Tag Archives: Foucault

On the idea of ‘mainstreaming’ insights from the complexity sciences

I experience a number of reactions when I talk to groups of managers about what I take to be some of the more radical insights from the complexity sciences, based on the work of the Complexity and Management Group, University of Hertfordshire. For some in the groups of managers I am working with, the analogies that I draw from the sciences of uncertainty pose a direct threat to the paradigm of predictability and control that they have accepted and are trying to practice. What I am saying can then cause severe irritation, sometimes anger, and there may be an attempt to trivialise what I am saying. This trivialisation may take the form of argument that if what I am claiming is true this would mean that anything goes in organisations, that management is not needed, or that we should just sit back and ‘let things emerge’. If the future is uncertain, then what’s the point of planning anything?

At the very least, what I draw from this is that there must be something in my exposition that they recognise, and which they find negating. Their anger or sense of having been provoked, is a way of re-establishing their particular relation to themselves and their place in the world which has been called into question. It also calls into question power relationships, which I will discuss further below.

Some others may have something akin to a conversion experience arguing that radical insights from the complexity sciences are the new truth, which must be ‘embraced’. Embracing the new truth will for some imply ‘mainstreaming’ it, which is a way of claiming that it should become the newly dominant way of talking about and framing the world. This then leads to proposals for creating tools or techniques for ‘introducing emergence’ into organisations, for modelling complexity, and for identifying and ‘seizing tipping points’. In these sorts of proposals, emergence is usually equated with something good, and ‘embracing complexity’ is a kind of shorthand for encouraging staff to be creative or innovative, where innovation again is code for ‘positive change’ or change that we think we want.

Enthusiasts for complexity can quickly fall back into the paradigm of predictability and control, where the body of ideas is understood as a way of behaving or understanding the world that is more likely to bring us what we think we know in advance will be good. Alternatively there may be disappointment that when they bring this new ‘truth’ to bear on work situations or with colleagues, somehow and inevitably the status quo reasserts itself. They may feel disappointment that this particular radically contingent way of understanding the world has encountered no traction and little recognition. In turn this may lead to questioning whether this perspective is in any way helpful or practical. Continue reading


Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows. Continue reading

What is practical and useful? II

In the last post I was writing about the way in which theory and practice are intertwined in a paradoxical relationship. There is no separating them out. We are socialized into a world of practices, but without an ability to abstract from them we would be unable to locate ourselves with others. We would not be able to communicate and make sense of what we were doing.

However, although I am claiming that practice and theory are inextricably linked, I would nonetheless claim that practice is prior. Here I agree with the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce when he says that: ‘We must not begin by talking of pure ideas – vagabond ideas that tramp the public roads without any human habitation, – but must begin with men and their conversation.’ Peirce is asking the question ‘theory on the basis of what?’ In other words he is pointing to our preoccupation, particularly in the West, with dealing in abstract ideas which have become uprooted from what human beings are doing in everyday life. We can produce categorisations, tools, frameworks and abstract ideas which have lost their connection with lived experience, particularly if they are considered to be universally applicable, irrespective of context. We intellectualise and believe in our capacity to think our way through to the end. Continue reading

It’s not about the system

There is a temptation when encountering something new to look for a tool or a framework to work from, to make sense of the patterning of experience. Perhaps it is a defence against anxiety, putting oneself in the position of knowing something rather than risking being overwhelmed by the new. However, the difficulty of using a framework is that it then begins to shape the experience. We accommodate this phenomenon or that occurence as fitting under this or that heading. Systemic thinking is neat and reassuring. It is also reductive.

The Practce of Geometry

The challenge of working responsively is precisely and paradoxically to be aware of all that one knows, at the same time as being prepared to abandon it to adapt to what one experiences in the moment. Being open to experience leaves the door open to accepting that there may not be somewhere stable to stand, that the situation we are in may look like what we have encountered before but may be radically different. The danger of constantly relying on tools and frameworks is that we are perpetually rearranging experience to a neat and pre-conceived logic: more ‘how can I adapt what I am experiencing to what I already know?’, rather than ‘how can I adapt what I know to what I am experiencing?’

As an example,  Michel Foucault put it like this in describing the process of writing,:

‘What I think is never quite the same, because for me my books are experiences in a sense, that I would like to be as full as possible. If I had to write a book to communicate what I was already thinking before I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin. I write a book only because I still don’t exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytical, and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. This isn’t my case. I’m an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before.’ Essential Works of Foucault: Vol 3, Power, Faubion (ed), 239-240

The challenge for managers is to become, in Foucault’s terms, experimenters rather than theorists, to keep a beginner’s mind in encountering the constant flux of social phenomena.