Discursive sonar: The theory of mapping meaning applied

We met Jane Cherrington in 2021 whilst she was authoring a review on education. Through our conversations we learnt about Jane’s role as a sense maker and navigator in branding and recognised how her approach was core to integrative briefing. We asked Jane to articulate her praxis and here is her response…

Education 5.0. I am no educator. How then to author a review? How do you make sense of a sector, in all its complex plurality as a visitor to its space? Meaning can seem so concrete, powerful, solid on arrival. But stand back, and take a good look across any space – of cultures, sectors, groups – and meaning’s inherent instability is visible, formed as it is through individual and ongoing re-interpretations of words, stories, objects, experiences, actions, all in hot debate. Contested and contesting forms swirling in tides of incoming information; massive, complex oceans of sensory inputs (data) we swim (drown) in minute by minute, hour by hour. When overwhelmed and seeking sense, volume usually equates to form. The ocean is made of ‘this’ say the monitors. Eddying currents of less or more slipping beneath the surface of such collective registry say no, it is also made of ‘that’. Collapsing ‘that’ into ‘this’ is so common, because landing any idea of ‘truth’ of a situation does require anchor into a sufficiently common recognisable framework. A normative narrative curve. But is this acceptable when there is no normal? What hope then for integrity of navigation if truth is instability? Dissonance. Chaos even.

There is a trick. Discursive sonar.

We seek to make sense of the same things. Underneath is some common form. Find the form.

How? The trick to (semi-stable) location is in looking for and holding every last position you can find. Collecting every story, every attitude, every thread of discursive DNA in as great a range as you can obtain. Pragmatically. But do look deeply, look back, look forwards, up down, sideways. Then look again. You will find you hold a mass of contradiction and debate. Bounce them off each other. Follow the tug and pull of those debates (without trying to resolve them). Use their differences to see them in relationship, to uncover the emergent contours of all of them at once as a sudden discursive whole. Do that and in that moment, sometimes, (most times) something…else lives. Something starts to show itself forming in the middle of it all, as of it all. Not chaos. But a semi-stable truth of sorts. Described and made visible through the depth and breadth on offer as ‘these’. Where ‘this’ and ‘that’ live as ‘these’ in the same space.

My job as a sense maker and navigator is to find these wholes. To play in and capture the dissonances, the differences, the dominant, counter and counter-counter narratives, to see how they are woven in and out of each other. Driftnets of belief being constantly made, mended and reworked. Without them we drown. But they do not have a permanent or inevitable shape or trajectory. Actively determining the shape we’d have them take requires seeing them. That’s why making their making visible matters. As a process of critical cultural self-awareness it can matter a great deal. Effortful as it is, that makes it worth it. Swimming in deep discursive spaces, deep diving with the net makers is an astonishing adventure. More privilege than praxis. But it’s what I get to do.

Here is the Education 5.0 report which Jane authored with Carmichael Tompkins Property Group. Link here to access the report.

Dr Jane Cherrington: Navigator

Jane has a chequered past, a PhD, kids, pets, a lover, an overdeveloped work ethic and appetite for integrity. She leads String Theory, a team of quantum culture mechanics using research, strategy, story, art, design, and digital to build sustainable value into the DNA of brands.

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