Making social worlds better: Grammars of action in traditions of practice

“This is about roots. This is where the development and the growth get their energy from. The roots grow into the ground. They grow through different layers of earth to get to the nutrition. They get their energy from the ground, the earth. They have to go through these layers, and by doing that, they reach the water and they feed the growth of the whole.”

Sterre van Middendorp, reflecting on her painting Sharing Structures.

See: https://ingroove.net/sharing-structures

In this post, Sergej van Middendorp discusses the article, “Making social worlds better: Grammars of action in traditions of practice,” that he retrieved from the W. B. Pearce Archives. It was a controversial article, and Sergej raises some provocative possibilities from it.

I have been thinking about a theme for this post for quite a while. Initially I searched the archives for articles on dialogue. I read Bohm’s On Dialogue and was having conversations with Kim Pearce and others about CMM’s take on dialogue (which I was learning was informed by Bohm’s thinking, but resonates more strongly with Buber’s relational take on dialogue). I was also trying to create stronger links between various theories, research, and practices to increase the force of the projects we are engaged in with the Institute and other like-minded organizations. I chose this particular article because it seems to integrate several of these perspectives and levels of context in one piece. I was also struck by Barnett’s note on the manuscript, which says:

Never published. I sent it to prominent practitioners of each of the practices included and got a surprisingly consistent response: “You’ve got all the others just right, but you’ve missed the subtlety and nuances of my practice”. (Pearce, 2002, p.1)


The piece itself

The piece starts with an outline of some of the great challenges facing human beings on earth as we enter the 21st century. Many of these challenges are still present today. In describing the challenges, Barnett set them in the context of practices that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, where professionals could be hired to methodically support “therapy, consultation, organizational development, small group leadership, and large group facilitation” to address such problems. Early on in the piece, Barnett identifies himself as “a person with one foot in each of the worlds of scholarship and practice”, wanting to understand what he is doing in these different contexts. Specifically, he wants to be able to compare and contrast different practices through the development of a common language, or a grammar. The idea is that such a grammar might help us better understand and compare these practices, which in turn might make them more effective for improving the social worlds in which they are enacted. The intent of the paper is to start the process of developing and applying such a comparative language. The paper is structured around four types of situations in which specific practices can be used to improve the situation. The table below outlines the situations and ways of working in which specific practices can be used.

Situation Way of working
Coordination problems Working systemically, working appreciatively
Intractable/moral conflict Working dialogically
Bargaining Interest based negotiation; Problem-solving; mediation; Transformational mediation; Deliberation
Critical incident Crisis management

Table 1: reproduced from Pearce 2002, Figure 1: Situations and ways of working Barnett goes on to describe each combination of situation and ways of working by offering some examples and “keys to recognition”, before explaining the way of working itself with illustrative practices followed by a case study of each practice. The specific practices discussed in the piece are drawn from a) the Milan School of Family Therapy for working systemically, b) Appreciative Inquiry for working appreciatively, and c) the dialogic work based on Buber and Rogers as practiced with CMM in the Public Dialogue Consortium for working dialogically. Barnett’s subtle humor percolates through his descriptions and can be seen, for example, in the key to recognizing coordination problems:

  • “There is a disconnect between the patterns of social interaction the person, family, group, or organization espouse as their ideal and those that they actually produce when they interact with each other.
  • The group names one or more of their members as “the problem” and mobilizes considerable efforts to “fix” him/her/them.
  • The group is surprised when doing more or less of the same thing does not change the pattern.”

In the second part of the paper, Barnett builds on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of grammar as “a knowing how to act” in a situation as a way of understanding that situation. Barnett also draws on Kenneth Burke’s notion of a grammar of motives to sketch his approach to analyzing the grammar of action in the practices. He uses CMM as the underlying structure in making comparisons and contrasts, thereby shifting the language away from the analogy between grammar (rules/logics) and sentence structure (grammatical parts) to an analogy between grammar (rules/logics) and communicative actions (context/forces/actions). The minimal structure that emerges from this consists of:

  • purpose
  • narrative structure
  • routinized operations
  • ways of acting

Barnett then proceeds to apply this minimal structure in an analysis of the three example practices of family therapy, appreciative inquiry, and public dialogue. The similarities that come from the analysis between the practices are:

  • an emphasis on form of communication
  • a belief that the way of communication creates the social world
  • a motive to make those social worlds better using the practice
  • a commitment to develop practice for making better social worlds

In the conclusion, Barnett revisits the question: is it worth trying to elicit this grammar of practice if leading edge practitioners will always be ‘further ahead’ than any description and/or analysis? He says he thinks it is worth it. Such a grammar and the practice of such a grammar can enhance our ability to act into specific situations with discernment, thus not only improving our specific practice but also improving our ability to act across practices.

Reflections on the piece

Ironically, the attempt at creating and applying a first version of this grammar seems to have reflected back on Barnett through the reactions of the practitioners. Barnett himself reflects that he probably didn’t ‘get’ the case studies of the practices wrong, but that no newly developing language can capture from one single case what an expert practitioner knows from a wealth of experience. Being a grammar in a Wittgensteinian or Burkean sense means it is a “knowing how to act in it”1, applied by leading edge practitioners, mostly without an articulation of that grammar-in-action as a grammar. In other words, they know “how to go on” but it can be more intuitive than articulated.

In my reading of the piece, Barnett uses CMM to suggest the building blocks for a comparative analysis of structures across practices. Along similar lines, I have noted the pattern “CMM and […] “ emerging in our language in the CMM community over the past few years. (ie CMM and Global Social Witnessing, CMM and Family Therapy, CMM and Embodied Practice, etcetera). I now realize that until recently, I read these comparisons as “Practice” and “Practice”. In other words, CMM as a practice would be complimentary to the other practice mentioned. This piece has opened my eyes to another relationship that CMM can have to an “and”: that is, Grammar and Practice. In this sense, CMM offers a way of seeing and the minimal logic language to articulate it, while the “…and practice” is the enactment of a specific type of practice.

CMM applied in this way, compares to a form of musical notation for practices that can help their practitioners create (better) social worlds. Musical traditions of practice existed (well) before musical notation, but musical notation took the practice of music to a whole different level. Similarly, understanding the grammar of CMM as a grammar of context, forces, and actions can take ways of working, and practices in therapy, consultation, organizational development, small group leadership, and large group facilitation to a whole different level. Not only in the practice or way of working itself, but possibly also as a shared language across such practices and ways of working, helping us to improve our ways of working together globally and inter-professionally to address some of the deep and difficult problems facing human-beings and our earth.

But before we take this metaphor for a grammar of action further into our traditions of practice, I think it is important to revisit one possible meaning of the shift Barnett made earlier: from the metaphor of grammar as building blocks of sentence structure to the metaphor of grammar as forces/contexts/actions for coordinating the management of meaning. This, to me, is analogous to the shift from using musical notation to prescribe a classical music performance to using musical notation to create minimal structures for jazz improvisation.

Jazz songs are minimal structures that suggest chord progressions on a scale for a known melody and in a certain style. Jazz musicians share these structures so that when they start playing together, they are free to “listen to one another, anticipate and adjust to one another. This is what allows them to maximize independence and flexibility in their enactments.” (Barrett & Peplowski, 1998, p. 559). When we enacted that pattern of improvisation in our workshops with a jazz band in Jazzinbusiness2, we would ask the audience-participants to call out different styles in which we should play Summertime.

Whatever style the audience-participants threw at us, be it reggae, R&B, dance, or hard rock, it would only take a few seconds of coordination within the band to change the song to fit that style, and the band would get going again.

From this jazz improvisation perspective, it would seem that having such shared structures, or a grammar of action, as proposed by Barnett has some real merit. This shared structure would allow practitioners from different ways of working to better work together, and to switch practical mode when coordination problems shift into moral conflict, bargaining, or a critical incident.

Further development of this take on CMM might lead to a communication perspective ‘Real Book’, analogous to the book that holds the jazz standards3. Or to a communication perspective pattern language, similar to the pattern language that Christopher Alexander created to describe ways in which to make the physical environment come to life (Alexander, 1979). It could use CMM as a grammar of action to describe ways of working and practices in a visual language, annotated with hints at how to play with the forces and contexts that are part of the pattern that can be enacted using that page, allowing the players of the pattern to help a communicative groove come to life large enough to broaden, and deepen, their shared understanding of the situation that they are trying to make better together.

1 In an editorial comment on this piece, Robyn Penman shared that: “the one thing I[and Barnett] didn’t pursue was the concept of “knowing how to go on’. “ She wanted to consider changing this “knowing how to go on” to the idea of “knowing from”—part of the 3 fold distinction John Shotter used (knowing that, how and from) also one analogous to that of Aristotle’s, to Gadamer’s understanding of moral knowledge and, she believes, to Wittgenstein. But, as she said “I think that might have got the review onto another track altogether.” This is something we might pursue further in a follow-up review.

2 Jazzinbusiness was a (participatory) action research project and a workshop experience with a live jazzband that helped people in organizations to experience the inner workings of jazz improvisation and to apply those to problems in collaboration, knowledge sharing, and innovation. For an impression, see: https://vimeo.com/11625911

3 See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_Book


Alexander, C. (1979). The timeless way of building. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, F. J., & Peplowski, K. (1998). Minimal structures within a song: An analysis of “All of Me.” Organization Science, 9(5), 558–560.

Pearce, W. B. (2002). Making social worlds better: Grammars of action in traditions of practice. Unpublished paper retrieved from http://digitalarchives.fitchburgstate.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15892coll12/id/1096/rec/1

On the internet, I found a slightly different iteration of the same paper on: https://www.newconversations.net/pdf/makingworlds.pdf This appears on a site by Dennis Rivers, one of the friends Barnett quotes early on in the paper.

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