RC51 program on the ISA WCS 2023

Find the program of the session and abstracts presented in the World Conference on Sociology held in Melburne by ISA: https://sociocybernetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/RC51-program-ISA-WCS-2023.pdf


Volume 1                                        Number 2                        Fall/Winter 2000

Observing Action in situ

Jacques Van Bockstaele; Maria Van Bockstaele; Martine Godard-Plasman


The conditions necessary for obtaining access to the observation of action in situ in a social system are formulated. These conditions entail exercising control over observer-observed interactions in a situation where the observed social actors are recognized to have a capacity for observation of the same sort as that of the outside observing party, i.e., a group of socioanalysts. This control is described in two ways. For one thing, the technical arrangements are presented for a “qualitative simulation”; these arrangements activate actors’ cognitive capacities (the presupposition of a link with a collective intentionality) in an intergroup situation. For another, an attempt is made to theoretically describe interactions that, through language, entail two levels of action: latent (the silent processes of language inside each actor) and patent (the public action of speaking out and thus producing contents pertinent for constructing and undertaking action in the social system).

KEY WORDS: observer-observed interactions, qualitative simulation, socioanalyst group, perception, cognition, collective intentionality

* Paper originally prepared for the 14th World Congress of the International Sociological Association at Montreal, 26 July – 1 August 1998 (WG 01, Session 15). We wish to thank Cor van Dijkum, Felix Geyer, Bernd R. Hornung and Richard E. Lee for helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper. This paper has been translated from the French by Noal Mellott (CNRS, Paris, France).

Social   systems   are   multi-dimensional.   They  have:   powerful   hierarchical  and  symbolic relations, a regulated production of technologies and practices, an internal dynamics that activates the cognitive capacities of human actors in the system at a given place and time, and, too, boundaries relative to observers. Observing a social system can be conducted in various ways depending on the conditions of access, criteria of delimitation, objectives, methodology, etc. One way to access observation is through the system’s formal structure: its forms of organization; arrangements of activities; explicit networks; channels for transmitting goods, property, information, etc; and the boundaries set by rules and regulations (March and Simon 1958; Perrow 1967; Weick 1995).

Observing action supposes obtaining access to the activation of actors’ cognitive capacities, i.e., being able to detect the processes whereby action arises and produces its effects (Cicourel 1974, 1994). Human beings are, all at once, actors who design and pursue strategies

and who act (Goffman 1974). There is no such thing as an actor who, like a robot, unswervingly performs tasks following specified instructions inside absolutely fixed bounds. Such a robot- actor does not exist, not even in cases where rules for executing actions are set by instructions and can be controlled. There is always room for uncertainty about human actors’ reliability and inventiveness.

Actors see and conceive their actions in a system wherein they are a part. Their ideas and conceptions are not directly accessible, nor easily communicable. Activating these cognitive representations brings into play mental processes and data that stay in the background but that, once active, are translated in the form of rational, factual descriptions. The contents of these descriptions express a particular view of reality, of how things work in general and from day to day. The observer lacks sufficient bearings for determining the appropriate criteria to use for evaluating the difference between this “translation” and the “facts” of the situation.

Observing action is as much an activity of the actors as of the observers, both being part of the system of observation. The observation of this system of observation performed by the one party involves its ideas about the other party. The observer-observed relationship during research in the social sciences entails interactions between systems of action. In a general way, this game of reciprocity leaves its marks on plans for action. For research in the social sciences, the observer-observed relationship takes the form of an interaction between systems of action.

The way a social system works can be described as a complex chain of causes and effects at different levels involving internal and external elements of various sorts, each of which may be real or symbolic: actors, knowledge, objects, contexts and rules. Actions always occur at a particular time and place where actors’ intentions are realized. The processes whereby an action arises gradually set off further actions, which set boundaries and build up defenses. Through this process, the social system identifies and experiences the presence of an outside world. In other words, a system’s actions fit into a constantly monitored context. This process defines the limits of access to any established social group or institution.

The first question raised by the observation of action in situ is epistemological: how to obtain access to the observation of action?

The sociologist observes in order to gain an understanding of social phenomena. His observations refer to a theoretical framework based on knowledge and experience (Campbell 1988). He tries to link phenomena, events, and processes in an explanation; identify categories and classifications; grasp relationships, networks and rules; and communicate his understanding thereof. To do this, he must gain access to the system under analysis.

An external observer is confronted with the many ways in which a social system’s members observe the system. This “self-observation”, whether spontaneous or planned, enters into play as a function of the stakes of the system. It continually regulates activities and relations at all levels. In order to investigate a chain of actions, social scientists must “observe” their own observation practices as well as those of the actors who talk about their actions: they must observe the observing of both parties.

The question of how to gain access to the observation of action thus takes a pragmatic turn: how to compare the observations of the sociologists who are actors in their own project, to those of actors in the social system under observation who are pursuing their own plans (Burawoy 1998)? Should the sociologist’s description and analysis make communicated information coincide with interpretations, or should they keep them separate? Language is the vector common to both parties. But can the action as described and analyzed be

translation true to the facts of the system that the observer is trying to describe and understand? By maintaining a critical distance based on the principle of non-reciprocity (the one party asks questions, the other replies), the observer risks formulating his observations in nearly tautological terms.

The second epistemological question bears on the ways these two parties observe and interact: how to deal with this “double source” of observation?

This double source of observation is often thought to be an impediment to research, since it produces unwanted effects that interfere with observation or even mislead the observer. In an attempt to neutralize these effects and their eventual distortions, sociologists closely observe their own practices. In many cases, they try to stand even farther back from their subject of study in order to gain a more objective view. Current sociological methods, such as open interviews, questionnaires or even the study of small groups through the likes of sensitivity training, do not establish the distance appropriate for observation. With them, the reciprocity and reflexivity between the internal observation of the system in action (by the members thereof) and the external observation (by sociologists) remain inaccessible. They are taken for granted or are seldom perceived (Perez de Guzman 1997). Social scientists thus fail to take full notice of the processes at work inside the system and the double source of observation remains a mystery. If the observer fails to take into account the effects of concealment inherent in the observer-observed relationship, he cannot deal with the double source of observation.

Our reserves about using the aforementioned methods to explore actions in social systems have arisen out of our professional experience with experiments as researchers and with interventions in the field as clinical sociologists. Our laboratory experiments explored what we call “intra-intergroup relations”, i.e., the relationship between, on the one hand, the relations among subgroups inside the group and, on the other hand, the group’s relations with other “outside” groups. This experimentation brought together a small–real–group, made up of two subgroups (a majority and a minority), and two big–not real but virtual–groups who, hooked up by two-way radio, supported or opposed the aforementioned majority or minority. It must be pointed out that the two real subgroups believed that the virtual groups actually existed. These experiments showed that the real subgroups attributed intentions and symbols to these virtual allies or opponents and, also, that feelings, ideas, images and attributes were projected and transferred onto the real minority instead of onto the outside groups (Van Bockstaele et al. 1963, 1968). This simulation opened up unexplored ground. As we discovered, the intra-intergroup relationship activates causal forces with effects that, themselves stemming from the experiment’s characteristics, could modify perceptions (e.g., of physical size), intentions (e.g., by arousing doubt or reinforcing the certitude about group choices), behaviors (e.g., an increase or decrease in communications with the aim of exerting influence), decisions and judgements (e.g., contradictions or reversals of opinion about subgroups in the minority or majority or in the outside groups) (Van Bockstaele et al. 1994a, 1994b). We have continued observing intra-intergroup relations in the field when working as clinical sociologists. The principle of face-to-face contacts has been maintained through a quasi-experimental arrangement in situ that brings together two parties: an entity representing a social system that decides to undergo an analysis of how it functions, and a professional group of socioanalysts who assumes the responsibility of assisting the former in this task. Once intra- intergroup relations are perceived as such, cognitive responses and behavioral reactions arise.

from “others”, and establishes the conditions for what happens thereafter.

The third question is methodological: how can the force of interactions between social entities be used for the purposes of analysis?

The passage from experiments in the laboratory to clinical practice in the field led us to formulate this third question in cybernetic terms: what happens when a group of sociologists intervenes? This formulation reverses the problem of observation. When the relationship with the observed is taken to be an operational necessity, observation comes to focus on interactions both inside each party and, also, between the parties. Observation can no longer focus exclusively on one party, the subject of experimentation, because the observers, themselves a party to the interaction, become privileged actors through a “qualitative” simulation (Van Bockstaele et al. 1960) that potentially offers each party, observers as well as the observed, a cognitive representation of the system and access to its operation.

In response to the question “What happens when one intervenes?” the group of socioanalysts, i.e. a collective analyst, can but observe that something does indeed happen in its face-to-face contacts with the social entity wherein it is intervening. Its active presence and the social group’s expectations about it are tangible evidence that the collective analyst becomes a substitute for the entity’s relations with the outside. This intra-intergroup relation is always activated in an action. The perplexity of the parties in presence sets off cognitive and relational reactions.

What can be observed through such a simulation is neither a projection of a psychological sort whereby one attributes what one thinks to others nor a protective transference whereby one uses others to express what one dares not formulate. Once part of the interaction, the group of socioanalysts becomes responsible for the simulation’s effects. It must foresee the consequences. To do this, it must clarify among its own members why it is intervening, how it does so, and what means it will use. It must assume the moral and material responsibility for controlling eventual risks or chance events.

In concrete terms, to tap the force of interactions between the parties involved in the intervention, the group of socioanalysts must see to it that certain preliminary conditions are fulfilled. Four prerequisites have to be met for an intervention to be possible:

  1. There must be a request or several compatible requests from one or more complementary, independent entities (i.e., firms, administrations, associations, families, etc.).
  2. There must be one or more explicitly formulated projects expressing the will to change things in the system(s).
  3. The request must be borne by a group involved in the project(s) and made up of members of the entities occupying various positions and having different but definite responsibilities.
  4. This group must accept fundamental rules that recognize: the relativity of viewpoints and positions; equality as to freedom of speech; and the “historicity of action”, i.e., the awareness of the need to work and rework the feedback between expectations (at the start of the project) and evaluation (during the course of the project).

By examining these four conditions (a demand, a formulated project, an involved group and basic rules), the socioanalysts can adopt the techniques best suited to the request as formulated. Such a simulation requires managing time (the frequency and length of meetings, a

specific rules case by case, and drawing up a contract to define the commitments of both parties (the entity that formulated the request and the group of socioanalysts). Before an agreement is reached on these technical conditions, there is a period of information, clarification and reflexion.

Since the force of interaction in intra-intergroup relations in a simulation can provide leverage for effecting cognitive and relational changes in the way the system works, the question of controlling and regulating this force arises for each group concerned with the simulation. The entity’s acceptance of the work of socioanalysis implies confidence and trust. Inside the limits set by the contract and in line with the foregoing technical conditions, the group of socioanalysts, given its technical power, can operate in the stead of formal power holders. The trust and the wager represented by the decision to become involved in a simulation usually reveal the legitimacy of the power of “leaders” and their capacity for integrating into their own actions potential changes, even though the momentum of interactions may lead to changes different from those initially expected (Van Bockstaele et al. 1992).

We shall illustrate the foregoing remarks with a qualitative simulation that grew out of an appeal expressed by civil servants “wanting to develop, inside the administration, thought on the state’s action with the aim of improving its effectiveness so as to take into account the relations between the state and social or economic actors and favor changes in these relations” (Groupe Méthodes et al. 1991: 90). To carry out this intervention, we adopted a socioanalytical approach, which we would later call “simulation-action”, that consisted in constructing the four previously mentioned technical conditions. Our initial preoccupation was to delimit the group bearing the request. To this end, we proposed forming, through cooptation, an open group of voluntary civil servants. These volunteers had to want to change their ordinary ways of relating and acting and, moreover, had to be capable of encountering, on an equal footing and over a long period of time, social or economic actors having dealings with the state in one of six fields, each involving several ministries: small industries (1969-1977); industrial safety (1980-1990); regional economies (1982-1990); banks and insurance companies (1986-1990); industry and the environment (since 1991) and finances (since 1991). On the basis of the request received from inside the public administration, encounters between groups of civil servants and outside actors, each made up of several categories of persons, gradually led the latter to also formulate an appeal. By developing “intercategorial” relations, a joint request emerged from two “collective subjects”, each delimited by its institutional attachments, and both equally associated in the simulation.

Under this condition, the collective analyst can fulfill its role as an independent third party, in particular by mediating the relation between the state administration and the “administered”.

The design and implementation of such a simulation-action protects the actions, institutions and persons involved and, at the same time, helps develop a co-investigation involving several categories of persons. Three rules preside over this co-investigation. The “equality” between persons and between categories keeps participants from justifying themselves with arguments based on authority. Under this rule, participants from all categories, regardless of their affiliation and position, are volunteers; their superiors do not appoint them. In the fields investigated, the “relativity rule” means recognizing that a problem does not have a single solution. Every viewpoint has the right to be voiced and to be received as a percept or concept for discussions. As a practical consequence of this rule, categories are constantly reshuffled during the intervention. The “historicity rule” refers to the management of time and the

continuity in any program or project. Time is an operator of change. This rule has as a consequence transmission, cooptation and, therefore, evaluation.

What is produced during such an intervention very much depends on the conditions for producing it. The force of interactions between partners in the simulation can be used to help all parties better understand the conceptions of action that each category of actors has, to become aware of what is at stake for each actor, and to better perceive the reciprocal images and judgements that underlie action.

The fourth question is ontological: what is being simulated?

What differences exist between the prerequisites for the simulation, as formulated earlier, and the “in-house” procedures that prescribe changes? An initial response might advance the idea that a simulation represents a facsimile containing simple analogies with the usual procedures for delimiting and organizing activities in a social system. Or one might imagine that the technical arrangements for a simulation are formulated in line with the request for an intervention or the project at the center of this request. These responses leave out of the account the momentum set off by a simulation.

As stated at the start, a social system activates human actors’ cognitive capacities in the system at a given place and time. Without this dynamics, the system lacks creative energy. What a simulation makes possible is to start this activation. When it does so, it provides the possibility of accessing the processes causing this activation under normal conditions. Behaviors and interactions are spontaneously recognized and can be attributed. Participants’ perceptions, the positions they adopt or the words they speak thus provide evidence of how they mentally represent the system, in other words, of how they perceive the simulation. A gradually growing awareness of this activation and of how it works opens up the possibility for participants to deal with their relations and the specific tasks for which they have responsibility.

Such a qualitative simulation relies on two properties that, according to our hypothesis (Van Bockstaele et al. 1981), social processes have: they can be reproduced and they can be substituted for one other. These properties become accessible only if there is an “outside” group or object on which judgements, opinions, interpretations, intentions, proposals, etc., “condense”.

Once the party requesting the intervention and the collective analyst come face-to-face, nothing happens in a random, arbitrary manner. Visible preferences will not be a matter of psychological empathy. Instead, they will mainly express how participants perceive the power structure–the positions favoring an alliance or risking conflict. The choice of other parties with whom to have contacts will reflect intentions, goals and expectations. The activated intentions with regard to action, and what comes out of them, will be shaped by the state of relations inside the group and the impact of the group’s relations with outside parties. This social “pairing”, spontaneous and thought out, will open up a way of analyzing the workings of the system and the social processes in intra-intergroup relations.

The first means of access to observation is language and associated forms of expression. An utterance conveys, all at once, information, a relation, an intention and a judgement. This complex vector tends toward multiple interpretations of the message and of its receiver(s), goal(s) and effect(s). An utterance is an act for both speaker and listener. The contents of an utterance and the ways it is produced become accessible thanks to the properties of language whereby an utterance may have several, simultaneous levels of meaning and translate the complexity of processes of self-organization and self-regulation in social systems.

Like an act, it vehicles energy. This energy can be detected through cognitive activation,

which takes the form of communication, contents, positions, etc. When made in a definite context–here, in the relation between the request for a simulation and the system’s project–an utterance reveals, reflects or transposes the complexity of the system’s power structure. Aspects of this complexity can be observed during the simulation. Though perceived, they are neither talked about nor described. They are used. This spontaneous use during discussions is proof of the power of social relations–of the vitality of experiences, practices, norms, rules, judgements and interpretations. Through it, one can notice and understand the processes whereby the “remanence” of these forms of behavior reactivates, day after day, beliefs, ways of thought and relations in a situation outside the contexts where these forms took shape–“in real life”, during social, technical, economic and political activities.

The first part of this article has examined the requisite conditions for obtaining access to the observation of an action in situ. These conditions seek to establish a situation homologous to “live” action. A relational dynamics develops as actions are produced, by actors and the entity (institution, association, or organization) of which they are a part, around a recognized project in the presence of a group of socioanalytical observers. Given the face-to-face presence of actors and observers, a situation of mutual observation arises wherein ordinary processes recur and cognitive activities take place.

Before its conversion into a concrete, observable external act, action is an internal human production. This “exteriorization” does not break the continuity of an active human being’s presence. Throughout this process, the orientations and instructions established by actors are translated into acts and plans. Ideas arise, renew practices and open the way to innovations. During the whole internalized part of this process, an actor’s abilities, knowledge and experiences become evident only if precise circumstances activate him cognitively and pragmatically so that he spontaneously makes adjustments as need be. The reality or virtuality of this process for producing action contains, in the background, the need to constantly monitor action. And this vigilance implies the actual or potential presence of human actors.

This action-actor, or product-producer, link is so complex and activates such barely accessible processes that observers, unable to cope with it, usually tend to neglect it. The advantage of a qualitative simulation lies in the transposition of this link to the project at the center of the request (a project implying actors, what they say and do), the immanence of the institution (or organization) of which they are a part, and the context.

The context is a set of circumstances. The actors are already familiar with some of them, but other circumstances arise out of unexpected events or situations, or evolve as a function of problems inside or outside the system. The context also refers to the set of learned and assimilated rules of behavior, an organization of physical space, a time frame, bounds, etc., all of which are used for operational purposes during action.

To adapt to this set of circumstances, an actor uses basic human abilities: language, know-how, experience and imagination. Activating these abilities leads to multiple forms of communication and interaction arising out of the goals and projects the actors are pursuing or want to pursue. The movement thus set off is “ordered” in line with informal procedures and practices for “naturally” arranging things, i.e., in a spontaneous way that does not ensue from a purely legal or normative structure.

The first such practice–indeed, the driving force behind action–is mutual observation, in other words, the observer-observed relationship. This social practice can be considered to be an anthropological fact. What characterizes an action as experienced by an individual or group is

the impossibility of escaping from the flux of relations or out of the presence, even if virtual or imaginary, of others. In the observer-observed relationship, there is a constant monitoring of oneself and of others and, too, an ongoing regulation of oneself and of others. This vigilance is a source of cohesion and imagination; it implants “otherness” inside each member of the observer or observed parties. The interplay between the view of oneself by oneself and by others, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the view of others by oneself and by others sets more or less definite bounds for the purpose of defense, dissuasion or even, more simply, coexistence.

The observer-observed relationship becomes more clearly evident once, in addition to this interaction, actors group together on the basis of spontaneous affinities or of common interests and a solidarity that has stood the test of time. The thus formed “kernels” of actors are informal entities consubstantial with action.

Institutional structures distribute in the system all the categories of actors necessary for satisfying the system’s production requirements. This assignment of duties and positions leaves enough room for informal social activities to develop. This undefined “degree” of freedom allows for interpersonal relations to arise out of a complex cooptation without any clear-cut criteria, with no aim at being a permanent organization and without internal stability. This cooptation can be understood as the effect of institutional resonance, i.e., as an echo in response to the system’s rigidity, to the formalism of social control, and to restrictions on responsibility and innovation. Given their informal nature, these “kernels” of actors have a conditional, shifting existence. Such networks of relations cannot be inventoried; they have no assignment, no program.

The effectiveness of cognitive activities is partly based on interactions between the formal structure and these informal networks. As can be seen during a qualitative simulation, the ability and force of certain actors often are unappreciated because they are unusual or do not seem legitimate. Judgements and interpretations give voice to a tension that, depending on the case, can serve as a means of regulation or as a provocation in the relations between formal structures and informal networks.

The existence of a social relation does not depend on the agreement or disagreement subjectively expected by actors. Even at a level of what seems to be fully subjective interpersonal relations, a social relation is not intrinsically the outcome of an actor’s personal decision. In the case of collectively experienced issues, a social relation exists independent of an actor’s subjectivity. The images an actor sets off in the mind of other actors do not belong to the actor himself. He has but a relative degree of hic et nunc control over them. They can exist prior to his presence and persist despite his absence.

Of course, a strong interaction may emerge between an actor’s images of himself and the images of others, but a just as strong an interaction exists between the contents of activities and the finalities of projects. Relations between persons and relations between activities/finalities have different facets depending on whether individuals or instituted groups are involved. Conflicts or settlements counter or balance each other depending on the recourse that is possible, desired or denied. The networks of actors who know or come to know each other implicitly share a conception of their actions and positions. The actors’ “world-views”–or, might we not say, “system-views”?–are a means of action for them. A world-view sets off acts and serves to orient and evaluate acts. It is not at all a description drawn up by an observer who, for a short while, abandons his position and sees his acts as independent of the determinants of his observation. Observation is constantly mixed up

acts. The purpose of this feedback loop is to make experience useable by seeing to it that acts are adjusted to the surrounding world.

Mobilizing actors and generating acts, observing and processing observed data, all this activates each party’s ability to observe the other party and, by doing so, causes actors and their acts to interact. This provides the basis for reciprocity in the observer-observed relationship. But reciprocity is not equality. The ways in which the observer-observed relationship emerges adjust “naturally” to the society’s hierarchical operation. The duties assigned or the powers deriving from them determine positions, distances and possibilities for acting. Adjustments come about at different levels and paces. At the institutional level, the disparity among actors sets limitations on behaviors, activates and reinforces beliefs, stimulates the production of judgements and interpretations. In a hierarchy, holding power confers a right to observe subordinates. But in terms of cognition, any human observer has the natural ability to form ideas about any other human being really or virtually present in his field of action.

Since a field of action is also a field of force, a relation during the course of an action always implies a line-up of forces. For this reason, the observer-observed relationship takes on quite specific forms. Actors experience and test the rules, reference-marks and history of the social structures in which they are inserted. They perceive each other, judge each other and form groups as a function of the system of power and of the degree of cohesion or dissension inside the group to which they belong or as a function of relations with outside groups. They assess the strategies implemented at various levels of decision-making and see their position in terms of their relations inside and outside the system. They discern the social distance separating those who make decisions from those who execute them. They evaluate the degree of cohesion and sharing as experienced by themselves and by other parties.

This gauging of the morale, pride, satisfaction and performances of various parties produces behaviors, acts and judgements that affect the social climate and the willingness to cooperate. However, the aim at this point in a simulation is not to describe a state of morale or measure a level of satisfaction. Affective states and the forms in which they are expressed relate directly to the complex processes involved in implementing an action.

Nothing backs up the claim that a perfectly localized source exists to which we can attribute this capacity for observation and action. Does the fact that every individual gives evidence of having it imply that only individuals are able to feel, observe and act? Groups also “use” world-views that do not amount to the sum of the world-views of the individual members. Are the world-views attributed to social groups, organizations, etc. acquired any differently than those that condition the individual’s perceptions, experiences and descriptions thereof? Can we, without anthropomorphizing, attribute to groups, such as the aforementioned kernels of actors, properties like those ascribed to individual actors-observers? Must we not question the boundary defining and separating the individual and the collective spheres (Knorr-Cetina 1981)?

Our experience with qualitative simulations has led us to design a model for describing and interpreting the processes whereby the action of a human entity develops. Several approaches have been made to this problem in the developments that led from post-WW II cybernetics up to the present-day cognitive sciences (Dupuy 1994). Current debate about this mainly occurs between philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists or inside these disciplines.

The question is open of whether cognitive capacities have their source in the individual or whether a group activates cognitive capacities that, lacking any material localization,

of relations and interactions. Human interaction founds and organizes society. Speech, as a capability (or competence), usage and act, is acquired only through intense interactions (Bruner 1990), since learning a language entails learning how to do things with words, to borrow Austin’s formula (1962). In any social group involved in action, the processes activating cognitive capacities stay active, often silently so.

We hypothesize that levels of cognitive activity are differentiated in two classes, the one having to do with latent action and the other with patent action. A latent action is the set of background processes that silently prepare for a patent action and amplify cognitive activation so as to shape a public language. An actor’s bodily involvement–gestures, postures, movements, etc.–during interactions provide evidence of these silent processes.

A latent act turns patent through an activation of cognitive capacities. But the latter can be fully activated only if the silent background processes of latent action have been activated. These processes mainly involve perception and intentionality. Perception mobilizes the body as a whole: the body, and not just the brain, reacts to what it perceives. When a percept is felt to be immediately pertinent, the person has, we may suppose, formed an image of what has triggered the percept and has expectations about how to use it (Berthoz 1997). Intentionality thus transforms the percept so as to open the way to cognition, to concepts and actions through the use of a public language.

When actors, inserted in a formal structure and involved in a common project, work together, this transformation occurs through speaking up. Speaking occurs in an “order”, expected or not, known or ignored. Silences and utterances are phases always out of rhythm; accelerations and decelerations come about unforeseeably. Speaking triggers judgements or interpretations that, whether formulated or not, are vented through gestures or mimics. Silences play a major role in observation, imagination and adjustment. A ceaseless flux of signs runs through the mind, but the selection of certain signs as pertinent depends on the circumstances (Chauviré 1989). This temporal process generates a relational process. The observer-observed relation becomes a driving force behind a collective intentionality (Searle 1983), the force that creates potential projects (Atlan 1995).

Intentionality is collective because it depends on interpersonal relations (Searle 1995). At the level of latent action, language is still an inner voice, as the individual talks to himself, and speech, an idiolect. This exercise in self-communication prepares what will be a “cognition- action”. In other words, it “anticipates” that this idiolect will be translated into the “dialect” characteristic of the group to be addressed. Differences in group membership are managed as a function of distances between the respective parties and of their positions. What comes literally “out” of these silent processes is expressed as a function of rules that are put to use and meaning in preparing plans of action, which implies a will to act and a common heritage.

The diagram of the processes and regulation of action produced below presents the dynamic relation between latent and patent actions and its consequences. Far from representing a break, the zone for making what is latent patent and vice-versa is the place of an unspoken intersubjective negotiation based on an awareness of rules and boundaries and on a monitoring of signals (Van Bockstaele et al. 1971).

The emergence of a public language creates a field of interactivity between the parties present. Each actor has his own rhythm, history, and experiences–in brief, his idiosyncrasies. Once actors are all involved in a collective action, the characteristics of individuals become interrelated. Actors have the talent of feeling, through empathy, the perceptive situation of others (Quine 1990). Compared with public language, an actor’s inner language is silent

activated at any time. Public language does not just announce contents. The speaker expresses his more or less evident intentions and marks his position in an order for speaking aloud. This “speaking order” is as much act as content. The succession of instances of speaking out changes the relational system. Rearranging relations inside a group leads to readjustments in the inner language. In other words, the determinants of the contents transmitted in a patent action modify the form and substance of the contents prepared for through latent action.

Thinking out action is a fundamental task for which actors are physically and mentally equipped. The work undertaken to think out an action taps resources at the most constructed level of cognition. Language plays a major role in this work. What is required of language cannot be reduced to a demand for a rational or technical discourse isolated from the relational world, disconnected or cut off from actors’ bodily and sensory involvement. In Quine’s words (1990), the requirement of intersubjectivity is what makes science objective.

In such a complex flux, noticing a causal link between elements or processes is uncertain. Drawing the conclusion that a particular belief or frame of mind is a cause of a particular action is merely a mechanistic way to link desire (or belief) to action (Engel 1997). Replacing the idea of causality with the notion of propensity provides a finer, livelier interpretation of how situations produce effects. Since this notion is tantamount to the idea of force, we can see propensity in terms of the properties inherent in a situation (Popper 1990). Rational discourse fails to notice or take account of many of the processes underlying social and interpersonal relations. The processes analyzed herein and presented in the foregoing diagram become accessible, as our professional practice in situ has shown, through qualitative simulation.


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Volume 1                                        Number 2                        Fall/Winter 2000

Managing Organized Knowledge: A Systemic Proposal

Heinrich W. Ahlemeyer


If we  look  for bridges among past, present, and future, our searchlight will almost inevitably get knowledge into its focus. Knowledge comes from the past; it is presently present; and by changing the presence it points into the future.

Modern organizations and societies are currently observed as going through a time of upheaval towards knowledge based systems. Next to power and money, the traditional communicative media, knowledge is described as increasingly gaining weight as an operational condition and as a resource in steering social systems (Willke 1998a; b).

The current renaissance of knowledge as a topic comes neither from sociology nor from political science but typically from management theory. After Amitai Etzioni’s Active Society (1971) and Daniel Bell’s Post-Industrial Society (1976), knowledge as a subject was dormant for almost two decades before it was rediscovered by the works of Quinn (1992) on the “Intelligent Organization”, Reich’s concept of knowledge work by “symbolic analysts” (1991) and Peter Drucker’s description of “The Post-Capitalist Society” (1994). The idea of the intelligent organization can presently be observed thriving both in the theory and in the praxis of management (see, for instance, Senge 1990; Chawla and Renesch 1995).

Three recent publications by system thinkers, however, indicate a renewed sociological interest in the subject and promise some challenging views on the way in which organizations deal with knowledge (Willke 1998a; b; Baecker 1999; Luhmann 2000). In this article, we shall take up some of their ideas and concepts and examine them for implications they might have for the practical management of knowledge in organizations. Both the volume and the degree of complexity of the theoretical concepts to which we refer prevent any claim of complete or adequate reproduction of the works we quote. We also accept the responsibility for the practical consequences that we propose in the last section.

Our inquiry indicates that organized knowledge cannot escape self-referentiality: by dealing with knowledge, it is referred to its own ignorance/knowledge. To break this self- reverential circle, we anticipate the concept of knowledge, developed in section three, and describe it as a complex operation of examination. The leading question for this examination asks to what extent results of systemic research on organizations may inform and support a practical management of knowledge? We set out to analyze the implications that an organization as a social system has on the production and use of knowledge, and we inquire in what ways organizations are prepared, in what ways they are structurally restricted in dealing with knowledge? What do the distinctive features of organized social systems mean for the production, use and spread of knowledge? What is regarded as knowledge within an organization? And finally, what practical consequences can be drawn from a systemically informed analysis for managing knowledge? We suggest that organizations are basically handicapped in dealing with knowledge and for an effective management of knowledge they need to resort to other social system types, such as networks and communities. First, however, we shall to examine the concept of organizations as autopoietic social systems.

2.    The Autopoietic Concept of Organized Social Systems

The concept of organizations as autopoietic social systems begins with a circular definition: “An organization is a system which produces itself as an organization” (NL 2000a: 45). Organizations are unpredictable, incalculable, historical systems that proceed from a presence for the constitution of which they themselves have contributed. They are autopoietic to the extent that they produce and reproduce themselves. This implies a self-description as an organization. Otherwise, an external observer would not know whether or not he is dealing with an organization; neither would the organization itself. A system that produces itself has to be able to observe and discriminate itself as different from its environment.

The basic unit of an autopoietic system has the chronological form of an ‘event’, an incident that makes a difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’. In the very moment of their coming into being, events fade away. The basic units are also called ‘operation’, and the basic operational mode of organizations is decision.   It is by the operation of decision that organizations differ from other autopoietic social systems, such as interaction or society (Luhmann 1997).

In this perspective, organizations are conceived as social systems consisting of decisions (Luhmann 1988). They produce the decisions they consist of by the very decisions they consist of (Ahlemeyer 2001). Organizations have to turn everything that is important for them and their continued existence into an object of their decision. This extends, as we shall see, to knowledge, too. The organization reproduces itself by decisions that go back to past decisions and point to future decisions (Baecker 1999). The operative units are connected recursively. Every decision has to take care of its connectivity to decisions that have previously been made and to those that might follow in the future. The only constancy in the elementary operation mode is to be found in its discontinuity. The ongoing disintegration on the basis of the underlying operative events demands a continued repetition of selections of a following event. In this sense, organizations are inherently restless.

To direct and program this ongoing selection on the level of their elementary units, autopoietic systems have to refer to their self-observation. They use their identity, however, not as a fixed object with certain stationary properties, but rather as a focal point for constantly adopting new qualities and shedding those no longer needed or used (Luhmann 2000: 47).

The theoretical concept of autopoiesis has far reaching consequences for the relationship of system and environment. No doubt: self-referentially closed systems require by necessity an environment and cannot exist without it. They are, however, not determined in any direct or immediate sense by an input of the environment, but they create their own environment by selecting themselves what they receive. The environment always appears according to internal processes of observation. Closure on the operative level does not mean that an organization would not communicate with its social environment. Society provides for these possibilities of communication across the borders of subsystems. As a recipient of communication, the organization regulates with its own structures what information may appear on its internal screens and stimulate its internal processes. As a sender, it decides what to communicate and what to keep to itself (Luhmann 2000: 52).

The environment is an internal construction of the system and in this sense specific to the system. Information in the system is always information about the environment, not information from the environment, as there is no direct contact between system and environment. An autopoietic system can thus only inform itself, and information in the system assumes the function of selectively limiting the possibilities for continuing its basic operations. The system uses information to get from one event fading away to the next one coming into being. The connection between the two is achieved by information. Information reproduces the borders of the system, and therefore it cannot transcend them, neither from the outside to the inside nor vice versa (Luhmann 2000: 56ff).

The description of organizations as information processing systems requires an explanation of the notion ‘information’. For this, we resort to Gregory Bateson who proposed: “The technical term ‘information’ can temporarily be defined as any difference that makes a difference at some later event.” Or, even shorter, in his famous definition, which is at the core of every systemic methodology: “Information consists of differences which make a difference” (Bateson 1982: 123). It may be useful to add that systems react only on differences that they themselves have produced internally.

One important consequence of the theory of autopoietic systems is a shift of emphasis from adaptation to learning. The operations of the system serve to continue its autopoiesis, not to improve its adaptation to the environment (Luhmann 2000: 74f). Information about the environment is used to create system-internal problems–problems of consistency with what the memory of the system claims. And by working out solutions, the system improves the adaptation to itself. In this sense, learning requires knowledge (Luhmann 1984: 447ff). Furthermore, it is a general prerequisite of learning that the system, that is the organization, is able to tell the difference between success and failure of learning. The system finds this distinction only within itself, as a system-internal construction. And one may add that it then depends on the current state of the system whether or not it allows itself to be impressed by successes or failures on this level (Luhmann 2000). If these are some basic outlines of the systemic concept of organization, how can we grasp and understand the concept of knowledge?

3.    Knowledge

Knowledge belongs to the constitutive characteristics of social systems, as communication (by language) requires knowledge: without knowledge, no communication. Knowledge, however, is never made fully explicit in communication.

Luhmann (1990) and Baecker (1999) suggest conceiving knowledge not as something that is principally worth knowing, but as a ‘complex operation of examination’ (Luhmann 1990: 129) that both individually and socially has its own conditions. According to this concept, knowledge is neither just a storable stock nor a learnable process, but a structure that facilitates dealing with information. This structure allows for accepting information as new or for rejecting it as irrelevant, for comparing it with other information or to combine it to a new, a third kind of, information. Knowledge encompasses and surmounts the difference of informations and, as a structure, it changes with the information that is currently selected and accepted. These informations are generalized and transformed onto a selective level that then may be observed in respect to its selectivity, its contingency and its stability in time.

The temporalization, which the concept of social system proposes, does not exempt knowledge: knowledge is described as immediately bound to the ongoing operations of its reference system that disappear in the very moment of their coming into existence. Von Foerster (1969) has shown that memory, too, operates only in a topical manner. It consists of momentary examinations of consistency, in which new information is related to information remembered, and in this sense memory implies much more than just a use of things past. There is no timeless cognition. Knowledge assumes an object-related form, but in order to be known, it has to be actualized at a particular moment. Memory operates only when it operates. We hold in mind Luhmann’s proposal of conceiving knowledge not as a kind of time resistant stock, but rather as a complex operation of examination of differences (Luhmann 1990: 129; also Baecker 1999).

In this respect, knowledge refers to ‘structure’, which stands as one of its prerequisites. Structures, too, have their own temporal dimension. They, too, are structures only to the extent that they are used as structures. Their function is to help the autopoiesis get from one event to the next one. Structures reduce the arbitrariness of the ensuing event. They render redundancy possible and thus allow for an accelerated speed in the production of the events that follow. Only that functions as a structure what is used in the current operations to help join another operation. In this way, a system gains an important advantage: the advantage of forgetting, of using a structure no longer.

Every kind of time consistency, and that implies the time consistency of knowledge repositories, is thus the performance of an observer for whose very operations the same holds true (Luhmann 1990: 130). The observer, for his part, is free to use a time pattern thus constructing consistency. He may find the knowledge as having been known in the past and probably continuing to be known in the future. The ‘normal’ knowledge user does not use a time pattern. He is thirsty and opens the refrigerator, as he knows there is milk inside. Only when he (or some one else) wants to know what he knows, does he transfer structure into the time dimension.

That gives way to a theorem of improbability of knowledge: we can see that every cognition, every kind of integration with eigen states and with the environment disappears immediately after occurring. Without this mechanism of forgetting, the system would soon be overloaded with accumulated considerations.

If knowledge always refers to the operations of a system and only a minimum fraction of potential knowledge can be actualized from moment to moment, the central question an organization faces is less what is known, but how can it provide for appropriate topicalizations of what is known and how can it link knowledge to decisions.

4.    Knowledge in Organizations: Certainty and Uncertainty

The notion of knowledge awakens positive connotations with most contemporaries. Knowledge is valuable; the more you know, the better; knowledge seems to promise consensus and certainty. One may question some of these premises and propose, for instance, that organizations have a paradoxical relation to the dimension of certainty/uncertainty. They need uncertainty as much as they need to pretend certainty. They have an equally ambiguous relationship to knowledge. For the ongoing production of decisions, ignorance may sometimes be as necessary and functional as knowledge is. And one can argue, as Dirk Baecker does, that the communication of knowledge in organizations runs particular risks of being doubted and raising objections.

Organizations are communication systems that consist of decisions. In contrast to communication in general, which allows for a fairly high tolerance of indeterminacy, decisions have to attach great importance to very specific connections with earlier, but also with future decisions. Organizations achieve this combination of self- specificity and the search for specific connections by concealing their own uncertainty. In their decisions, they refrain from communicating their own uncertainty. March and Simon (1958) have called this premise of every kind of organizational reproduction ‘uncertainty absorption’.

The organization leaves its own uncertainty uncommunicated. The system lives off over- estimating itself. It pretends to dispose of more certainty than it actually has. In the ongoing communication of decisions, it conceals its own uncertainty as it assumes that a continued display of its uncertainty would obstruct its members in fulfilling their tasks.

In his latest book on “Organization and Decision”, Luhmann has dedicated a whole chapter to the subject of uncertainty absorption (2000: 183ff). He uses this concept to replace what classical organizational theory had termed ‘goal orientation’. Luhmann sees uncertainty as resulting from the simultaneous incidence of both knowledge and ignorance, because of this very difference. Both knowledge and ignorance, he contends, are social constructs developed in the system that uses this distinction. In the case of organizations, uncertainty results from the ongoing production of decisions that serve to produce further decisions (2000: 184).

Relating uncertainty to the distinction of knowledge and ignorance, Luhmann emphasizes that uncertainty must not be misunderstood as a dysfunctional state to be remedied as soon as possible, but that–in contrast to what the system itself may perceive–uncertainty constitutes an important resource for the autopoiesis of the system. Without uncertainty there would be nothing left to decide and in a state of complete self-determination the organization would wither and finally cease to exist through lack of activity.

Ignorance can only be produced and fought with the help of knowledge. Therefore each organization, which sets out to invent its own future, has to refer to what it has already achieved. “An organization can never know what it thinks or wants until it sees what it does” (Weick 1977: 195). For an organization, this means that ignorance cannot be reduced by knowledge, but only by decisions. These decisions may, for instance, refer to the direction and method of searching for knowledge. Organizations create their future by help of decisions, not by knowledge. Uncertainty absorption for them is a decision process, not a scientific quest. The distinctions of certainty/uncertainty and knowledge/ignorance are produced recursively, by the system making decisions that are recursively bound to earlier decisions. This implies that knowledge/ignorance and certainty/uncertainty do not exist as such, but only system-specifically (Luhmann 2000: 186- 87).

In every operation, in everything that happens in the system, the difference of knowledge and ignorance is reproduced, as a difference. The absorption of uncertainty conveys to this difference just a different form, a less disturbing one. At the same time, one can often observe in organizations that available knowledge is not used in decisions and even that ignorance is intentionally produced or maintained, as an evidence of its innocence, for instance. The management did not know about serious security gaps; therefore, it argues, it cannot be blamed for the accident. Seeing the consequences of knowledge, one may prefer not to know. For participating in organized social systems as a member a sophisticated art of not knowing may be as much required as the art of getting the right kind of information. Producing and preserving ignorance may be just as functional for making decisions as the production and preservation of knowledge.

5.    Knowledge Communication

Does knowledge need to be communicated in the social system in order to manifest itself as knowledge? This is a difficult question. On the one hand, knowledge always refers to the operations of the system, and the operational mode of social systems consists of communication. From this perspective, one would tend to affirm the tie of knowledge to communication. On the other hand, knowledge is never made fully explicit in communication. There is always more to be known than can be communicated. Knowledge may also be acquired by observation, or by experience, or by participation. With reference to Polanyi (1985), we can distinguish explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is clearly and openly stated, communicated and often even documented as knowledge, while the other typically remains unrevealed, uncommunicated and opaque even to the knowing person who does not know that he/she knows. As observers, we find ourselves referred to two different system levels, which are both undeniably implied when we deal with knowledge: individual psychic systems that process thoughts and perceptions and interpersonal social systems that process communication. One of intriguing questions that ensues is whether or not communication systems also have access to implicit knowledge.

Much knowledge remains implicit. When it is imparted, however, it encounters not just the usual difficulties, which Luhmann has summarized pointedly with his expression of the ‘improbability of communication’, but because of the impositions implied, communicated knowledge meets even more obstacles.

Communicated knowledge provokes doubt and objection beyond the degree that every other communication act risks being rejected. Each kind of knowledge communication contains for instance a claim of knowledge that may put others into the uncomfortable situation of thinking of themselves as unknowledged. The acceptance of knowledge seems easier, when it is more implicit. To make knowledge explicit in the communicative dimension means exposing it to possible rejections.

The improbability of its acceptance can be observed in all three basic dimensions of the social system. It may be rejected in the object-related dimension, because one has a different view of the matter in question. It may be rejected in the social dimension, because one rejects the imposition to regard something as knowledgeable (or to admit a missing knowledge) where others present themselves as knowing. And it may be rejected in the time dimension because one doubts whether the communicated knowledge is up to date or because one cannot tell the consequences for one’s own future (Baecker 1998: 12ff).

Knowledge does not go together easily with the organizational operation of making decisions; often it even disturbs it. By producing doubt and objection, it runs counter to the organizational imperative of uncertainty absorption. Therefore, organizations often find it easier to refute knowledge than to process it. The extent to which a decision uses a specific knowledge must rather be concealed than communicated, as knowledge provokes doubt and objection even when there is a general readiness to accept the decision itself (Baecker 1999: 16). Knowledge

always plays a precarious part in organizations; in order to become organizationally relevant, it needs to find connections to the ongoing decision-making operations of the system.

6.    Dimensions of Knowledge Management

Following Luhmann we have described organizations as autopoietic social systems that process decisions by decisions and we have tried to understand some implications of knowledge for such systems. We have pointed to the temporalized properties of knowledge and memory and identified some basic obstacles to knowledge in the elementary operation of decision-making in the organizational imperative of uncertainty absorption and in the impositions of knowledge communication. In this final section, we are interested in practical implications of this approach for the management of knowledge in organizations. Here, we question Luhmann’s claim that systems theory needs no praxis, but is content with containing its own program of amelioration (2000: 474). We advocate, in contrast, an approach that overcomes the alternative between praxeologies void of theory and theories lacking practical relevance. We regard a reflexive view which tries to understand the other side of the difference as a productive form of loose coupling from which both theory and praxis profit.

One instance of the practical relevance of theoretical findings may be found in the very concept of knowledge management itself as it takes up and affirms the distinction between individual and organizational knowledge. Luhmann had opened up his sociology of knowledge by the end of the 1980’s by proposing to loosen the hitherto almost unshakable attribution of knowledge to individual systems of consciousness (1990: 11). Chrys Agyris and Donald Schön, the creators of the idea of organizational learning, pointed out how almost unthinkable it was to suggest that there is knowledge and learning beyond the individual level:

To the distinguished social scientists who were repelled by the idea when we first broached it in the early 70s, organizational learning seemed to smell of some quasi-mystical, Hegelian personification of the collectivity. Surely, they felt, it is individuals who may be said to learn, just as to think, reason, or hold opinions. To them, it seemed paradoxical, if not perverse, to attribute learning to organizations (1996: 4).

In the mean-time, some researchers have shown that the intelligence of organizations may well be distinguished from the individual intelligence of its members so that parliaments, for instance, stand out as rather smart organizations consisting of usually average members in contrast to universities which comprise many intelligent individuals, but gain little praise for their organizational intelligence, in Germany anyway (Willke 1997).

The practical relevance of this distinction of individual and organizational knowledge is obvious: in knowledge-based companies, as in the software industry for instance, or in consulting, one of the most pressing concerns is to prevent core business knowledge from emigrating when key knowledge holders suddenly leave the organization, following perhaps a competitor’s offer. For the management of these organizations, building up and taking care of an organized knowledge base that is independent of individual consciousness systems ranks among the top priorities.

Much current knowledge management can be covered and systematized by taking up two

basic systemic distinctions: the distinction of individual/organizational knowledge and the distinction of explicit/implicit knowledge. By cross-tabulating these distinctions, we gain four types of transitional activity that can be used for grasping present activities in the praxis of knowledge management (Aibel and Snowdon 1998a, b).

   Individual  Organizational
    explicit  I   making tacit individual knowledge explicit  II   sharing explicit knowledge
    Tacit  III   sharing implicit knowledge between individuals apprenticeships, workshops  IV   more trusting use of tacit knowledge community of practice

Corresponding to this four-field pattern, there are different tasks to be taken care of in the management of knowledge:

  1. One needs to identify which artifacts hold explicit knowledge (databases, filing cabinets, articles, etc.) and create a strategy for optimizing the use of these artifacts and making them available.
  2. Where the asset is tacit, management must decide whether it should and could be made explicit. It is important to observe the environment carefully for the degree of complexity and uncertainty involved. As a rule of thumb: the more complex and uncertain the environment is, the more it may be advisable to retain knowledge in its tacit form (Cf. also Aibel and Snowdon1998a, b; Ahlemeyer and Königswieser 1997).
  3. Where it has been decided to make the knowledge asset explicit, artifacts need to be created to act as repositories (databases, manuals, articles). With the evidence of the temporalized operation mode of memories in mind, it seems equally crucial to create an awareness in the organization that recalls the existence of these artifacts and encourages their use.
  4. Where the asset is tacit and it has been decided best to be kept in that state, one needs to create and manage communities who assume the function of ‘repositories’, of personal bearers and producers of knowledge.

Much current knowledge management presently focuses on squares (I) and (II). It is generally assumed that knowledge management is about making tacit knowledge explicit and distributing it widely in the organization by artifacts of modern information technology.

Important as these activities are, squares (III) and (IV) must not be neglected. They accept and acknowledge the essential role and qualities that knowledge has to offer in the aggregate, implicit form. Especially when gaining competitive advantages by creating new knowledge is at stake, implicit knowledge proves even superior: it is more adaptable, more flexible and much more quickly mobilized. Any effective knowledge management program will involve a balanced portfolio of all four transitional activities.

The creation of communities of competence is one important step in knowledge management. The observations offered above have pointed out the principal difficulties that organizations encounter in dealing with knowledge. Other obstacles appear on the level of decision premises and organizational culture: where career structures and reward systems are geared towards individual gain, there is little structural encouragement for making tacit personal knowledge explicit and sharing it with competitors. In many organizations, members still hold to the deeply internalized norm that you had better treat knowledge like money and invest it only very selectively. The message of knowledge management announces just the opposite: knowledge grows by sharing.

Considering these obstacles in organizations, it may be helpful to remember the difference between organization on the one hand and network and community on the other. Neither notion is by necessity more comprehensive than the other one. There are organizations within and between communities and networks, and there are communities and networks within organizations.

More loosely coupled social systems, such as networks and communities, seem to be better suited for meeting the challenges of knowledge management than organizations are. Liberated from the autopoietic operation of decision-making, they also find it easier to deal with knowledge, particularly in its aggregate, implicit form. To manage knowledge successfully, organizations need networks and communities. As Geyer (1990) demonstrated, these modern communities in high-complexity environments have little in common with communities in the traditional sense. They are more temporary. They do not require normative conformity. They are comprised of people bound by common interests or causes. They allow for, even demand a maximum degree of self-expression and, based on win/win-relationships, they reject collision course patterns of win/lose constellations (Covey 1989). Most of all, these communities develop on the build-up of trust.

In fast changing and complex environments knowledge in general and implicit knowledge in particular become increasingly important assets. Often there is not enough time to wait and rely on processes rendering important knowledge explicit. Tacit knowledge corresponds with the generally temporalized quality of knowledge in autopoietic social systems. Because of its fleeting quality, especially implicit knowledge needs a focal point, ‘a system in charge’, whose function is to remind the organizations, in its autopoietic operation, of existent knowledge assets and to explain, apply, promote, protect, and develop them. The creation and support of communities of competence as such focal points is one crucial core component of all knowledge management. One does not have to be a prophet to see that knowledge is going to change the form and function of organizations dramatically in the years to come.


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Volume 1                                        Number 2                        Fall/Winter 2000

Editors: Cor Van Dijkum, Felix Geyer, Richard E. Lee

Editorial Board: Mike Byron, Tesaleno Devezas, Jorge González, Bernd R. Hornung, Chaime Marcuello, Vessela Misheva, Philip Nikolopoulos, Bernard Scott, Bernard Scott

The JOURNAL OF SOCIOCYBERNETICS (ISSN 1607-8667) is published biannually–

Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter–as an electronic journal by the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics of the International Sociological Association.




  • Bernd R. Hornung: Walter Buckley; Society – A Complex Adaptive System: Essays in Social Theory
  • Philip Nicolopoulos: Cybernetics and Systems. Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress. Volumes 1, 2, 3.

MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSIONS should be sent electronically (in MSWord or Rich Text File format) to each of the editors: Richard E. Lee rlee@binghamton.edu, Felix Geyer geyer@xs4all.nl, and Cor van Dijkum c.vandijkum@fss.uu.nl. In general, please follow the Chicago Manuel of Style; citations and bibliography should follow the current journal style (APA). Normally, articles should be original texts of no more than 6000 words, although longer articles will be considered in exceptional circumstances. The Journal looks for submissions that are innovative and apply principles of General Systems Theory and Cybernetics to the social sciences, broadly conceived. Submitted texts will be refereed by members of the Editorial Board, and/or specialists in the field concerned.

COPYRIGHT remains the property of authors. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the authors and the contents of JoS cannot be copied for commercial purposes. JoS does, however, reserve the right to future reproduction of articles in hard copy, portable document format (.pdf), or HTML editions of JoS.

SOCIOCYBERNETICS traces its intellectual roots to the rise of a whole panoply of new approaches to scientific inquiry beginning in the 1940’s. These included General System Theory, cybernetics and information theory, game theory and automata, net, set, graph and compartment theories, and decision and queuing theory conceived as strategies in one way or another appropriate to the study of organized complexity. Although today the Research Committee casts a wide net in terms of appropriate subject matters, pertinent theoretical frameworks and applicable methodologies, the range of approaches deployed by scholars associated with RC51 reflect the maturation of these developments. Here we find, again, GST and first- and second-order cybernetics; in addition, there is widespread sensitivity to the issues raised by “complexity studies,” especially in work conceptualizing systems as self-organizing, autocatalytic or autopoietic. “System theory”, in the form given it by Niklas Luhmann, and world-systems analysis are also prominently represented within the ranks of RC51.

The institutionalization of sociocybernetic approaches in what was to become RC51, the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics of the International Sociological Association, began in 1980 with the founding of an ISA Ad Hoc Group and proceeded with the organization of sessions at succeeding quadrennial World Congresses of Sociology. The eventual RC51 became a Thematic Group and then a Working Group. Finally, in recognition of its extraordinary success (growing from some 30 members in early 1995 to 240 in 1998), the group was promoted to the status of Research Committee at the 1998 World Congress of Sociology in Montreal.

Over these past two decades, sociocybernetics has attracted a broad range of scholars whose departmental affiliations represent the entire spectrum of the disciplines, from the humanities and the social sciences through the sciences, mathematics and engineering. Furthermore, the many countries of origin of these RC51 members attest to the wide international appeal of sociocybernetic approaches. Within this highly diverse community, there is wide agreement on some very general issues, for instance, on developing strategies for the study of human reality that avoid reification, are cognizant of the pitfalls of reductionism and dualism, and generally eschew linear or homeostatic models. Not surprisingly, however, there are also wide divergences in subject matter, theoretical frameworks and methodological practices.

Many have argued that models developed for the study of complexity can be usefully appropriated for the study of human reality. Moreover, however, the emphasis in complexity studies on contingency, context-dependency, multiple, overlapping temporal and spatial frameworks, and deterministic but unpredictable systems displaying an arrow-of-time suggest that the dividing line between the sciences and the historical social sciences is fuzzier than many might like to think. What is more, in the humanities, the uniquely modern concepts of original object and autonomous human creator have come under serious attack. The coincidence of these two phenomena substantiate the impression that across the disciplines there may be observed a new concern for spatial-temporal wholes constituted at once of relational structures and the phenomenological time of their reproduction and change.

It is, then, in this context of rich history and exciting possibilities that the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics of the International Sociological Association extends an open invitation through the Journal of Sociocybernetics to all engaged in the common quest to explain and understand social reality holistically and self-reflexively without forsaking a concern for human values–human values not construed simply as a matter of individual ethics, but conceived as an integral part of a social science for our time.


Volume 1                                        Number 1                  Spring/Summer 2000

A Journal for Sociocybernetics

By: Richard E. Lee; Felix Geyer; Bernd R. Hornung

The Journal of Sociocybernetics responds to the growing interest evinced in “sociocybernetics” over the past two decades and the concomitant demand for a venue expressly dedicated to disseminating work in the field. Indeed, sociocybernetics has attracted a broad range of scholars whose departmental affiliations represent the entire spectrum of the disciplines and whose countries of origin attest to the wide international appeal of sociocybernetic approaches. Within this highly diverse community, there is ample agreement on some general issues, for instance, on developing strategies for the study of human reality that avoid reification, reject reductionism and dualism, and eschew linear or homeostatic models. Not surprisingly, however, there are also wide divergences in subject matter, theoretical frameworks and methodological practices.

With its appearance, the Journal of Sociocybernetics becomes the official organ of the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics, RC51, of the International Sociological Association. The institutional history of the organization that eventually became ISA RC51 began in 1980 with the founding of an ISA Ad Hoc Group by Professor Francisco Parra-Luna who single- handedly managed to organize sessions at succeeding World Congresses of Sociology: first in 1982 in Mexico City, then in 1986 in New Delhi, in 1990 in Madrid, and in 1994 in Bielefeld. The eventual RC51 first became an ISA Thematic Group and then a Working Group at the New Delhi World Congress, but lacking both a board and an official Newsletter it was demoted back to Thematic Group in 1992. In early 1995 the group was reactivated and elected its first ever board with Kenneth Bailey as President, Francisco Parra-Luna as Past President, Richard Henshel as Vice-president and Felix Geyer as Secretary. Following the death of Richard Henshel, Vessela Misheva became Vice-President in early 1997. The statutes for the group were written in 1995 and approved at its conference in Bucharest in 1996, while the publication of a biannual Newsletter was initiated in January 1996. As a consequence of the activities of the board, the group was re-recognized by the ISA Executive Committee in November 1996 as a Working Group. It grew from some 30 members in early 1995 to 240 in 1998 and, in recognition of its extraordinary success due primarily to the efforts of Felix Geyer, it was promoted to the status of Research Committee in less than the normally stipulated four-year period at the 1998 World Congress of Sociology in Montreal.

Since June 1998 RC51 has had its own website at the University of Zaragoza (http://www.unizar.es/sociocybernetics) where a detailed description of the group’s activities,

past, present and future, may be found. The website contains: abstracts of some 100 papers presented at the World Congress of Sociology in Montreal, and of some 20 papers presented at the 1999 Annual Conference on Sociocybernetics in Kolimbari, Greece; a 400-item bibliography on sociocybernetics; personal website addresses of some 65 RC51 members; detailed news about upcoming conferences and other activities; and links to other websites in related fields, such as General Systems Theory, first- and second-order cybernetics, autopoiesis, chaos theory and complexity studies. While the Journal of Sociocybernetics (to be available for downloading from the website twice yearly in the Spring and the Fall) will supplant the Newsletter, it will continue to publish the normal Newsletter rubrics in the “RC51 News” section.

The intellectual heritage of Sociocybernetics, and thus of the Journal of Sociocybernetics and the Research Committee it represents, draws on a broad spectrum of approaches in terms of appropriate subject matters, pertinent theoretical frameworks and applicable methodologies. To be sure, the intellectual roots of sociocybernetics reach back to the rise of a whole array of new developments in scientific inquiry beginning in the 1940’s. These included the most important direct progenitors, General Systems Theory and cybernetics; however, the general movement was also expressed through the development of information theory, game theory and automata, net, set, graph and compartment theories, and decision and queuing theory. In one way or another, they were strategies elaborated in light of the difficulties encountered in the study of organized complexity. This was an arena that had proven particularly resistant to the application of the analytic method, that is, to the development of mathematical equations expressing general laws in which all contributing causal factors appear as variables.

The initial expression of the issues involved came with General System Theory (eventually, General Systems Theory, GST), first during the inter-war years in the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Along with the economist Kenneth Boulding, the biomathematician Anatol Rapoport and the physiologist Ralph Gerard, von Bertalanffy founded the Society for General System Theory in 1954 (which later became the Society for General Systems Research and still later, the International Society for the Systems Sciences) and by the early 1960’s vigorous efforts–the work of Walter Buckley was particularly influential–were being made to link social research to a systems perspective.

The domain of GST may be specified as those general aspects, correspondences and isomorphisms or rigorous analogies that are common to systems in general. In its overall bearings, GST cuts across disciplinary lines, cultural and ideological frontiers, the nomothetic- idiographic or quantitative-qualitative divide, and, significantly, the descriptive-normative or scientific-humanistic distinction as well. Although physics was certainly impacted by the systems approach, the success of mechanics in predicting, and therefore controlling, physical phenomena was undoubtedly responsible for the continued supremacy of the billiard ball model of autonomous units, at least until the recent breakthroughs in “chaos theory” and “complexity studies.” However, there exist no analogues of the Laws of Motion, for instance, in the living world, not to speak of the human world. It was in biology especially, which begins with the concept of “organism”, and then in the social sciences, psychology and philosophy that what came to be described as a new worldview found particular resonance. This far-reaching scientific reorientation entailed a shift of the emphasis in inquiry to questions of organization and configurational wholes, precisely those “wholes” that had so often been eschewed as metaphysical, over the analytic, mechanistic and one-way summative causality of classical science and its primary units of discrete elements or events.

Sharing the holistic disposition of GST, cybernetics derives its name from the Greek word for steersman, and “socio” clearly relates to human reality. One might then assume that sociocybernetics pertains to the steering of societies. And indeed it does, to some extent, although without the notion that societies can be piloted in a hierarchical, top-down way.

First-order or “classical” cybernetics, introduced by Norbert Wiener, stressed the clear definition of the boundaries of the system under study in time-dependent, observer-dependent, and even problem-dependent ways and further emphasized the hierarchical quality, and relevance, of sub- and supra-systems. Most important, however, first-order cybernetics made circular causality respectable. Like GST, it did not consider the description of a system in terms of ends or goals to be a mistake in logical reasoning leading to tautologies. “Purposive action” was conceptualized as feedback loops, either positive (deviation-amplifying, morphogenetic) or negative (deviation-reducing, morphostatic), that could either occur spontaneously or be engineered. First-order cybernetics was primarily interested in negative feedback loops, as its purpose generally was to steer technological and industrial systems by keeping them on a steady course, fluctuating within specified margins around an equilibrium.

Second-order cybernetics–that is, the cybernetics of observing systems rather than observed systems–emerged in the 1970’s. The systems under study were generally living systems and simulation came into its own as a mode of analysis especially applicable to social systems. Simulation made possible the investigation of system evolution under altered initial conditions without the necessity of engaging in policy action available on a one-time basis only. It thus favored the discovery of the latent consequences of certain intended actions and the forecasting of the effects of counter-intuitive behavior.

Even primitive living systems have a “will of their own” and manifest what Maturana and Varela have termed autopoiesis or self-production. Consequently, they are more difficult to steer, and their interactions with their environments are impossible to forecast more than a few moves ahead. Second-order cybernetics is thus more concerned with morphogenesis and positive feedback loops than with homeostasis and negative feedback loops, while the system (whether an individual or a group) is defined as having the ability to reflect on its own operations on the environment, and even on itself. Such behavior is recursive and generates variety. That is, observations can be effected, communications can be realized, and alterations generated. It is not surprising that the concepts of second-order cybernetics all start with “self,” if not in English, then in Greek (“auto”): self-reference, self-steering, self-organization, autocatalytic cycles, autopoiesis.

Sociocybernetics can now be roughly defined as a general term denoting applications of GST and first- and especially second-order cybernetics in the social sciences. At its present state of development, however, it has gathered under its umbrella a substantial and growing number of scholars from an assortment of loosely related fields whose chief common denominator consists mainly of a post-Newtonian worldview.

Several such strands have their roots in functionalism and “systems theory”. For one, the work of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has been extremely influential (although only now making significant impact in the English-speaking world due to translation delays) and forms a central current within a large segment of scholars associated with RC51. Luhmann was Talcott Parsons’s student. But as a student who rapidly and thoroughly constructed his own

innovative body of theory in which the legacy of Parsons receded into the background, he made

an interesting theory transfer, defining social systems as consisting of autopoietic communications networks, rather than of individuals, or roles, or actions.

Luhmann made an important shift which, at first glance, looks like playing with words, but which on closer scrutiny permits a dynamical mode of analysis surmounting the conservatism intrinsic in structural-functionalism. This is the shift to functional-structural theory and its extension to problem-functionalism; the sequence of “functions serve to maintain structures” is replaced by the extended sequence of “structures serve to fulfill functions and functions serve to resolve problems.” A theory building on this latter sequence is intrinsically dynamic, as problems can be resolved by different functions and a given function can be discharged by different structures and processes, that is, systems or systems components. In this way, structures become contingent: described as “functionally equivalent,” different types (structures) of societies can serve the needs of a population.

On the basis of this shift, Luhmann developed the formula of “construction and reduction of complexity” replacing “structure maintenance” as the most general reference problem of structural-functionalism. Although highly criticized (by explaining everything, it explains nothing), the complexity formula opens the way for conceiving social systems not just as an assembly of individuals, but also as an emergent, highly differentiated and multi-level layering of social structures and processes beyond the individual.

Another innovation Luhmann brought to sociology consisted of a move from viewing social systems as rationally constructed, or at least constructable, systems to conceiving them as self-organizing or autopoietic. On the one hand, the shift to autopoiesis promises to fill the empty formula of complexity with contents. On the other hand it is in the context of autopoiesis theory that Luhmann explicitly expelled the individual and its psychic system from social systems and defined social systems as pure communication systems, thus also excluding (physical) action.

Luhmann’s theory of codes integrates his conceptual system. It is related to Parsons’s generalized media of exchange, i.e., that in a particular functionally differentiated social system, such as the economic system, the level of social action/communication is controlled by the medium of communication, for instance in the case of the economic system, money. Media use a particular binary code, e.g., payment/non-payment, which determines what is going on with the medium. Self-reference and autopoiesis are after all located at the level of the processing of such a code, whereby the processing itself takes place according to what Luhmann called conditional programs and goal-oriented programs.

Finally, a significant part of Luhmann’s work concentrates on categories like meaning, semantics, and social knowledge, making Luhmann an important sociologist of knowledge; indeed, this work can even be read as cultural sociology. Although less widely discussed so far, it may hold much promise for future developments.

Luhmann is but one example of the influence of “systems analysis” and especially of Talcott Parsons. In the English-speaking world during the quarter century following 1945, this particular style of inquiry, theorized as structural-functionalism and operationalized through quantitative comparative techniques, defined the parameters of authoritative social research, especially in the nomothetic social sciences. On the micro scale it was manifested in the study of small groups and implemented all the way up to the national level in survey research. The inherently comparative methodology implied multiple units of analysis and this was nowhere more apparent than in the macro arena. Modernization theory purported to explain differential development on a world scale in the post-1945 period, thereby joining policy planners with their eyes on the East-West struggle with social scientists absorbed with explaining inequality.

“Modern” societies, it was argued, calling on some form of Parsons’s translation of Weberian “rationality” into sets of pattern variables, displayed universalistic, specific, and achievement based norms and practices. “Traditional” configurations, on the other hand, were portrayed as particularistic, diffuse, and ascriptive. With explicit reference to GST, social structures and institutions were conceptualized as performing functions in systems where a “society” was defined as a self-sufficient social system. Nonetheless, “societies” were invariably associated with the state; time was transmuted into a function of society/state units simultaneously positioned at different points on a single temporal hierarchy of development; and purposive action modifying social structures (removing the impediments of customary arrangements) was postulated as a primary mechanism of change and “progress”.

Certainly, long-term and large-scale comparative work continues to produce valuable insights. Nonetheless, observation, feedback and action, however conceptualized, do not alone account for historical development. But as the critics of structuralism have indicated, neither is that historical development determined solely by a set of constraints. In fact, GST introduced the notion that such development is the product of the dynamic interaction of essentially different processes in an open system and this is, in fact, the tact that the major critique of modernization theory, crystallized in Immanuel Wallerstein’s elaboration of world-systems analysis, has taken. Here, it has been argued, the relevant unit of analysis of the reality of human experience in terms of both action and constraints, that is, of long-term, large-scale social change, is a historical system. The locution denotes an entity that is simultaneously systemic (possessing continuities in its relational patterns), in that its structures remain qualitatively recognizable over the long term, and historical (exhibiting irreversible change over the long term), in that it comes into existence at a specific time and place, undergoes a spatio-temporal development which renders it at all times and places different, and eventually ceases to exist. The consequences of specifying such a unit of analysis and defining it in terms of the spatio-temporal extent of its constitutive processes are, first, that the modern world, the “Modern World-System,” must be analyzed as an open system from the point of view of its uniqueness. Alone among historical social systems, it expanded to cover the entire globe. As its defining division of labor incorporated ever new pools of labor-power/”energy” to overcome the entropy of its processes, it incorporated all other previously autonomous systems. It thus constitutes both a singular and single unit of analysis. Second, it must be analyzed simultaneously as both systemic and historical, essentially jettisoning the nomothetic-idiographic debate. Third, its elements, including the categories for its analysis, are not timeless and trans-historical, but were constituted in and through the development of its relational structure. Finally, its evolution was predicated on the contradictions inherent in the production and reproduction of its multiple structures over time, its processes, that defined both the limits and possibilities of human endeavor.

These several examples of developments in the social sciences should not cause us to lose sight of the new thinking across the disciplines that is beginning to have an influence on contemporary sociocybernetic research. It should be remembered that if the social sciences have been enormously influenced by developments with a holistic focus, GST, although most explicitly deployed mathematically, from the beginning held a place for ordinary language models. Of course, an obvious case in point is systems philosophy as elaborated by Ervin Laszlo, Erich Jantsch and others.

In a thrust rejoining politics and theory, an amalgam of social science and humanities perspectives has come together under the rubric of “cultural studies.” At the level of theory, by

the 1960’s literary structuralism presented the possibility for many scholars of developing a non- reductionist, non-positivist human science concerned with the characteristic social activity of meaning making. At the level of practice, developments growing out of studies focusing on marginalized groups, such as women, ethnic and racial “minorities” and colonial and ex-colonial peoples, challenged the fact-values divide. Essentialist, received categories of difference did not constitute timeless, transcendental arrangements of human reality. It was argued, rather, that they were historically constructed collections of value-charged attributes that had functioned to inscribe whole groups into subordinate stations on status hierarchies legitimating differential access to social goods.

At the opposite end of the disciplinary continuum, “chaos theory” and “complexity studies” are a recent outgrowth of developments in mathematics and the natural sciences. Although relativity and quantum mechanics had already undermined the presumptions of classical science at the level of the very large and the very small, it is again only since the 1960’s that Newtonian dynamics has been challenged in the macro, humanly perceivable, non- relativistic, non-quantum domain. The emphasis on equilibrium and stability inherent in time- reversible natural laws is giving way to a reconceptualization of the natural world and a transition away from the Newtonian worldview. The image implicit in the theory of “dissipative structures”, that of the creation of order in far-from-equilibrium, open systems by exporting entropy, more closely resembles our perception of the social world. That world also may be described as one of instability and fluctuations, complexity and self-organization, a world whose deterministic yet unpredictable development cannot be reversed.

Cognitive science, too, has produced findings that, on analogy, may contribute to the transformation of our understanding of the social world. Its trajectory has taken it from a conception of the mind as a machine for the manipulation of data from the top down according to the rules of deductive logic to the bottom-up depiction of connectionism in which intelligence resides in the connections or structure. Along the way, it has shown how some types of systems give meaning to their interactions on the basis of their own history and how certain networks produce emergent phenomena as a result of both simultaneous processes and sequential ones.

Clearly, across the disciplines there may be observed a mounting concern for spatial- temporal wholes constituted at once of relational structures and phenomenological time. Furthermore, the identification and study of the feedback mechanisms of complex systems, including social systems, is at odds with a conception of “objectivity” defined in terms of externality.

It is, then, in this context of rich history and exciting possibilities that the Research Committee on Sociocybernetics launches the Journal of Sociocybernetics. The appearance of this new journal constitutes an open invitation to what has become a highly ecumenical community. Indeed, the Journal of Sociocybernetics welcomes submissions from all scholars engaged in a common quest to explain and understand social reality holistically and self-reflexively without forsaking a concern for human values.

RC51 Newsletter

Editors’ Introduction

Dear RC51 members,

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Felix Geyer, the great forerunner of our research field and honorary president of RC51. It is an honor to share contributions from authors who had long and close relationships with Felix. The world is still in turmoil, but Felix’s work will be our lasting source of insights and encouragement to deal with the challenges we are facing.

In July we held the first virtual conference, the 16th International Conference of Sociocybernetics: “The Pandemic Era: Observations and Reflections from a Sociocybernetics Perspective”.  A thread of contributions related to the conference is another feature of this issue. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about all kinds of trouble to our research activities. But the efforts made for the conference and vibrant discussion we had showed that the pandemic cannot stop our progress. You can get both an overview of the conference and in-depth views from contributors’ reports and essays. We appreciate all contributions from the organizers, moderators, presenters, and active participants!

We also include an interesting book review by Bernd Hornung about social theories. Social theories encourage us to rethink our society from different, using a word from the book, “alternative” views. The pandemic forced us to adopt “alternative” ways in various dimensions of society. Social theories in the pandemic era will be a thought-provoking topic also in sociocybernetics. Thank you, Bernd!

As ISA announced, the 4th Forum of Sociology in Porto Alegre was postponed to February 2021 and will now be held online. So, while we will not have chance to see each other in 2021 in Brazil, we are looking forward to meeting with you all online once again.

Best regards,

Toru Takahashi and Andrew Mitchell
RC51 Newsletter Editors