Using Language and Stories in Participatory Community Network Mapping | Part 4 of an Interview with Aldo de Moor

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”

Angela Carter

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Language is power

Language is key in mapping. It’s so important.

Language is a bit like the air we breathe. . . the water the proverbial fish swims in. It’s so integral to our human existence, we tend to take it for granted. But language cuts both ways. Within homogeneous groups, it helps us bond and come ever closer together. But across differences and divides - at best language makes us work harder. At worst, it separates and fragments us. It separates and fragments in direct proportion to how ignorantly (or 'innocently’) we use it - how little care and effort at understanding we give to it. We can only afford to be careless with language when we’re dominant and don’t care about or need the marginal (which ought to be never).

So - if - as we argued in the previous post - maps have power, the language used in maps is a huge factor in determining who and what that power serves. If language is the means by which we humans emancipate but also how we dominate, then we have to constantly ask ourselves, whose language are we using? Whose power is being supported by this language? What norms are being promoted and which are being ignored or driven underground? In what ways can this language be more liberating? How can we align the language, the maps, and the inherent power in both, with our overall intent?

A lot of the organizational change methodologies often use very abstract constructs that make sense when you read the books and when you are a consultant, or a researcher, or a policy maker. But the moment you start to create participatory methodologies – and that’s what this mapping process really is about - participatory community network mapping – then those alien languages often don’t make any sense to the people affected. Like, you could work with people, let’s say, on the ground, and you talk about stakeholders and processes or whatever and [the language of those abstract methodologies] doesn’t mean anything to them. They’re not used to that. But if you talk about which organizations are involved or what people are involved, that can make sense. Or, for example, they may have a very particular language to describe activities. Activities may be called activities in one community and actions in another community. And those seemingly similar terms may have very different meanings.

If your map-making process and your maps are fraught with meaningless or mixed-message language, mapping can’t serve the sensemaking purpose we introduced this series with.

So, I think key already to make it work is that you spend enough time in using exactly the right types of elements and types of connections that you want to tease out of the community. And if they don’t exactly match the development needs of that community, you may get a map but it doesn’t mean anything to them. It’s not related to their day-to-day work and how it can change their work.

This also begs that question of - whose language? We can’t just assume that the first language applied is the only language to consider, or the best for the project - we have to dig further.

It’s also important to have common languages. If you don’t have common languages you don’t have an “interlingua”. That means that you can have misunderstandings easily. Because you map things in different ways and terms may mean something very different in one community from another. Or, vice versa, something that is named very differently in both communities, may actually refer to the same thing in reality. So, you have to pay a lot of attention and do cross-communal sense-making of what do our terms actually mean.

In Aldo’s hands, the process of inter-communal sensemaking is baked into the process of mapping from the beginning.

Does The Language Open Up or Close Down Thinking?

An important way language dominates or liberates is by its power to open up or close down creative thinking. When doing participatory mapping, make sure to attend to whether the language inspires and opens to new thinking, or whether it locks in on predetermined specifics, constraining instead of generating new possibilities for communication and collaboration.

Aldo gives the example of “goals” versus “themes””:

It’s part of our organizational life to think in terms of objectives and goals – and the natural thing to do, then, is to map those and to build your activities around it. What I find is that focusing on goals in sensemaking often inhibits the out-of-the-box thinking; it closes the way the network uses its combined creativity of its members to find new ways of working, new directions to move into, because you’re basically revolving around existing “official” goals that have resources, that have organizational structures, that have power structures, decision-making processes of the long-term around them, and they close off movement; they prevent flow.

So, I find using the concept of themes to be more promising. What are the kinds of themes that we, as an organization, community, or network are really working on and towards? Themes are much more open, much more generative and they’re making people think in the direction of movement that is much more productive because themes are the common ground. They are not so much “politically polluted”, in a way, so they help to think outside the box because around a theme like climate change you can all work on, say, “low carbon” in your own way. And it’s a very different thing from this officially stated goal to reduce carbon emissions by such and such an amount because that’s very politically laden. Instead, by working on those open-ended themes, it helps to create a much more dynamic flow and diverse opportunities for future collaboration there.

Instead of focusing too much on goals from the outset, start working more on themes first. Then, of course, you can start to compare that with the goals that are already there and maybe the goals that need to be set and so on. It’s more like what we call field-building for addressing wicked problems. So, it’s really developing a field - the multi-disciplinary research, and open-ended practices around these themes - again that allows you to see, many more potentials for collaborating.

Aldo feels that attending to how language opens and closes potentials for collaboration also can help advance the process of social innovation:

We’re still stuck in that level three (3) [see diagram above] rather than reaching all the way to level six (6). That’s why I think the themes are so important because they try to explore that conceptual space that’s beyond individual projects.

Sharing Stories to Catalyze Sensemaking

We know that ‘scaling’ a solution is not a matter of cookie-cutter replication. There are no one-size-fits-all formulas for change in complex systems. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other’s experiences - what works in one context may not fit perfectly anywhere else, but it MAY contain useful patterns that can inform another context.

Sharing experiences in our maps through stories gives that potential learning space to breathe and spread and morph into new ideas. When people in different contexts can see themselves in the stories, that also stops some of the ‘leakage’ in systems change projects that Aldo talked about in in Part 2 of our interview series.

One of the powerful things, that’s also what maps are good about, especially the participatory maps that live on the web. It’s the stories that come out of the mapping project. We know of course that storytelling is very important to inspire participation. However, it is especially the boundary spanning across communities – stories that capture the essence of an activity or an interaction in a community but may also mean a lot in a totally different context: maybe the people who live and work in that other context, see very different things in that story from the people who told the story. The problem is those stories never reach another community or never cross the boundaries. So what if you connect those stories on the map?


You could say that the map elements and their connections are the backbone of systems dynamics, forming “community collaboration patterns” that trigger sensemaking. Those patterns are the essence of collaboration but, often they’re quite abstract. The stories make them come alive. So, make sure when you map, you add stories to those maps because they capture the real world out there and then you can start to see if that story is maybe going to trigger sensemaking around another part of the map that may be far away in “collaboration space” . You could use a story to span the boundary between two regions of the map - like a wormhole  - and then, once you have that story, and people are interested in that story, then you can use it to have participants look at the elements and connections on the other side of the map: okay, what stakeholders are involved? What activities are involved? Are there, maybe, related themes that those people have a lot of connections with?

Kumu gives us the ability to add narrative and cultural artifacts to maps - like photos and drawings. Aldo points out how that can add a rich layer of possibility to your project.

Next Up:

In my next post about my conversations with Aldo, we’ll talk about the process of Participatory Community Network Mapping. And then my final post of this series will address considerations to keep in mind when creating a community network map in a participatory way...

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