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Participatory Narrative Inquiry: A methodology to understand complex systems and design interventions on multiple scales

Format: Workshops, RSD10, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Zlatina Tsvetkova

Learning Experience Designer at Digital Society School

This workshop intends to experiment with a new methodology called participatory narrative inquiry (PNI) and use it to support workshop participants in understanding tensions they experience in their context and projects. Since the PNI methodology is created not for research purposes but for designing interventions and transformations in complex systems, this workshop aims to experience how the methodology works. We will also consider how it can be applied in different contexts while using the participants’ stories to derive lessons and insights about dealing with tensions in complex systems.

The workshop is structured as a reflective dialogue. Participants will check-in, collect stories about dealing with tensions in complex systems and then interpret them through a participatory dialogue in small groups. The workshop concludes with summarising the collective insights and considering application back in the context of participants. This structure reflects the three main stages of PNI – story collection, sensemaking and return.

Participatory Narrative Inquiry

PNI is a methodology based on the work of Cynthia F. Kurtz, who recognised that communities and organisations are closely knit with their stories, and those can reveal a lot about the trends and patterns that emerge in particular contexts. She was inspired by participatory action research and how anthropology and sociology use stories to understand cultures better. She emphasises the importance of sensemaking as a participatory process. Unlike scientific approaches, PNI requires most of the collected stories to be interpreted by the community that experienced them and these interpretations to be used by the community itself.

This workshop discusses our experiences dealing with tensions in complex systems and what we can learn from them. The workshop process is an experience of a methodology that can be applied and experimented with in the participants’ systemic design projects.

We will deploy an online form for collecting stories by symposium participants regardless of joining the workshop or not. The more stories we share, the better. The form will be shared with all symposium participants in advance of the workshop, and they will be part of the workshop’s point of reference.

The PNI approach supports systemic transformation and complexity.

Workshop format

90 min | online | unlimited participants

Workshop Agenda: Participatory narrative inquiry

The story collection process is participatory and allows for a diversity of perspectives and representation of different stakeholders. The more stories are collected, the better understanding of the system, its patterns, and existing tensions.

The sensemaking process allows for breaks in scale within a PNI project – the stories are collected on an individual level. At the same time, sensemaking can be done on a group level and scaled up in multiple layers over time to reveal patterns and tendencies on different scales of the system.

The return part of the process is designed as an intervention and aims implementation back in the system. The lessons learned from the sensemaking are looped back into the original context by the participants to create change, prototype ideas, reframe the original stories and potentially ‘write a new ending’. This part of PNI makes it an intervention for systemic transformation rather than a research methodology.




Citation Data

Author(s): Zlatina Tsvetkova
Title: Participatory Narrative Inquiry: A methodology to understand complex systems and design interventions on multiple scales
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 10 September 2021
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