Participatory Knowing: A Story-Centered Approach to Human Systems


  • Jack Petranker Center for Creative Inquiry


Learning III, explanation, inquiry, knowledge


The tendency of systems approaches to rely on and look for causal explanations creates problems for democratic practice. Causal analysis must generalize and thus assign fixed identities, which inevitably encourages viewing society in terms of competing interest groups whose conflicting goals move them inexorably toward conflict. A second problem with reliance on causality is the sheer complexity of causal analysis of complex social systems, which gives the expert analyst enjoys a claim to superior knowledge and de facto authority over community members. An alternative to causal analysis is to approach systems in ‘story-centered’ terms. Treating the story that the individual or collective ‘inhabits’ as the relevant system for analysis counters the anti-democratic tendencies identified above. Since stories—understood as such—are fluid and shifting, it becomes less natural to define individuals by their interests and identities; in turn, this encourages community participants to engage other community members as cohabitants rather than adversaries. And since story-inhabitants are better equipped than the expert to investigate the story within which they live and act, the authority of the expert is correspondingly reduced. Of the many levels at which story-centric analysis can proceed, a focus on the systemic nature of the environing story is especially appropriate to the needs of today’s complex and heterogeneous democracies. To engage the story at this level allows for honoring multiple stories in society without focusing exclusive at the level of story content, thus creating a foundation for dialog and shared inquiry even among those who inhabit widely varying story-worlds. The individual who learns to analyze the structures of her own story gains essential distance from her own forms of knowledge and commitment, making appreciation of the other more likely. Finally, since this approach encourages analysis of prereflective experience, it creates prospects for personal growth that can support higher levels of democratic functioning.

Author Biography

Jack Petranker, Center for Creative Inquiry

BA Stanford MA University of California JD Yale Law School



How to Cite

Petranker, J. (2006). Participatory Knowing: A Story-Centered Approach to Human Systems. Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2006, Sonoma, CA, USA. Retrieved from



Human Systems Inquiry