In my previos blog, I told you that in postmodern research there is room for more ‘voices’ to construct reality. I saw the comments of some of you, that you did not understand how that works… So, in this blog I am going to tell you something about polyvocality.

Story telling
A way to make ourselves intelligible to each other is by a narrative or story telling (Gergen, 1999). According to Gergen narratives or stories give us a sense of order and direction and bring into sharp focus issues of meaning. Moreover, according to Barry and Elmes (1997:430) narrativity emphasizes the simultaneous presence of multiple, interlinked realities, and is thus well positioned for capturing diversity and complexity present at a situation.

Referring to Boje; a story is an oral or written performance involving two or more people interpreting past or anticipated experience (Boje, 1995:1000). This definition shows that not only we as humans can tell stories, but that organisations can tell stories about themselves as well. Stories about heroes or victories and stories full of symbols. Boje (1995:1000) defines storytelling organizations as ‘collective storytelling system in which the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense-making and a means to allow them to supplement individual memories with institutional memory’. These organisations are constantly struggling with the stories inside the organization and outside the organization. Boje tells us that at one extreme organizations can tell ‘one grand story’ whereby they subordinate everyone and collapse everything in it. At the other extreme, the organization can have many different stories (a pluralistic construction) realized differently depending upon the stories in which one is participating (Boje, 1995:1000).

That weird, isn’t it? I always thought that there was just one story, or that there was not even a story at all. But now I realize that there can be many stories in just one organization… I think you need to balance between them, but how you do that in practices, that is something I did not know yet!

It is because of these multiple stories and realities that polyvocality comes in. The term polyphony suggests the idea of many voices (Barry and Elmes, 1997:444) as you can see on this website for example. However, in postmodern texts it is used for the authors position in the text. In a polyphonic text there is more space for a dialogical text rather than a modern mono-logical text. According to Barry and Elmes (1997:444) different logics can not only coexist in a polyphonic text, but can also inform an shape one another.

You may wonder what this exactly means for the text? Well, it can result in a text with more than one story teller and in which more than one story teller interact with each other during the performance of the story. This can not only happen in academic texts, but also in literature this polyvocality can be seen. A great example is the work The brothers Karamazov from Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky mostly gives his view on life by using a narrator, but the other characters often contest his view (Barry and Elmes, 1997:444).

Do these stories then result in one conclusion? Not necessarily, as it could be that there is more than one conclusion in the end. These conclusions are equivalent towards each other and exist at the same time. According to postmodern researchers, having this multiple conclusions creates a better understanding of reality and leads to more power-neutral research. This is because the author has a certain degree of power by choosing which stories he does tell and which stories he does not tell (Rhodes and Brown, 2005). Therefore, by showing all the different stories, none of the stories are excluded and therefore the author does not impose the only story he believes to represent reality in the  best manner.

A brilliant example of this is the play Tamara in Disneyland. You have this places with multiple rooms and during the play you walk into different rooms. The actors also go into different rooms, so you have to choose which one of them you are going to follow. Because you follow different actors that the rest of the audience, you get a different story then they do. So, everyone went to Tamara, but everyone comes out of it with a different story line and they are all true!

Sounds cool hé! I never thought about this creating reality together, but I think this is very valuable. It seems like their is room for every opinion, instead of that only the best or the most common opinion is presented as the truth. I think that in this way, your research presents the reality much better.

Oh and for who is interested in it, here is a small video of The brothers Karamazov. I have seen the play in the city theather of Rotterdam last year, but perhaps you could read the book or see the movie!

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3 Responses to Polyvocality

  1. Lily says:

    HI Robin. I am a second year bachelor student in organisational science, and I have a question about this. So, suppose that there are multiple stories, who then assures me that a postmodern researcher will tell all the stories that are there and not just select two that fit him better? Moreover, how could a researcher ever know if he has an overview of all the stories that are there? It seems to me that you keep writing stories and never cover all the stories there are in a organisation

    • Arthur says:

      Interesting point Lily, but I think you sort of miss the point here. I am also a second year bachelor student who studies in Utrecht and I just had a course on postmodern inquiry as well. The point is that with postmodern inquiry you don’t need to be sure to tell all the stories, because you assume there is a infinite number of stories to be told. Instead you leave room for different stories and assume that none of them is more true than the others. Moreover, you do not think that at the end there are no more stories to be told. Basically, the amount of stories and voices is infinite because they are created by the fact that you interact with the subjects of research and tell a certain story about that experience. At least that is what I think it means, considering all that this blog has told me about postmodernism. Right Robin?

      • Robin says:

        Yeah, that is true arthur.
        @Lilly: you should read the blog I wrote about power (Power of a Researcher). You do not choose the stories that fit you the best, but you give room for multiple stories, instead of choosing one ‘true’ storie. And that leads you to the role and power a researcher has.

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