December 23, 2019


 Some time ago--actually several years--I wrote of the story of how I came to be interested in the connectedness of life. Here's the next step in the way it happened, as I recall it now.

Graduate studies meant learning the various special research areas of the field of psychology, as I've written about in an early post on this blog. As I advanced I needed to select a field I would become specialized in.

My challenge then, and now, was my curse--always looking at the bigger picture, looking for integrating principles. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

My questioning, my search, my obsession, was not greeted well by the various specialists in the Department. Unable to clearly articulate what it was I was searching for, my professors grew uneasy with my failure to narrow my interests down to a single focus.

Would it be developmental psychology, with my interest in children and how they grow? Motivation? Learning theory? Perception? Or maybe social psychology, or experimental? Within each of these specializations, what would my main interest become?

Then came my turning point, and from a most unlikely source. A report published in a mostly dry and academic professional journal, Psychological Review.

Published in May, 1968, A reinterpretation of the direction of effects in studies of socialization detonated an explosion of recognition in my consciousness, an awareness that someone in this vast field of study had finally recognized--and succeeded in publishing--Life. Here's the shocking, profound point of the research:
We've agreed that parenting styles have an effect on children.
But wait! Babies also influence their parents!
Science discovers the existence of water, air and fire! The sky is blue!

This paper upended an era of looking at the effects of parenting on children, including the ancient questions of nature-nurture: are children/humans the products of genetics or parenting patterns?

It had simply not registered in the scientific literature that children were more than passive participants in this dynamic. Thus began a new wave of thinking, looking at interactive effects in families, relationships, organizations, communities of living from intimate to vast.

This was such profoundly disturbing concept to many. That it was so is the best way to get a glimpse of the nature of psychological truth in the 1960s. And the basis of the curiosity and the drive that took me so passionately deeper and wider, continuing to this winter day 50 and more years later.

With discovery of this paper the direction of my personal and professional life was altered, determined. The course was set. My doctoral supervisory committee and my published research were to be focused on social psychology, with an emphasis on social systems theory and practice. My life's work would become understanding at least some elements of this complex field, and sharing those findings to as wide an audience as my limited resources allowed.

I was not alone in experiencing this revelatory work. The forces it unleashed in the entire model of human development and behavior took a previously young and undeveloped analytic model and provided the stimulus it need, energy that continues to this day to ripple through the American consciousness, permeate the scientific establishment, influence the education and management spheres, underpin military and political thinking. It was a harbinger of the coming revolution in psychological thinking and practice.

Yet this was not an idea that was marketed to the public, adopted for professional distribution by the power of economics, seen as a sexy, powerful avenue forward. It was simply an idea whose time had come. Years later it was a matter of true inspiration to read Richard Bell's description of how this unlikely professional report came to be

Thus began my journey to understanding the connectedness of life.

December 28, 2014

Further Thoughts on Silos.

Writing about silos moved my thinking along. Not long after putting the posting together, as I continued to ponder the ideas, I realized that understanding the individual components of a system is an invaluable aspect of comprehending the full workings.

Clearly there is a role for specialization.

What I have further recognized, and I'm far from the first, is that the university system reinforces specialization at the cost of integration. Data-driven research produced according to the "scientific method" receives grants, is manageable, can be scheduled and predicted, and of course is publishable.

Integrative thinking? Not so much.

There is an entire body of literature on this critique of knowledge. Sooner rather than later I'll dip into it and post some links.

April 27, 2014

A Landscape of Silos.

Going off to college I was anything but prepared for what to expect. On my arrival in my dormitory the first person I met asked me what my major was going to be.

"What's a major?" I asked.

Within an hour I was at the campus bookstore studying a course catalog to get a clear definition of Major. The editors of the catalog assumed as well the reader would know what a Major was.

Eventually I selected a major, not by any single decision I'd made but by scores of decisions I'd made along the way. Exploring and sampling everything I found interesting, in my third year at the university I received a letter in the mail informing me that I had to declare a major in order to graduate. The next day I went to the Registrar's Office in the Smoot Administration Building and asked to see a copy of my transcript. Beyond the required general graduation requirements I had taken additional classes in economics, English, math, art, engineering, chemistry, geography, philosophy, history. And probably others I can't think of as I make these notes.

Adding up the hours in the various courses I'd taken in the previous semesters, I discovered I'd accumulated the most credits in psychology, nearly enough to declare a major already. That settled it. My own curiosity and interest pattern had answered the question for me. I would be a psychology major. I had no idea, gave no thought whatsoever, to how that would translate into a job or a career, but it solved the problem for the moment.

Learning Theory, Perception, Motivation, Psychological Statistics, Experimental Design, Physiological Psychology, Developmental Psychology--it was all interesting to me. Each was a discrete field of study, with no hint that they may be connected with each other beyond sharing a common department in the university.

Silos of knowledge.

Each taught by a professor who was a recognized expert in the field, with a curriculum vita and a roster of research projects documenting specialized expertise. Some more interesting, inspiring or effective teachers than the others, all clearly knew what they were talking about. At a more detailed and broader level of involvement, this pattern continued into graduate studies, with specific areas of the field of psychology separated into readily identifiable research groups. Of course professors knew each other collegially but there wasn't the slightest suggestion that they had thought of coordinating their fields of expertise.

While I was accumulating a basic knowledge of the working parts of the field, this was exactly what I needed. With time, however, it seemed natural to me to wonder how these disparate fields tied together. Academic, formalized support of this curiosity was random and haphazard. Communication theory appeared at first to hold out hope for some theory of integration, as did the notion of symbolic interactionism, in the field of sociology. But my interest in these soon waned, with neither field approaching the level of comprehensiveness I seemed to be searching for. Too abstract for where I was at the time.

I settled into the burgeoning field of family systems theory, newly forming but asking questions in line with my interests. Though the word dynamics was occasionally used, there was really no energy, no movement, no dynamism to the way it was thought of. It was just another aspect to be analyzed.

Then came my turning point, and from a most unlikely source. A report published in a mostly dry and academic professional journal, Psychological Review.

I develop these thoughts a bit more in a further posting. I've written it in 2015, but in 2019 I set it apart in a separate blog posting.

April 24, 2014

Open Systems, Closed Systems.

One might say, as does Wikipedia, that open social systems encourage a non-representational and non-referential post-humanist approach that actualizes the complexity of reality in a non-deterministic framework. I actually have no idea what that statement means.

Or one might get a feel for an Open social system by contemplating its opposite. At Yuma Territorial Prison, our intrepid travelers report,
If a prisoner did something wrong such as cussing, gambling or if a guard said a prisoner did something wrong they would be put in "The Dark Cell".  This was a cell that looked like a big iron box made of iron grate floor, walls and ceiling that was only five feet tall.  They would just shove the people in there and at times each prisoner had only about a two square foot place to stand or squat.  When the door was closed it was dark.
The ultimate Closed social system, the culture of the prison is defined by hierarchy. Individual comfort, happiness, opportunity are irrelevant. Containment is the sole function, managed with efficiency. Once you are In, your personal freedoms disappear, and you remain In until the system decides to allow you Out. Your daily routines are determined by needs of the system and by the decisions and actions of its personnel, which are all in turn determined by the needs of the system and by the actions of personnel higher in the system

Decisions about the operation of the system are made far away in time and space. Change comes slowly, if at all. You may do nothing about it.

Consider now visiting a fund-raising event for a non-profit organization, held at a community garden on a Saturday morning.

You may attend if you wish, and if the setting seems inviting enough you may enter. You may stay as long as you wish, go where you will, and leave at your own convenience or pleasure. In one area there are photographs of children who receive the benefits of the organization, and brochures on a small table next to a fresh bouquet of Santa Rosa sunflowers. Volunteers offer you refreshments and the opportunity to ask about the programs for children, if you are interested in hearing more. Whenever you're ready or find other commitments pressing, you may leave, stopping at the entrance if you wish to enjoy the koi pond.

It's a totally Open system. You are there by your own freedom of choice, for reasons of your own. You do what you wish while you are there, with no expectations from others. If you become sufficiently uncomfortable with anything you are free to wander away, to leave if need be, without explanation. If the hosts wish you to remain it is up to them to make it worth your while, to entice you, to reward your presence with respect and appreciation.

Closed System and Open System. It's a continuum. Every social organization falls somewhere along the spectrum, from marriages to families, churches to schools, fraternities to professional societies, businesses to book clubs. How much choice does a five-year old kindergartner enjoy in her school room?

In a complex society, each serves its purposes. Beyond the needs of the larger group, the important thing is to match the needs of the inhabitants with the nature of the system. As with all organizations, people create them, people maintain them.

And the more local the organization, the more they can change them.

April 5, 2014

One person's definition: 12 Living Systems Principles.

My, how the enterprise has grown.

When I began my work and my thinking about systems, the concept was radical enough I felt a like a bit of a revolutionary. Now we have someone like Linda Booth Sweeney, Harvard University Graduate School of Education, who is part of a trend of turning it into a technology.

In my professional career I can personally recount the history of the field. I'm reminded somehow of the old saw, Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The development of the species is reflected in the development of a single organism.

Ms Sweeney's work is a serious effort at bringing systems thinking to the education of our children and young people. With deep academic credentials she has prepared materials for popular consumption by an audience of professional K-12 educators, and clearly has support of a publishing company to market and present her materials.

Here's Ms Sweeney's understanding of the 12 Principles of Living Systems. Her descriptions on this website imply a target audience with no familiarity with the concept. I've edited here for grammar, spelling, and to suit my purposes.
Interdependence: A relationship of mutual influence.
System Integrity: Presence of required elements and processes.
Biodiversity: Variety, complexity, and abundance of elements.
Cooperation and Partnership: Exchange of energy and resources between elements.
Rightness of Size: Relative proportions of elements within their ecosystem.
Living Cycles: Circular and self-repeating processes providing nourishment and growth.
Waste = Food: One element's output becomes another element's input.
Feedback: Circular processes that amplify change or foster stability.
Nonlinearity: A disproportionate relationship between cause and effect..
Emergent Properties: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts..
Flux: The movement of energy, matter and information.
The Commons: Shared resources.
In the fine print she adds other elements. Without description, she lists these as
  • autopoesis
  • cognition and learning
  • networks
  • the first and second law of thermodynamics
  • stocks and flows
  • exponential growth
  • carrying capacity
  • ecological footprint.
This is not a bad attempt here at reducing a complex body of research into a single online page. Her work, part of a cooperative effort with the MIT Sloan School of Management, is well-funded. I have no doubt I will find a foundation of substantial academic publications, and these will provide an excellent source for my continuing research and thinking.

Perhaps the matter is addressed under autopoesis, but I don't see any specific reference to what I consider the Prime Directive of systems: Preserve and protect your own integrity and existence. I'm also very interested  in investigating her treatment of Open vs Closed Systems, a key element in my own modeling of systems processes.

There are fun avenues opening up, and I take a deep personal satisfaction in recognizing my early contributions in an important field.