Boundaries as Useful Fictions?

February 12, 2015 2 Comments

“You have to remember, every boundary is a useful bit of fiction.”

– Buckminster Fuller


One of the more memorable stories about my late father, who passed away 3 years ago this month, happened not long after the Great Recession began in 2008. At the time, he was on the board of a national organization devoted to the study and promotion of human consciousness and the connection between science and spirituality. During a phone meeting of board members, people got to talking about the economic crisis, at which point one member made the following remark: “It’s at times like these that it’s especially important to remember that we are all one.”

“Bullshit!” was my dad’s response (not prone to such outbursts on that board or in general).

After a momentary and no doubt stunned silence, he elaborated – “Clearly we are not one. Some people, a very few people, are making out like bandits from this crisis. Meanwhile of the so-called 99%, some have been much harder hit than others, their wealth decimated. How can we say we are one at a time like this?”

To be fair to my father and full in the storytelling, my dad acknowledged that he believed that it is important to recognize interdependence and shared humanity, and that how and when to do this is an important consideration. Which brings me to the quote from Buckminster Fuller above, a personal favorite and one that I seem to keep sharing recently. Fuller, the eminent systems theorist and design scientist, understood the interconnected nature of reality, as well as the human need and tendency to draw boundaries. Theoretically these boundaries are drawn to be of use to something and/or someone – to name important distinctions, focus attention, aid with analysis, etc. In fact boundaries, or at least difference, might be said to be crucial to life, as dynamic exchange is required to keep living systems alive. Yes, boundaries can be very useful . . . except when they’re not.

“Our organizations are already networked. Many are just not allowed to act like networks.”

Niels Pflaeging (somewhat paraphrased)

Clearly there is evidence of the unhelpful and damaging use of boundaries in organizational structures that remain siloed with fixed roles and rigid oversight. In the midst of dynamic environments, firm boundaries can be an impediment to organizing for complexity and rob social change groups of their collective intelligence and adaptive capacity. These boundaries are also imposed within individuals who are expected in certain social settings to leave parts of themselves at the door – informal connections, unrecognized talents, large parts of their identity, a sense of deeper and broader responsibility (resulting in what Seth Godin calls “not my job thinking“) – often to the detriment of “the work” and the whole.

And the boundaries that are drawn and reinforced at larger social levels (as a result of implicit bias, racial anxiety, stereotype threat, explicit discrimination, oppression and power hoarding) have implications for those that are denied equitable access to public goods, moral consideration, and fair treatment. Furthermore, as alluded to in last week’s post, research shows how stark divisions and growing disparities have repercussions for all in countries where inequality is rampant.

“There is a strong current in contemporary culture advocating ‘holistic’ views as some sort of cure-all. . . . Reductionism implies attention to a lower level while holistic implies attention to higher level. These are intertwined in any satisfactory description: and each entails some loss relative to our cognitive preferences, as well as some gain.”

-Francisco Varela

The answer to this conundrum is not necessarily to default to holism, which can mask the nature of the problem. “We are all connected” may be an existential insight, but not necessarily a strategic statement. Furthermore, it can be used to avoid difficult conversations, preserve privilege and ultimately exacerbate current conditions. This is where Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) can be helpful.

CSH is attributed to Swiss social scientist Werner Ulrich and his efforts to bring critical analysis to the boundaries that people construct around and within them. As Ulrich notes, far from being primordial, these boundaries and divisions are an expression of what people see and value from their particular perspectives. He writes, ”The methodological core idea [of CSH] is that all problem definitions, proposals for improvement, and evaluations of outcomes depend on prior judgments about the relevant whole system to be looked at.” His effort is to help make these boundary judgments explicit so that both those affected by and those implementing such judgements might see alternatives that better serve the whole.

Ulrich is also careful to say that what he has to offer is less a step-by-step technique and more of an attitudinal approach and invitation to deeper reflection, one marked by the understanding that our perceptions are self-limiting.  A starting point then is for change agents to understand what “facts” and “values” are included and which are left out of our perceptions of different systems. Ulrich offers some focused questions to social change efforts that might help to surface not just what is but what “ought to be.” Examples include:

  • Who is (ought to be) the beneficiary? That is, whose interests are (should be) served?
  • What is (ought to be) the purpose of the work? That is, what are (should be) the consequences?
  • What is (ought to be) the measure of improvement or measure of success? That is, how can (should) we determine that the consequences, taken together, constitute an improvement?
  • What kind of “expertise” is (ought to be) consulted? That is, what counts (should count) as relevant knowledge?
  • What worldview is (ought to be) determining? That is, what different visions of ‘improvement’ are (should be) considered, and how are they (should they be) reconciled?

More generally stated, CSH asks change agents to consider:

Who and what does the blurring of certain boundaries benefit?

Who and what does the drawing of certain boundaries benefit?

Another ongoing practice, I suppose, comes down to being able to hold on to both the whole and important distinctions in social change work, as David Budbill suggests in “The Three Goals”:

The first goal is to see the thing in itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal in the particular,
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.


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