Cultivating Negative Capability: Reflexive Learning Through Unwanted Emotions

Tali Padan

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Experiencing uncertainty is guaranteed in (working) life. Business schools generally prepare students for this uncertainty by providing certainty, in the form of knowledge, including theoretical and practical solutions. Another way to go about this, perhaps more visceral, is to provide students with the experience of uncertainty. The poet John Keats saw this as an ability, which he called negative capability, or the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries or doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason” (Keats, 1970). Rather than turning away from or resolving uncertainty, lingering in uncertainty becomes the path towards learning. This type of learning requires the uncertainty in order to unsettle taken-for-granted assumptions, a process also known as reflexivity, or the critical questioning of underlying assumptions that expands one’s perspective (Cunliffe, 2016). For many, lingering in uncertainty brings unwanted emotions, including anxiety (Hay & Blenkinsopp, 2018), frustration (Hibbert & Cunliffe, 2015), anger and conflict (Kisfalvi & Oliver, 2015). The idea that unwanted emotions can be used for learning has gained traction in recent years (Gilmore & Anderson, 2012; Irving, Wright, & Hibbert, 2019; Wright, Hibbert, Strong, & Edwards, 2018), but these studies also call for more empirical research on how these difficult emotions can transform into learning. This research responds to this call by exploring what happens in the attempt to cultivate negative capability in the management classroom, and how unwanted emotions transform into a reflexive learning experience. To do this, I use a political education method from the NGO sector called ‘Betzavta’ and bring it into the management classroom. Betzavta is a method that deals with principles of democracy, but instead of a theoretical study of democracy, it uses the group itself as the mirror for society and engages the group in a reflexive process about their own dynamics. Through this inquiry, students confront the tension between theories of democracy and their own experience in a democratic process. This tension can bring up uncertainty, frustration 2 and conflict. The role of the teacher in this process is to allow emotions in so that they can be used in a process of reflexive inquiry. In response to the sub-theme, this paper reflects on how emotions we label ‘negative’ are perhaps just unwanted emotions, which can be transformed into a reflexive learning experience, through the cultivation of negative capability in the business classroom. In this paper, I will first expand on the type of learning available through the cultivation of negative capability, the type of teaching that it requires, the methodology and results of this research project.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2020
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Event36th EGOS Colloquium 2020: Organizing for a Sustainable Future: Responsibility, Renewal & Resistance - Virtual Conference, Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 2 Jul 20204 Jul 2020
Conference number: 36


Conference36th EGOS Colloquium 2020
LocationVirtual Conference
Internet address

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