“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
Language is power
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?
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.
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.
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””:
Aldo feels that attending to how language opens and closes potentials for collaboration also can help advance the process of social innovation:
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.
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.
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…
This post is a continuation of a series focussed on the work of Aldo de Moor. Previous posts in this series can be found here: