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World Hypotheses, Contextualism, Systems Methods

The first Systems Thinking Ontario session for 2023 is scheduled for January 9, on “Root Metaphors and World Hypotheses”.  This is philosophical content, for which a guided tour and discussion will be better than attempting a solo reading of the World Hypotheses wiki on the Open Learning Commons.  Upon announcing the session on social media, I was honoured to receive a response from Michael C. Jackson, OBE.

Very interesting, David. And great that you are bringing Pepper and Emery/Trist back into centre of debates about systems thinking – where they belong.

Thanks, also, for drawing attention to my 2020 discussion of world hypotheses.

Sociotechnical thinking went through a brief ‘mechanical systems’ phase (Trist and Bamforth) before discovering von Bertalanffy and embracing organicism. It is also true that both Trist and Emery later claimed to have moved beyond organicism and embraced contextualism.

My own view is that they did not succeed and that organicism continued to dominate in the L22 work and even in the later socio-ecological work.

I recently had an exchange with Merrylyn Emery on this who, of course, says I am wrong and that her and Fred’s later work is clearly contextualist.

My argument, which I still adhere to, can be found in the chapter on sociotechnical thinking in my ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’. It is this chapter Merrylyn objected to. She is still very active in Australia.

Best wishes, Mike.

For those with a deeper curiosity, the chapter that Mike mentions is Part III: Systems Practice, Type D: Systems Approaches for Organizational Complexity, Chapter 12: Socio‐Technical Systems Thinking, pages 261-290 in the 720-page book.

In section 12.2.2 Philosophy and Theory, Jackson provides an historical overview of the evolution of the Socio-Technical Systems perspective at the Tavistock Institute, that dates back to the original British coal mine studies of Trist and Bamforth (1951).  In the decades that followed, theory and practices were updated from experiences.

Partly as a result of reflecting on the failure of STS initiatives to sustain themselves and to proliferate as widely as expected, Emery and Trist had moved on as well.

In the 1970s, they began to concentrate on developing “change strategies” that would help organizations accept the “new paradigm” of thinking needed to cope in increasingly “turbulent environments.” Their major concern became organizational purposes, values, and philosophies (Trist 1981, p. 45).

The theoretical groundwork was laid in the book On Purposeful Systems (Ackoff and Emery 1972).

Emery had already been developing the “Search Conference” as a methodology for operating at this level.

Trist joined Ackoff at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, in 1969 and worked with him on the influential “Social Systems Sciences” (S‐cubed) program until his nominal retirement in 1978.

In the 1990s, Emery and his wife Merrelyn, working in Australia, continued to run Search Conferences and added the “Participative Design Workshop” to the armory of STS methods. Merrelyn Emery has stayed with these endeavors since Fred’s death in 1997.

The fact that Trist and Emery worked so closely with Ackoff (see Chapter 15) indicates a radical reorientation in their thinking which will be reviewed in what follows. The continued relevance of the traditional version of STS will be considered in Section 12.5. [p. 268, editorial paragraphing added]

The “nominal retirement” of Eric Trist saw him at York University in Toronto, Canada 1978-1983.

In section 12.4 Critique of Socio-Technical Systems Thinking, Jackson writes about the transition from an organicism (world hypothesis) into a reformation.  Criticisms of the Socio-Technical Systems approach surfaced with a series of articles published in leading systems journals from 2008 to 2011.  The criticisms and responses are familiar to me, as I met the authors in a course on “Socio-Technical Systems Paradigm: History and Further Developments” in fall 2010 at Aalto University.  Jackson first describes the argument put forth in 2008.

There is an important question around whether the criticisms leveled against the organismic version of STS also carry weight against the later “purposeful systems” variant.

An interesting debate in the pages of Systems Research and Behavioral Science illuminates but does not entirely settle the issue. Kira and van Eijnatten (2008) started the ball rolling by claiming that their “chaordic systems approach” offers a superior way of achieving socially sustainable work organizations than traditional STS. We will restrict ourselves to their criticisms of STS.

STS is labeled as “functionalist”; specifically as being positivist/objectivist in methodological terms and seeing causality as simple to untangle. It is then portrayed as having four major weaknesses.

  • First, STS is guilty of “shaping work and organization toward a predefined goal through predefined paths” (p. 746) and largely ignoring the spontaneous way work organization develops in the course of stakeholder interaction.
  • Second, it is inconsistent because it falls into the “Kantian split” that Stacey sees as bedeviling all systems approaches. Managers are perceived, using a rationalist teleological framework, as capable of making intentional choices to improve organizations, while workers are viewed, using a formative teleological framework, as objects to be controlled for the greater good of the whole enterprise (see Section 7.6). The essential role employees can play is organizational development is therefore neglected.
  • Third, STS is accused of wanting to hold organizations in a steady state, using feedback control, rather than in the “multiple, more complex equilibrium states” (p. 746) necessary to promote sustainability.
  • Finally, STS forgets that the process of achieving sustainability goals is just as important as the goals themselves. It is essential to continually engage en route with stakeholder values and worldviews to encourage learning and the emergence of novelty. [p. 284, editorial paragraphing added]

With the 2008 paper elevating “a migration into chaordic systems thinking (ChST)”, the criticisms that “traditional socio-technical systems (STSs) approaches do not offer optimal foundations for achieving sustainability” were harsh.

Having met Kira and van Eijnatten in fall 2010, I gained greater insight into the work of Merrelyn Emery in spring 2012, in a 5-day IFSR Conversation in Austria. The proceedings report on “Revisiting the Socio-ecological, Social-technical and Socio-psychological Perspectives” was led by Minna Takala, with contributions from Merrelyn Emery, Debora Hammond, Gary S. Metcalf and myself.

Continuing in section 12.4 Critique of Socio-Technical Systems Thinking, Jackson supports the 2010 refutation written by Merrelyn Emery, suggesting that the four major weaknesses listed by Kira and van Eijnatten might be viewed from the work of Stephen C. Pepper in World Hypotheses (1942).

Merrelyn Emery is, quite reasonably in my view, aggrieved (Emery M. 2010) and is not placated by Kira and van Eijnatten’s (2010) claim that their criticisms are aimed more at the earlier type of STS than the Emerys’ later “open‐systems thinking” (OST) (Emery M. 2011).

In her view, any plausible critique has to take into account the significant developments made by the “purposeful systems” type of STS pioneered by Trist, her husband Fred Emery and herself.

  • Emery argues that OST, embracing the work on the “causal texture of organizational environments,” the “genotypical organizational design principles,” “participative design workshops” (PDW), and “search conferences,” learned from past mistakes and situates STS in a different paradigm, OST.
  • Emery argues, does not impose predetermined designs, treats all people, including workers, as open, purposeful systems, facilitates debates about human values, and encourages the coevolution of the organization with its environment as stakeholders develop their ideal‐seeking capabilities and translate them into strategic plans.
  • According to Emery M. (2010, p. 701), a fundamental shift in paradigm has taken place that makes the old sort of STS “obsolete,” and Kira and van Eijnatten’s criticisms of STS, based on that version, misplaced.

The change, using Pepper’s theory of different “root metaphors,” is from the “world hypothesis of organicism,” which champions the “integration” of parts in whole systems, to the “contextualist world hypothesis,” which deals with the historic act in its context, accommodates purposeful behavior, and can produce and explain “novelty and emergence.”

As Fred Emery (1969, p. 15) remarked, all Pepper’s “root metaphors” are in operation in different systems theories and the result is much mutual incomprehension. Kira and van Eijnatten’s critique certainly struggles to find its mark when aimed at the “purposeful systems” version of STS [pp. 284-285, editorial paragraphing added].

In my personal library, I happen to own a copy of the rare Penguin paperback Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, 1969 original edition, (as well as the more commonly found 1978 revised edition).  The mention by Jackson leads me to look up the Part One section description single page. It says that excerpts of Pepper’s writing were omitted in the collection of articles, because the paperback is already 400 pages in length!

Part One Precedents to Systems Theory

[….]

Only pressing problems of space precluded a selection from S. C. Pepper (1950). This is of particular importance because the ‘root metaphors’ he identifies and rigorously defines are all clearly operating in different systems theorists and account for much of the mutual incomprehension that exists among them. ‘Contextualism’ is the root metaphor which comes closest to our bias in selecting for this volume.

References

PEPPER, S. C. (1950), World Hypotheses, University of California.  [Emery (1969) p. 15]

So, a pursuit of rethinking systems thinking wouldn’t be hurt by a closer reading of World Hypotheses (1942)!

On the refutation by Merrelyn Emery, Jackson says that he, himself, has corrected an error similar to that commited by Kira and van Eijnatten.

One of the aims of critical systems thinking is to eliminate incomprehension and encourage mutual understanding and respect among advocates of the different branches of the systems approach.

  • To that end, let us continue this second‐order analysis of STS by relating it to the system of systems methodologies (SOSM). Early attempts to do this (Jackson and Keys 1984; Jackson 2000), as Baburoglu (1992) points out, made the same mistake as Kira and van Eijnatten by treating STS as a unified paradigm and concentrating on the earlier organismic formulation.
  • I plead guilty and will seek to provide a richer appreciation of the approach in what follows. Baburoglu identifies four tracks within STS, or what he calls the “Emery‐Trist Systems Paradigm,” on the basis of “a liberation theme.”

While we will stick with the simpler categorization into “organismic” and “purposeful systems” variants, we will use his work to add further depth to the analysis.  [p. 285, editorial paragraphing added]

Jackson, in his reworked System of Systems Methodologies, places the organicist Socio-Technical Systems thinking approach as complex-unitary.

In terms of the reworked SOSM, the organismic version of STS makes “complex” assumptions about systems and their environments.

It certainly does not regard causality, pace Kira and van Eijnatten, as simple and easy to grasp. Rather it sees internal interrelationships as potentially giving rise to emergent properties and the environment as changing and unpredictable.

The recommendations made concern how systems should be designed to be responsive and capable of learning so that they can evolve appropriately over time as they are affected by their own parts and by the turbulent environments in which they exist.

This last point distinguishes STS from system dynamics, which we labeled as making “complicated” assumptions because it takes an endogenous point of view and seeks to map the myriad interrelationships between all the variables impacting system behavior.

In respect of the “stakeholders” dimension of the SOSM, the organismic form of STS clearly makes “unitary” assumptions. This is explicitly the case when the “primary task” of the organization is defined as the task it was set up to perform or must undertake in order to survive.

Even when it becomes accepted that multiple primary tasks can exist, there is an implicit assumption that all areas of the organization can reach an agreement on what the overarching objective should be. Little thought is given, in this version of STS, to how this agreement can be reached. As Fred Emery stated, in the Norwegian Industrial Democracy project, the workers were required to “trust” the consultants. [p. 285, editorial paragraphing added]

Jackson (2019) Figure 12.1
Figure 12.1 The positioning of Socio‐Technical Systems Thinking on the SOSM [Jackson 2019]

The approach shows very little interest in organizational politics, conflict, or issues of power and coercion. Nevertheless this “first developmental track” of STS, as Baburoglu calls it, does offer to employees “liberation from the domination of the machine” and “liberation from single and meaningless tasks and from external control” (1992, p. 287). In summary, the organismic version of STS can reasonably be represented as making “complex‐unitary” assumptions and positioned on the SOSM as in Figure 12.1.  [p. 286]

On this SOSM positioning of the organicist version of Socio-Technical Systems thinking as complex-unitary, it’s likely that Merrelyn Emery would have few objections.  However, the next paragraph on the evolved approach is likely where Merrelyn would claim a pluralist-complex positioning.  Jackson continues:

It should now be asked whether the “purposeful systems” version of STS requires a different positioning on the SOSM. Emery argues that OST marks a paradigm break with the earlier formulation. In Baburoglu’s account it opens up two more “developmental tracks” for STS — one offering “liberation of the futures” and “liberation from the expert and expertise”; and another promising “liberation from single social system referential design” and “liberation from institutional and organizational constraints on individuals” (1992, p. 287). Both seem to demand that this version should be recognized as fully appreciating the challenges posed by pluralistic contexts. A couple of points give me pause however. Without digging too far into the detail, I think OST retains a “whiff” of functionalism about it. If the first purpose of OST (see Section 12.2.2) is to “promote and create toward a world that is consciously designed by people, and for people,” the second purpose is

… to develop an internally consistent conceptual framework or social science, within which each component is operationally defined and hypotheses are testable so that the knowledge to support the first purpose is created. (Emery M. 2000, p. 623) [p. 287]

Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does suggest that a “complex‐pluralistic” positioning on the SOSM is problematic. I am influenced here by Kira and van Eijnatten’s critique which, in one respect at least, finds the mark. They argue that STS is guilty of “shaping work and organization toward a predefined goal through predefined paths.” If one looks closely at how PDWs and Search Conferences are meant to run, and the kinds of outcomes to which they are intended to give rise, then one finds many “socio‐technical” principles accepted without question. In PDWs, we find the job‐design principles and the desirability of democratic structures; in Search Conferences, it is easy to identify participative planning, self‐managed groups, and particular dissemination practices. [p. 287]

While the label of “systems thinking” is often used as a catch-all phrase, it may be important here to separate out “systems theory” from “systems methods”.

  • Causal texture is a systems theory.  DP1 and DP2 (Design Principle 1 and Design Principle 2) relate to human social systems, as theory.
  • Search Conference and Participatory Design Workshops are systems methods, applied with human social systems.

Russell Ackoff would make the distinction between four system types:  deterministic, animated, social and ecological, based on purposefulness in the wholes and parts.  Methods appropriate for one system type might not be appropriate for another type, even if a theoretical understanding across all systems types were attained.

In Jackson’s view, espousing a contextualist theoretical position while continuing to apply organicist methods is problematic.

If these socio‐technical “certainties” are smuggled in, and have to be accepted, then are we really achieving the sorts of “liberation” Baburoglu claims for the new developmental tracks? It is true that OST has much that is new to offer, especially with regard to the implementation of STS. But it does not seem that a clean break with “organicism” has been made and that “contextualism” has been fully embraced. Barton and Selsky (2000) concur that there is an “essentialist stance” in OST in which environments are concrete and people can perceive them directly without the need for abstract concepts. The same conclusion can be reached from a different direction. If we remove the organismic principles embedded in the PDW and Search Conference methodologies, what do we have left? I would suggest that we have significantly underdeveloped forms of the kind of soft systems approach that will be studied later. It was left to Ackoff (see Chapter 15), who had worked closely with Emery and Trist, to make the clean paradigm break that eluded STS. This is, of course, for better or worse depending on the observer. [p. 287]

So, could a complex-pluralistic systems theory in the SOSM framework be derived from the heritage of Fred E. Emery and Eric L. Trist?  Mike Jackson wrote …

… both Trist and Emery later claimed to have moved beyond organicism and embraced contextualism.

Some details in the root metaphors and world hypotheses of Stephen C. Pepper can provide some illumination.

From the four relatively adequate hypotheses listed in World Hypotheses (1942),

  • contextualism has the root metaphor of the historic event, also known as the act in context, or situation; and
  • organicism has the root metaphor of integration, in processes of organic development.

Decades later, in Concept and Quality (1966), Stephen C. Pepper proposed a fifth world hypothesis,

  • selectivism, with a root metaphor of the purposive act.

Bill Harrell wrote that Pepper himself had not decided whether selectivism was a completely new world hypothesis, or an extension of contextualism.

[204] He considered this study a sequel to World Hypotheses but did not believe it supplanted the earlier work. The four world hypotheses were basically adequate and he still could not identify a cognitively responsible means of choosing one over the other. Selectivism was a fifth and new world theory or possibly a radical revision of one of the original hypothesis, contextualism. This new world hypothesis has the same cognitive status as the others and bears the same relationship to the others as they do one to the other. That said, it is fairly apparent that Pepper was convinced that selectivism handled many of the problems the others could not resolve.  [Harrell, 2004]

Based on the root metaphors, the purposive act of selectivism would seem closer to Merrelyn Emery’s view of the evolved Open Systems Theory tradition.  If selectivism is seem as a revision of contextualism, then the purposive act as a root metaphor for OST makes some sense.

The alternative view would be the recognition that the Emery branch of the 1960s Tavistock Institute diverged in later years from that Eric Trist, in North America.  From the 2012 IFSR Conversation:

According to Merrelyn, the strict reliance on Angyal’s, Sommerhoff’s and Emery & Trist’s formulations distinguished the work that she did with Fred Emery and others in Australia from later work by Trist or Ackoff.

We stuck with the time-based Search Conference where probabilities of various scenarios change over time while Ackoff went with time-free ‘idealized design’ (Ackoff, 1974, p30). Neither Ackoff nor Trist ever used the design principles which underpinned all our work (Trist, 1986). The Australian group stayed with Angyal’s system principle, the unique relation between L22 and L11, and the organizational design principles that determine the shape of the L11…while Trist worked on referent organizations and domain theory (Trist, 1983) (pp. 3-4).  [Takala 2012, p. 10]

While Fred E. Emery returned to Australia, Eric Trist continued research in North America , moving on to inter-organizational domains.  As compared to organizational wholes where an organicist world hypothesis makes sense, cooperation across organizational boundaries (e.g. in open sourcing communities) are better appreciated through  contextualism.

The Tavistock Anthology was released as 3 volumes:  the Socio-Psychological Systems perspective, the Socio-Technical Systems perspective, and the Socio-Ecological Systems perspective.  The philosophical foundations under each need not have been uniform.  Contextualism has a history as the philosophical foundation for Socio-Ecological Systems.

References

Ackoff, Russell L., and Fred E. Emery. 1972. On Purposeful Systems. Aldine-Atherton. [republished by Routledge in 2017]

Barton, John, and John W. Selsky. 2000. “Afterword: Toward an Emery Model of Management: Implications and Prospects of Emery Open Systems Theory.” Systemic Practice and Action Research 13 (5): 705–20. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009585711789.

Emery, Fred E., and Eric L. Trist. 1965. “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human Relations 18 (1): 21–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872676501800103.

Emery, Fred E. 1969. “Precedents to Systems Theory.” In Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, edited by Fred E. Emery, 1st ed., 1:15. Penguin. http://books.google.ca/books?id=G2tHAAAAMAAJ.

Emery, Fred E., and Merrelyn Emery. 1993. “The Participative Design Workshop.” In The Social Engagement of Social Science, edited by Eric L. Trist and Hugh Murray, Project MUSE, Vol. 2 The Socio-Technical Perspective:599–613. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1775974.

Emery, Merrelyn. 1996. “The Search Conference: Design and Management of Learning.” In The Social Engagement of Social Science, edited by Beulah Trist, Hugh Murray, and Eric L. Trist, Project MUSE. Vol. 3 The Socio-Ecological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1755586.

Emery, Merrelyn. 2010. “Refutation of Kira & van Eijnatten’s Critique of the Emery’s Open Systems Theory.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27 (6): 697–712. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.1010.

Emery, Merrelyn. 2011. “Fiddling While the Planet Burns: The Scientific Validity of Chaordic Systems Thinking.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28 (4): 401–17. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.1091.

Harrell, Bill J. 2004. “Five World Hypotheses: A Primer on Stephen C. Pepper’s Epistemological System With Illustrations from the Arts, Humanities, Social, and Natural Sciences.” Internet Archive. https://web.archive.org/web/20041110053845/http://people.sunyit.edu:80/~harrell/Pepper/bjh_pep01.htm.

Jackson, Michael C. 2019. “Socio‐Technical Systems Thinking.” In Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity, 263–90. John Wiley & Sons. https://www.wiley.com/en-ca/Critical+Systems+Thinking+and+the+Management+of+Complexity-p-9781119118398.

Jackson, Michael C. 2020. “Critical Systems Practice 1: Explore — Starting a Multimethodological Intervention.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 37 (5): 839–58. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2746. cached on the ResearchGate Project on “Critical Systems Thinking”.

Jackson, Michael C. 2020. “How We Understand ‘Complexity’ Makes a Difference: Lessons from Critical Systems Thinking and the Covid-19 Pandemic in the UK.” Systems 8 (4): 52. https://doi.org/10.3390/systems8040052.

Kira, Mari, and Frans M. van Eijnatten. 2008. “Socially Sustainable Work Organizations: A Chaordic Systems Approach.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 25 (6): 743–56. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.896.

Kira, Mari, and Frans M. van Eijnatten. 2010. “Socially Sustainable Work Organizations and Systems Thinking.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27 (6): 713–21. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.1043.

Takala, Minna. 2012. “Revisiting the Socio-Ecological, Social-Technical and Socio-Psychological Perspectives.” In Systems for Education, Engineering, Serivce and Sustainability — Proceedings of the Sixteenth IFSR Conversation, edited by Gerhard Chroust and Gary S. Metcalf, 5–24. Linz, Austria: International Federation for Systems Research. https://coevolving.com/commons/201209-revisiting-the-socio-ecological-social-technical-and-socio-psychological-perspectives.

Trist, E. L, and K. W Bamforth. 1951. “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-Getting.” Human Relations. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872675100400101.

]Trist, Eric L. 1981. The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems: A Conceptual Framework and Action Research Program. Occasional Paper 2. Toronto, Canada: Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre.  [search on Google Scholar]

Response by Dr. Mike C. Jackson OBE


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