A key principle or practice for me as I work out how what to do within a particular piece of work, is the metaphor of diffraction.

In classic physics diffraction refers to a variety of effects that occur when a wave encounters an obstacle. It is also basic to life, as physical objects have wave-like properties at the atomic level. The best and simplest way of seeing diffraction is to observe ripples in a pond as they interact.

Recently several writers have used the metaphor to turn attention away from the idea of reflection, in which the visual image is one of mirroring, to a more complex image in which the key factor is the interaction of multiple ‘forces’, perhaps some weak and some strong, and the resulting effects.

Feminist academic Donna Haraway first drew attention to the usefulness of the metaphor of diffraction, referring to it as a “…mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of difference appear.” (Haraway 2004, p. 70)

In a recent article Keevers and Treleaven contrasted diffractive questions with the more typical reflective questions arguing that:

” … diffractive practices afford opportunities to attend to and critically evaluate the effects of differences, interferences and exclusions generated by an organization’s work. Diffraction is thereby a way of understanding the organization from within practice, accounting and taking responsibility for what becomes in organizational practices. What is particularly useful about diffraction is that it encourages practitioners to map the effects or consequences of their practices and interventions. Diffraction moves from identifying what was present and contained within an interaction to  analysing intra-actions as a process of producing differences.”

Reflective questions:  Diffractive questions: 
▪    What did we do?

▪    How did we do it?

▪    What would we do differently?

▪    What does this experience mean?

▪    How can we explain it?

▪       What are the effects or consequences of our interventions?

▪       What are the effects of differences generated by our practice?

▪       Where do these practices appear to be moving?

▪       When and what differed from the expected?

▪       If we were to do … what differences might our stakeholders notice?

▪       What impact might … have on the broader communities with/ in which we are entangled?

(Keevers and Treleaven, 2011. p. 509)

The metaphor speaks to me about what happens when various voices and ways of speaking and acting interact. It helps me to remember that what will be most significant in these interactions will be the effects, both positive and negative. Most importantly it reminds me that every interaction is simultaneously part of a pattern and utterly unique.

The principle or practice becomes for me then, a matter of seeking opportunities to:

  • Listen for and to multiple voices
  • Hear the soft voices as well as the loud and powerful
  • Actively finding and taking on alternative perspectives.
  • Observing the effects.
  • Illuminating the shade (and what’s in the shadows) as well as the light
  • Looking for what is unique in this interaction.

In my experience this helps people, who are in the midst of a particular situation, engage more fully with what is actually happening in that situation before the meaning of what is going on becomes subject to a single view. It also helps people work with the complexity of the situation more easily, without assuming that they have “got it”, thus allowing them to remain open and observant for longer.