on the social theory and how we work – an extensive talk with Petra and Hans

The Social Theory forms the basis for the Solidarity University’s work method. The theory can be found in all of the Solidarity University’s projects (in the nature of the projects but also in how these projects are approached). The fact that these projects are all about people and how they interact with one another and the fact that there is a lot of room for reflection and self-reflection as well as learning about learning … All that goes right back to the Social Theory.


It is hard to capture the Social Theory in just a few short sentences, but if we make an attempt, you could say something along these lines:

The guiding principle behind the Social Theory is that change is a constant fact. Therefore, you have to keep on moving. A second and equally important guiding principle is that you are mutually dependent on each other. So, you will have to move with each other. And if you wish to generate change, you do so together. And that means in its turn that listening to each other and working together is a highly essential requirement for accomplishing changes. The theory is, therefore, fairly at odds with the current neoliberal way of thinking.
What makes the Social Theory special, is, amongst other things, that the people behind it (Petra de Braal and Hans de Bruin) have based their theory on a very wide range of influences and theories. Influences from, for instance, the social domain, system thinking, but also ethics of care all form the basis for the theory.
The Social Theory applies to everything and that may make it feel overly large, but it can often start on a small scale. If you know which way you would like to move, you have to look at ways to collaborate and that also applies to relatively small changes within an organisation, for instance.
How do you get to such an all-encompassing theory and what do you use it for? How do you work on it together and, in fact: how do you work together at all? We asked Petra de Braal and Hans de Bruin all this and more.

Your collaboration feels a bit like many of the Solidarity University’s projects. You start working together (and find out along the way whether that is something that works) just by doing it. And you can make adaptions along the way…
Hans: “We had already met once through ‘Krot of Kans’ a project Petra worked on for quite some time.”
Petra: “We were looking for someone who could set up the Zeeuwse Huiskamer with us. And then we got the idea to do so together. From there on our collaboration has grown and grown.”

How would you describe your collaboration?
Petra: “What is really characteristic for how we work together, is that we often have the same attitude towards something. We hardly ever have to think about how we want to approach something or how we will behave in a certain meeting. We do not need to discuss that at all.
All that does not mean that we cannot criticise each other. We often contradict each other, and we do so easily. As a rule, that happens when we have new insights – that are new for ourselves as well. And we are not afraid to address that. ‘It really is quite unfortunate, but on second thought, what we had thought out turns out to be different after all’.”
Hans: “Today’s insight is different from the insight we had when we started out, so it is definitely a good thing that it is so easy for us to talk about this to each other.”
Petra: “That is another one of our characteristics. We are very much tuned into our own work method. It changes and is something we are still refining.”

Is work the only thing you two talk about to each other?
Petra: “We do not have long chats about the weather or something like that – we don’t ever discuss trivial things. But it is not like it is always just about work. We often talk about books we are reading, for instance and then we go into what one of us thinks about them and how the other feels about that. Of course, we do often read books that are related to our field of work. Just because it is all really interesting. We talk about those, but I do not see that as work. In fact, if you ask us whether we only talk about work, you forget about something very fundamental…”
Hans: “It’s not work!”
Petra: “Exactly! It is rather that we like to go into what is happening around us and try to understand all that, as well as trying to find the meaning behind it all.”

But it is an important presence in your lives, then?
Petra: “We do often encounter things in our work that intrigue us, and we consequently try and find out what is behind them. We are basically thinking about these things all the time. In everything we do, really. Even when watching tv or reading. I always have a notebook with me to write things down.”
Hans: “That is exactly the point. We always want to learn from our work and that is why it is not like work at all. It also enables us to act on various levels. It works like a mirror. We learn how we can get things across and that also helps to increase our own knowledge and skills. And that is something you constantly want to test in practice. We have split one of the groups we teach into two, for instance. In one of these groups, we tell thing slightly differently from the other. And then we evaluate that.”
Petra: “And we also evaluate our meetings. To check what we learn from them. That makes our work process the ultimate learning experience. And you do in fact, need all that. By working together with others on social dilemmas, we get develop more and more all the time. All the knowledge we gain along the way is valuable and we can use it immediately in subsequent projects and in the way we work.”
Hans: “But we are never dogmatic. There is nothing that has to fit in at all costs. In everything we do, we check whether there is something there that can falsify the Social Theory.”

Can you give an example of how you use the Social Theory in practice?
Petra: “In the municipality of Veere we work on the minor Fit for the Future. We work on mutual understanding and shared meaning in practice, based on actual, concrete challenges. How do you get to know someone else’s world view? And consequently: how do you know how someone else looks upon these concrete challenges? What assumptions do they have, for instance? How do you go about that and what questions can you ask? How do you position yourself? Because you have observed certain things with other people, you will, in your turn, act in a certain way towards others and in respect of challenges. Because we have a lot of experience in this field, we can usually quickly put our finger on things. And Hans and I often arrive at the same conclusion. The theory is our guiding principle to help put into perspective what happens in reality. And we are constantly being fed by the people we encounter and the dilemmas they have.”

How does the Social Theory play a role in your collaboration?
Hans: “It is all about interaction, really. Between Petra and me, but also between us and the people we work with. Thanks to the Social Theory we usually have all the right questions already at hand. We verify that by checking the answers. If they do not match, we want to know why not. That is one way in which I actively use the Social Theory. It makes you shift from recognising something to realising what its actual meaning is.”

You complement one another. But are there differences too?
Petra: “Our backgrounds are quite different. Hans has a technical background in IT as a basis and mine lies in anthropology and psychology.”
Hans: “What makes our collaboration so special, is that, although we have very different backgrounds and both have our own language, we can still translate things to the same wavelength. Collaborating means mutual influence and the bandwidth to influence each other grows as well.”
Petra: “We sometimes use a different language to say things, but we have now found a mutual language as well. A mutual view on change and the essence of being human. We have really found each other in that respect.”
Hans: “The recognition of how we both view things was something that was there at a very early stage. But if you compare what we did at first with what we do now… That is a world of difference. We can now discuss change in a fundamental way. All that is so much clearer now. But, then again, there are also many things that we have not yet got.”

What kind of things?
Petra: “The more people in different roles, projects and contexts we meet, the more we get a multi-faceted look. But there are still many situations we miss.”
Hans: “To be more specific: our book is about the exclusion of groups. We have some general ideas (about privileged irresponsibility for instance) but we have not yet got enough insight into specific cases. Though it must be noted that people continuously provide us with input.”
Petra: “So we do realise that there are cases where groups of well-meaning people who cannot get a certain thing done. That makes us really curious. What is in the way of reaching collectiveness? That is the mechanism that you go on and discover together. And just reading about the mechanisms does not suffice. We got to this place, because it was something that we encountered in practice. And as a result, we could use the theory to explain it. And that is something we do, because we wish to improve the situation. So, we are actually quite idealistic.”

Are there any more differences or similarities?
Petra: “We find each other in analyses. I am the translator. Hans is faster and sharper in abstract thinking. I am analytical as well, but approach it more from a practical point of view. I find it quite easy to give simple examples of complicated matters. Hans adds a clear structure.”
Hans: “That is right. I am good in conceptualising structures. Petra has a very strong anthropological and psychological background. That results in a different way of structuring information. Mine is more IT-like. Just to be clear: there is an enormous overlap in our work, but if you were to make a rough distinction, then I am the one who works with structures and Petra goes into what they mean in practice.”

You already hinted that the Social Theory is not something sacred. But a large part of your work deals with it – most of it is even based on it.
Petra: “It is a means to an end – not a goal in itself.”
Hans: “It is important that it is constantly receives input from practice. Our theory is an aid to give meaning to what you encounter in practice, and it is verified by what happens in reality. The Social Theory brings a broad range of fields together. In science, there is a tendency to use a certain jargon, but also a certain view. We do not put too much value on that, and we are not inclined to do so ourselves. But that does not make everything easier. For instance, when we deal with something that – traditionally speaking – fits in better with one side of our work than with another. But we see that differently. For us, the boundary between theory and practice is fading more and more each day.”

Can you name a few of the insights that you have gained?
Hans: “Thanks to the Social Theory we have a very clear view of what change is. We use Ethics of Care as a theoretical basis and we have formulas, but it is not that important what theory you use. Change is always about: who does what, why and how? That forms the basis of everything we do – apart from which discipline we use to form a theory on something.”

If I were to follow your ‘Fit for the Future’ minor, would that involve a lot of theory?
Petra: “We do not share the entire background story with everyone who follows one of our courses. If we are talking about change, it can also be about: what should I pay attention to as project leader? And if you approach that from ‘Who does what, when, how and why’ then you reach questions such as:
– When are you changing?
– What should I do to fulfil my role the right way?
Basically, that is already enough to handle changes the right way. But sometimes we do get asked about the deeper background and that is when we bring out the theory.
We give people insights in what they do and what they are occupied with. It is just fine to do that in multiple layers; on different levels.”
Hans: “We hold a mirror up to them. We provide them with a comprehensive and concrete set of tools – all based on the underlying theory, of course.”

How do you get from this theory to such a practice-oriented project? How do you transform one thing into another?
Petra: “We ask the right questions. ‘Is this an individual responsibility or a joint one?’ The more insight we gain, the simpler the questions that one could ask become. And people do not have to know the entire theory per se, but it is a good thing if they do get a sense of some of the underlying thoughts.”
Hans: “Because our theory is broader than most disciplines, we can aim broader as well.”

Is there a benefit to mixing science and practice?
Petra: “People often work either in science or in practice. We do scientific work in the mud of reality.”
Hans: “You have to dive deep into reality, because only then you get to the real stories and therefore true insights.”

So, it is a conscious choice to operate on that intersection where science and practice meet?
Petra: “In the participatiemaatschappij (which roughly translates as the Dutch equivalent of the big society in the UK) you have to organise all kinds of things together. What is needed in such a society is fairly simple: people who will take action. What kind of things do you encounter, then? In cases like that we should not be afraid to check out things at micro level – right in the middle of robust reality, because that is exactly the level where things should be realised. It is often the people who work at this level who are bypassed in plans, even though they are the people who have to do the actual work. So that is where the knowledge on what works and what does not work is to be found. That is where reality takes place.
We really wish to listen and that includes listening to all stories. You may want to do something the right way, but it is also important to do right.”
Hans: “Exactly! We try to do good the right way. And that means we pose an interesting question regarding morality. What is right? And who can legitimately be the judge of that?”
Petra: “It is often about quite basic things that go all the way back to the essence of our being. Who are you, how are you and how have you become this way? What is needed for listening to somebody else? If you truly listen to someone else, that creates room to see that other person. If you want to do something together or wish to reach a common goal, you must listen to one another. All that does not go to say that you should take into account everything you have heard when making a decision. But you cannot decide whether or not you will take someone’s opinion into account in your approach if you have not listened to it first and made your considerations clear.”

Everything you say, does sound a tad idealistic.
Hans: “You have to give, to be able to live. That is something that goes right against the current social climate.”
Petra: “You might want to look at it this way: be selfish. Give! Because then you are bound to receive something in return. Elderly people can get a sense of satisfaction out of taking care of someone else’s cat. And if you have nothing to give, you can still give attention. This kind of concept is quite easy to grasp when you talk about the elderly or babies. You give them attention. But the principle applies everywhere. You cannot be a CEO without staff, or people who buy your product. So you can conclude that a CEO is given things as well.”
Hans: “Our society is set up in a way that if you give something to someone, you will receive something in return. That makes a difference and based on that you will renew yourself. And that will result in you giving something to someone else and growing again.”

So, giving is at the basis of change?
Petra: “All that you encounter will change you and that is a way to work on yourself. You will need others for that in every way. Because you can, after all, only be yourself in comparison to others. You would be nobody on your own. The power of being human, is that your identity is something that you form together with someone else. If you look that way at the joint learning process, then you will view collaboration in an entirely different light as well.”
Hans: “And ‘What are you responsible for’, will become a totally different question in such a context.”

Dit interview is ook te lezen in het Nederlands.
Bekijk de Nederlandse versie in PDF