Complex responsive processes of relating

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

You cannot Tap Into a Brain.

Ralph Stacey argued, in many ways human social behavior is like the complex adaptive systems (CAS) studied with computer simulations. For these simulations, entities called bots are provided with simple computer code, or instructions, describing how to respond to each other.

From those interactions, patterns emerge without planning or being controlled, which constantly change in small and sometimes large ways with ongoing interactions. In other words, it demonstrates emergence, which is at the foundation of complex systems. Emergence means a new entity appearing from the interactions of the parts, but with different properties than the parts.

To give meat to his argument, Stacey and his coworkers incorporated George Mead’s conversational act as a driver of human interaction, which shows features somewhat like CAS, and therefore serves as a mechanism for creating emerging symbols and patterns of behavior we recognize in our social world.

Mead, who called himself a behavioral sociologist, argued conversation is like the stimulus response reactions we observe in biological research. When someone communicates something to us through a combination of bodily actions and sound in the form of language, we interpret what we see and hear to give it context, and that interpretation becomes the meaning of the gesture, as Mead called it. In a conversation we gesture back and forth, and, just like CAS, we adjust our responses, which frequently don’t follow a planned script because of the complexity of communication.

The third leg of Stacey’s theory is Norbert Elias’ figurational sociology, also called process or relational sociology. To Elias, the human social world is in constant flux as ongoing relationships change it. Our interdependence makes our social world complex, hence we and our relationships change and are being changed by interacting with others, which, at the same time, puts constraints on what we can and cannot do. To understand our social world requires looking at events over time, and noticing patterns emerging from it.

In other words, what Stacey said is human social behavior is complex, like the bots of CAS we respond to the signals and behavior of those around us, and from these ongoing processes patterns and relationships emerge without us controlling or planning them.

Stacey’s theory is a reaction to what he called “systems thinking”, which creates three related problems for the theory. What he describes as systems thinking is a generalization of a vague collection of theories and methods, which share one thing in common; the belief our world works like a machine. It is this shared belief, or ontology as philosophers call it, that is the real problem. Systems thinking isn’t the problem, its the belief system at its foundation, and that belief system is widespread in our society.

The dominant worldview in the West, since the Enlightenment, is our world looks and works like a machine, which is a pervasive perspective shared throughout science, management, the law, politics, planning, and indeed our whole world. What approaches like systems thinking, CAS, and all others have in common, is a belief they can plan for and control things, which is exactly the opposite of the complex reality Stacey points to.

But what is required is not an antidote to systems thinking, it is a paradigm shift, or shift in worldview, acknowledging thinking about reality as mechanistic and therefore simplistic at times is useful, but it’s not how our world, and specifically social world works. Stacey stopped short of making this shift, and I’d like to explore some implications of making it.

If our world is complex, it works the opposite of a machine. Because any entity you look at consists of multiple interacting components, the outcomes emerging are impossible to plan and control. Any intervention in it has consequences, often small, but sometimes large, and, unlike machines, separated in space and time. The consequences of machine thinkers and planners’ interventions, which is pretty much most of the big problems we face today, takes time before they become apparent, and the more you interfere, the bigger the mess becomes.

Both Mead and Elias indirectly pointed to the important role of emergence, but, because they still worked within a framework of machine ontology, couldn’t see the consequences to it. Pretty much every concept and symbol we work and interact with every day, emerge from our relationships and interactions, despite the fact we name and categorize them as if they are components and “things” in a mechanistic way. Recognizing that they are emergent and not things, renders them fuzzier and more wistful than we imagine them to be. Working with emergent phenomena is an entirely different kettle of fish than the “things” and categories of machines.

Take for example organizations, and teams, which we study in management science as blocks that are part of an organogram. As an emergent phenomenon, what we call organization emerges from people’s relationships and interactions, which means everyone impacts on it, no matter how small, their relationships and interactions constantly change it, hence organizations constantly change, those changes are unplanned and outside management control, and no two organizations are ever exactly the same. The same goes for teams. Managers and leaders co-produce outcomes when they plan interventions, the problem is, once the battle starts, events take their own course, i.e., they no longer control or can accurately predict them.

Any intervention needs to begin with an understanding of human behavior and our human social world, how things emerge in it, and its ongoing fluidity. It also needs an understanding that, as Stacey and Mead argued, the code driving it is ongoing conversation and dialogue. Bureaucracies attempt to control complexity by controlling conversation and banning dialogue, thereby making emerging relationships and interactions dysfunctional, from which dysfunctional outcomes emerge, which results in more control, more dysfunction, etc.

A second problem arising from focusing on systems thinking, rather than the required shift in ontology, is the theory stops short of exploring what our social world looks like as a complex phenomenon, to which the principles of complexity, rather than machine laws apply. Opening that box turns everything we believe in upside down, and then, strangely, everything comes into a different focus making a lot more sense than the explanations we currently believe in.

Understanding human relationships and interactions to in some ways be like CAS, points to a social world governed by layers of simple rules, but at a staggering level of complexity. We are born with some, and learn others from those around us without knowing it, and use them effortlessly and unconsciously during our daily routines. We can’t know them all by analysis, but knowing about them makes what emerge less opaque, and more understandable, however, not in a way making it controllable and predictable. And, to close the loop, we need that understanding to neutralize the pervasive damage done by the mechanistic trap we are caught in.

A third problem with emphasizing CAS, rather than complexity as an ontology, is the fact we as humans purposefully act and react to what is around us and learn from it, which becomes peripheral, rather than central to what happens. Acting, adapting, and learning is a key feature of complexity. That is a very complex process as well, governed by the code described above and conversation as carrier of some of that code, which plays out invisibly in the background of our lives, and being conscious of it is important.

There was an article published in the past week about tapping into the brain. You cannot tap into a brain; that thinking is what got us into the messes we find ourselves in, crumbling health care, global warming, pollution, wars, culture wars, etc. There is an alternative, naturally fitting into reality as it is, but to take it, we must change our minds and thinking, and what hamstrings us is the very social complexity we must understand to drain the swamp. Doing so takes courage and is not easy, but I see no other way out of the predicament we created for ourselves.

I had the privilege of working under the tutelage of Ralph Stacey and his faculty for a while, and I am grateful for the path it put me on. Robert Frost wrote:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just fair…

    By exploring an unused path in the forest to see where the theory of complex responsive processes may go, I hope to pay my respects and show my gratitude to them. After all, the theory implies itself is a complex emergent phenomenon, and therefore open to constant change as we interact with it.