All People are Organic Intellectuals: the role of socially conceived theory in transformation


Antonio Gramsci, writing in early 20th century Italy, argued that all people are intellectuals and philosophers. ‘Organic intellectuals’ is how he terms people who take their local knowledge from life experiences, and use that knowledge to address changes and problems in society.” from Participatory action research – Wikipedia

Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellectual” resonates with the idea of theory making in Appreciative Inquiry that “refers to a theory of intentional collective action, designed to evolve the vision and will of a group, organization, or society as a whole.  It is an inquiry process that affirms our symbolic capacities of imagination and mind as well as our social capacity for conscious choice and cultural evolution… Social theory is therefore a communal creation.  Social knowledge is not ‘out there’ to be discovered, rather it is created, maintained and put to use by the human group…” David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva the authors go on saying:

Social Theory as a Transformative Force

“Social theory is a powerful means for transforming norms, beliefs, and cultural practices.  Important ideas can profoundly alter the way we see ourselves and our reality, and conduct our lives.

Five ways theory achieves this exceptional potency:

1.   Establishing a conceptual and contextual frame.  Theory acts as a device that subtly focuses attention on particular phenomena or meanings while obscuring others.  As with a new lens, a new theory allows one to see the world in ways never before imagined.

2.   Shaping expectations of cause and effect.  Theories help shape common expectations of causality, sequence, and relational importance.  By attributing causality, theories have the potential to create the very phenomena they propose to explain.

3.   Transmitting a system of values.  Social theory is infused with values.  Every social theory facilitates the pursuit of some, but not all, courses of action.  We would be better off to abandon the myth of value-free science, and to accept theoretical work as a very human enterprise.

4.   Creating a group-building language.  The invitation to inquiry makes theory an actual shaper of society.  Knowledge of a social system can be used to change the system itself.  This phenomenon, made possible through language, invites us to actively participate in the creation of our world by generating compelling theories about what is good, just, and desirable in social existence.

5.   Extending visions of possibility or constraint.  Theories gain their generative capacity by extending visions that expand our sense of the possible.  Theories designed to empower organized social systems will tend to have a greater effect than theories of human constraint.  The vision becomes a common vision to the extent that it ignites the imaginations, hopes and passions of others through the articulation of ideals which lend meaning and significance to everyday life.”

We offer these notes to inspire shared reflection in the Movement about collaborative theory making by all. Let’s turn the Future of Occupy into a tool that we can shape together to serve the emerging theory of the Movement, as a transformative force.

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  1. Reclaiming the commons as a social theory of collective action | The Future of Occupy - February 7, 2012

    […] All People are Organic Intellectuals: the role of socially conceived theory in transformation […]

  2. A Commons-inspired “Occupy theory” of collective action | The Future of Occupy - February 13, 2012

    […] to the theoreticians. Is is an affair of all us, given that we are all what Gramsci called  ”organic intellectuals“. But why should we bother, why should we get involved with it; what good theory can make for […]

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