Rendering Social Situations

– The Art of Portrayal – 


“ … to portray is to sketch a picture; it is an imaginal and qualitative activity. We look for the overall, unifying shape or movement, the coherent expression of a thing — and we may find this expression individualized in any part of the thing, just as we find something of the part permeating the whole. The character of the elephant’s leg is not radically separable from the character of its skull. We may be able to say a great deal about this character, and in doing so we necessarily try to be as precise as possible; but our effort is not reducible to the quest for such precision. On the other hand, explanation as a narrow and self-sufficient ideal leads us to analyze and divide, abstracting particular elements from the picture and isolating the simplest possible quantitative relationships between these elements so that we can say a simple “yes” or “no” to the correctness of our formulation of these relationships. Interpenetrating qualities and their transformations fall out of the picture. We avoid saying what anything is really like until we arrive at the “fundamental” level of explanation, but there we find that we can say little about what a subatomic particle is like, and therefore it can hardly tell us what anything else is like.

How do we learn what something is like? Not by straining to capture and nail down in some direct sense its “inner nature.” This leads to abstraction. Goethe labels such an attempt “fruitless,” but he also offers an alternative: “we labor in vain to describe a person’s character, but when we draw together his actions, his deeds, a picture of his character will emerge” (Goethe 1995, p. 158). This multifaceted portrait, actively entered into and sustained within our imagination, is our understanding — an explanation in the fullest sense of the word.”

Steve Talbott

Usually, we approach social change strategically. We try, somehow, to ‘manage’ change. We’re responding to a problem, a ‘situation’, a set of circumstances; something is not working as it should, or could, and this brings problems in its wake. We could be working with a small group of people – even a partnership, even our relationship with someone. Or we could be working on an organisational level, on a community level, on a societal level. We try to figure out what’s going on, we analyse the situation, we look for causes of problems, we look for explanations or reasons for the difficulties, we think of ways to counteract these – we look for solutions. We want to move beyond questions, to action. We feel a sense of discomfort with the situation, we operate from out of a certain urgency. We isolate causes and intervene in order to mitigate their effects. We propose policies, protocols; we re-structure, we move things around. We try to get a situation that is – to an extent – out of control, under control again; we manage some things in order to affect other things.

We write reports, analytical reports, evaluative reports, recommendations; reports on work done, on impacts achieved, on outcomes reached, on inputs provided. We try to clearly link cause and effect, isolate variables, achieve linearity so that there is a clear line between one thing and another. We reduce the messiness and complexity of relationships and interconnections and interweaving processes through focusing on input-output models, on linear lines of causation and response; we engineer. The social situation is part of a system, it is not a simple mechanism, we recognise this, and we respond by trying even harder to isolate and analyse and construct models and frameworks which might help us to simplify, to detect causes and effects, and to bring answers, solutions, that the situation or system itself has been unable to achieve.

We work often, usually, with furrowed brow, head down, intent on fixing.

Working on a portrayal of a social situation asks of us an entirely different stance. It asks that we look on the situation with a sense of openness and wonder, an attitude of rapt attention – however hard and difficult may be its manifestations; it asks that we do not look in order to fix, but so that we may understand. Not in order to change, but simply to really see. Not with any sense of urgency, but with care for ‘what is’. Not to isolate parts so that we may more easily manage aspects for the sake of control, but to try to see the ‘whole’ of the situation, as it stands in the world; to try to see it on its own ground.

Working on a portrayal of a social situation is more like observing a person than a machine, more like observing a living being than a system. Observing a social situation so that we may fix it, has an effect on that situation, and on our seeing of it – Iain McGilchrist (in The Master and his Emissary) notes that “Our way of paying attention to the world affects the world we’re paying attention to” – seeing the phenomenon in the light of problems needing solutions has an impact on what and how we see. Observing a social situation to really understand it for what it is, differentiating without judging, discerning without preconceiving, allows the situation to open up, relinquish its defences – and it requires of you that you too are able to open up and allow the situation to enter deeply into you.

Working with a situation from out of the place of portrayal, of knowing as understanding, enables a different kind of relationship to emerge into the world; a participatory, reciprocal, responsible field – and this has a powerful effect on you, on the situation and its dynamics, and on the world around you both. All this is filled with paradox and irony – the effect is stronger, the less you strive for it – the more we try to change something, the more it stays the same – when we do not try to change, but ‘merely’ to understand, we allow, encourage, situations to change themselves from within.

Being accepted, being seen for what we are, is an honouring, and this honouring diminishes resistance, opens a phenomenon to self-reflection, and encourages it to make more conscious choices. Awareness is the intervention.

When we are writing a portrayal, we write it not only as an onlooker but also as a participant, knowing that we are implicate in what we see. A portrayal is a description of a particular social situation where the writer captures the texture, the colour, the tension; perhaps the humour of the situation. Where a story-line emerges, where the human dimensions, diversities, qualities and characteristics are described vividly; where there is enough detail so that the picture reveals itself and comes alive, yet not too much detail that the narrative gets lost and the writing becomes too dense. Where you, as writer, are both inside and outside at the same time.

A portrayal allows us to see into the heart of a situation. If we cannot see into the heart of something, how can we begin to work with that situation? A portrayal shows – rather than tells – the reader what they need to see, so that the ‘underlying unity’ becomes visible to our understanding. A portrayal is implicit, rather than explicit, in its description. It does not offer an explanation, nor a conclusion; it enables the reader to see and experience moments of turning in the situation being described.


The idea really is to convey the possibly provocative, enigmatic, intriguing, controversial or questionable, heart of the particular social situation by enabling the reader to see through to the – almost invisible – underlying dynamics that are generating the situation.

Each situation we meet has its own unique character, and is in the process-of-becoming. Every part or detail of a situation reflects and informs the whole, and always, the character of the situation will be found in every part, if we observe carefully enough. We are looking, in a portrayal, for the gestural qualities of the situation, how it manifests in the world, how it is becoming, its inner movement or lack of movement, its moments and places of turning, how relationships are evolving.

We look carefully at the specifics, the details, the parts, the moments, and at the same time we open ourselves to noting the relationships between these; the patterns, the habits, the rhythms – and, dancing between these two ways of observing – allowing them to inform each other, gradually a sense for the whole will emerge.

To put this in another way. Every social situation is a unity (no matter how confusing and chaotic and contradictory it may seem). We are in search of this unity. The unity is not the same as the parts, it is not another part, it does not bear the empirical hallmarks of a part – it is that which brings the parts together, which holds them together, which sometimes keeps them separate, which gives the parts their unique flavour in the context of this phenomenon. The unity lives between the parts and surrounds them, and lives in pattern and process, in relationship, in repetition and rhythm; it underlies the parts. As such, this unity cannot be seen in the way material things can be seen; it is not immediately material, it must be rendered by the mind that is able to apprehend it. This unity must be seen through joining our thinking to our seeing; in this way meaning arises, and we begin to see the underlying unity of the whole. Goethe said, “My perception is itself a thinking, and my thinking a perception”. We are working here with a ‘delicate empiricism’, with a phenomenological approach to the world, with the (reciprocal) engagement between world and ourselves that releases meaning.

So we must look carefully at the facts, at that which is directly observable, but we should not lose sight of the whole, how the facts hold together. If we look only at the facts, at the parts, we risk losing the whole – and ourselves – in analysis. And if we look only to the whole, without grounding our imagination in observables, then we risk losing ourselves and the facts in mists of fantasy and conjecture. We are trying to reach, instead, for a disciplined intuition – what we have perceived accurately comes together with our inner activity of imagination, which brings our observations into a living whole. We try to write this in such a way that the situation can begin to see – and reveal – itself.

To keep our necessary observations of detail from losing ourselves in analysis, we can constantly return to the question “Who are you, social situation?” As Craig Holdrege, Goethean scholar, notes:

The idea of the coherent organism, framed as a question, becomes the guiding light of inquiry. The challenge is to articulate this unity—to make it visible to our understanding. To do this demands a particular kind of attention and inner activity. First, when I have come to a certain grasp of some area of detail, instead of just progressing further in analysis I make myself—which is not easy—step back and ask, “How does this relate to the whole?” I may not yet have an answer, but by trying to place every detail into the larger context, I make sure I am not losing sight of the … (situation) in all its parts.

Second, I try to withstand “explaining,” by which I mean, in this context, finding a surmised single cause of the phenomenon I’m looking at. (Such explanations) just don’t work … causal explanations are usually false and tend to fix the mind in narrow pathways … So with the iron will to always return to the whole and the discipline to hold back from short-cut explanations, I keep the path to the unity of the organism open.”

Holdrege goes on to note that it is not simply a case of holding oneself open, but also of intentionally building as vivid a mental picture of the phenomenon, the social situation, as possible. In our memory, we make the observations as vivid and immediate as possible; in this way, connections between observations may begin to appear. The phenomenon starts to come alive within us. By utilising memory and imagination in inner movement, whilst staying true to the different aspects and incidents – the parts – as rigorously as possible, we try to create an exact picture. As we move from one characteristic, one aspect, one moment, to another, then in our mind’s eye, an eye which is now filled with these intensely ‘saturated inner images’ (Holdrege), patterns emerge. Through an equally intense inner regard for the patterns, the unity of the phenomenon begins to reveal itself.

Stay with the observations, always. But of course the observations all come from a particular perspective, always mine, not yours – and the closer the observation comes to revealing the whole, the more ‘personal’ it will be – my inimitable perspective, as opposed to someone else’s. And the more revealing the observation is, the more the language it is presented in will be particular, designed to evoke just that perspective in the reader, and not another. And adding one observation onto another like this, choreographed or curated, one could say, coming at the phenomenon from different angles, gradually the whole will be evoked, and that whole will not be a ‘thing’, it will be, can only be, an imagination, for the whole is the underlying unity – but the imagination will be accurate, though it will differ from someone else’s, and each of us will have to be capable of imagining it, and each reader will gather it to themselves within the image of their own sensibility.


The writing of a portrayal is not simply a product of the process we refer to above. The writing is itself an integral part of the process – writing allows us to see further, to see deeper, it ensures that we remain close to the actually observed, the actually experienced, and at the same time it stimulates thinking and imagination to see and experience further, to open ourselves up, to find new ways in. Writing a portrayal is an exercise in building not only an intelligent picture, but more profoundly in the building of our intelligence as an organ of perception, as a faculty in it own right. The process builds an open and phenomenological relationship with the world. It is a gentle and participatory approach to freedom and responsibility as social practitioners.

The intention of a portrayal is to show the reader what you are seeing, never to ‘tell’ the reader what you have seen. We indicate enough, subtly and carefully, to enable the reader to see the underlying unity, to experience the character of the situation, to make meaning of its gesture in the world, for themselves. We appeal to the intelligence of the reader, we stimulate the intelligence of the reader, through the subtle, deft, vivid, delicate ways in which we bring together what we have seen, that which has enabled the phenomenon to speak to us. We indicate, we reveal, we draw back the veil on meaning. A portrayal is both an accurate, and an artistic rendition – we make evident to the discerning mind. Unlike the kind of writing so demanded by bureaucratic officialdom, and ‘scientific’ conservatism, in all their various forms, the portrayal of a social phenomenon is an exercise in holistic engagement, asking the same thing of the writer, the situation, and the reader – an intelligent, self-reflective mien.

In this sense of observing a situation, of reading social phenomena for their intrinsic meaning, of opening up and allowing in and writing oneself into creative relationship with it, the way of knowing that is embraced by the activity of portrayal as against explanation is a radically interdisciplinary and transgressive modality of learning and intervention.

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