University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Significance: Patterns of concepts

Metaphor Project


1. Context

With the explosion of information in a multiplicity of fields, it is natural that many concepts have emerged in different domains. Whether in presenting new concepts for communication amongst peers, or for the education of a wider audience, or in organizing shared concepts in policy making, there is a tendency to group concepts into sets.

An agenda, in the forms of a list, is the simplest example, possibly resulting in a series of items in a resolution or an agreement. A matrix of issues, factors or categories, is a more complex example frequently used in academic papers. Although in the latter case the tendency is to employ simple matrices eg 2x2, 2x3, 3x3, etc. Much more complex is a structure such as the periodic "table" of chemical elements, for which better forms of presentation continue to be sought. In the religious traditions of many cultures there are also examples of lists, tables and concentric presentations of categories, especially qualities (vices or virtues), energies, and deities.

Such devices clearly serve as a form of presentation enabling people to obtain an overview of the relationship between the categories so ordered. They have an important integrative function. Faced as society is with a multiplicity of relevant concepts, it is appropriate to ask whether sufficient attention has been given to the patterns within which such concepts are ordered. This is especially the case when faced with inconsistent or incompatible concepts from different perspectives, as in usually the case when dealing with the global problematique.

The question of how incompatible concepts should be interrelated was brought to the fore during explorations of the possibility of integrating the insights of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project (1978-82). This project of the United Nations University's Human and Social Development Programme was unique in the variety of ideologies, cultures and disciplinary backgrounds, that the participating individuals and research institutes represented. How indeed could the results be presented if they were to be of significance as more than an administratively ordered collection of contributions? How is the pattern of insights to be conveyed, reflected or constrained by the patterning of the form chosen to embody them?

It is of course possible to use film, theatre, poetry, posters, and many other methods. But, because of their nature, these do not lend themselves to a systematic precise elaboration of the concerns of a complex project. They can only pick out portions of the total pattern for special emphasis. And even if a series of them is used, it is not clear that any such "sequences" would protect the essentially non-linear characteristics of a pattern involving conceptual discontinuities between perspectives.

When it is required to convey carefully a complex pattern, it is of course possible to do so using conventional text (even with appropriate illustrations). But the more carefully and precisely this is done, the longer will be such a document. And the longer it is, the more it will tend to defeat its purpose as a medium of communication.

This problem is not new. For example, in the case of the major Capacity Study of the United Nations Development System (the "Jackson Report", 1969), the results were presented in two volumes, the first of which was a short summary volume, itself introduced by a summary. But in order to be "readable", the underlying pattern of concepts had to be distorted and abridged. This method is primarily useful for making a single point (eg "something must be done") and not for presenting the pattern of concepts which need to be taken into consideration in ensuring that appropriate balance is maintained.

Another widely-used approach is to produce a list of points, as in the International Development Strategy or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such lists may be enriched by annotations. The lists are structured somewhat like conference "resolutions" or "recommendations". Whilst they are convenient as checklists, they imply by their structure a simplistic linear "pattern" of relationships between the points in the list - even if some of the points have sub-points. But unfortunately such lists, as they are used in practice, strongly de-emphasize any relationships between the items (including the linear ones), even if they were recognized when the list was elaborated.

How then is the underlying "master" pattern to be expressed, protected from "erosion", and rendered widely communicable, given the constraints noted above? For whilst parts of the pattern may be significant in themselves, their special significance if any lies in the attempt to harmonize the parts, arising from complementary concerns, into a coherent whole.

2. Investigation of precedents

If, as noted above, this is not a new problem, then there is much to be gained by reviewing a wide range of concept schemes to see whether there are lessons to be drawn which could be of value. In selecting such examples three major considerations need to be borne in mind:

In addition to the above considerations, it would also be valuable to examine:

Clearly the schemes selected should preferably be as independent of one another as possible.

3. Presentation of patterns

In Section CP, three completely different approaches to such concept patterns are presented.

(a) Pattern language: This uses the pattern language for environmental design, elaborated by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, as a set of 253 interrelated metaphors from which equivalent patterns were then developed as an experiment for the socio-organizational, conceptual and intra-personal environments. In this case the patterning derives from Alexander's art as a designer constrained by his practicality and sensitivity as an architect.

(b) Pattern of changes: This uses the highly developed pattern of the Chinese classic, the Book of Changes, based on 64 interlinked conditions and adapts this, as an experiment, into western organizational jargon (see demo). It is therefore an exploration of the possibility of making further use of a traditional pattern of concepts which is still highly valued.

(c) Pattern of disagreement: This is an exercise in designing a multi-set concept scheme (see text). The intention was to "internalize" the maximum amount of disagreement within the scheme as a guarantee of its relevance to a society in which disagreement is rife, whether constructive or destructive. The exercise resulted in an ordered series of 210 mutually- incompatible, transformation-oriented statements. It may be considered as an initial step towards more realistic organization of psycho-social development, cured of the tendency to "disagreement phobia" and of the desperate compensatory pursuit of agreement-promoting processes.

4.Ordering concept scheme material for comparison

Any investigation, such as that suggested above, can easily run the risk of being overly ambitious and falling victim to the problem of "presentation" it is designed to clarify. A "filium ariadnis" is required as a guide through the conceptual labyrinths to be investigated. The following procedure was therefore used in support of the above experiment in designing a multi-set concept scheme.

An earlier investigation considered the role of number in the formulation of complete sets, and the associated problems of their representation, comprehension and communication (Anthony Judge, Representation, Comprehension and Communication of Sets, 1978). Since the concept schemes it is proposed to investigate are supposedly made up of complete sets, it could well be that the number of elements in any such set would provide a relatively simple and unambiguous way of ordering the material. That investigation in fact reinforced the arguments of other authors in favour of such an approach.

Examples of concept sets were collected from 20 integrated multi-set concept schemes of the most diverse nature and compared with the organization of the sets of concepts on which the UN University's project were based (Anthony Judge, Patterns of N-foldness, 1978). To facilitate comparison they are ordered by number of set elements. The paper itself discusses some tentative approaches to the process of comparison. A special merit of the approach outlined lies in the concern with protecting the concept patterns as a whole.

5. Comment

A great danger with many exciting "sensitizing" forms of presentation is that they "excite" people's awareness very successfully to levels at which there is no coherent pattern which can ensure the permanent stabilization of their awareness at that level. Such temporary increases in "attention potential" are associated with high "forgetability" (witness the track record of various UN public information programmes). Conceived in this way the challenge is to find ways of stabilizing such patterns of nested sets and of facilitating shifts of attention between them. This has been compared to the problem of a "conceptual gearbox" in a separate paper (Anthony Judge, The Future of Comprehension, 1984). One problem is to find ways of using "higher gears" to mesh more effectively with the rate of social change. This is the question of how to develop more operationally significant concept sets.

The more excitingly communicative, audio-visual forms are based on the axiom of minimum number of explicit messages per presentation, thus fragmenting the whole pattern. It would therefore be important to establish what forms are useful to communicate what parts of that pattern. it is important also for people to be able to transfer, from the sets and associated symbols of a concept scheme with which they are familiar (and have faith in), to whatever new ones can be presented, with a sense of continuity - otherwise the latter will be perceived as of ersatz quality. This is a reason for establishing the relationship between a variety of concept schemes. 

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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