Significance: Consequence for approaches to societal problems
Integrative Knowledge Project |
The unsuspected complexity of social problems aggravates the situation
noted above. As noted in the Bellagio Declaration on Planning (1969): "Social
institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing
complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and
assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind
result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political,
and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches
from individual disciplines... Diagnosis is often faulty and remedies proposed
often merely suppress symptoms rather than attack the basic cause... Complexity
and the large scale of problems are forcing decisions to be made at levels
where individual participation of those affected is increasingly remote,
producing a crisis in political and social development which threatens
our whole future... Scientific attack on these problems of complexity and
interdependencies is a matter of the utmost urgency...".
Given this complexity of the social problem environment, the question
arises as to whether the conceptual tools used to handle this complexity
are themselves adequately complex. In terms of Ashby's (1958) Principle
of Requisite Variety, only a greater amount of variety (or complexity)
in a regulator can control the variety present in a given system; only
variety can destroy variety.
2. Inadequate conceptual tools
While the complexity and danger of the problems tend to increase at
a geometric rate, the knowledge and manpower qualified to deal with these
problems tend to increase at an arithmetic rate (Yehezkel Dror, 1969).
There is therefore a real danger that the conceptual tools applied to problems
are insufficiently complex to contain them and guide the allocation of
resources to appropriate programmes of action. Because the interdisciplinary
and integrative focus is an intellectual no-man's-land, little is known
about it. The potential it represents goes largely unrecognized.
There is real danger that such tools may not be adequately developed
and used, since the increase in complexity of the world, the rapidity of
change, and the need to focus on specific current political issues may
tempt those with power to use simplistic conceptual tools. However, there
is also the danger, because of limited understanding of the nature of integrative
concepts, that they may be used by the few to out-manoeuvre the many.
3. Incoherence of interdisciplinary initiatives
The interdisciplinary movement therefore both exists and has reasons
to exist. But, as Kenneth Boulding (1956) notes: "...there is a good
deal of interdisciplinary excitement abroad. If this excitement is to be
productive, however, it must operate within a certain framework of coherence.
It is all too easy for the interdisciplinary to degenerate into the undisciplined.
If the interdisciplinary movement, therefore, is not to lose that sense
of form and structure which is the "discipline" involved in the various
separate disciplines, it should develop a structure of its own".
Boulding conceives the elaboration of this structure to be the task
of general systems theory. However, given the plethora of integrative concepts
currently in use within the movement in its broadest sense, the modest
task of attempting to clarify the nature of such concepts and their relationship
to one another is of some significance at this time. No other conceptual
tools appear to be adequate to the task of grasping the complexity with
which society is faced.
4. Conflicting interdisciplinary approaches
One of the difficulties is the long-standing competition between "cybernetics"
and "general systems", with the former appealing primarily to engineers
and the latter to social and biological scientists. This has given rise
to unhelpful dynamics between the two groups.
A second difficulty is that both groups have little sympathy with "non-scientific"
insights into possibilities of integration, whether from psychoanalysis
or from the arts. General systems is only open to interdisciplinarity on
its own pre-established terms. One exception to this is the attempt by
Jeffrey Stamps (1980) to marry the insights of general systems with those
of humanistic psychology to provide a general systems theory acknowledging
the place of the human individual (see comment in entry KD2220).
A third difficulty arises from the non-self-referential nature of general
systems theory. This is ironical in that a number of authors linked with
the general systems enterprise have explored issues of self-reference.
The difficulty is perhaps best illustrated by the relationship between
the work of Prigogine and Jantsch (who were colleagues). Prigogine's group
has carefully avoided any but the most tentative exploration of the social
significance of the breakthroughs for which he received the Nobel Prize.
Jantsch has taken Prigogine's work, related it to other initiatives from
both the hard and the soft sciences and produced an exciting synthesis
oriented towards policy and management problems. Unfortunately he died
before being able to relate his contribution to the implications of the
work of Bohm. He did however make extensive use of self-reference in relation
to mentation, especially with regard to values and to the evolution of
consciousness. Whilst the more concrete aspects of his work on self-organization
remain central to general systems, the paradoxical problems for consciousness
of comprehending (or failing to comprehend) any particular form of integration
are outside the general systems domain of concern. Yet it is precisely
such questions which illuminate the inability of general systems to offer
insights relevant to the global problematique
5. Epistemological challenge
One of the striking features of papers on interdisciplinarity is their
essential sterility. Interdisciplinarity has not proved to be productive.
It has not revealed any method of moving forward.
David Bohm (1980) is one of the few to have indicated a way forward.
Following a useful description of fragmentation and its consequences in
all domains he states: "...some might say: 'Fragmentation of cities,
religions, political systems, conflict in the form of wars, general violence,
fratricide, etc, are the reality. Wholeness is only an ideal, toward
which we should perhaps strive.' But this is not what is being said here.
Rather, what should be said is that wholeness is what is real, and that
fragmentation is the response of this whole to man's action, guided by
illusory perception, which is shaped by fragmentary thought. In other words,
it is just because reality is whole that man, with his fragmentary approach,
will inevitably be answered with a correspondingly fragmentary response.
So what is needed is for man to give attention to his habit of fragmentary
thought, to be aware of it, and thus bring it to an end."
He then continues by saying: "It is clear that we may have any number
of different kinds of insights. What is called for is not an integration
of thought, or a kind of imposed unity, for any such imposed point of view
would itself be merely another fragment. Rather, all our different ways
of thinking are to be considered as different ways of looking at the one
reality, each with some domain in which it is clear and adequate. One may
indeed compare a theory to a particular view of some object. Each view
gives only an appearance of the object in some aspect. The whole object
is not perceived in any one view but, rather, it is grasped only implicitly
as that single reality which is shown in all these views. When we deeply
understand that our theories also work in this way, then we will not fall
into the habit of seeing reality and acting toward it as if it were constituted
of separately existent fragments, corresponding to how it appears in our
thought and in our imagination, when we take our theories to be "direct
descriptions of reality as it is."
Bohm asks: "How are we to think coherently of a single, unbroken,
flowing actuality of existence as a whole, containing both thought (consciousness)
and external reality as we experience it?" (1980, p.x) He points to
the nature of an answer through his discussion of the "implicate order",
of which man is directly aware to some degree, as it relates to the "explicate
order" in terms of which society and conceptual systems are structured.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential