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Eavesdropping: The craft of social inquiry

An exploration of John Shotter’s suggestion to approach social inquiry as a ‘craft’

Published onApr 06, 2021
Eavesdropping: The craft of social inquiry

[This is the originally submitted version of an article that has been published in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 2021, Vol. 51, where the final accepted version can be accessed (to be posted here after an embargo period of 24 months after first publication).]


This essay is an exploration of John Shotter’s suggestion to approach social inquiry as a ‘craft’. To take this suggestion seriously calls for making visible the specific ‘skills’ that conjure social inquiry into being, as craft. For this reason, the essay presents small vignettes—drawn from the author’s practice of supervision of researcher-practitioners—that elucidate some of the turbulent passages that social researchers learn to negotiate, as they ‘acrobatically’ stretch themselves to eavesdrop on the messy trails of world-making activity, pursued by participants in a social milieu. From waiting at awkward thresholds that do not announce an agenda; to approaching mis-takes as occasions for bringing experience to articulation; to registering the pregnancy of silences that meet language at its edge. Just like Joyce’s masterpiece Finnegans Wake brings into visibility the work that readers must perform to engage with its messy text, so this essay argues that social inquiry as craft involves becoming skilled in various heuristic moves, through which social worlds can be listened into articulation.

Keywords: listening, language, world-making, John Shotter, silence, Finnegans Wake

Beginning (not yet)

An article by the late John Shotter (2015) on the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour put forth the following provocation. How might we need to rethink the purpose and method of social science, if we were to take seriously a chorus of authors such as James (1909), Dewey (1938), Wittgenstein (1953), Bakhtin (1986), Garfinkel (2002), and—more recently—Barad (2003, 2007)? In Shotter’s view, to listen carefully to those voices would entail opening up to the uncertain task of approaching the social worlds we move within, no longer as finished products. And to enter, instead, the erratic terrain of their formation—their arising and falling away, through the activity of participants weaving, pursuing, and relinquishing communicatively sustained realities amongst themselves. To take up this task, Shotter suggested, amounts to nothing less than rethinking the nature of social inquiry: past the rolling out of ‘methods’ to uncover an already articulated world, and towards the development of a sensitive ‘craft’ or ‘artistry’. One that might be able to listen for the silences, the gaps, the stutters that accompany the appearance of organisation, the arriving of a moment of articulation amidst the turbulent currents of participants’ attempts at communication.

This essay aims to further Shotter’s proposed shift in social inquiry. At the same time, it reads very differently to Shotter’s 2015 article, by virtue of looking at the questions he raised through a different concern, than that of sketching out a philosophical landscape. My entry point into the provocations he raised is the following: if one took seriously the possibility of approaching social inquiry as a ‘craft’ or a form of ‘artistry’, what would that practice look like? How would one rejuvenate one’s imagination of what ‘social inquiry’ can be, particularly at those turbulent junctures of stumbling—in word and gesture, speech and silence—towards moments of joint articulation?

In this piece, I am trying to draw attention to oft-overlooked and unnamed passages in social inquiry, which reveal its substance as a craft or practice. Hence, the experiment I am attempting is that of developing a register—against the grain of particular scenes—to help social researchers attune to liminal, apparently uninteresting moments (gaps, silences, stutters, divagations, mis-takes) as potentially disclosive of something that’s beginning to happen. Anticipating my conclusion a little, the argument I make is that moments of apparent ‘irresolution’, which surface during the pursuit of inquiry, demand of the researcher the development of new capacities for listening—what Goethe might have called an ‘organ of perception’ (Bortoft, 2004)—into the incipient movements, by which a communicatively sustained social world comes into being. This work, of attuning to the grumbling beginnings of articulation of a communicatively sustained reality, is a craft in its own right: a craft that involves some (acrobatic) stretching in the researcher, as he/she adjusts his/her ability to listen (akroasis) to a conversation that’s already afoot (eavesdropping).

The task of developing a suitable ‘ear’ is one to which I also want to draw your attention, as a reader, as you engage with this essay. What work am I asking of you, so that you might be able to listen to its mutters and pauses? First of all, the biggest shift involved on your part is to let go of the expectation that a contribution to social theory ought to begin in theory. Instead, the risk I am inviting you to embrace is to imagine social inquiry resituating itself in the informal, the not-already-formed, the unresolved. At the most evident level, this shift means you will find in this essay many particular narratives. These are drawn from my own practice as a researcher, who is in turn involved in the supervision of other researcher-practitioners. You might also find something incomplete about the scenes I offer; they might feel like precarious rafts on a shifting sea of communication, of which you are not shown a beginning nor an end. The challenge this essay might prove for you, then, is to bracket expectations of what you might approach as a social ‘scientific’ contribution, and notice instead what is stirred in you, as you encounter those scenes: what conjectures you find yourself making around your ‘understanding’ of what it is I might be describing? What memories from your own practice are called up as you read? What responses are silently spoken in you as you parse the text? Finally, I want to suggest a name for this—‘eavesdropping’—to hint at the kind of listening that happens when one isn’t ‘spoken to’, as though to ‘exchange’ packets of information. Eavesdropping cues, instead, a different kind of attention, one I find myself practicing when I am trying to figure out what scene might be taking place around me. Perhaps, a narrative is the place to begin illustrating what I mean by ‘eavesdropping’.

I sit down at my computer, hoping to be gifted a new beginning, after the false start that draft zero (of the essay you are reading) was. It’s Sunday evening. My neighbours are an Albanian family, I can hear them through the wall. They are bidding farewell to someone—I imagine a relative that’s about to leave. I discern a heavily accented attempt at Italian; it’s the relative addressing the family’s young daughter: ‘Sei contenta di andare a scuola domani? Fatti tutti i compiti?’ (Are you happy to go to school tomorrow? Dones all homeworks?) I mentally edit the relative’s speech into the form I would use—(hai) fattio tutti i compiti? ([have you] dones all homeworks?) … as I do that, I also begin to notice the sophistication of the relative’s communicative skill and linguistic creativity. The daughter in the house is fully Italophone, so the relative has chosen a stuttering Italian (rather than Albanian) in order to establish contact with her world. I surprise myself, out of sheer fascination, rolling the relative’s quirky pronunciation on my tongue. Her Italian is ‘chewed’ by noticeably palatal r’s—an insight into the texture of her native tongue (Albanian). I have encountered Albanian only once before, after a World Cup victory of the Albanian football team, when I heard chanting fans pronounce Shqipëri something like ‘she-pree’.

This exchange, which lasted a minute or two, holds everything. The infinitesimal choices made by participants in a scene (like the relative’s switching to Italian to address the daughter). The creative contact language, something like an Albanian-Italian pidgin—with palatal r’s and intuitive syntax—that makes the address precariously possible. My attuned silence on the other side of the wall, as I am also being visited by memories of code-switching between Italian and ‘pugliese’ dialect in my own migrant household.

‘Eavesdropping’ captures this sudden outburst of a scene, which catches one unprepared as one is ‘supposed’ to be doing something else. Just as I was squinting into my laptop, ‘something’ occurred on the other side of the wall, which afforded me an unexpected beginning.

Beginning (again)

Finnegans Wake sits nearby, untouchable,
giving a look not of reproach but of a
daring lerr: go on, go on, I dare you.
Conley, 2003, p. 96

In everyday communication, articulation often happens in fits and starts. The first page of Finnegans Wake (Joyce, 1939/1992) illustrates just one such beginning, where a sequence of ‘not yet’s’ finally gives way to a thunderous new beginning. I don’t know how to move onto the first numbered section of the essay proper, without revving the engine once more. Please bear the uncertainty a little longer, as you lean in yet again.

I first experienced the ‘eavesdropping’ flavour of inquiry, upon reading James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In fact, that’s not exactly the truth. I didn’t begin by reading the Wake. I begun by listening to the nineteen-hour recording of it performed by Irish actor Patrick Healy (1992). The Wake was first an aural experience. I am not alone in recognizing the occasion that Finnegans Wake affords, for reimagining what ‘listening’ entails. It is something of a turning point. Communication theorist Lisbeth Lipari (2014) also notices the relevance of the Wake for revealing the oft overlooked complexity of listening: ‘To read Finnegans Wake is to listen to the sound of the words, the rhythmic cadences of its musicality, its droning or incandescent melody’ (p. 169).

In many ways, Finnegans Wake is less a text one reads for ‘meaning’, for instance in the form of a plot, and more an event one undergoes and takes part in. Literary critic Tim Conley (2010) laments that a large chunk of critical works on Finnegans Wake are more attempts at forcing the Wake into a genre (novel?) or a plot (does it have one?), than invitations to eavesdrop on its polyphonic clamour. Letting go of such expectations might demand multiple readings, but in the end the Wake works its way inside a reader’s ear:

[A]s I reread each of the Wake’s chapters … my inner eyes … adjusted, somewhat, to the dreamy dark where I discerned some outlines and silhouettes and shapes. I struggled less and drifted more with the musical tides made by the letters and lines, carried on the currents of the sonorous waves of the words … I felt for the first time that I was really reading the Wake the way Joyce wanted the world to read it, joining him in enjoying both the beauty and the fun. (Cliett, 2011, p. 277)

This quotation, from a popular introduction to Finnegans Wake, perhaps gives some sense of the affinity I sense between the experience of reading the Wake, and the experience of ‘eavesdropping’—in social inquiry—on the uncertain beginnings of jointly experienced events. A description of the kind of ‘eavesdropping’ that social inquiry demands of researchers, when they set out to glimpse the beginnings of joint action, has much to glean from sensitive descriptions of the disorienting experience of entering Joyce’s Wake as a reader.

This additional beginning now prepares a sufficient entry point for moving to the numbered body of the essay, which is organised as follows. Section 1 describes the practice out of which I draw the scenes discussed in the rest of the paper, namely as a supervisor of research in a community of researcher-practitioners. Starting from an actual conversation occurring in supervision, Section 2 points to how beginnings might manifest, as sudden glimpses into incipient worlds that command our attention. Section 3 contemplates the journey towards articulation as an unfinished endeavour, where mistakes and improvisation never happen in vain. Section 4 hones in on the experience of being ‘riverrun’—in social inquiry—by more than is ever possible of articulating, and suggests that silences might gesture towards this unsayable excess. Section 5 looks back on the scenes described in earlier sections of the paper, and considers their contribution for fleshing out Shotter’s suggestion of engaging social inquiry, as craft. A craft of attuning to the fragile beginnings of any communicatively sustained world, by listening ‘obliquely’ for the stuttering movement by which things get going. Lastly, this is followed by a concluding summary.

1. The beginnings of conversation

My grandmother rests. She’s silent, as if wanting to dissimulate her presence. Sitting at her side, I face her profile, staring at her nose. It has presence. ‘Aquilino’ is the adjective that describes it in Italian. Eagle-like. As I look around the room, I meet uncles and cousins I hadn’t seen in years—after the Big Bang of migration-deflagration that recirculated my dad’s family—the same nose-shape is iterated with variations on their faces. I touch my own nose. I notice the tube refrigerating grandma. Is she there? Is she gone? We are here one last time, so she’s gone. Yet this is our first family get-together in years. Her nose gathers us all. No one quite knows what to say: what begins, or what exactly ends, in a hot summer day like this.

Wakes are liminal openings, dressed as closings. Their gravity—bordering on the surreal—obliquely brings for me an attendant sense of exhilaration and curiosity, of not knowing where life ends and death begins. Perhaps, Joyce shared a similar fascination, to the point of folding that ambiguity in the title of his magnum opus. Is the title cueing the wake of Finnegan—as in ‘Finnegan’s’? Or does it hint to the fact that Finnegans—whoever they may be, and however many they might be—wake up again (‘rivivranno’), as suggested by Škrabánek (2002, p. 4)? The ambivalence in the title gives way to the book’s beginning—sort of. I have already hinted at the Wake’s stuttering start, punctuated by a rhythm of ‘not yet’s’. Beyond that, the book’s very opening word—‘riverrun’—in fact picks up from the Wake’s closing sentence: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the’ (Joyce, 1939/1992, p. 628). The beginning is then a new iteration, picking up a thread that was already there. Pristine beginnings are an after-the-fact fiction. The Wake, and wakes, intensify this uncertainty, of not quite knowing when a beginning is really a beginning, an end really an end, and whether both are just a continuation of something else. This gaping uncertainty, breathing on the neck of each and every beginning, isn’t just a feature of Finnegans Wake, or of real-world wakes. The latter simply magnify a hesitation that also accompanies the beginnings of social inquiry.

I work as a supervisor of researcher-practitioners, who seek to make a contribution to their respective professional or creative milieus—not by clever methodologies rolled out irrespective of circumstances, but—by beginning to notice what might already be afoot in the currents of activity in which they are immersed. Within the contemporary academic conversation, this approach bears some vicinity to practice-based research (Nicolini, Gherardi, & Yanow, 2003; Schatzki, 2012), although it originates in the work of social constructionists such as Shotter (1993, 2011) and Gergen, (2015) and joins other proponents of phenomenological approaches within anthropology (Ingold 2015, 2017; Perullo, 2019) and community development (Kaplan, 2002; Westoby & Kaplan, 2014).1 In the research group in which I participate, researchers are asked to produce—as an aid to reflection—narrative accounts of scenes from professional practice (Stacey & Griffin, 2005). These narratives, which they iteratively revisit, help hone their authors’ ear for what might be actually taking place in their professional or creative milieus: they help bring to the surface liminal shifts that might have gone unnoticed, when the scenes were taking place ‘live’. As a supervisor, I am typically asked to read such accounts, and to sound out some of the lines of inquiry that researchers might be picking up in those scenes—asking what it is their attention is already attuning to, even before they are able to articulate it fully.

This work—of ‘attuning’ to what is already moving in a field of practice—is meant to act as a springboard for these researcher-practitioners subsequently to engage other fellow practitioners in their field. This, in order to explore with them what collaborative interventions might be initiated, in response to the ‘movements’ in the field, which they have brought others to notice. Still, even this description misses something. Most of the time, what one is a ‘practitioner’ of is itself an open question that haunts practitioners. What is their ‘milieu’? Who are they really speaking to/with/alongside? The conversations into which one begins to speak are, in fact, less like well-demarcated silos, and more like trails that are not yet on the map—they need to be walked first to figure out where they lead.

At regular intervals, the research group I belong to also meets in person. On those occasions, the work of attuning to what is afoot in a field of joint activity occurs—not in writing, but—through ‘live’ conversation, i.e. conversation that’s not steered by an agenda of topics. These conversations, much like it occurs in everyday experience, simply pick up somewhere. Long stretches of silence punctuate moments of indecision as to where we might go next. This is a brief description of one such moment, when a beginning is appearing, but isn’t quite there yet.

The echo of the opening bell becomes ever more faint, radiating outwards to a twenty-strong group of adults, sitting facing one another. No table stands between us. I am reluctant to say ‘sitting in a circle’, even though that’s where we are. An engulfing silence hangs over this moment, of searching for a beginning. How to open? Who will open? Is this the way to make space for the uncertain beginnings of a joint exploration through conversation?

Later that day, a researcher approaches me, telling me she felt drawn to leave at this point.

These experiments in ‘live’ conversation are brimming with irresolution. I want to draw attention to the researcher’s recognition of a desire to leave such a space. Inhabiting a space of irresolution can become a stretch, and one of the possible moves is precisely to ‘leave it’. Could it be that, if we search our experience of undertaking social research, it is you and I who occasionally play the part of the researcher that wants to leave? How often do we fail to acknowledge the uncertainty of beginnings, and depart from the silence of irresolution towards something with more ‘form’?

One way of avoiding the awkwardness of beginnings, argues John Shotter (2014a), is to begin ‘after the fact’ (p. 527). This presupposes the fiction of a structured, continuous narration, such that a sequence that’s been pieced together ex post is taken instead for a description of how things actually happened, erasing the contingency, rupture, indecision of uncertain steps into a world under formation. This means being fooled by the introductions we write after finishing our papers, the beginnings of which are often more confusing, full of loose ends in the bramble bush of our entangled intuitions.

How does the pursuit of social inquiry look, once we refrain from leaving the silent irresolution of beginnings? What, or who, do we meet if we stay? And how do we establish contact with the ‘others and othernesses’ (Shotter, 2005a, p. 106) we stumble upon? The sections to follow do not provide a conclusive answer to these questions. They merely populate a tentative heuristics of the gap; where theories stand lightly as conjectures, methods begin in experiments, and understandings reveal a pedigree of creative mis-takes. This, I argue, is the beginning of an approach to qualitative social inquiry that stays with the silent irresolution of beginnings, walking with the anxiety evoked by listening for what might be actually present, without exactly knowing who, or what, is addressing us (Lipari, 2009).

2. Akroatic attunement

Trevor sat quietly for most of our morning session of ‘live’ conversation, holding his own amidst the ebb and flow of silences and responses in the group. At one point, I notice him rising in his seat and taking in a quick breath, as if to speak. Someone else interrupts the silence with a comment, and anticipates him by a fraction. The conversational exploration moves to a different landscape. So Trevor remains silent, and lapses back into a pensive, meditative stance. After the group session ends, I stay in my seat, and so does Trevor, as people leave their chairs to go for coffee. Our eyes meet, and I ask him what he was about to share in that fleeting moment of presence. Trevor draws my attention to the landscape that could be seen, if one gazed outwards at the panorama facing our circle of chairs. He mentions he would've wanted to draw everyone’s attention to the hill he had noticed. The hill—he says—rises below a larger boulder, which he refers to as the ‘mountain’. He would've wanted to point our attention to that. I inwardly wonder: is he being too literal with an association of ideas (the hill/the mountain) that would, if taken as metaphors, reveal something of his experience in the circle of conversation? I invite him to explore some of the potentials of this 'sighting', taken as metaphor. How did it come about that he picked up precisely those features of the environment around us? What might have been like the ‘hill’, or the ‘mountain’, in our morning conversation? Does that image perhaps afford a new insight into his own inquiry? Trevor doesn’t seem to take me up—or at least I don’t understand how he’s responding to my suggestions. His interest and enthusiasm remain with the hill in front of the mountain. He just adds that the hill is where we are. The mountain, that, we can’t see.

I left this exchange with a sense of frustration. As I attempted to retrace it in my own notes later that evening, this episode displayed an unwavering recalcitrance to yielding some kind of narrative that could be carried through to a conclusion. Was the conversation between Trevor and me just ‘random noise’? Drawing on a lifetime of work in the sociology of deviance, Howard Becker (1998) observes that the hypothesis of ‘irrelevance’—in fact—erases whole openings for inquiry, which arise precisely in the form of events that don’t yield so easily to being explained. While ‘people often explain conduct they don’t like or don’t understand by saying that it is crazy’ (p. 24), still ‘things that look crazy or erratic or capricious might make sense, if you knew more about them’ (p. 25). Pursuing articulation too forcibly, as though joint action could be traced back to a closed set of already-formed scripts, is a form of silencing—it removes one from the uncertainties of the task of ‘listening others to speech’ (Lipari, 2014, p. 220).

What if that scene, in all its strangeness, actually discloses something? Indeed, what Trevor said struck me, and it struck me all the more because of its reluctance to be thematised into a research question. I did hear something in his speaking—however inarticulate I might remain about the nature of my interest—that invited a response. Lipari (2014) brings to notice the possibility that ‘we respond before we interpret and have meaning and signification, that’s where we are living all the time’ (p. 186). Shotter (2004) suggested a name for this phenomenon, when our attention begins orienting to features of our surroundings, as though being called by them, despite our inability to give reasons, or even consciously to register that this might be happening to us—he called it ‘the spontaneous, expressive responsiveness of our bodies to events in our surroundings’ (p. 453).

What, then, might have occurred in the speaking between Trevor and me? A partial entry point into this question jumped at me, as I read Lipari’s suggestion ‘to clear a space in which we can tolerate the painful ambiguities of not understanding or knowing and, in turn, of being misunderstood (Lipari, 2014, p. 140). This work of making room opens a ‘dwelling space to receive the alterity of the other and let it resonate’ (p. 198). So, perhaps, our conversation reveals just one such possibility for dwelling in a space where Trevor, the mountain, and I might sit, incommensurably, together. Not quite knowing how to go on. Social inquiry begins like this, unassumingly: as one is spontaneously drawn to a strange ‘other/otherness’ that calls out from one’s surroundings. This work of ‘dwelling’ with presences, until we can become more finely discerning of their callings, Lipari (2014) calls ‘akroasis’ (p. 27). By this, she refers to the listening that we are, in fact, always already engaged in as we orient towards what is ‘vibrating us’, without initially knowing what its call might hold.2 It’s a kind of listening that’s closer to what spontaneously happens with music.

Perhaps, the mountain’s invisibility becomes visible precisely through Trevor’s literal loyalty to the landscape he saw: without budging into metaphor, without yielding a research ‘topic’. Not that morning. Not yet. That morning, the hill sat in front of the mountain. It sat. In front of it—the mountain we can’t see.

3. Mis-taking, on the way to articulation

Selwyn enjoys working with wood: she finds it a rich metaphor for her organisational work in the field of social enterprise. Through the writings of Tim Ingold, she comes into contact with an evocative language that helps her re-enter her practice with a different orientation, one that attunes her to previously overlooked aspects of it. One morning, she brings a sentence from ‘The textility of making’ (Ingold, 2010): ‘a skilled practitioner follows the grain of the world’s becoming and bends it to his/her evolving purpose’—this is what I hear Selwyn read out. Trevor, too, has developed an interest in Ingold’s writings. Later that day, he also quotes in group discussion what he thinks is the same fragment: ‘a skilled practitioner follows the grain of the world’s becoming and bends to its evolving purpose’. The original quotation by Tim Ingold actually read as follows: ‘Practitioners … are wanderers, wayfarers, whose skill lies in their ability to find the grain of the world's becoming and to follow its course while bending it to their evolving purpose’ (p. 92). Selwyn’s rendition—as I heard it—omitted ‘to find the grain’, whereas Trevor turned ‘to their evolving purpose’ (the practitioners’) in ‘to its evolving purpose’ (of the world’s becoming). Someone draws attention to the discrepancy in their (mis-)quotations. I find the misquotations bring to the surface qualities I sense in their respective styles of work: Selwyn somewhat readier to bend (at the risk of foregoing ‘finding’ the grain), and Trevor more inclined to follow (at the risk of losing his own ‘evolving purpose’).

If an utterance is heard as a response to what is already calling out from one’s surroundings, then—on some level—every utterance bears a trace of the particular features the speaker has picked up on, and which he/she might be attempting to bring to notice through his/her speaking. The value of an utterance lies less in conformity to an acceptable manner of saying or picture of reality—in this scene: Ingold’s original quote—and more in its being disclosive of the unique situation from which it arises. This is what Shotter suggests, when he advises to pay attention to the ‘intonational contours’ (Shotter, 2009, p. 28) of any utterance: ‘utterances can also—in their style—manifest aspects of the circumstances in which they might at first have been uttered’ (p. 29). Utterances reveal something of the milieu from which they issued forth.

In this sense, one might say that following through the ‘vestigial ramifications’ of language into the lived worlds of its speakers—including by noticing deviations from forms of accepted speech or from faithful re-presentation—is a way of investigating the possibilities sensed by those speakers in the worlds they inhabit. In the scene described above, misquoting reveals important differences in Trevor’s and Selwyn’s respective curiosities. Each of their (mis-)readings simultaneously amounts to ‘editing’ and ‘co-authoring’ Ingold’s ‘quote’, so that it speaks from and to their circumstances. In Selwyn’s case, deviation from Ingold perhaps helps her articulate a curiosity around what it means to act with/against the grain of a situation. In Trevor’s case, the mistake might amplify his curiosity around how situations might be heard on their own terms. The moment of departure from Ingold’s quote provides an occasion through which features of Selwyn’s and Trevor’s experience can become more visible to either of them, precisely through the diverging lines of exploration that each mistake opens up.

In a study of the style by which Finnegans Wake was composed, Conley (2003) suggests Joyce consciously embraced mistake as a creative register—a ‘portal of discovery’ (Conley, 2003, p. 43) in its own right. To take error as a creative possibility, as Joyce does, implies that what seems mistaken on first reading might actually offer an oblique revelation. Hence, listening demands of the listener to take any apparent ‘mistakes’ seriously, as potentially disclosive of something that’s present, and of which the mistake offers a faint glimpse. In the context of social inquiry, this suggests attuning to discrepancies between a speaker’s stated intentions (what one is able to say one is consciously minding in a situation) and the features of his/her surroundings to which his/her utterances might actually be responding—as they ‘inadvertently’ surface in his/her speech.

This introduces a follow-up point: attuning to the slow stumbling that punctuates the way to articulation does not simply equate ‘remaining silent’. The expressive possibilities of an utterance are activated whenever they are explored ‘improvisationally’, by trial and error, as in the following scene.

In the course of a supervision meeting, Carolina—a researcher—begins describing her collaboration with a colleague in setting up a town market. Her narration dwells on a discussion she had with her colleague, deciding how to charge a 'fair price' for organic vegetables. The difference of opinion between them, around the best way to discover this ‘fair price’, became so deep as to result in the breakdown of collaboration. Carolina pauses after telling her version of the story. Martin—a colleague in supervision—picks up the term 'fair price', and addresses Carolina with a sentence in which he probes further the possibilities implicit in such an expression. From a matter concerning vegetables, Martin tentatively stretches its range to the ‘stakes’ of a relationship: ‘what is the fair price of a relationship?’—he asks. Martin’s improvised re-use of Carolina’s term is met with a pregnant silence, as though everyone is now ‘rolling’ this expression on their tongue, developing a feel for what it might disclose. Is this revealing a new opening in Carolina’s account? What if Carolina’s interest in telling this story had less to do with the pricing of vegetables, and more with the disappointment of experiencing a collapse in collaboration?

Martin’s intervention helped me see how one way that listening might also occur is through being ‘suggestive’—tinkering with images picked up from another’s speech, to see whether they disclose anything further. In turn, this challenges the apparent rift between listening and speaking, suggesting instead how ‘[e]very speaking is at the same time a listening, and every listening a speaking’ (Lipari, 2014, p. 159).

Nachmanovitch (2019), a musician and researcher into improvisation, offers one additional image to tease out this improvisational, trial-and-error process through which communication takes hold,3 so that moving together becomes possible for a short while. He uses evocative language to depict the process whereby musicians in a jam session explore possibilities for joint action, in between the riffs and silences of their instruments:

Fishing for pitches, testing out rhythms and tone colours, in a rapid series of trials and errors. With intense mutual listening, we find each other; then we’ve established a place from which we can explore many possible relationships: amplifying, challenging, simplifying, elaborating, calling and answering, resting in silence’ (p. 139).

Out of metaphor, this quote seems to confirm how we don’t, therefore, just listen to another’s speech. Rather, we listen others to speech (Lipari, 2014). Speaking only moves towards articulation through listening that actively probes what is heard—any tracks uncovered even ‘inadvertently and ‘by mistake’—to pursue openings for further articulation.

4. Gaps

To know entirely is impossible.
We attend better to parts to do
the always partial work
of swelling awareness,
approaching apprehension.
—Souffrant, 2017, p. 26

Lynne lives in a metropolis, where encounters with strangers aren’t always friendly. Her latest narrative describes one such encounter. She was having lunch with colleagues inside a café. The scene opens on an atmosphere of relaxed, convivial conversation. I notice an expectation growing in me, that she might begin relating some of the conversations she was holding with those colleagues. Instead, she turns to a sudden appearance. A woman’s commanding plea for money irrupts. I visualise Lynne looking in her purse for loose cash, alongside everyone else at the table. There’s this commanding presence. Lynne continues her narrative by tracing the reverberations that such encounter leaves in her. I hear a streak of guilt in the inward questioning the encounter triggers in her. Lynne has now reached the end of her narration. How could she take the woman’s plea so literally?—I ask myself. Lynne does not seem to acknowledge this concern. ‘I’m interested in what actually happened’—she says in response to a question.

Sometimes, we are taken by surprise. The moment in which surprise arises evokes a palette of emotions: from stupor, to fear, to guilt. It is too much to express in words, until a decision is made to begin somewhere, in order to explore what just happened. As I listened to Lynne’s narrative, I too moved out of startlement and towards an exploratory thread, so I could find my way in her scene. The abrupt change brought about by the beggar became more ‘manageable’ for me, once I begun approaching this scene as some kind of Levinasian ethical conundrum: what to do, when approached by a beggar? As a result, the scene narrated by Lynne became narrower, more centred. Still, I also noticed myself beginning to approach with faint impatience some of the details Lynne was adamant to stress. What did Lynne mean when she said she was interested in ‘what actually happened’? Can this scene be anything else than an illustration of the (ethical) concerns involved in making a move, when placed on the spot by another’s address?

In later conversation, however, Lynne clarified to me that the ethical questions I was hearing in her narrative were not what drew her to that scene. From what I understood, she was rather more interested in articulating the ‘phase transition’ a sudden appearance provokes. The swiftness of that change: from lunchtime chatter to people scrambling for their purses in nervous silence. Lynne was insisting on that grating moment of interruption, on the gap.

In her monograph, Plain Burned Things, literary critic Leah Souffrant (2017) draws attention to this simple fact that gaps and interruptions happen. Yet, she acknowledges that trying to bring gaps to articulation often results in language bursting at the seams—can language play a role in articulating what’s inarticulate, discontinuous, ruptured? What alternative might there be, to doing as I did when I first heard Lynne’s narrative—i.e. quickly narrowing an event down to a ‘problem’ of which it is meant to serve as an ‘illustration’? Is there some way not to domesticate gaps in service of smoothness, and of contemplating rupture through the rupture in our capacity of articulation?

Souffrant’s work is devoted entirely to grappling with this question. Looking at a variety of examples drawn from literature, cinema and visual art, she points to the underappreciated potential of sparseness— ‘unadorned and unelaborated vocabulary, direct statement, or pointing out ambiguities instead of resolving them’ (Souffrant, 2017, p. 20)—that leverages the simultaneous co-existence of the spoken alongside the unspoken. Far from meaning ‘nothing’, the unspoken becomes an essential passage of the movement towards articulation, which alone is able to make up the depth that the spoken cannot possibly achieve. It marks a space where language ends, yet something is found to be present precisely at the edge of language. Gaps, and silences, only apparently open onto ‘nothing’. Rather, as one remains with them, ‘many kinds of nothingness’ (Souffrant, 2017, p. 69) begin to appear. Different experiences of absence become available, based on how—and how far—language is able to venture, before falling off the cliff. This demands that the move towards articulation values language not only for what it can express, but also for what it can fail to express, for the gaps it is able to leave for unsayability and interruption.

In my encounter with Lynne’s scene, it was this gap I kept missing. In the urge to thematise, I blinded myself to the more ephemeral experience of being ‘thrown’, suddenly, in an unknown landscape—the commanding entrance of the beggar on Lynne’s café conversation. Souffrant’s words are incommensurably more evocative than any paraphrase here, in expressing how language accompanies experience through the interplay of speaking and silence. She also evokes how the price for approaching all that language can offer, both the word and its absence, entails a peculiar, uncomfortable self-consciousness: ‘The poetic does not say what is, but gives us space to experience something of the unsayable between what it says and the being that strives toward saying. It is a terrible thing to be so open. We all must know this vulnerability’ (p. 36).

Lynne’s scene also strikes another note. Namely, that social inquiry unfolds amidst the turbulent bubbling of contingency, as worlds sustained through communication hold for a while, and then scatter—in much the same way as conversation around the table can suddenly be silenced by the arrival of a new presence on the scene. In this sense, speech and silence help reveal the turbulence of the very lifeworlds that are sustained (and dropped) through the arising (and disruption) of communication.4 It is here that Finnegans Wake becomes an inspiration for social inquiry as craft—working on wood that doesn’t always yield. Through Joyce’s extraordinary endeavour of articulating beginnings that don’t quite get off to a start, endings that recirculate, and temporary islands of communication that do not quite build up to a plot, he forces a different way of paying attention (Conley, 2011). Less ‘pattern spotting’ (Shotter, 2014b), which forces the stability and continuity of a ‘plot’ on an unruly tangle of speech. In its stead, Joyce makes space for the skill of allowing oneself to be oriented by ‘other senses’—relying on the rhythm of speech, the sudden availability of possible associations, lateral steps into other idioms—in order to begin thinking of inquiry … obliquely.

In the buginning is the woid

—Joyce, 1939/1992, p. 378

5. Pursuing beginnings through to moments of accidental felicity

Joyce plays with words in the epigraph, blending ‘word’ (‘In the beginning was the Word’—John 1:1) and ‘void’ (McHugh, 2006). In the beginning, words struggle extricating themselves from the void, in the attempt to gesture towards ‘something’—to that which I sense and want to say—so that others might acknowledge it as well. I mean this literally: how often does speaking begin with a flat ‘uhm’ that marks the space of speaking, without ‘saying’ anything, yet? This is one of the forms the phenomenon of ‘glossolalia’ might take. Historian Michel de Certeau (1996) distinguishes with precision between different forms of this phenomenon, which he views as marking the transition from silence to speech. It’s speech in which articulation is not yet, or no more, and where silence is no more, or not yet. Glossolalia can be the humming I just described, which precedes a saying. Or it can amount to a deconstruction of ‘articulate speech … by playing with phonemes and/or deriding the spoken word’ (De Certeau, 1996, p. 32), like the words uttered by a Pentecostal worshipper reported by De Certeau: ‘O kwena kana maSe kana maSina ina kwena Sanana …’ (p. 29). These words ‘look like’ speech, minus full articulation. Glossolalia relates to other liminal phenomena, like stutter, that also mark the eruption of speech under ‘the incontrollable force of the body, where [language] is broken up, disfigured, amputated, interrupted, and perforated under the pressures of bodily experience in space and time’ (Spurr, 2011, p. 124). It brings into focus the beginnings and endings of speech.

It is therefore no surprise that glossolalia features prominently in Finnegans Wake, a work in which beginnings, endings, and returns are always already folded into each other (Škrabánek, 2002). Milesi (1996) notices how the ubiquitous presence of blurred speech—which includes glossolalia—has a particular effect on the reader: ‘

[A]s a child who gradually acquires a language, the reader finds his/her way through the musical ballet of words and sentences; hears, sees/understands, that is, invests them with stratified layers of reassuring meanings by reducing them to isolatable (recurrent) elements (p. 280).

In my understanding, Milesi is gesturing here towards an activity that Conley (2003) elsewhere describes as ‘finding contexts’ (p. 126). Let’s be careful here. In Conley’s view, contexts are always in the plural: ‘[w]hat we need is a circulating and varying range of contexts’ (p. 127). They are conjectures that we offer, in the attempt to take up the exploration of someone’s noticing. Their value is in how they help further joint understanding—how they help hone an ‘organ of perception’ to hear one another, in such a way that a world can provisionally be sustained in the unfolding of communication.

Perhaps, it helps to clarify what ‘finding contexts’ is not, or not just. I own a copy of Finnegans Wake: A plot summary (Gordon, 1986), a book suggesting that Finnegans Wake has a plot, and that the author has ‘discovered’ it. This way of supplying a context reduces the possibilities of language, down to simple representation of an already formed world. If Finnegans Wake has a plot, why, then, did Joyce take all the trouble of writing as he did? Was he just proposing a riddle—with a solution—for the reader to solve? What more is there to Finnegans Wake, than a plot? The work of ‘finding contexts’ I am talking about is more complex than that. I own Gordon’s monograph, not because I think he has ‘cracked’ the Wake, but because I wonder what difference it makes to hear the Wake through Gordon’s ears. This caveat marks the difference between ‘a project of assimilating and regulating what is difficult and unorthodox’ (Conley, 2003, p. 126), versus listening others to speech on the way to articulation. To the suggestion ‘is this what you are trying to say?’ the original speaker may answer ‘yes’, or ‘no’, and will usually proceed further to qualify that ‘yes’ or ‘no’. As he/she does so, he/she is offered an opportunity to articulate further the discriminative sense by which he/she picked up on something in his/her surroundings, and was moved to ‘say’ it. In the process of ‘finding contexts’, both speaker and listener are transformed, since their communication begins to sustain a world that wasn’t already formed prior to their speaking/listening. Its features begin to appear instead through the communicative event taking place in-between their entwined speaking and listening.

This, I think Shotter would agree, is what theory does, in social inquiry. Only superficially is theory a description of how things ‘are’. In trying to open a path with theory, one quickly realises it is really just an educated way of stumbling. The deeper purpose of theory seems to me to supply conjectures, so that it helps wade through the muttering of beginnings. Quoting Rorty (1999), Shotter (2015) expresses what I’ve just said by marking the difference between positing ‘truth’ as the goal of inquiry, as opposed to ‘making oneself at home’ in a communicatively sustained world, in such a way as to be able to explore it further. When we read Finnegans Wake, it becomes very difficult to miss the work one performs, as a reader, in bringing the text to life. This is what some amateur readers, like Cliett (2011, pp. 124–125), love about it. Conley describes the same process thus: ‘To read Finnegans Wake is to make mistakes, and to enjoy the Wake is to cherish what the mistakes reveal’ (p. 116). Finnegans Wake exemplifies a process of advancing through tentative, and often mistaken, conjectures about possible meanings. In so doing, however, it suggests a different image for what ‘making progress’ means in social inquiries: it becomes less a matter of getting things right by cracking a riddle, or of defending unassailable truth claims. Rather, it is more a question of being able to name how one has got somewhere, after his/her unique sequence of mis-takes.

Insights have an ironic way of dawning upon researchers. They don’t just follow suit, from the rolling out of methodological protocols. Articulation happens—in the course of listening for the spontaneous responses of participants in a scene, to what is already happening to them (albeit without them being able to name it yet). Seeing occurs. New features of a communicatively sustained world emerge. Beckman (2007) describes such moments—he is referring to what happens as one reads Finnegans Wake, but I am suggesting this holds in social inquiry more generally—as occasions for ‘accidental felicity’ (p. 5).

As we pursue our inquiries, always already compromised in the worlds we inquire into, I want to suggest with Lipari (2014) that the contribution of social science—as craft—becomes one of listening worlds to articulation. This involves moving through disorienting, messy passages, of which I have sought to offer a flavour in the previous sections: waiting through stuttering beginnings, pursuing mis-takes for what they manage to show, receiving the pregnant silences that meet one at a moment’s notice. It is rare to find accounts of social inquiry that do not expunge the very moments in which inquiry is actually taking place, i.e. when the question of ‘how to go on’ hasn’t already been resolved. Anything researchers experience can potentially be disclosive of possibilities for attuning further to the ‘presences’—whether named or as yet unnamed—that populate the scene in which they find themselves alongside others, and to which researchers are placed to respond, as much as any other participant.

If I am really arguing that findings happen, without the use of special ‘methods’, and that they do not lead to a special kind of knowledge, but simply feed into the articulation of a world that researchers are there to listen for, alongside everyone else … then what do researchers bring? What difference does it make to embark in social inquiry? My suggestion is that social inquiry involves becoming skilled in such work as I have exemplified above: supplying conjectures, pointing to moments when uncertainty surfaces, drawing attention to the dawning of silence, inquiring into mis-takes so that they don’t happen in vain. It involves, in other words, becoming skilled at listening others to speech, so that language can live up to its full transformative potential of sustaining worlds in which new openings and possibilities appear (Lipari, 2014). Viewed in this way, social inquiry is never a unilateral process (Montuori and Purser, 1995), and it cannot forego participation as a way of getting to know a world on its way to articulation. In the words of sociologist Danilo Dolci (2011):5

As long as the researcher advances his inquiry … whilst remaining essentially outside of the milieu he inquires into, he/she does not lift his prejudices. Emotional empathy is not enough if in one way or another …. he is unable to play an intimate part in what he pursues; and if he is unable to move another towards a subtle understanding of himself, towards the intimate discovery of what that person has never articulated with clarity. Participation, abstruse and delicate, is science and poetry. (pp. 46–47)

Dolci drives home one last point. Social inquiry does not begin in a void. Joyce’s ‘woid’ is testament to the fact that it’s never true that there is ‘nothing’ happening, no word brewing in the void. Shotter (2005) was adamant in stressing participants’ always-ongoing background activity of orienting themselves—spontaneously, as it were— to the ‘presences’ that their bodies pick up. Shotter called this ‘spontaneous responsiveness’ (p. 137). The researcher’s craft becomes one of following those ‘spontaneous responses’ through, amplifying their traces in speech and gesture, drawing out what is already afoot, but which participants sometimes have ‘never articulated with clarity’ (Dolci, 2011, p. 47). Whilst becoming more adept at undertaking these heuristic gestures, the researcher takes place as researcher.


In this paper, I have expanded on Shotter’s claim that social research as craft does not begin with theory, but in getting ‘stuck-in’ a milieu of participation where movement is always already happening. Alongside everyone else, researchers exercise skill in bringing to articulation the incipient shifts, which participants sense in the unspoken margins of their spontaneous experience.

In this sense, the researcher’s predicament is akin to that of someone eavesdropping in the midst of a scene that has already begun to take place, where the characters are becoming apparent as we go along. In such a situation, there is no libretto to read from, or plot to follow. Sections 1 to 4 have punctuated certain unresolved ‘moments’ occurring in the process of listening a world towards articulation. From waiting nervously before beginnings that sputter to a prolonged start; to ‘deviant’ speech that discloses features of reality the speaker has inadvertently picked up on; to listening for gaps and pauses—and the unsayable ‘presences’ they gesture towards. Undertaking social inquiry means cultivating the skill to engage with these moments, when they arise, in such a way as to approach them as openings, rather than as glossolalic ‘um’s’ and ‘ah’s’ simply to be expunged from scholarly accounts.

This raises questions I can only sketch here. If social inquiry becomes a craft of moving with informal currents of activity, in order to articulate novel possibilities for joint action, and if this work cannot be ‘normed’ but unfolds ‘obliquely’—then ‘evaluating’ social research always already involves becoming a co-researcher. That is: meeting in oneself a version of the difficulties and the impasses that transpire from what it is we are encountering in another’s account of what they are trying to inquire into. I would be interested in knowing how what I have just written reads to, say, research and project funders, ethics committee members, academic tenure boards or qualification panels, journal editors and peer reviewers. To some of the people, in other words, who are often called, in different capacities, to make decisions based on a picture of what research is meant to ‘look like’—a picture which this essay hopefully complicates. If, as Shotter suggested, the fulcrum of research does not reside in its truth claims, but rather in the ability to cultivate and seed capacities for wading through turbulent social worlds as they move towards—then away from, then again towards—some degree of coherence. Then, in that case, ‘listening to articulation’ offers the most reliable approach (as opposed to bureaucratic exercises with yes/no answers) for cultivating joint discernment, staying with social inquiry in its Wakean messiness.


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