Contextual Reflexivity

In 1989 and 1990 the basic structures for producing networked events were not clear at all. I assume that this is why the notion of contextual reflexivity resonates with my experiences, and those of many people, during the GHP and the 0+Ball. We had to discover what to do and how to do it while actually doing it. We were thinking actors the whole time. We had to decide what we thought would be good to do and how this could be best accomplished given the constraints we experienced.

With us as thinking actors the relationship between what would be good to do and how to do it became one conversation. How to do something and what would be good to do are closely related terrains of inquiry, as Jeannette Pols also discovered (Pols 2006). Pols conducted an impressive study in which she followed nurses in a psychiatric hospital during their daily washing practice. New accounting procedures wanted to 'streamline' the actions of the nurses when washing the patients. She found that the nurses actually had a deep understanding of what they were doing as long as they had time to discuss what was happening; in these conversations the different practices and the implicit knowledge came to the surface. She calls this process of structured conversation for understanding and adapting a practice 'contextual reflexivity'.

"Studying values and other types of practical orderings avoids the light-hearted 'taking of sides' by specific parties in the field (for instance 'the patients' or 'the nurses'). But showing different practices of 'good care' and tacit knowledge also challenges these same practices. To realize that there is not one form of good care, but that there are different conflicting ones that each have good and bad effects, invites critical self-reflection. Instead of the suspicion built in accounting procedures 'from the outside', involved descriptions are made from the analytical position that caregivers aim to 'give good care' and 'know' what they are doing, however much one might disagree with the specific aims or effects. article 496 This is a way of putting contextual reflexivity into practice by telling stories to involved insiders as well as involving outsiders. Outsiders and insiders are both challenged to think for themselves and to become involved. Practice is not justified as good but is opened up to show tragic situations as well as best practices. Wins and losses can be compared and weighed; different ways of thinking can be mobilized to imagine alternatives. This might be an interesting way to help professionals and patients striving for something as complex as good care." (Pols 2006, 427).

Any practice has its internal contradictions and contradictory perceptions of what is good and bad. Even with a practice such as doing the dishes there is a huge variety of approaches for how to do them, opinions of when they have been done well, and emotional responses as to whether it is pleasant to do them or not. The confrontation between these visions and experiences provokes debates that can result in the adaptation of a practice. In the different organizations and companies that I have worked with, this 'contextual reflexivity' is organized in different ways. Some organizations use the knowledge of the people who do the work, others do not.

In my own experience the best practice of contextual reflexivity I encountered was in Paradiso. For over 30 years the routine has existed that every Tuesday morning production values and experiences are evaluated and every Wednesday morning programme issues are discussed. Issues of how to sell tickets, how to organize the wardrobe, how to change technical infrastructure within a few hours, are standard matters of debate. And in the programme meeting, lengthy conversations would result with the intention to try and hook up with a new group of people. And doing this would take time and demand new manners of working Ñ manners of hospitality, manners of production, manners of technical infrastructure, and manners of how to communicate and to market Ñ this will also be discussed. People wonder how an organization like Paradiso can remain up front and on the edge for so many years, how they can continually find new undergrounds and new issues. How can one nurture such sensitivity? How can one build upon it? In my experience it is the process of structural conversation that is responsible. A conversation that is challenged by inviting new people to join and to interact and to routinely search for 'blind spots' that have been created.

As an actor one is usually involved in work processes where the expertise of others is as vital as one's own for the achievement of success. In the case of the nurses of J.Pols, the success in the washing practice depended on their way of executing the task, how managers evaluated this, how doctors conceived of the congruence between their diagnosis and the practice as it was executed, but also on the work of the cleaners, the plumbers, the laundry service, the architectural design of the hospital, the cultural idea of 'cleanliness' and how often one has to clean, as perceived by all of the actors involved. None of this is a problem on a practical level, as long as people share values and perform their tasks as was agreed previously. The moment that serious flaws occur though (a strike, no water, budget cuts, the invention of 'new soap'É) then the whole chain is called into question. And everyone within it has to start reconsidering their own role and the role of others. It is the practical consequence of the division of labour that is presented as a natural process. In fact it is based on agreements and assumptions and often a shared culture. If these are not formulated and reinforced, there is no collaboration. Also, conversations about what is good practice and what is bad practice lead to no result in such situations.

This is an important issue to tackle when gathering in natural presence. A group of people has to share 'common ground' to be able to collaborate. This can be a perspective, the 3D point in the 2D network, it can be a shared morality, or a shared need to accomplish a task. When communicating in mediated presence a shared framework becomes even more important for interactions to make sense. This is why many networks meet In Real Life and this is also why a trusted context makes a difference. When people are in need of processes of contextual reflexivity, in which the 'How' also refers to 'What is good?', they need to meet in natural presence. From 1989 and 1990 till today I have found that mediated communication merely facilitates an exchange of opinions and mostly confirms connections in communication, which is a very different dynamic from 'thinking' together. Best practices may be exchanged as information and inspiration. However, when innovating and when involved in shared learning processes of contextual reflexivity in certain practice's, and/or needs, an ethical perspective on the work to be carried out is indispensable and this hardly takes place via mediated presence alone. The exchange of trustworthiness and the embodied gathered ethics are necessary in such processes. Natural presence permits careful communication, which is indispensable in moments of contextual reflexivity.