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The difference between a sound argument and a good story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 21, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

I spent a couple of hours today tracking down some papers for a course I’m helping to teach at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on business narrative when I discovered this excellent paper by Tsoukas and Hatch called ‘Complex thinking, complex practice: The case for a narrative approach to organizational complexity’. I’m a bit of a fan of Hari Tsoukas’ work. Just read his paper on tacit knowledge to get an idea of what a great KM thinker he is. Anyway, there are a couple of paragraphs and a table that jumped out at me in this paper. The paper is based on two modes of thinking proposed by J. Bruner and goes on to say,

Bruner called the two modes of thought ‘logico-scientific’ (or paradigmatic) and ‘narrative’, arguing that:

the types of causality implied in the two modes are palpably different. The term then functions differently in the logical proposition ‘if x, then y’ and in the narrative recit ‘The king died, and then the queen died.’ One leads to a search for universal truth conditions, the other for likely particular connections between two events – mortal grief, suicide, foul play. (pp. 11–12)

To compare the two modes, Bruner claimed, is to understand the difference between a sound argument and a good story.

I’ve been working with engineers lately and I have been struggling to explain this whole issue of knowing the truth. Now I have some language to open the conversation up. This table elaborates this idea perfectly.

Bruner's-Two-Modes-of-Thoug

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Tsoukas, H. and M. J. Hatch (2001). “Complex thinking, complex practice: The case for a narrative approach to organizational complexity.” Human Relations 54(8): 979-1013.

Tsoukas, H. (2003). Do we really understand tacit knowledge? The Blackwell Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management. M. Easterby-Smith, M. A. Lysles and K. E. Weick, Blackwell Publishers.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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