I was working with a group the other day who had come together to discuss how important it was to undertake projects and research that were more open-ended. In other words, if one is being genuinely innovative or experimental it is not possible to specify in advance where a project might lead, or what research might discover. There was much amusement that many funding application processes oblige project proposers to specify in advance that they will be innovative and how they will be, which to many was a contradiction in terms. If you can specify the innovation in advance then maybe it’s not so innovative. The discussion turned on how we could persuade people who funded such work that the importance of experimentation was in not necessarily knowing what you would find – not all research is about testing a hypothesis. Sometimes it is necessary to undertake projects to work out what the hypothesis could be.
We decided that partly we were dealing with risk, and then on further reflection we decided that we were working with uncertainty. So risk is something that we already know might be a problem and we would take steps to mitigate it. This is what we have insurance policies for. Uncertainty takes us into Donald Rumsfeld’s fourth realm of ‘unknown unknowns’: we don’t know what our project or our research will lead us to discover since we don’t know what we don’t know (to put alongside the things that we do know we don’t know, which might comprise some of the reasons we want to undertake research in the first place).
As a group we had a lot in common, and shared common frustrating experiences of trying to deal with funders, who may themselves have their hands tied in terms of what their own managers or political bosses would accept, who seemed to want to tie down every eventuality. No business plan, project or research proposal would be considered complete without its section on risks and ways to mitigate risks. To a certain extent every one knows this is a game to be played. If you can’t think of risks then you make them up, and you always make sure that the likelihood of the risk occurring is less than the mitigation strategy that you have devised.
But after a while I realised that amongst some people in the group there was still a search for certainty, a desire for ground which was every bit as strong as the funders we had gathered to criticise. This manifested itself in two ways, one as a wish to instrumentalise emergence and the second as a search for grounds.
So the term ’emergence’ was often taken to mean not controlling something, the opposite of making a plan. Some people talked about ‘allowing more emergence to happen’, perhaps even ‘creating the space for emergence’. For me this puts the idea of emergence straight back into the managerialist toolkit and is the very opposite of what I understand emergence to be. It implies that we can choose when to ‘let emergence happen’ and when we not to. Managers, researchers, project directors are still in control. It is similar to the claim that some writers on the complexity sciences make when they talk about ‘unleashing complexity in the organisation’ or designing ‘simple rules’ for people to operate by so that they can ‘align’ with a complex universe.
However, if we understand emergence to mean the patterning that occurs when we act with intention into a web of other people’s actions and intentions then emergence is happening all the time of one sort or another. New patterning emerges whether we ‘allow’ it or not, but it will be of a very different kind depending on whether we are actively engaged or stand back from events. The radical implications of the idea of emergence is that we are also part of what is emerging and do not stand separate from it.
The second idea that I found myself disagreeing with, that of ground, arose when we were discussing, sometimes drawing, what it was we thought we were talking about. For some people there has to be a common starting point, an alignment or ground from which to proceed. Some even drew diagrams which comprised a dot to signify the starting point where everyone’s values were aligned or their common purpose or mission was spelled out from which to proceed. Thereafter it is possible for ’emergence’ to allow a variety of things to happen. Of course, this is a very common sense point of view – there has to be something solid from which to spring.
My difficulty with this point of view is again down to the desire for certainty that is contained in the idea of a ground which undermines what seems to me to be the radical implications of insights from the complexity sciences. To take a radical view there are just practices and then more practices, patterning leading to more patterning. To call something a ground is an imaginative idealisation, just so the process of idealising a ‘whole’ when talking about organisations. It speaks to what Norbert Ellas was describing when he complained of way in which some types of scientific enquiry, and I would add the religious imagination, look for certainty in the form of something static and unchanging:
Yet, even today, people generally imagine that though knowledge may indeed change and grow, there is still an eternal immutable law underlying the human capacity for thought…it stems from the human need for security – the need to discover something immutable beneath the changing surface…It is taken as self-evident that something which is immutable itself and which can be detected in or behind all change, is more valuable than the change itself. What is Sociology: 42
Elias argues that what is simply a value position is presented as a fact. And indeed, in the group in which I was sitting a couple of participants were arguing that they knew that people needed to come together to agree a common ground ‘because it works!’, or ‘this worked for me!” The moment that people begin to assert their positions with quasi-religious certainty is the point at which my questions arise.
So a radical position drawing on insights from the complexity sciences would be to argue that there is no ‘using emergence’, nor is one ever standing on firm ground. This is not to argue that there is no stability in social life: many of our practices have survived for hundreds of years and our ability to communicate with each other and locate ourselves in social life depends upon regularities of interaction. However stability and instability arise at the same time as patterning leads to more patterning. We can only begin to make sense of this from within the practices to which we contribute.