Applied social construction and design thinking:
Implications for military contexts
Global (Cultural) Fluency
The Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama holds an annual conference for the purpose of bringing together academic scholars, practitioners, and organizational leaders to explore issues and initiatives to help prepare service members for success in diverse and uncertain situations. Dr. Susan Steen, a Board member of the CMM Institute, serves as the AFCLC Region Faculty Chair and Division Chief, and was a key member of the conference planning team. In alignment with this effort, the 2023 Language, Regional Expertise and Culture (LREC) Symposium was held November 13-17 to explore the theme of Integrated by Design, a future-facing model proposed by Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF) Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. This model offers a new paradigm for solving global challenges by more closely aligning and integrating partnerships between the United States Air Force and allies throughout the world. The design strategy is intended to align practices, policies, values, and technologies in order to create stronger alliances, shorten response times and allow partners to work more effectively together. The CMM community would recognize this approach as very much in keeping with the coordination element of cosmopolitan communication. The Air Force refers to this capacity as “global fluency,” and one goal of the annual conference is to increase knowledge among the force to help them to enact this concept operationally.
Integration by Design
The theme of the LREC conference of Integrated by Design appeared as an invitation to combine concepts of design thinking with the notion of cross-disciplinary integration—a strength of CMM theory. Dr. Barton Buechner, a member of the CMM Institute Board and a founding faculty member of the Adler University MA in Military Psychology Program, presented a workshop which merged insights and principles from several fields within a CMM-inspired framework.
The first of these concepts to be introduced was design thinking, defined by key characteristics of emergence (fluidity), pragmatism (usefulness) collaboration, complexity, and context-sensitivity. The question of what design principles might be relevant to the often-chaotic and unpredictable world of military operations also suggested the incorporation of quantum theory, which offers a more holistic view of the way the (modern) world operates than traditional mechanistic organizational thinking. This part of the presentation was also guided by recent work by Dr’s John and Susan Parrish-Sprowl, identifying implications of quantum theory for health communication. Their conceptual model of “communication-complex” draws on the notion that our socially constructed worlds are inherently non-linear, and that quantum theory concepts such as probabilities, relationality, and the “observer effect” (such as witnessing) are useful in understanding, and shaping, complex social phenomena.
Examples from research projects initiated by student veterans showed the relevance of the above concepts. These included a communication perspective of getting “stuck” (and then “unstuck”) in transition from the military service, after an episode containing a “morally injurious event” (MIE).
Co-construction as an act of inquiry
When looking at ways that partners from different cultures might learn to collaborate more effectively, the cosmopolitan communication model suggests that there is value in creating coherence whenever possible. At the beginning of any cross-cultural collaboration coherence is probably low and one way to build it relatively quickly is to engage in a shared form of inquiry. The potential for uncovering and changing harmful contextual triggers (including ‘unwanted repetitive patterns” or URPs) is heightened when the process of inquiry is intentionally collaborative, and when there is an explicit intention of applying the results immediately to produce better operational outcomes.
Insights from a recently-published book that integrates a social constructionist approach to participative research with concepts from design thinking (Camargo-Borges & McNamee, 2022) offer a useful frame for this form of collaborative inquiry. This text also masterfully incorporates ideas from Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987) as a way of shifting attention to both positive factors and cross-cultural meaning-making. Therefore, it was recommended to workshop participants as a practical source for further learning and application.
Facing future: The significance of participative research for military and veterans
It is well-established that there is something of a “military-civilian divide” in the United States, differentiating understanding and experience between those who have served their country in uniform, and those who have not. The military has in the past tended to rely on “experts” from outside the military in planning at the strategic levels, but have not always found ways to integrate these perspectives at the operational level. The significance of an integrative (multi-disciplinary) approach to co-inquiry within the military culture was articulated by Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian, a member of the AFCLC staff who presented her work in the same session. She pointed out that she was one of only a small number of cultural anthropologists in the entire Department of Defense, and yet intercultural expertise is increasingly necessary within the system. Unless her perspective (of intercultural competency) is embodied and carried on operationally through her teaching of military students, it is simply not available in the contexts (and at the critical moments) in which it can have a positive and meaningful impact.
One of the objectives of this workshop was to argue for a cultural approach, and offer some conceptual tools for doing so. Further, the perspective of considering MIE’s (and other setbacks) as opportunities for learning and growth rather than sources of pathology can help to build and reinforce a culture of resilience, with a literacy for collectively talking about difficult experiences in in community, and in a more a constructive and healing way. Participants in this discussion were challenged to think about ways to employ the interdisciplinary concepts of communication, social construction and design thinking from social science research to foster an organization-wide, future-looking culture of inclusive inquiry.
Moral injuries as a “learning edge”: The case of the US Afghanistan withdrawal
Not surprisingly, many military and veteran students have chosen to focus their inquiries on experiences that have been troubling to them, with the intention of finding ways to help prevent these in the future. These troubling experiences include morally injurious events (MIE’s), which may have been a part of their military experience. Rather than viewing the often troublesome aftermath of these experiences as individualized pathology, an integral approach offers the possibility for engaging them as collective learning and growth opportunities. One student who presented his work at this conference, Lt. Colonel Will Selber, chose the failures of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and constructive action taken by individual veterans in its aftermath to mitigate and assuage the betrayal of Afghan allies as an example. It is often accepted that there will be unintended consequences in war, but this should not prevent us from critically examining episodes of interaction—with both allies and adversaries—in which our most deeply-held values and beliefs are challenged or appear to be violated. Selber’s assessment of the Afghanistan situation reveals both complexity and a capacity of “yes/and” thinking that a CMM-informed approach would encompass. Selber acknowledged that the reasons the US began in operations in Afghanistan were valid, AND that the way we engaged was not culturally sensitive (“throwing money at the problem”), AND that the US could not remain in Afghanistan AND that the abrupt way we withdrew was a betrayal of our Afghan allies. Readers are invited to consider (As Barnett Pearce often did) an alternative scenario where other (higher) “levels of context” were more prominently considered in these actions along with the possibility of a co-constructed solution, based on collaborative inquiry between the US and its partners.
The issue of unintended consequences of the US involvement and withdrawal from Afghanistan is just one example of an operational “URP” that was rooted in using conventional Newtonian “cause and effect” thinking in a complex situation in which social and cultural differences were not adequately factored in at the operational level. Increasing cultural competency, informed by social construction and design thinking, is potentially “future forming” in the sense of tapping into latent desire for innovation and collaboration at the interpersonal level. Our workshop was intended to offer some practical tools for achieving this, by drawing on tools of research for co-constructing meaning and shared values in ways that are innovative and creative, power-balanced, and context-sensitive.
Bluvschtein, M. & Buechner, B. (Eds). (2023). Tyranny and wars: From tyrannical personality to mass tyranny—an Adlerian perspective. Journal of Individual Psychology (in press).
Buechner, B., Worrell-George, K., & Shienko, L. (2023) Getting “unstuck”: Transforming lived experiences of veterans in transition to civilian life. In Pinhasi-Vittorio, L. & Ben-Yosef, E. (Eds.). (2023). Using innovative literacies to develop leadership and agency: Inspiring transformation and hope. IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-6684-5614-9
Camargo-Borges, C. & McNamee, S. (2022) Design thinking & social construction: a practical guide to innovation in research. Amsterdam, Netherlands: BIS publishers.
Cooperrider, D. and Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In R. Woodman and W. Pasmore (Eds.), Research in organizational change and development, Vol. 1, pp. 129–169.
Parrish-Sprowl, J. & Parrish-Sprowl, S. (2023) A case for a quantum informed approach to health communication research. Frontiers in Communication, Vol. 8. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2023.1232616/full
Pearce, W. B. (2006) Doing research from the perspective of the coordinated management of meaning. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute. https://www.taosinstitute.net/files/Content/5692988/Overview_of_CMM_in_Research_version_2.0.pdf