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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Action implications: Consensus, uncertainty and action formulation

Global Strategies Project

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1. Challenge to consensus: opposition to answers

This section arose from recognition that however excellent any strategic "answer" may appear to its advocates, there will always be others who find good reason to argue or act against it in the interests of their own conception of human and social development. Furthermore, most answers, if they recognize the possibility of such rejection or accord importance to it, either make somewhat naive provisions for "educating everybody" or advocate processes which would lead to much more violent procedures for limiting the influence of those who hold any opposing viewpoint.

Without considering the political realm, the difficulties of achieving any consensus are quite obvious in the realm of scholarly discourse. For a scholar to agree, without qualifications, with the views of another effectively involves loss of identity as an uncreative "follower". The further development of the scholar can only come about by disagreeing and thus distinguishing himself from his peers - distinction is acquired by engendering difference. Quite concretely his career may even depend upon the production of well-argued counterarguments. A similar situation exists in the political realm.

The previous sections suggest that the kinds of consensus or agreement which evoke responses perceived as conflictual must necessarily continue to occur. They are a feature of psycho-social dynamics, whether they are the hawk/dove, ecology/industry, right/left, or other varieties. Universal agreement at this level could only be achieved at the price of psycho-social stagnation.

2. Resonant answers

Another possibility arises where an answer is deliberately formulated to "resonate" with one or more antagonistic alternatives. Consensus of a different kind then becomes possible through shared recognition of this resonance. The resonance pattern then defines in energy terms a "structure" which could not exist if defined monolithically. Thus, for example, neither of the answers of the two parties in a 2-party political system can accept the need for the other to hold power. In French politics even though explicit use is made of alternance, it is only used to mean the one-off transfer of power to the favoured party. The alternation between the two answers is only recognized implicitly, de facto, or for public relations purposes, never as a process in which the two answers have necessarily to participate given their complementary limitations (which they would deny).

Another example is disagreement as to whether it is now "night" or "day". Clearly a global perspective shows that it is night for some and day for others. From a local perspective such a view constitutes equivocation, although the alternation of night and day in time is necessarily accepted. In an interstellar spaceship the question of whether it "is" night or day is inappropriate, although the passengers will need to impose a night/day cycle upon themselves to maintain their health. Alternation between contrasting conditions is indeed important to the health of any system.

Further work is required to clarify the nature of possible resonance patterns - especially those already effectively in use. The problem is to render such alternation more credible as a foundation for social interaction. One approach is to explore patterns of alternation within sets of increasing numbers of different perspectives. Such patterns may be more capable of acting as a basis for social organization when the number of alternatives is greater than the range 27 with which the human mind seems to be comfortable. This is the question of the discontinuous "organization" of disagreement explored elsewhere (Penser/Classer, 1982). Alternatives in disagreement are necessary to the health of any system, if the "organization" is appropriate.

3. Self-reflexive answers

Finally there is the very specific question of the relationship of a section like this one to others which disagree with it. The argument has been that any response must resonate or "dance" with its ownnegation, or with positions that negate or deny it. Alternation is obviously not the whole truth. It is a response to the mind-set which claims to have encompassed such truth with a fixed set of categories lacking any self-transformational dynamic or internalization of opposition. Moreover it is specifically designed as a way of not occupying the central space from which new insights about truth emerge. It is one perspective on the relationship between partial truths, some of which must (in order to fulfil their function) necessarily deny both their partiality and the importance of clarifying any such a relationship. The alternation proposed between global uncertainty and local specificity is a response to this aspect of reality. The denial of such alternation is however necessary to the renewal and development of the perspective which gave rise to it. In a self-referential perspective there is necessarily a degree of paradox. The question is whether it is appropriately contained and whether the "container" can be further developed.

4. Uncertainty in social development

Stress has been placed on the pattern of essentially opposed modes of comprehending the nature of the problematique and the useful priorities in responding to it. This implies a built-in uncertainty necessary to contain the essential uncertainty encountered in a dynamic developing society (cf. Ashby's Law).

Use of the term uncertainty raises the question as to whether the conceptual problems experienced in some realms of physics are not also to be found in some realms of the social sciences. Specifically is there some form of generalized Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty of which it is important to take account in formulating any coherent pattern of actions ? This question has been explored by Garrison Sposito (1969) who clarifies the significance of a study by Richard Lichtman (1967) on indeterminacy in the social sciences.

Lichtman's demonstration involved the premise that the response of social phenomena to investigation is entirely the result of rational processes, "the result of their acting to realize purposes they have consciously elaborated and endorsed". Sposito asks what happens if the opposite assumption is made. "Suppose the social phenomena do not control their responses to observation, but instead manufacture them to realize purposes unconsciously elaborated and endorsed". He draws attention to the situation in which human beings experience anxiety concerning the content of their experiences. Healed-over wounds of experience, not held consciously, can be laid open rather easily if the repressed experience which fostered them is repeated either in fact or suggestion. This triggers an uncontrolled aberration in behaviour well known in the therapeutic context as transference distortion.

Sposito then tentatively formulates a version of the Heisenberg Principle operative in the social sciences as: "If the observation of social phenomena entails direct communication between human beings, one of which is the agent of observation, and transference distortions occur, then the results of the observation will not be completely objective, but will reflect latent facets of the personalities of those involved".

Clearly the "agent" could also be a group or school of thought, there being sufficient evidence of the dramatic communication difficulties between schools of thought. The possibility that each such school or collectivity carries repressed experiential "wounds" which partially determine its response is worth further investigation. As Sposito stresses: "The interference phenomena engendered by transference distortions are uncontrollable in that they do not follow from purely rational processes and are not known to those who manifest them. Finally and most significantly, the interference phenomenon connects the social scientist inextricably with the objects of his inquiry (both heretofore logically independent entities) because the behaviour of the former induces unpredictable behaviour in the latter and vice versa".

5. Engendering corrective opposition

The possibility then exists that the discontinuities between answer domains are governed by transference distortions caused by repressed (historical) experiences which are triggered by the nature of their responses to each other. Each effectively represents the other's "poison" and has been engendered to fill a niche from which an appropriate response can be made.

6. Envisaging a framework nesting degrees of uncertainty

In such a situation the question is then how to formulate a "methodological" framework to interrelate such dramatically opposed perspectives - especially when the problem is to anchor the valid concerns of such complementary perspectives in a coherent pattern of actions.

One approach is to envisage a series of statement levels of decreasing uncertainty. Thus in the first and most general statement the uncertainty would be most explicit. As such the statement corresponds in nature to the degree of universal consensus which can be realistically expected in a complex society. Succeeding statement levels would reduce the apparent uncertainty through the formulation of sets of increasing numbers of parallel statements of decreasing ambiguity. The uncertainty is then implicit in the unidentified relationship between those statements and between those who associate themselves with one or another. It is the dynamics between such statements which then "explicate" or "carry" the uncertainty. The lower the level of the statement, the more concrete and action-oriented it can be made - but the more difficult it becomes to formulate any coherent statement to interrelate statements at that level. The higher the level of the statement, the more coherent it can be - but the greater the degree of uncertainty which must be built into it to adequately reflect a consensus.

This approach then provides a realistic method for ordering and "packaging" statements. It reflects the dynamics inherent in any supposed consensus concerning a "new order" - in contrast to current sets of "static" conference resolutions which conceal the dynamics that then subsequently act to undermine the significance of such declarations.

This approach was advocated in a "methodological preamble" as an ordering device for the conclusions of the UN University project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development, on the occasion of the drafting meeting for the final "integrated" report (Port-of-Spain, December 1982). The sets of statements at each level were designed to reflect the contrasting methodological emphases and priorities represented in the deliberately diverse project, some of which took the form of GPID sub-projects. The statements suggested were as follows.

7. Nested levels in a methodological framework

Level-1: Formulation of any clear and unambiguous understanding of development, such as at the macro-societal level or in terms of structures, tends to introduce ambiguity into the significance of the necessary complementary understanding of development, such as at the individual level, or in terms of processes. This ambiguity engenders uncertainty which is a healthy characteristic of the freedom inherent in the processes of a learning society. Any non-trivial single statement concerning development must therefore necessarily incorporate aspects of the development dynamics associated with the response to this uncertainty, or else run the risk of failing to encompass the richness of development potential.

Level-2: Such ambiguity in understanding may be reduced for purposes of presentation by contrasting the aspects of development in terms of opposing mind-sets which engender the dynamics characteristic of the development process. The mind-sets selected as extreme examples here are the epistemological, metaphysical, axiological, and space-time frameworks considered as dimensions of the multidimensional space within which development may be understood. Polar extremes characteristic of each framework may then be clustered into bipolar configurations of elements of understanding. These then encode the real-world tensions and disagreements they imply:

  • 2.1: This groups the mind-sets associated with atomistic epistemologies, secular metaphysical frameworks, relativistic axiological frameworks, and linear space-time frameworks. Discontinuities between isolated local elements are highlighted, as well as the conflictual dynamics between them.
  • 2.2: This groups the mind-sets associated with holistic epistemologies, transcendental metaphysical frameworks, absolutist axiological frameworks, and non-linear space-time frameworks. Global features are highlighted but with loss of ability to distinguish clearly the dynamics of local elements bound together into a seamless continuity.
Level-3: Understanding of development may be given a more concrete form by orienting any description in terms of the constraints on action implied in any practical response to the contrasting perspectives above. Any understanding may thus be further qualified in terms of:
  • 3.1: The necessarily limited domain of its validity, or its relevance to any unique concrete situation.
  • 3.2: The participatory, historical, or self-reflexive processes whereby the understanding is engendered.
  • 3.3: The ongoing learning processes of critical re-examination of the questions to which it attempts to provide an answer.
As indicated earlier (Note 10.5), this approach has been explored down to the 20th level, based on concept sets from a wide variety of disciplines and cultures. The intention was to "anchor" the approach in accepted conceptual frameworks as an appropriate foundation for the clustered pattern of complementary action programmes which can be associated with each such statement.

Clearly at the higher levels (presented above) the statements deal mainly with principles, whereas it is at the lower levels that the most concrete actions would emerge in detail. At any given level an alternation between the emphases of each of the (complementary) statements is called for in order to ensure a balanced, coherent pattern of action capable of absorbing its own excesses. This has interesting implications for strategy design.

8. Mutually constraining development initiatives

Strategic initiatives need to design in constraints against their specific limitations, which implies that these should be recognized. For healthy development, it is improbable that a specific initiative could function effectively and recognize such limitations fully. This requires the presence of complementary initiatives to provide the necessary constraints. Without them, each strategy is effectively irresponsible. This challenge may be seen in connection with many fashionable, constructive strategies, such as promoting non-violence, health for all, industrialization, dam construction, prolongation of life, democratic decision-making, human rights, etc.

At present the learning framework, to enable mutually constraining strategies to discover and encounter each other, is inadequate. Where a strategy introduces a constraint, such as due process, it needs to take a measure of responsibility for the negative consequences, such as delays and they suffering they cause. Where poor implementation of principles causes suffering, those supporting the principles need to be challenged to take greater responsibility for more appropriate implementation -- or accept corrective corrective measures provided by strategies based on opposing or incompatible principles.

Both Bosnia, and neighbourhood violence, are a challenge to conventional views on collective security and the manner whereby it is provided. Deploring their inadequacy is not enough.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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