over the world and importantly working with Bourdieu’s ideas in very different ways.

I have been deeply affected by his work which has influenced a number of my books, papers and thinking in general. But I have lacked confidence on two counts. Firstly, his life’s work was enormous, there are few who have a deep understanding of his work and the context from which it emerged. Secondly, appreciating the contemporary ways in which those ideas were being taken up by people at the conference. In other words, I was very aware that my interest was focused on a small area of a far wider moving project.

Over the three days it was great to see the myriad of ways that people were working with his ideas. Some I was deeply drawn to, attracted by the interaction between excellent empirical work and theory. Others like Lisa Mckenzie’s work on the working class in London made me wonder what sort of world we had created. But others took Bourdieu’s work and applied multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and other quantitative techniques that left me cold wondering what Bourdieu would have thought. Similarly, words and phrases such as ‘technique’, ‘tool’, ‘using’, ‘framework’ were applied to some of Bourdieu’s concepts in a way that just seemed to miss the shifting, relational, emergent qualities of his ideas reminding me of his comment: ‘Everything conspires to encourage the reification of concepts, beginning with the logic of ordinary language, …’ (Bourdieu, 1973, p62). Despite these differences and affinities my thinking was being challenged.

Through these differences and talking with those people who saw his work from other angles I became more confident about my areas of interest, that of reflexivity and the ‘friction’ between his concepts of habitus and field. This was not an arrogant confidence; I knew that I had something that was worth saying but with a humility to explore other ideas and how these were being taken up.

What implications does this have more generally? It is by being with other people of differing views and exploring their ideas that we become more confident and curious about our own position and how that position might develop. But that is not what I see around me. Politicians talk of building walls (metaphorically, literally and implied in their ‘dog whistle’ speeches), or they just talk and don’t listen. Perhaps we do the same; we surround ourselves with likeness amplified by our interaction with Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Here I am suggesting a different type of deeper confidence. I am not talking about an arrogant confidence that is defensive, inward looking and is brittle to challenge. I am talking about confidence that is open to the development of thought and keen to engage others with differing and challenging views. I think Bourdieu himself would have had views on this …

Bourdieu, P. (1973). The three forms of theoretical knowledge. Social science information, 12(1), 53-80.


The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge – the publication of our book

ShowJacket SDLK biggerSome of you will know that over the last year or so Douglas Board and I have been writing a book on the interconnected social worlds of leadership and knowledge. Well, this month it comes out, as a first time author this is exciting stuff. This is how we describe the book:

Leadership and knowledge should be developed together: developed as two intimately linked ideas, and developed with other people.

We make this argument through extensive, theoretically-disciplined use of narratives from our managerial and doctoral experience. This volume is an inspiring resource for students and providers of practice-based research degrees, while offering practitioners, tired of broken promises from neat frameworks and models, unexpected opportunities to develop leadership impact and academic insight.

Ranging from complexity to sociology, and from leadership to ontology and epistemology, the central theory of this work draws on Bourdieu’s logic of practice and Stacey’s complex responsive processes of relating. It yields new ideas about reflexivity and essentially contested concepts. Since theory is not split from practice, nor emotions and politics from thought, full-time doctoral students will find an enlivening perspective on method as well as courage and support for the journey they are making.

We hope that this will strike a chord with those of you with an interest in at least one of more of the following:

  • Leadership, particularly for those who seek to consider their own practical experience seriously, in contrast (or at least in addition to) those with models, frameworks, competencies and explanations as to how we ‘should’ lead.
  • Those with an interest in the power of narratives as a way of exploring our interconnected social worlds. Instead of stories that close down the imagination with neat explanations we are interested in the openings they offer to enable the reader to imagine themselves in the writer’s situation and how this might help their practice.
  • How knowledge is created amongst people and the leadership that enables this to happen.
  • The importance of being reflexive in the noticing of what we are doing with others, how this comes to affect our practice and to impact on our knowledge and leadership.
  • How we can develop our practice of becoming ethically and consciously aware of how we act and think and the impact it has.

Instead of writing about leadership, reflexivity and knowledge as abstract concepts the book is the account of a reflexive journey that both Douglas and I took. And we use this as a way of engaging with wider literature to produce a grounded engagement with these subjects.

These are the views of those that have read the book so far:

In inquiring into knowledge and leadership, and the connections between the two, these authors pull off an amazing feat; they not only demystify the fundamentals of reflexive research but do so in a vivid, informative and engaging way. Any researcher, especially any practitioner seeking to make better sense of their lived experience, will benefit from reading this book and should make it their first port of call.  Linda Holbeche, Co-Director of the Holbeche Partnership and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Progressive Leadership at City of London University

As a successful leader are you curious that the books on leadership often bear little resemblance to your daily practice? To explore this question seriously you may consider a PhD or other post-graduate qualification. The authors offer an insight into their personal reflexive search for academic knowledge that has in turn enabled them to better understand their own practice. Reading this book may help you to become more effective as a leader, or can be seen as an invitation to start your own doctoral research. Professor Nol Groot, Management and Complexity, PhD School, Open University in the Netherlands and former Member of the Executive Board of the Dutch National Railways

The authors present viable and much needed research approaches to explore complex relationships within organizational cultures and the lived experiences of leaders and organizational participants. Using examples from their own research, they provide a strong balance between theory and practice, and engage the reader through use of metaphor, narrative storytelling and case study methodologies. This book will be an extremely valuable resource for any research practitioner in the fields of organizational studies, educational leadership, higher education and management as well as those who seek to understand the social, emotional, and political layers and entanglements of organizational life.  Sheri Klein, PhD, MFA, artist/educator/researcher and Professor (ret.) of Art Education, University of Wisconsin-Stout, USA.

The book is available to order from Palgrave, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book stores.   Ideas of course do not come to an end on finishing a book. In fact we see this as a start. We would love to hear comments and views and most importantly how people are practically working with the ideas we discuss in order for us to make our next steps.