Conceptual Foundation For Understanding Power Differentials: Competing multiple realities get us trapped – Part I

How do you tell the difference between GM and Ford, as organizations?  There may not be that many differences, but somehow we know.  So, how do you tell the difference between different groups?  Implied in my question is the answer that groups have identity too, just like organizations and individuals.  Hence the cautionary principle for describing individuals applies also to groups:  We should take care not to describe groups in static terms, as if their assigned characters were part of their permanent being.  What do I mean?  Essentially, avoid using blanket labels.  For example, I certainly have acted inconsiderately in my life, but no one who knows me would describe me as inconsiderate.  Sometimes, I may be “passionate” about something, but I can’t be passionate all the time; that’d be exhausting.  The point is:  A significant portion of who we are is activated through interactions.  It’s all about relationships.  If we are going to try to understand group dynamics, we need to first recognize that it’s a fluid force created by actions and interactions.  This is not to say that the characteristics we use to describe groups are untrue, but we should use them with care.

something goofy

I subscribe to the notion of “socially constructed reality” where “reality” is created by our comparing meanings in the perceptions of the same social phenomenon.   I also take the point of multiple realities.  For example, to a child asking mom about a sidewalk juggling act, “what is that man doing?” the answer could be

“He’s juggling.”

“He’s having fun.”

“He’s performing.”

“He’s earning a living.”

“He’s concentrating.”

“He’s entertaining; he’s making people smile.” And so on.

Which version is real is beyond debate.  All versions are real, depending on where you are, how you see things, and what occupies your mind at the moment.

An employee coming in late to the office can have multiple possible reasons.  If it were caused by an accident, this might offer you a glimpse of how this employee handles stress (also depending on the severity of the accident), but if you also knew how this employee started the day, your understanding of his “lateness” would be deepened.

Every Reality is based on a unique position; two steps east or west and the whole picture will change.”  Durrell (1961)

If “reality” between two individuals can be shifting, imagine when two groups of several people interact with each other.  If one group responds to the other group in “highly suspicious and over-sensitive” manner, we may infer and characterize that group to be paranoid.  However, if we take two steps back and watch their interaction over time, we’d take note that the group that seems to be suspicious all the time (hypothetically) occupies a powerless position, therefore their “over-sensitivity” is a byproduct of the relationship; they would act rather differently with another group of an equally powerless position, or would assume a different aura when interacting with another group only slightly more powerful.

Socially constructed reality and multiple realities do not preclude rationality, but add more to it.  As we don’t live our everyday life based on only scientific facts and statistics, we need “systems of thinking, feeling, intuiting, and knowing that can compensate for the severe limitations of rationality.”

Multiple realties don’t necessarily constitute conflicts or problems till each side insists on themselves being right, and the other wrong.  And then they tend to dig into their positions/realities.  A third group may see both sides partially right and partially wrong.  So now, not only do we have multiple realties, they often contradict each other.  Contradictions, too, do not necessarily have to be problematic till we make them so.  In the Eastern philosophy, contradiction is crucial in the understanding of the totality.  It’s about relationships, and it’s about system.

The insistence on “we are in the right” is what Smith terms “psychological prison,” which also has its built-in paradox.  “It often happens that the very forces that provide the encasement – the prison walls – also provide the structures that make us feel secure.”  So the grass is greener on the other side of the fence…till the fence is torn down, and we feel exposed and terrified, and find our digestive system incapable of handling the new grass.  We want to go back to the “good old days” where we might have been bored or stressed but we felt secure.

something pretty

Carl Jung captures the paradoxical nature of imprisonment and exposure well in his depiction of light and shadow:

It was night in some unknown place, and I was making a slow and painful headway against a mighty wind.  I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment.  Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me.  But at the same moment I was conscious, in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going regardless of all dangers.” 

The bearer of the light creates the shadow that haunts him yet he has to keep the light alive.  If the light goes out, it would not eliminate the shadow, in the bearer’s mind, rather the shadow will be fused with the darkness that would engulf the bearer.  If only the bearer could step outside this conundrum!  Smith puts it best: “The potency of the structural encasement is that the solution creates the problem that demands the solution – the bearer fears the dark, so he lights a candle, which creates a shadow which provides for the bearer the justification for fearing the dark and needing a light.

What are embedded in these contradictions, or paradoxes, are three key elements:  thesis, the anti-thesis, and the binding force of these two.  The thesis defines what it is; the anti-thesis counters it or destroys it by stating what it is not, and the binding one that helps define the whole (where all three reside), by mediating between the other two.  Assign people to these three elements, and we have (1) the group with the power to define what(ever) it is, (2) the group that has no control over what it is, but can gain power by destroying what it is, and finally, (3) the group with mediating power to keep the opposing groups together by diffusing their tension and conflict.  Oh, the mediating/middle group has its own set of paradoxes to deal with; you’ll see.

If the opposing two groups were not connected, there would be no need for the third group.  So, in essence, you will always detect three types/groups of power sources in any system, and it is the mediating group that keeps the contradiction (between the other two), in the contradictory state.

That’s enough for today.  One more entry or two yet on conceptual work before we use stories to elucidate how each group functions vis a vis the others.  But it’ll be two weeks before I get to it.  Next week is the annual family skiing trip…swoosh!  Be back on 3/11.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

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