Dimensions of Social Space

October 21, 2010 17 Comments

|Photo by|www.flickr.com/photos/nikonvscanon/1302296182|

This post first appeared back in March of this year, and I am re-posting as I prepare to co-present a session tomorrow at the Bioneers by the Bay gathering in New Bedford, MA.  In our session, “Transformative Leadership for Sustainability” we will experience each of the dimensions below . .

As process designers, facilitators, and change agents, we are called upon to help create conditions in which amazing things can happen between people, whether alignment, agreement building, innovation, etc.  At times this can be a tall order. Thankfully we are supported by an array of tools and techniques at our disposal. Knowing which of the social architect’s tools to turn to in any given situation is a core challenge. Something I’ve recently found useful as a guide is consideration of the different dimensions of social space and how these can be leveraged so that collective work can bring about the very best.

My thinking here has been informed by the work of psychologists and anthropologists identifying three clusters of morality across cultures: the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity.  These clusters speak to me of the vital dimensions of social space.

Autonomy is that dimension that honors individual identity and agency. It can be very important for people to feel individually recognized before they commit to anything collective. Furthermore, autonomy can help mitigate group think.

Community is the dimension concerned with the integrity of groups in terms of shared identity and commitments. In collaborative work, we often spend time navigating between individual stakes and shared intentions as a way of creating healthy and generative environments. What is missing from these is that dimension that speaks to transcendence, to taking individuals and groups to another level of awareness and connection. This is the dimension of . . .

Divinity in this case may or may not involve belief in a supreme being. What research suggests is that this dimension of social space engenders a psychic and emotional sense of “uplift,” a physiological response that can lead to sensations of being a part of something much larger than one’s self or group. Subsequently, people may experience profound feelings of love, trust, and openness, making them more receptive to new relationships and ideas.

How then do we leverage these dimensions? A few thoughts:

  • Autonomy: Differentiation. Create the opportunity for people to individually speak/write about their own hopes, fears, skills, etc.  Don’t force agreement. Encourage differences of opinion. Create opportunities for individual thinking and gifts to be expressed.
  • Community: Integration. Direct people’s attention and conversation to what they share with others. Help facilitate agreement. Point out shared interests beyond differences of opinions. Create opportunities for a group to work together toward some common goal or identity.
  • Divinity: Elevation. Help lift people up to see the larger picture or meaning.  Invite people to explore the bigger story of which they are a part.  Share examples of moral exemplars (virtue can trigger feelings of uplift). Have people think/speak about places and events that are “sacred” and expressive of their deepest values. Play inspiring music.  Read poetry. Meet/immerse people in the natural world.

Still playing with this and curious to hear your reactions and experiences.


  • Gibran says:

    Excellent post Curtis! I’m 100% with you on this. It makes me think of some of the leading-edge thinkers on the “inter-subjective nature of enlightenment.” They speak of the potential for sharing a an awakened space that gives life to a powerful collective while actually strengthening the autonomy of the individual. Achieving anything close to this allows us to get beyond the false dichotomy between collective and individual into a space where both are shared. I consider this possibility an evolutionary step forward.

    It also seems to me that your outline gets us towards the space at the bottom of Otto Scharmer’s U! Finally, I also think there are even more ways to address the role of “divinity” in creating space, but that would take us into a whole other post!

  • Talitha Abramsen says:

    Curtis (and Gibran)

    Your words, insights and thinking continue to nourish my mind, and sustain my spirit in ways that are extremely meaningful for where I am in my own thinking and journey around building community, facilitating processes, and participating in transformation. I have always loved the concept of the social architect, after I read it first in Peter Block’s The Answer to How is Yes book. Powerful concept and role to dive deeper and define more clearly in our society. Its so wild that you post on this subject today because I finally realized what is so magnetic about IISC and your community of colleagues: your individual and collective spirit and connection to the divine/spiritual aspect of this work. That was a pivotal insight for me to gleem yesterday, as part of my own process of defining what I need as a practitioner and learner in the universe, to sustain and advance my work. Thank you as always for sharing your questions, a-ha’s and resources…this blog is a site of continual awakening, community and validation for me and many others I am sure.

    One resource I came across last night that caused me to realize what I value about IISC and the importance, for me, of spirit in the workplace, was a lecture I attended about a book (Gaia Matrix) by a local W. Mass author (classically trained stone mason, farmer, geographer and all around renaissance man) named Peter Champoux. Fascinating theories and concepts he puts forth– definitely challenging my comfort zone and consciousness around physical spaces, sacred geometry, and divine geographical spaces (such as the pioneer valley-which he has studied considerably). http://www.geometryofplace.com/index.html His work is tangential, but connected to your post and a definite “ahead of its time” piece that will stretch your mind in many ways.

  • Curtis says:


    Thank YOU so much for your wonderful response. It is always good to know not just that people are out there reading, but specifically what they are taking away. You inspire me with your own journey. And your gift of the link to “geometry of place” is very much appreciated! What I am coming to really appreciate about the work of IISC (that long precedes my arrival here) is that we help make visible the invisible, and specifically those (process and experiential) elements that can make such a difference. It’s why I love these words from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Developing a language and expression for what we experience but can’t name is such an empowering and rewarding effort. Reading about the clusters of morality was like waking up. Reading your response is such a nice ending to my day.

  • Hi Curtis,
    Thanks for this wonderful reflection on dimensions of social space. I’m also reminded here of Oldenburg’s book The Third Place (if I recall it right) — that focuses on how we’ve lost those social spaces that gave communities a sense of “being” together.

    And, I think that creating “hospitable space” for these multiple levels of consciousness to be evoked is one of the true acts of artistry in today’s world– and lies at the heart of our capacity–by connecting all three levels you identify–to create the worlds we want to live in together.

    Fond regards,
    Juanita Brown

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Community, autonomy, divinity. What else is there, really?! Thanks all for sharing your hearts.

  • Curtis says:


    Your comments remind me of a conversation I had the other day with the good people at the Center for Whole Communities. We talked about the importance of change agents focusing not just on ways of doing, but also of seeing and being. How do we create spaces to see things whole and to experience ourselves as being whole? I know you have been instrumental in helping to answer that question. Thank you for your good work!

  • John McGah says:

    Nice post Curtis. I like the inclusion of divinity, and I want to think more, hear more from others, how we better “consciously co-exist” in these three spaces. For myself, I often focus on one space at a time: OK, now I am the individual. OK, now I am partnering in a group. Right, stop that, now I am focusing on the spirit. Of course all three spaces are always part of us. Are there practices/tools that help us to be simultaneously conscious of all three? Or perhaps the answer is to relax and be present, don’t force anything. Meditate on the co-existence of these spaces and let that awareness slowly seep into everyday. Hmm… Thoughts?

  • Curtis says:

    John, you ask such a great question. I’m reminded of a book on “alternative ways of knowing” and metaphysical experience written by a psychologist whose name escapes me now. She combs through a lot of research data suggesting that other ways of seeing and knowing reality cannot be held simultaneously with more conventional ways of grasping the world. What is required is a shift of frame, kind of like looking at that old ink blot where you either see a vase or two people looking at one another. You can know that the other perspective exists (awareness), but you have to bring some intention to shifting to really see it. I think that highlights the importance of designers and facilitators holding the stake for those perspectives and helping people to shift frames, or creating space where those shifts can happen. And I’m curious to hear more from others about practices for holding these simultaneously.

  • Curtis, echoing everyone, great post, and blogged it: http://tinyurl.com/ykububc

    Great comments too. Juanita reminded me of Joel Meyrowitz’s “No Sense of Place” too. Remember the Virginia Hine Segmented Polycephalous Ideological Network (SPIN) model? Segmented is like Autonomy; in fact she used that word specifically. Which leads to Polycephalous because if everyone is behaving with a sense of self-agency, there are many heads running the “space.” Ideological is like Community, because it’s the “space” of shared agreement, where everyone can co-exist. Network is something like Divinity typically — and exactly like it when it works.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Wow, Jessica. Thanks for educating me/us about the SPIN model. And I love your last line – “Network is something like Divinity, and exactly like it when it works.” The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Excellent post Curtis, and comments, all. Thank you.

  • Curtis says:

    Listening to Art of the Song on WUMB this morning (www.artofthesong.org) I heard the Canadian singer/songwriter Ferron make an interesting reference to these three dimensions. She talked about her foray into leading songwriting workshops for groups, and the powerful experiences people (and she) have had. At one point she makes the comment that in really learning how to tap their creativity, people realize they must come to learn to be at peace alone, at peace in the group, and to find a greater spiritual peace and inspiration. Sounds like autonomy, community, and divinity to me.

  • Beth Tener says:

    *Listening* is a theme that could unite all three elements:
    – How do we create spaces that enable people to listen to what is within them, find clarity about their ideas and vision? (autonomy)
    – How can we provide that quality of ‘gathered attention’ to hear each others’ stories and ideas and then collaborate in common purpose? (community)
    – Regarding the divinity element, I feel this one also relates to cultivating creativity, which you can view as being an inspiration that flows through us. On this point, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk (author of Eat, Pray, Love)

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Beth. I like that thread. It reminds me of the session Ashley and I did the other day at Bioneers where we focused on systems thinking, self-awareness, and collaborative capacity as key elements to moving people towards more sustainable behavior. In all of the exercises we did with the people who attended, listening was a key component. I look forward to seeing Gilbert’s talk.

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