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Blog #10: on the need for a living social practice – what’s the problem with current dominant ways o

My latest book Understanding Phenomenological Reflective Practice in the Social and Ecological Fields is ready for publishing in the next few weeks and addresses the challenge of maintaining a living social practice in our vocational work.

The book is my attempt to make sense of an intriguing and life-changing journey over the last 10 years. In meeting Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff of The Proteus Initiative, South Africa, I learned of a social practice that was oriented towards life. It has been transformational for me. But why this need for a life-oriented practice? What is the problem?

The problem could be characterised in several ways. Foremost is the colonisation of mechanical thinking and practice which sees the world in ways informed by linear, reductionist, engineering ways of thinking – not living ways of thinking, seeing and practising. Think of logical frameworks, models of input-output-impact and management for results as some examples.

This colonisation is accompanied by instrumental thinking in which practitioners ‘intervene’ into social phenomena and social organisms (groups, communities, organisations), imposing their ‘will’ (however good intended) on them. In this approach practitioners bring a pre-determined 'social package' (what we will do to/for you), rather than sense into what's emerging from dialogue, collaboration and cooperative analysis.

Furthermore, the worldview behind mechanical and instrumental work is underpinned by a paradigm of control – ‘if we do x then y will occur’; ‘these inputs will lead to those outputs’; ‘if we transfer these resources or this knowledge, that capacity will be built’.

The colonisation leads to diminishing freedoms in social and ecological fields as mechanical thinking and control – manifest in compliance and audit worlds, ‘evidence-based practice’ (sometimes a euphemism for hiding the politics of evidence) – lead to a lack of engagement with the world in ways that acknowledge the ‘truth’ of living process, including a humility of not-knowing. All in all, these mechanical and routinised ways of doing work lead to ways of being and doing that fail to do justice to the complexity, and the emergent nature of living systems.

In the next few blogs I will offer a way of thinking that honours such complexity, and emergent ways of working with living systems.

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