“Let us envision, then, a process of relational flow in which there is both continuous movement toward constraint, on the one hand, and an openness to the evolution of meaning on the other” (Gergen, 2009, p.46).
“What we traditionally view as ‘independent’ elements – the man with the bat, the bags, the men in the field – are not truly independent. They are all mutually defining… Alone they would [all] be virtually without meaning. It is when we bring all these elements into a mutually defining relationship that we can speak about ‘playing baseball’. Let us then speak of the baseball game as a confluence, a form of life in this case that is constituted by an array of mutually defining ‘entities’” (Gergen, 2009, p.54).
Introduction: On the way toward Relational Being
Our basic way of being in the world, it seems to me (and to Ken Gergen too), is to be constantly in motion, we live continuously in the midst of change. The image – of our living our lives while embedded in the turbulent flow of a number of intermingling activities – has clearly been in the (sometimes acknowledged, and sometimes unacknowledged) background to Ken Gergen’s thinking for really quite some time. Long ago, in his paper, Social Psychology as History (Gergen,1973), for instance, he noted that: “Unlike the natural sciences, [social psychology] deals with facts that are largely nonrepeatable and which fluctuate markedly over time. Principles of human interaction cannot be readily developed over time because the facts on which they are based do not remain stable” (p.310). Indeed, in the introduction to a volume collecting his early works together (Gergen, 1993), he commented: “The vast body of psychological theory to which my [early] studies were directed seemed strangely alien – mechanical, lifeless and all too coherent. Most problematic was the romance with fixedness, with a view of human action as reliably determined by a relatively fixed set of internal dispositions, mechanisms or structures… [Whereas] I was struck with the degree to which my own actions were embedded within local and ever-changing contexts” (pp.xi-xii).
In other words, Ken took it then, as he has done so off and on ever since, that, ontologically, the very nature of the realities within which we live our lives and have our identities are of an unstable and continually changeable nature. If there are any stabilities within them, they are of a dynamic kind, like the eddies and vortices occurring within a ceaseless flow of intermingling activities If this is so, then quite what the task of an academic psychology can be – if it cannot be that of discovering the already fixed inner mechanisms determining our behaviour – becomes something of a puzzle to us. What can it teach us that we don’t already know?
In The Saturated Self (1991), a later but what we can now see as an interim book, the puzzle intensified. For in it, he noted with concern that: “With the multiplication of relationships also comes a transformation in the social capacities of the individual… A multiphrenic condition emerges in which one swims in ever-shifting, concatenating, and contentious currents of being” (1991, pp.79-80). In other words, it has now, seemingly, become impossible for us to join up all our lived experiences into an integrated, harmonious, bounded whole – as in E.C. Escher’s drawings, every attempt leaves us with an unbridgeable gap and a strange feeling that there is ‘a something more’ that always eludes our grasp: “The argument is not that our descriptions of the self are objectively shaky, but that the very attempt to render accurate understanding is itself bankrupt… Whatever we are is beyond telling” (1991, p.82). Thus he ends this book by leaving the multiphrenic self with the task of encouraging forms of dialogue that “breakdown existing structures of language and enable disparate discourses to commingle” (1991, p.257).
In Relational Being (Gergen, 2009) he calms down. We can, it seems, write and talk in relation to our own human activities from within our performing of them in a worthwhile way. The phrenetic tone of critique and bewilderment in the midst of complexity in the previous book gives way to the articulation of new ways to ‘go on’: “I do not intend this work as an exercise in theory,” he says. “I am not interested in creating a work fit only for academic consumption… The concept of relational being should ultimately gain its meaning from our [everyday] ways of going on together” (p.xv, my emphasis). For, as he now sees it, we not only can live with the incompleteness, its still-forming nature, we do in fact live within its ‘not yet finished’ nature every day without too much trouble. Indeed, the more we can become engaged, immersed in the flow, the more we can feel ‘in touch’, feel that we are ‘where the action is’; we can even come to feel ‘at home’ within the still emerging incompleteness. And the concept of relational being is itself, as he himself notes, a still open and still unfinished concept that – like a living as opposed to a dead metaphor – gains its meaning from its use in a particular circumstance, and will continue to gain its meaning in terms of its future uses.
Thus, as he suggested in his History paper, rather than seeking theories that could be ‘put into practice’ with the aim of the “prediction and control of behavior… what the field can and should provide is research informing the inquirer of a number of possible occurrences, thus expanding his sensitivities and readying him for more rapid accommodation to environmental change” (p.317, my emphasis). To this end he offers the “concept of relational being” as what I will call a descriptive concept (see Shotter, 2009), a concept which can function in Wittgenstein’s (1953) sense as a “reminder” (no.127), which can work to draw our attention to specific events and features occurring around us in the background that might be of possible importance that would otherwise pass us by unnoticed.
And this, of course, is his original starting point – from within his own embedding in turbulent situations and the impasse of the alien fixedness of psychology’s implicit ontological assumptions – but he now relates himself to it with a quite different orientation and a very different set of questions. As T.S. Eliot (1944) put it in Little Gidding: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time” – and evidently, Ken is no longer seeking the clear answers to theory driven questions required by professional academic psychologists. Indeed, he now goes so far as to suggest: “Let us suspend the quest for conclusive answers to such questions as ‘What is relationship’, ‘what are its basic components’, or ‘How does it function?’ Let us avoid the temptation of clarity. ‘To know that…’ is the end of the conversation, and when conversation is terminated so is the genesis of meaning. And, if there is no ‘final understanding’ about relationship, then we may welcome all attempts to articulate its character” (p.374).
Indeed, here Ken is echoing Wittgenstein’s (1965) remark that such questions of the type: What is…X…?, often “produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we can’t point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something. (We are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it)” (p.1). In other words, we are in the grip of a tendency that is inherent in the very substance-oriented nature of all Western languages – their primary use of nouns – a tendency that makes them ill-disposed to describing those realities primarily characterized by continuity, process, and becoming, and which continually (mis?)lead us into thinking that what is new for us must, simply, be made from what is already in existence. Whereas, as we shall see, each new relationship, each new meeting gives rise, as Garfinkel (1967) puts it, to “another first time” (p.9), and thus to a need to arrive at yet another uniquely new understanding of what actually is going on between us (and the rest of our surroundings) as in fact a socially crafted achievement (2009, p.103).
Thus, what is novel for us really is a novel creation, an emergent, something uniquely new that has never existed before and not just a re-arranging of already existing entities. Thus, instead of patterns and repetitions, we must become oriented in our inquiries toward uniqueness, toward the noticing and describing of singularities.
But this is not the only radical change that our being immersed in an “ongoing confluence of relating” (2009, p.304) demands of us; we now need to explore what our thinking must be like if it has to take place in a ‘fluid space’, a space in which there are no fixed and finished ‘things’ in terms of which to conduct it, but only strands of flowing movement within already flowing surroundings, with occasional dynamic stabilities here and there, dependent for their nature upon their relational embedding within the larger flow of activity constituting our overall surroundings. It is the importance of our relational embedding in our surroundings that, I think, is entirely new in Ken’s recent work – it implies a necessary unity, the inseparability of all that we pick out for study in our inquiries from its already existing (dynamic) relations to its surroundings; to repeat, what traditionally we have viewed as ‘independent’ elements are not truly independent (2009, p.54).
The ‘always already there’ ontology in Ken’s work: relational flow
I have begun this short article in this way for two reasons: (1) One is to take Ken to task for, to my mind, a misleading but often quoted comment he made about ontology in his 1994 book, Realities and Relationships; (2) the other is to bring to light both other very important observations and comments he now makes as a consequence, as I see it, of having begun to take a much more explicit ontological turn in his approach to social constructionism, along with similar observations and comments from a number of other writers. For, as Ken suggests and I concur wholly, we now have the chance – with many, many others thinking and working along the same lines – of moving into a New Enlightenment (2009, p.403), a new stance toward the original aim of the (mid-18th century) Enlightenment, that of being able to make use of our own intelligence and capacities for collaborative inquiry to better the conditions of our own lives and our living of them together.
From language as a system unto itself to flowing language entwined activities and practices
I want first to put Ken’s past attitude toward ontological issues in context: Perhaps central amongst the many transitions in the recent past and still taking place today, is a deeply changed attitude toward language use. As I see it, two major influences have been and still are at work here, both concerned to turn us away from the simple idea that ‘words stand for things’, i.e., that our main use of language is to tell others about aspects of an already existing reality: (1) The structuralist and post-structuralist tradition which began with Ferdinand de Saussure (1911/1950) and culminated with Derrida (1976), but continued in America with, among many others, Stanley Fish (1980), is a tradition within which language is treated as “a system unto itself” (Gergen, 1991, p.107); but there is also (2) a Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Merleau-Ponty (and many others) tradition within which language use, our speakings – that is, our linguistic utterances and expressions – are treated, not as entities in themselves, but as aspects of our spontaneously responsive (and thus expressive) living, bodily activities.
In 1991, in discussing the implications of Derrida’s (1977) claim, that there is nothing outside the text, Ken wrote that: “… language is a system unto itself. Words derive their capacity to create a seeming world of essences from the properties of the system. This system of language (or of sense-making) preexists the individual; it is ‘always already’ there, available for social usage… If it is sensible, it has already been said. The most one can do is to rearrange the sayables” (1991, p.107). I have never been quite sure whether Ken was himself espousing here, or merely expressing Derrida’s views, but when later in the same book, he claims, “…words are not mirrorlike reflections of reality, but expressions of group convention” (p.119), then clearly, that was his own view at that time. It leads to what I would call a linguistic version of social contructionism, a version with a central focus on our ways of talking – which, as I see it, still leaves us with the forming of linguistic representations (portrayals, descriptions) as the primary function of our talk. Only now, instead of taking it that our representations are caused in us by the reality around us, the direction of influence is reversed: what we take ‘our reality’ to be is formed for us by our linguistic representations of it. And it is this, it seems to me, that led Ken to write what has in fact become an infamous claim with respect to constructionism:
“… constructionism is ontologically mute. Whatever is, simply is. There is no foundational description to be made about an ‘out there’ as opposed to an ‘in here’, about experience or material. Once we attempt to articulate ‘what there is’, however, we enter the world of discourse… The adequacy of any word or arrangement of words to ‘capture reality as it is’ is a matter of local convention” (1994, pp.72-73).
In other words, what the world ‘is’ for a person is captured in “the local ways of talking used in coordinating relations among people within their environment” (1994, p.74) – but in saying this, he seems to be suggesting that ontology is wholly socially and locally produced and can be analysed as such. And while this has led to a performative focus in our research studies – a focus on (to make use of John Austin’s, 1962 title) how to do things with words – it has also justified the taking a retrospective attitude to our expressions, and to finding their meaning in their finished orderliness of their words, rather orienting us toward seeking an individual speaker’s unique meaning in the situated moment of his or her using them in their utterances.
What is lost in such analyses, is the living, bodily presence of those who are speaking, their gestures, their sensings of each other’s movements, their anticipations of each other’s attempts at expression, and their continual improvisation of alternatives when first attempts fail, and so on. But even more importantly, what is also lost is the necessary unity of the already existing dynamic, spatio-temporal relations, both within what we have picked out for study, as well as in its relations to its surroundings.
As Vygotsky (1987) remarks, the difference between what he calls the analysis of a whole into its separate “elements” and what he calls “unit analysis,” is that: “… the decomposition of the complex mental whole into its elements… [gives rise to] products [that] are of a different nature than the whole from which they are derived… Since it results in products that have lost the characteristics of the whole, this process is not a form of analysis in the true sense of the word. At any rate, it is not ‘analysis’ vis a vis the problem to which it was meant to be applied” (p.45, my emphases) – they are of a different character because, in ignoring the already inter-related nature of the aspects of the process under study, the internal, living relationships of the unified whole are replaced with external, mechanical relationships between heterogeneous processes. The ‘elements’ thus arrived at are of a different logical type from the ‘aspects’ of the process under study, as namable objective entities they lack their ‘relational’ nature. Nowhere is this loss of relationality more rife at the moment in what has come to be called narrative and discourse analysis (e.g., McLeod, 1997; Edwards and Potter, 1992). It has led to a focus on the meanings to found in already said patterns of recorded words, rather than on what speakers may have being trying to mean at the time in saying them – an approach to research inquiries that, yet again, puts the power of sense-making into the hands of academic experts and takes it out of the hands of ordinary people.
This use of ‘research methods’ to convert our ongoing experience into finished products – our experience of relationships, of meetings, gatherings, institutions, and other formations in which we are still actively involved into already formed wholes, rather than leaving them as still forming and formative processes – diverts our attention away, both from the ways in which individual people’s expressions continually deviate from our already existing background expectations, i.e., in their specific variability as Voloshinov (1984, p.69) puts it, and from the ways in which our understandings in practice work in terms of our anticipations as to what a speaker is trying to say to us. As Bakhtin (1981) puts it: “The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word; it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation of any living dialogue” (p.280).
So whither, then, ontology? Within a process of relational flow, in which there is both continuous movement toward constraint, and an openness to the evolution of meaning (2009, p.46), we find that, although we cannot ignore the already specified flowing nature of our activities and the constraints this places on us by their relational embedding in the flowing nature of their surroundings, the further possible specifications of their nature within these constraints still seems to be enormous.
Situations of confluence: relational responsibility
Actions are meaningful units within practices, and practices give (seemingly) individual actions their meaning. As Ken notes, without the game of baseball, there are just bats and balls and people milling around to no purpose. Within the bounded space of the game, hitting the ball out into the field somewhere leads to a ‘score’ with different meanings according to where and how the ball lands – while scoring is something one should try to do for the sake of the team. Star players can, as individuals, of course, forget all this and pursue personal glory, their own private self-interest; but if a star player forgets his or her team in the process, he or she may in the short term get rich, but in the long term the team, and then they themselves, will lose.
Indeed, this feature of all living expressions – of ‘pointing beyond themselves’, so to speak, to a larger situation within which they now, or will in the future, make sense, i.e., of them as having intentionality in being directed toward something beyond themselves – is an intrinsic aspect of all human action in its inseparable relational embedding in a larger flow of ongoing activity. Thus the meanings of our actions cannot be assessed in and of themselves; they ramify out into the whole context within which they take place. And as we can see in the baseball example above, there seems to be a morality at work here. Ken calls it a second-order morality (2009, pp.360-365), and along with his other concepts of relational being, relational flow, and confluence, I would now like to turn to an examination of what he calls relational responsibility – the “care for relationship” (p.365) that we might take on in our search for a New Enlightenment. But what, actually, does it involve?
Crucial to our understanding what is involved in relational responsibility is what Ken calls “partial performances” (p.79, p.106, p.141), performances that we can often perform in talk alone. We can do this because, as we have already seen, our verbal understandings work both in terms of our having a shared background of linguistic understandings with those to whom we are speaking, along with locally shared anticipations of what, to repeat, “has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.280). In other words, many of our utterances propose or ‘point’ toward possible realities within which they will have their sense in the future. Thus, as Ken remarks with respect to, say, a person claiming to be depressed: “No matter how many ways a person tells you he is depressed, and no matter how many relevant actions you take into account, you have nothing to go on outside a tradition of co-action. You may heap one interpretation upon another to draw a conclusion, but in the end you never move beyond the web of your own spinning” (p.69, my emphases).
While we might (as in much qualitative research in psychology at the moment) provide countless interpretations of what people’s words mean in their everyday practices, when considered outside of a tradition of co-action – or as Wittgenstein (1953) would put it, outside the boundaries of a “language-game” – what individual people actually mean by their use of words in the situation of their usage, their own unique meaning in using them, is passed by. But as Ken notes: “Their words are actions within a relationship, and in this sense, equivalent to the remainder of the body in motion – lips, eye movements, gestures, posture, and so on. The spoken language is but one component of a full social performance. Our words are notes within orchestrated patterns of action. Without the full coordination of words and action, relational life turns strange” (p.73) – it in fact ceases to be relational and becomes once again individualistic; or in Bakhtin’s (1981, 1986) terms, it ceases to be dialogical and becomes monlogical; or, in the terms set out above, such ‘up in the air’ words have their use only in a proposed world rather than in one on the way to being actualized.
For us truly to understand a person’s utterances in a practical manner, we must go beyond them as partial or preparatory performances and ask ourselves in what actual world could they be fully performed. In other words, our actions can only come fully to fruition within socially shared practices that can continue to be articulated and developed over time; to intend an action is to intend a practical world within which actions of that kind can be achieved – no corresponding world, no achievement.
This changed orientation toward the future rather than the past, changes how we judge the ‘goodness’ of people’s actions. In the past we have tried to judge them in terms of what we have called their ‘motives’, the state of mind said to be existing within them prior to their actions. But as C. Wright Mills (1940) suggested long ago (and which Ken has also long claimed): “The postulate underlying modern study of language is the simple one that we must approach linguistic behaviour, not by referring it to private states in individuals, but by observing its social function of co-ordinating diverse actions. Rather than expressing something which is prior and in the person, language is taken by other persons as an indicator of future actions” (p.904). And if this is the case, what we say are the reasons for our actions, and what in fact are the influences actually at work in ‘shaping’ them as we move forward with our lives are in fact two very different things – what we formulate and express in our ‘sayings’ are a small fraction these influences.
As we have already seen, although formed in the atmosphere of what has gone before, if our actions are to have their actually intended meaning, they are at the same time determined by what is in fact anticipated by those who will respond to what we say and do. Thus, to repeat, our actions have no meaning in and of themselves, only within an ongoing confluence of joint- or co-action can they begin to have a practical meaning, otherwise, they are simply empty rhetorical gestures toward a never-to-be-actualized future. Thus, if Ken is correct, and I think he is, it is not so much what we say are our motives that matter, as the ‘point’ of our actions, their ‘intention’, and how they can come together in a confluence with others to point toward the creation a practical world within which they can, in fact, have the meaning we intend (claim) them to have. What makes our simply talking of virtue so illusory – so much just empty rhetoric – is that there is no world, no interlocking set of practices into which its proposed actions could fit and have a ‘down on the ground of action’ influence in shaping or reshaping our practices.
Besides our talk of motives, Ken also is critical of our proclaiming our moral beliefs and values – “moralities are the problem,” he says (2009, p.358). What makes the propounding of moralities both useless and dangerous is their ‘local’ nature, their relation to ‘the way we talk of the things we do around here’, with each locale in competition with its neighbour as to the ‘overall goodness’ of it ‘values’. “It is in the multiplication of the good that we find,” says Ken, “the genesis of evil” (2009, p.358). What makes the proclaiming of one’s values so value-less is that, without also speaking of and beginning to act the practicalities of implementing a world into which one’s actions could both fit and have a significance in the lives of others, it is just so much talk. Propounding peace and love without committing oneself in some degree to the practical or institutional engagements required for their implementation – without, that is, taking on the relevant relational responsibility – is not at all to be virtuous, but to be dangerously deluded and (mis)leading.
In this connection, a remark of Foucault’s (1982) has long intrigued me: “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does” (pers comm, quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982, p.187). And clearly, as we must always act into an unknown future in our everyday affairs, this would seem a reasonable claim: we simply cannot take on the responsibility for the extensive ramifications of our actions out in the world at large – can we? Well, if Ken is right: Yes, we can!
For every claim to as to who we ‘are’ to ourselves needs to have two parts to it, not just one: (1) besides an account of our beliefs and values and why we believe them to be of importance; we also need (2) an account of the world in which it is possible for us to become whom we already believe ourselves to be. Applying this to the individualist tradition of which Ken is so critical, we find that individualists, in proposing that everything of importance to who they are, and want to become, can be found wholly within the individual person, propose a world in which, in fact, such a tradition, as such, must eventually collapse – for no one is taking responsibility for sustaining the background processes from out of which our moral values emerged in the first place. And indeed, we can now, perhaps, see how history has been driven by ill-formulated forms of life in which people’s proclaimed self-understandings – and the worldly practices they aim to participate in – fail to correspond. Many formations of the person and their world collapse because of a mismatch between the person’s self-conception and how that kind of self conceives of the larger world.
In other words, while at a superficial level, the terms within which they are formulated can each be ‘cashed out’, so to speak, in the everyday talk of the verbal community within which occur, at a deeper level, if they fail to take into account the already existing relational flow between all concerned within which these terms have their being, then, in the long term, in failing to establish a tradition of co-action within which they can be understood in practice, they will fail to give rise to what Ken calls a full social performance. Wittgenstein (1980) seems here to express something similar: “The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear./ The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life’s moulds. So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit into the mould, what is problematic will disappear” (p.27).
Conclusions: beyond our everyday talk to the ‘relational flow’ making it possible
Our everyday forms of talk are difficult to displace, as well as the tendency to work backwards from how we talk to what we feel reality ‘must be like’ for us to talk in the way that we do. As Wittgenstein (1980, I) remarks: “The facts of human history that throw light on our problem, are difficult for us to find out, for our talk passes them by, it is occupied with other things” (no.78) – very basically, we are interested in getting things done in an intelligible manner in our everyday practices, not at all in what makes their intelligibility possible. Thus in the past, we have succumbed to the temptation to think, simply, within the already existing categories of thought available to us in our own local circumstances. What Ken has done in Relational Being is to turn this approach around and to re-vision what, in the past, we have used as our taken-for-granted assumptions in our inquiries, as “relational achievements” (2009, p.91). Even the focal topic of psychology itself, the mind, “… is born within relationship. That we speak of an ‘inner world’ at all – an originary source of action within the head, a ‘cogitio’ lying behind language – is a relational achievement” (p.203). Such relational achievements must now be psychology’s focal topic of study.
In the past, we have likened ourselves to self-contained mechanisms, needing only an input of diffuse energy to keep our ‘cog wheels turning’, or our ‘binary digits’ being re-arranged. But now, seeing ourselves as living, growing, and developing bodies, in living, responsive contact with the others and othernesses in our surroundings, things are different. On a dimension running from plants to computers, we appear to be much nearer plants than computers.
Consider, say, an oak tree growing from an acorn: The acorn, as such, makes a negligible contribution to the material substance of the oak tree or to the energy needed to make it grow. The materials needed come from the air, water, and soil, while energy comes from the sun. These all move around in the acorn’s surroundings, clearly, in a not very organized manner. But as itself an open, living system able to ‘take in’ selected aspects of these materials, a ‘confluence’ within the acorn works to intertwine the streams of energized material flowing through it to produce a growing oak tree, that matures, produces acorns, dies, and eventually decays to return its material substances back into the unorganized flow of inanimate matter from whence it and they came.
Where, then, is the life of the oak tree? Is it in the tree itself ? No. It is in the unfolding relations of the tree to its surroundings. Similarly for us: we too live within the midst of a somewhat turbulent earth/water/air (wind) mix, as the recent spate of earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes has reminded us only too well. While it is still only too easy for us, in our ‘separatist’, Cartesian forms of thought, to think of ourselves as living in a world furnished with already-existing things – because, to repeat, they often “counterfeit immobility so well that we treat them as a thing rather than a process… the living being is a thoroughfare” (Bergson, 1911, pp.134-135). But if our living activity is truly determined by that which has not yet been achieved, but which is in fact anticipated (as at least possible) in the flow of already occurring events, then we must contemplate the possibility of a world that is still coming into being, a world within which the many different flowing strands of different activity intertwine, become entangled with each other, and then, sometimes, separate, a turbulent, not-yet-settled, dialogically-structured world, a world that is still-in-the-making.
As a result, the whole field of psychological inquiry must take on a new cast – especially if it is to take on the relational responsibility for the practical creation of worlds which sustain, rather than merely exploit, the relational flow within which the confluences responsible for their emergence occur. We must conduct our inquiries from within the midst of turbulent, flowing processes, within which the only stabilities available to us are – like the eddies and vortices that form in confluences in which two or more flowing processes meet together – dynamic stabilities dependent for their very existence upon their embedding within the continuous flow of relational activity in their surroundings.
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