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A shared narrative of the past

By Dave Snowden  ·  September 2, 2014  ·  Narrative

I've been thinking through narrative approaches to conflict management and peace and reconciliation over the past few weeks.  its been an area of interest for some time, but a potential client triggered me into articulating some of the solutions that Cognitive Edge methods and SenseMaker® can achieve.   So I plan to post them over the next couple of days.  This post is all about moving to re-describe the past, before you can move people onto a new future.

The way we describe our history is of key importance in determining what future possibilities we are open to.   When human beings describe the past within an existing climate of conflict (whatever the intent) particular interpretations and token events have major significance and can prevent change.  The way we describe the past also filters what we take account of in the present.

So one use of SenseMaker® is to focus on capturing the histories, and alternative histories of both parties at a micro-narrative level on both ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ timelines.  This can be done through a range of methods (all of which can be used at the same time for other interventions described in this document).  They include getting children from both parties to interview people in their parents and grandparents generation to gather what they consider.  Access to the system is via iOS or Android devices either extant in the field or distributed to respondents.  This means that material can be captured whenever and wherever without worry about network connectivity.  Early results can be achieved within weeks and the system can be left in place for continuous capture thereafter.

After a new weeks (and then continuously) we plot narrative landscapes to identify what is in common and what is different between the communities, and as critically the various sub-communities and factions.  Each landscape can contain many thousands of micro-narratives gathered.  At any stage anyone with access to the system can click on the model and see the narratives that provide that point or pattern.  The narrative thus acts as an explanation for a statistical result. We are looking for common patterns across the two landscapes.  Areas of major difference and areas where there is common insight and understanding.  This allows us to start our interventions from what is in common, rather than creating idealistic future states.

By reducing the granularity of historical stories we allow a more sophisticated form of intervention, showing small differences and larger commonalities or there but for the grace of God went I stories.   This can be illustrated by the conflict in Northern Ireland where many Catholics could easily have joined the Provisional IRA at the height of the conflict for what, within that community would have been regarded as valid and ethical motives.   To recognise that rather than take the stance of labelling people as criminal or non-criminal we change the nature of discourse and the perception of history.   Even in less traumatic circumstances, until we can tell a different story about the past we can't imagine a new future