Open Development

Emergence in a world of technocratic method: thoughts for a forthcoming paper

Development in space and time

No one would deny that we all live in space and time.  We all need space to live in, but we also need some time in which to live; people and things cannot exist without a temporal dimension.  Time changes people and things: we are born, age, and die; or very minds and bodies are altering minute by minute, along with our social and physical environment – and, of course, we decide on different courses of action all the time as we react and respond to constant change.  Our minds, bodies, external environment, and our intentions that result from the constant interplay between these – our entire world, in fact – is always changing, and never still for a moment.  Clifford Geertz commented that we live suspended in webs of our own creation – but he might have added that these webs are always changing, and nothing is constant.

Rather than grasping and embracing this fact of life, however, we try everywhere to deny it, committing what Whitehead termed “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (1925: 51), which refers to the tendency within Western culture to think of the world as made up of stable things.  Where change is acknowledged in this worldview, this is viewed as a temporary occurrence between two stable states, where stability and outputs are seen as the primary order of existence.  Such a view has been with us throughout the history of development thinking: from 19th century colonial anthropology through the classical political economy of the 1930s,  the structural-functionalism of post-war modernization theory, the neomarxism of dependency theory, the neoclassical economics of neoliberalism, and even more recent capability-based thinking.

In more recent years, of course, we have seen several shifts in theoretical emphasis that would appear to be less obviously ‘Western’ in outlook, from macro-structures to actor-orientation and agency; from structuralism to constructivism; from determinist interpretative views of progress; from a tendency to homogenize to a tendency to differentiate; from a focus on the singular to a concern with the plural; and an orientation away from Eurocentrism to polycentrism (Pieterse 2001:13).  At face value, these shifts have welcome implications for people on the ground since they indicate an increasing concern with inclusion, plurality, fairness, and sustainability.  I talk about some of these ideas here.

And yet there seems to be a real difficulty in translating these progressive developments in development thought from the level of theory to the level of practice.  The central argument, and focus, of this book is that this difficulty arises because we continue to suffer from our enlightenment heritage and think primarily in terms of things, rather than evolving processes – and thus lack the language, and with it the space, to conceive of real developmental alternatives.  Without a doubt, this is due in part to the prevailing focus within the development industry on measurable outputs, delivered within relatively short time horizons, where NGOs work within a network of multiple accountabilities: ‘downwards’ to partners, beneficiaries, staff, and supporters, and ‘upwards’ to donors, host governments, and trustees (Edwards and Hulme 1995).  Although, therefore, development workers may subscribe individually to the more progressive view of development as outlined by Pieterse, they are constrained on a daily basis by the way in which these progressive aims are expressed, negotiated, and measured.

Whilst cautioning against simplistic, binary oppositions, Chambers (2010) offers a view of current development practice as comprising two contrasting paradigms.  The first paradigm, ‘neo-Newtonian practice’, is an updated version of his (1997) ‘paradigm of things’: a useful coupling of the methods, processes, procedures, roles and behaviour implied by the word practice with the standardisation, routines, regularities and predictabilities of (Western) European, enlightenment origin implied by the phrase  Neo-Newtonian.  Chambers’ second paradigm, ‘adaptive pluralism’, is an updated version of his earlier (1997) ‘paradigm of people’, and combines an emphasis on participatory methodologies and processes, with behaviour, relationships and personal agency.  Chambers points to the inherent power dimension within this contrast: reductionist, universal, measurable, predictable, and controlled – all attributes of ‘neo-Newtonian practice’, are all project aims attributable to many high status development professionals – whereas the ‘adaptive pluralist’ characteristics of local/specific, complex/holistic/diverse, less measurable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable, often constitute the realities of those living in poverty:

“For this is about power, the power to define, to frame, to value. Are the realities of poor people to be experienced, appreciated and understood by powerful professionals? Are they to count? Or are they to be seen through a blurred telescope from a distance, and then imagined and constructed as conveniently universalised, simplified, standardised, and stabilized?”(Chambers 2010)

Irresistably, Chambers quotes the verse

The World Bank, highest of us all

Looks down to see poor people small

Like atoms all the same, a size

For which it’s right to standardize (2010).

 In advocating greater acknowledgement of adaptive pluralist worldviews and approaches, Chambers is careful, however, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  He uses Snowden’s Cynefin framework to illustrate how each type of worldview constitutes a professionalism that is important to development:

Snowden’s Cynefin framework ((Kurtz and Snowden 2003; Snowden and Boone 2007)

The above framework sets out four types of problems, realities, or systems.  Chambers argues that a ‘neo-Newtonian professionalism’ is required in dealing with simple and complicated situations, since both are ordered (although complicated situations have multiple cause-effect relationships, they remain stable, and thus in principle knowable and mappable: think bridge, or dam).  In contrast, a ‘post-Newtonian professionalism’ is required for chaotic and complex situations – often of a social nature – since these are unordered (in complex situations, patterns only emerge through interaction and are thus unknowable in advance).  For such situations, traditional, ‘Newtonian’ approaches that seek to identify patterns and order are self-evidently unsuitable.

Thus for more engineering-based, infrastructural interventions (such as bridges, dams, railways, etc) conforming to the simple/complicated dimensions, there continues to be a need for standardised predictability, whereas for chaotic/complex problems of a more typically social nature, approaches that are capable of engaging with open-ended, emergent realities are often needed.  The defining dimensions of each paradigm are summarised by Chambers in the table below:

Paradigmatic characteristics of neo-Newtonian practice and adaptive pluralism (Chambers 2010)

In setting out his revised paradigms, however, Chambers stresses that these continue to be work in progress and invites revisions that may help to clarify thinking in this area.  From the perspective of this book, it is interesting that each of Chambers’ updated paradigms differs from its predecessor principally in its inclusion of a temporal dimension: the ‘paradigm of things’ has become a form of practice in which things and stability are nonetheless paramount; the ‘paradigm of people’ has become an activity in which emergence is paramount.  Whilst this implies a recognition that dealing more effectively with process is essential for moral reasons (in order to be plural, we must be adaptive), Chambers appears to offer less of an understanding about how we achieve this beyond an endorsement of participatory methodologies – PMs (e.g. Chambers 2005:729) – that promise greater empowerment, such as minimum simple rules that allow complex systems to emerge, non-negotiable principles concerning participation, and mechanisms of downward accountability.

Since, as Chambers notes, we are currently seeing an explosion in the trialling and use of PMs across the development space, fuelled by new, ever-cheaper empowering technologies, it seems that there is a pressing need to tackle the continuing sidelining of PMs within ‘mainstream’ development.  By this we mean that although mainstream development has adopted and deploys the buzzwords associated with PM in order to secure moral legitimacy at a discursive level, a lack of understanding about the limitations of ‘neo-Newtonian’ rationalism at some of the highest levels of the developmental hierarchy ensures that PM continues to be defined, understood and discussed using ‘new-Newtonian’, rationalist language.  Such attempts to enframe the unenframeable are likely to ensure that PM remains a little-understood but politically correct concession, rather than recognized as an important competence for any self-respecting development professional.

That we continue to lack the language and space in which to conduct progressive development is, in a sense, surprising, since current development thinking has already begun to acknowledge that real engagement with generative processes, often at a very local level, is more likely to produce the developmental outputs that donors, host governments and trustees want to see. Projects have become less technology-led and more cross-sectoral, and increasingly involve managed networks and inter-agency partnerships; development intervention is increasingly seen as extending beyond the ‘project’ itself; and there is an increasing willingness to revise project goals and outputs on an iterative basis whilst ‘in flight’ (Mosse 1998:6).

Such changes have resulted in a recognition of the need for different forms of communication, as in may cases developmental ‘deliverables’ have altered from an emphasis on large items of physical infrastructure (for which a single, optimum design may exist relatively uproblematically) to sustainable behavioural changes for which there may be no one clear template.  Given the increased complexity and negotiability of many of today’s development initiatives, there is a growing, increasingly acknowledged need for frameworks, or spaces, where common understandings about a suitable way forward can be negotiated.

In response, there is a growing genre within development practice oriented not only towards more participative, but also more open-ended, approaches to improving peoples’ lives.  As Mosse points out, such ‘process-oriented’ development work is concerned with continuous dynamics, rather than ‘snap shot’ indicators; it is oriented to the present, rather than planning the future, or reporting the past; it is action-oriented in the sense that possibilities only appear through intervention and change; it is inductive and open-ended; and its experience and insights are resistant to packaging within standard or objectively valid formats.  In short, such work usually lies outside the visible boundaries of mainstream development initiatives and thus remains, literally, marginalized from mainstream development discourse.

Small wonder, then, that there is a pressing need for more thinking on ways in which such open-ended spaces can be created; in her useful donor’s perspective on a process-oriented project aiming to improve rainfed farming in the Indian State of Rajasthan, for example, Alsop (1998) comments:

“The experience in Rajasthan indicates that for process approaches involving diverse and multiple stakeholders to be effective there must be both enabling environments (policies and programmes) and enabling mechanisms (channels for information flow and convergence, fora for debate, and platforms for decision making).  These are essential if the interests of the multiple actors are to become effectively shared, or coalesce, to the point of bringing about change” (Alsop 1998:127).

In order to build real, mainstream understanding and professional competence in tackling the whole spectrum of developmental problems and realities – the complicated as well as the complex – we need to follow Chambers in emphasizing that these are not alternatives.  But we also need to go further than Chambers, and show, at the most basic level, why there are elements of things and elements of process in any developmental reality – and how these combine in peoples’ situated activity.  We need to show that some of the most successful PM projects to date have engaged consciously with participants’ unfolding intentions as these arise and are negotiated within situated activity, and have thus succeeded in delivering outcomes that are in ‘the spirit’ of participants’ intentions, rather than ‘the letter’ of targets and performance indicators.

We also need to demonstrate how such an understanding was a pivotal missing element from PM projects that are seen, in constrast, as having been perhaps more faithful to the letter than their spirit.  And, equally importantly, if we are arguing that an understanding about the significance of emergence and process – the temporal dimension – will increasingly form a minimum competence for anyone working in development in our networked world, we need to offer a way of putting this understanding to work.  We need to show how to develop a ‘third space’ for new possibilities to emerge, and how this space enables not just ‘neo-Newtonians’, but everyone, to be modern.

The remainder of this chapter starts to build this understanding, drawing from a recent literature within management theory that explores the relevance of a process perspective to people working in any form of organization.  We offer a brief history of the growth of the strongly rationalist discourse predominant within most modern organizations, before looking at the profound limitations of such an approach for engaging with a world that is always changing.  We then look specifically at the sphere of human communicative interaction, and find a rationalist discourse to be especially lacking in this case, since human communication is complex in nature and possibilities emerge only in situated activity – for which there is usually very limited space.  Although we argue that people have an inbuilt ability to fine-tune their own intentions in line with the emerging intention of a group, in practice this is usually very difficult, since management discourse privileges and rewards rationalist behaviours – to the point of dysfunctional ‘box ticking’, to which developmental organizations are no exception.

The limitations of rationalism: Why master plans and methods can be problematic

Lefevbre observed that the critique of the thing and of the process of ‘thingification’ in modern thought would fill volumes (2004: 3).  Indeed, the relationship between the notion of a thing, or ‘entity’ (stable, solid, bounded, controllable) and a process (unstable, fluid, emergent, elusive) is one of the oldest philosophical debates known to humankind, in which the “ruling tradition” is “the Platonic and Aristotelian belief that fixity is a nobler and worthier thing than change” (James 1909, in Tsoukas and Chia 2002: 569).  In this, deeply rationalist, conception, the world is composed of stable things that from time to time undergo periods of change, before reverting to their naturally stable state.

In arguing for an alternative conception of the world-as-process, Chia (1997) draws in particular upon the arguments of the philosopher Whitehead (1926), who posed a comprehensive challenge to this entitative worldview.  For Whitehead, the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ lies in the problematic assumption that entities are isolable in some constant, separable sense as inert objects for our disinterested analysis, and thus that these form the fundamental units of knowledge.

The question of whether apparently stable entities are in fact more accurately viewed as unfolding processes (‘you never step in the same river twice’) is attracting increasing attention within management studies, in which primacy is given not to entities, or to movement per se, but to ‘becoming’: an alloy of both entity and movement (Van de Ven and Poole 2005).  A growing number of management researchers now show a commitment to the ‘process turn’, arguing in various ways that organizational reality itself is the ongoing achievement of the directed ‘becoming’ of embodied, situated people (e.g. Tsoukas 1996, Feldman 2000, Chia 2002, Sturdy 2003, Carlsen 2006, Shotter 2008).

By reviewing the above ‘process-oriented’ papers, a number of important characteristics can be identified that mark the difference between a ‘process-oriented’ and an ‘entitative’ worldview.  These are summarised in the table below.

Some Fundamental Differences in Emphasis Between Entitative and Process Worldviews

However, demonstrating why this should be an important concern for (development) organizations is not straightforward, since our primary tools for thinking about the world – words and things – are deeply constraining of our ability to engage with process.  If we are constrained to thinking about what happens to things, it becomes very difficult to adopt an alternative view in which the ‘thing’ and the ‘happening’ are collapsed into a single becoming.  In a paper entitled ‘organizing is both a verb and a noun’, Bakken and Hernes (2006) deal explicitly with this issue, arguing that we should be “cutting verbs and nouns from the same cloth” (2006: 1602).  In order to illustrate the crudeness of the verb-noun distinction, Bakken and Hernes draw on Von Foerster’s example of the ‘pseudopod’ whereby amoebas or similar unicellular organisms extend temporary projections to propel themselves or engulf food, shown below:

The Pseudopod: “Entity is Not Just Entity and Movement is Not Just Movement” (Van Foerster 1967, in Bakken & Hernes 2006)

The above illustration shows various ‘snapshots’ of the organism in its fluid movement from position/form 1, to position/form 6. Although we can see six isolable, spatially separate positions during its trajectory – to which we might attach labelling nouns, the pseudopod is always moving.  We can see that any representative snapshot taken of the pseudopod at, say position 2 would be next to useless as an accurate representation of the organism, since it bears no relationship to its shape moments later at, say, position 4: the labels are woefully inadequate for describing something that works as a process.  Taking more snapshots in ever finer gradations of atomistic reductionism between these positions would never entirely describe the pseudopod, either; there would always be fragments of movement that would elude capture by these snapshots.  Looking at any one snapshot, we would gain the false impression that we were looking at something with stable existence as a thing – even though the shape never actually ‘existed’ in any way that we can close down and define: it was always changing.

In this sense, a noun-based view of the world as made up of things is profoundly confusing for engaging with the reality of the pseudopod, since we are unable to grasp anything of its essence.  In contrast, any ‘essence’ of the pseudopod lies in its fluidity for which we need to describe both a physical dimension (noun), as well as a temporal dimension (verb).  The pseudopod exists as much in the latter as in the former.  Indeed, an important implication noted by Van Foerster is that movement does not emanate from the entity (as in ‘the pseudopod moves’); in as much as anything can be said to ‘emanate from’ anything else, it is the other way around.

The pseudopod is a clear illustration of process-based thinking, which both challenges entitative approaches to understanding the world, as well as illustrating the fundamentally misleading effect of entitative language.  Trying to see the world as an unfolding process is therefore difficult, since we are often forced to make use of mainstream linguistic forms underpinned by a primary commitment to things, which are assumed to be ‘doing’ the movement, rather than being formed of movement.  Recalling the earlier comment about words and things, the snapshots of the pseudopod are in some senses useful, if severely limited, tools for engaging with the pseudopod’s everyday business of movement – but we should avoid the temptation to believe in them.  The usefulness of a process worldview lies in its ability to provide a check on our credulity: to remind us that the entity and the movement, the noun and the verb, are cut from the same cloth.

Nothing ever goes to plan: situated action and the achievement of a transmodern space

There are therefore arguably good reasons at the level of epistemology for being wary of viewing and engaging with a continually changing world through the lens of rationalist representations such as master plans and standardized methodologies and procedures, since these snapshots often bear little resemblance to reality at the outset, and become progressively inaccurate over time.  Representational snapshots of a traditionally rationalist kind are simply very inaccurate, and often misleading, ways of viewing the world; they are not very ‘scientific’.  However, there are also good reasons for suspicion of rationalist representations in terms of the way in which people think, and communicate with one another.

In her book Plans and Situated Actions, The anthropologist Lucy Suchman cites the example of Trukese navigators, who find their way around by constantly adjusting their own direction in relation to their mental image of the relative position of their islands.  This contrasts with the European navigator, who begins with a written plan that is then executed within minimal adjustment:

This total process of [Trukese navigation] goes forward without reference to any explicit principles and without any planning, unless the intention to proceed to a particular island can be considered a plan.  It is nonverbal and does not follow a coherent set of logical steps.  As such it does not represent what we tend to value in our culture as “intelligent” behaviour. (Gladwin 1964:175, in Suchman 2007:69).

Suchman explores the crucial interrelationship between doing and understanding that enables the Trukese navigator to take informed decisions throughout the journey.   In doing so, she builds on the work of the ethnomethodologist Garfinkel, who explored at a micro-level the unfolding dynamic of mutual, practical understanding, maintained minute by minute, that is achievable between people within a shared situation, that a plan can never achieve (interestingly, this problem underlies consistent difficulties in the development of artificial intelligence).  As has been well established by linguists such as Grice (1975), ethnomethodologists such as Garfinkel (1967) and philosophers such as Wittgenstein (1953), the principal reason that people need to experience a situation in order to achieve a rich understanding of its possibilities is that communication is indexical: its meaning is always dependent on the circumstances of its use.  A simple example might be the phrase “oh, great”, which can have a precisely opposite meaning – positive endorsement or negative comment – depending entirely on the nature of the shared situation in which it is used.

Suchman’s key point, however, is that it is only possible to achieve such understandings through the never-ending dialogue of ‘situated action’:

…we generally do not anticipate alternative courses of action or their consequences until some course of action is already underway.  It is frequently only on acting in a present situation that its possibilities become clear, and we often do not know ahead of time, or at least not with any specificity, what future state we desire to bring about.  Garfinkel points out that in many cases it is only after we encounter some state of affairs that we find to be desirable that we identify that state as the goal toward which our previous actions, in retrospect, were directed “all along” or “after all” (1967:98).  The fact that we can always perform a post hoc analysis of situated action that will make it appear to have followed a rational plan says more about the nature of our analyses than it does about our situated actions (Suchman 2007:72-3, italics added).

In this sense, rational planning is a sham: Suchman shows that “rather than direct situated action rationality anticipates action before the fact and reconstructs it afterwards” (2007:73).   However, if the encouragement of more situated action and less master planning might be a good way to build a richer understanding of the possibilities within a particular context, how is this achievable alongside more traditional, modernist notions of progress?

For some time, it seems that answering this question has not been straightforward.  In a fascinating history of the emergence of an opposition between ‘Western’ rationality and local, situated knowledges, David Turnbull traces developments in late twentieth-century sociology of knowledge that have resulted in something of a stand-off .  In one corner, we have rationalism, whose assumptions are deeply embedded in Western institutions and thought, and yet whose tendency to privilege a particular way of seeing the world is deeply problematic for reaching real understanding about the possibilities of a situation in the way that Suchman describes.

Like Suchman, Turnbull argues that it is the interaction between different knowledge traditions that creates such spaces for possibility – and that to attempt to eclipse these with a single, fixed notion of rationality is to deeply restrict our awareness of different possibilities or courses of action: “we will in the long run condemn ourselves to an inevitable death brought on by the inflexibility and sterility of a monoculture” (2000:233).  If, as many have argued (e.g. Foucault 1967), what appears as universal, ‘rational’  common sense actually masks a particular set of underlying assumptions, values, and power relations, then so much the worse.

In the other corner, we have relativism, which is generally politically ineffective in that it becomes impossible to make a strong case for any one value, or course of action over another, since relativist arguments are usually deconstructionist critiques of apparently obvious courses of action, rather than alternative courses of action in themselves.  Although relativists may wish to affect and transform the prevailing status quo, relativist arguments are difficult to maintain in the sorts of institutional contexts (courts, political policies, company reports, etc) where such status quo is often challenged – since such institutional contexts usually recognize only rationalist arguments.

Given this stand-off, Turnbull’s question is how we pursue the liberatory enlightenment project without a universal rationality (2000:233). For Turnbull, the answer lies in decoupling the notion of enlightenment from its traditional roots in Western Orientalism, in which all non-European forms of experience were concealed, ignored, or defined as ‘the other’.  Drawing on the historian Dussel, Turnbull calls for a replacement of the ‘modern’ – so deeply ingrained with this privileged standpoint of Western enlightenment – and its replacement with a progressive ‘transmodern’ that is open to participation from all forms of knowledge tradition: a ‘third space’ allowing ‘negotiation between spaces’.

Of crucial importance is that the transmodern – a progressive project that is open to everyone –is only achievable via a rejection of enlightenment rationality as its default, privileged standpoint – since for as long as this is the case, other traditions will always be marginalized as ‘the other’:

“A third space is then a space in which the hidden power assumptions about the kinds of selves, objects and their relations that is presumed in the moral order, have to be allowed to become visible.  This, I suggest, is not feasible at the purely representational level” (Turnbull 2000:234).

We argue that a practical way of viewing the ‘transmodern’ is as a progressive space comprising both rationalist and non-rationalist arguments that avoids relativism, and remains capable of arriving at judgments about how best to achieve a progressive aim upon which all are agreed.  The achievement of such a space, then, is to a large extent dependent upon our ability to rely less upon modernist notions of representational knowledge – such as plans – which ignore or obscure other possibilities and courses of action, and focus instead on creating knowledge spaces that open up ‘in flight’; in the continually negotiated, emergent dialogue of situated action.  But how can this be encouraged?

Intent as a way to achieve situated action

If we are trying to move away from aiming the steering wheel before we start the car to conscious, competent steering as we go along based on a real understanding of the space we are traversing, we need to think more about how to create space where such new understandings – which may not have been in the original plan – can emerge.  There is good reason to suppose that given the right conditions, people will willingly engage with one another in this space.  For example, the sociologist Barnes (2001) argues that the most plausible explanation for why society works is that people are ‘mutually susceptible’: their actions are always framed and considered in terms of how they will be socially perceived, and the likely consequences of this:

“In all manifestations of social life, what would otherwise be diverse individual inclinations in the specification and application of rules must be ordered into a tolerably coherent collective practice.  But independent individuals have no incentive to do the work of evaluation and standardization constantly necessary to sustain a sense of ‘what the rules are’.  Only non-independent human beings will do this work, human beings who are indeed active and independent in relation to rules but not in relation to each other.  Sociable human beings, capable of affecting one another implicitly, causally and continuously in their communicative interaction, may co-ordinate their understandings and their actual implementations of rules.  …There must be something causal at work, all the time in the course of communicative interaction, that keeps people sufficiently well aligned with each other for mutual intelligibility to continue.  People must be mutually susceptible” (2001: 347, original italics).

As an example of this mutual susceptibility, the sociologist Barbalet draws on Darwin’s explanation of the socially relational nature of shame.  Darwin discusses our unmediated process of reflection (on our appearance) and emotional reaction (to blush) in response to our perception of an external relationship:

“It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush.  In absolute solitude the most sensitive person would be quite indifferent about his appearance” (Darwin [1872] 1965: 325, in Barbalet 2001: 112).

For Barbalet, the significance of this example is that

“It is through the subject’s active exchanges with others, through interaction, that emotional experience is both stimulated in the actor and orientating of their conduct.”  (Barbalet 2001: 187).

In this view, practice is innately social precisely because of the close links between deeply mutually susceptible people, who continually recalibrate their understandings of social rules as they evolve – enabling them to be able to interpret and enact routines in the first place.  It is their very mutual susceptibility, or concern for how they are perceived by others, that motivates them to do this.  For Barnes, the condition of mutual susceptibility, where there is an indistinct line between Self and Other, motivates people to do the ongoing work required to continually update their understandings of rules in order to enhance others’ perceptions of them – and therefore underpins their mutual intelligibility.  The mutual intelligibility required to generate shared understandings is only explicable through mutual susceptibility.

Reflexivity is defined in the dictionary as ‘directed back on itself’.  Used in a social sense, this implies an ability to view oneself in relation to others, and to direct, or feed, this view back into one’s self-perception.  If we add to this view of reflexivity a sense of social motivation (people are mutually susceptible), the result is some form of reflexive intent on the part of the person that is relational: it is at once intentional, or forward-looking, as well as a reaction to perceptions about how one is seen by others – and the continuous, unending nature of this process means that intentions can be expected to change constantly.  Understanding and harnessing the unfolding field of peoples’ intentions within a continually emerging physical and social world-as-process – and illustrating what can happen when we ignore this important aspect of our reality – is the central concern of this book.

Engaging with peoples’ unfolding intent within an emergent world is difficult for all organizations…

Of course, it is one thing to criticize entitative worldviews for their epistemological inaccuracy and inability to engage with the social world – but, if things rarely go according to plan, why do we rely on them so much?  Seeing the world as process is a difficult leap for many of us – but it is arguably especially difficult for organizations, owing to an entrenched culture of rationality that privileges the abstraction, storage and reuse of generalised principles in which ‘thingification’ is often the explicit goal.  We believe that understanding the workings of rationalist discourse – and its more dysfunctional twin, ‘box ticking’ –  is important if we are to neutralize it in our everyday activities, and thus devote space to discussing it here. In a recent article articulating some of the issues with ‘managerial knowledge’, Chia and Holt (2008) argue that a managerial culture of rationality views knowledge as a “recoverable, facetted and procedural entity”, resulting in “what we might call a specialist, abstract conception in which managerial knowledge equates to proposed control over events realized through measurement, planning and review” (2008: 142).

In particular, the organizational world displays a particular pressure to concretise and ‘realise’ value, to which development organizations of all types are no exception. Within a discourse of value creation, asset generation and ownership, there is arguably an occasional collective willingness to be persuaded that converting dynamic phenomena to ownable assets is a realistic aim.  As an example, it could be argued that the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ has undergone an eerie transformation amongst a sizeable management audience.  Beginning with Polanyi’s (1966) notion of tacit knowledge as something that cannot be transmitted, is gained only through personal experience, and emerges only in practice – “we know more than we can say”, tacit knowledge is now often discussed unproblematically as a transferable asset that can be “harvested” from peoples’ heads and “captured” for the benefit of the organization, stored and transferred to others (e.g. Pugh and Dixon 2008).

Anyone seeking confirmation as to the organizational impact of this debate and conducting a quick internet search on the phrase “knowledge harvesting” will find that this concept has spawned a large industry in itself, and had a major impact on the direction of many organizations’ knowledge and training programs: a particularly marked example of this is the National Health Service in the UK, whose online dictionary explains that “Knowledge harvesting is an approach that allows the tacit knowledge or know-how of experts and top performers in an organization to be captured and documented.” (2005).

‘Tacit knowledge’ has come over time to represent for many people an entirely different phenomenon at the level of experienced reality, transforming, in this case, from a description of an embodied, lived experience that emerges in practice, to a description of a disembodied entity that can be transferred and stored at will, with associated techniques and methodologies.  The implications of such a shift for the way in which organizations should seek to support their knowledge workers are profound.

The field of management abounds with similar examples.  Reflecting on Table 1, and drawing on this author’s personal experience over twenty years as a business consultant, a range of appealing and popular management constructs comes to mind in which arguably open-ended, emergent, socially embedded phenomena become ‘thingified’ in what amounts to a never-ending struggle to standardise, predict and control:

Concretisation and Control: Examples of the Entitative Focus of Managerial Knowledge

The examples of ‘process’ and ‘practice’ from Table 12 – emergent activities that become standardised into controllable entities – are clear demonstrations that important ideas and concepts in the organizational world can frequently come to have exactly opposite meanings within mainstream management discourse, not only referring to different concepts, but based within very different worldviews.  This is not to argue, recalling Chambers, that standardised work processes and best practices are not desirable in many cases – or that organizations do not need such isolable, interoperable constructs in order to function.  Rather, it is to emphasise that development workers adopting a process worldview will be positioned to recognise the limitations of such epistemological creations against an ontological backdrop of constant flow – and highlight the continual organizing effort needed to make these work.  In our view, the ability to recognize such limitations is an important professional competence for any development worker.

…and for some organizations, hyper-rationalism has become a disease: the phenomenon of box ticking

The phenomenon of box ticking in organizational life is the extended consequence of this never-ending pressure to standardize, predict, and control, where demonstration of adherence to best practice as a normative, self-evident ‘good’ becomes a precursor to the establishment of organizational legitimacy.  In turn, such legitimacy may then be directed towards a variety of ends – securing funding, gaining promotion, demonstrating financial probity, post hoc defence of organizational decisions, etc.

The philosopher Onora O’Neill provides examples of the pervasive phenomenon of runaway abstraction:

“The new legislation, regulation and controls are more than fine rhetoric.  They require detailed conformity to procedures and protocols, detailed record-keeping and provision of information in specified formats and success in reaching targets.  Detailed instructions regulate and prescribe the work and performance of health trusts and schools, of universities and research councils, of the police force and of social workers.  And beyond the public sector, increasingly detailed legislative and regulatory requirements also bear on companies and the voluntary sector, on self-employed professionals and tradesmen.  All institutions face new standards of recommended accounting practice, more detailed health and safety requirements, increasingly complex employment and pensions legislation, more exacting provisions for ensuring non-discrimination and, of course, proliferating complaint procedures” (O’Neill 2002: 46-7).

Importantly, O’Neill She also points out the tendency for abstractions of best practice to displace and obscure practice, as “Even those who devise the indicators know that they are at very best surrogates for the real objectives. “ (2002).  As schools, hospitals and universities are evaluated and funded by their rankings in league tables, this ‘audit explosion’ (Power 1997) increasingly displaces older systems of accountability as in universities, external examiners lose influence to centrally planned teaching assessment, in the health service, professional judgement is constrained in many ways, and in schools, curriculum and assessment of pupils is centrally controlled:

“The new accountability is widely experienced not just as changing but (I think) as distorting the proper aims of professional practice and indeed as damaging professional pride and integrity.  Much professional practice used to centre on interaction with those whom professionals serve: patients and pupils, students and families in need.  Now there is less time to do this because everyone has to record the details of what they do and compile the evidence to protect themselves against the possibility not only of plausible, but of far-fetched complaints (O’Neill 2002).

Such behaviour arguably exemplifies what Merton (1957) called ‘goal displacement’ as the demonstration of compliance with the benchmarks of `best practice’ displaces direct attentiveness and judgement concerning how improvements in local practices might best be identified and accomplished.  As a manifestation of ‘runaway’ best practice, ‘box ticking’ can be seen as a discursively-driven organizational pathology that results in progressive decoupling of  a standard, universalized lexicon of ‘best practice’ from locally relevant ‘practice’ from which human judgment is steadily drained, with ensuing loss of  `ownership’ and identification with local practice.

Whereas O’Neill (2002) explained box ticking behaviour in terms of risk avoidance, we argue that the avoidance of risk is one motivational factor in box ticking; which may be understood more broadly as the securing of discursive advantage in a field of power relations involving a need to demonstrate adherence to best practice.

Ironically, the self-reinforcing discursive strength of best practice is the key to its weakness: the more self-evident the desirability of adhering to best practice, the more likely it is to manifest itself in its pathological form: box ticking.  Left unchecked, the appeal to method for method’s sake becomes a discursive ‘closed loop’ where alignment to a particular normative code becomes necessary to secure legitimacy: the tail wags the donkey.  Attempts to standardise and improve are always attempts to stabilise, to reassure.  And yet the paradox is that, whilst appearing to ‘concretise’, there is progressive loss of ‘the concrete’ in abstraction.

Box-ticking behaviour occurs when the strong discursive field created by sustained exposure to best practice rhetoric distorts and magnifies the process of abstraction, transforming and obscuring its purpose, such that it now bears little relation to the practice that it claims to support.  We have all experienced examples of such ‘letter, not the spirit’: trains that no longer connect because each is beholden to separate punctuality targets; hospitals with short waiting times in those areas subject to measurement but historically long waiting times in others; organizations that ‘benchmark’ much-used common resources (such as libraries), calculate that these are inefficient, and close them, to the loss of all; schools that ‘dumb down’ their choice of examination board to secure higher league table positioning – the list is seemingly endless.

A more developed appreciation of the limitations of a worldview based on things  provides us with the conceptual tools to evaluate the extent to which benefits often claimed for implementing things within organizations – tools, structures, systems, models, or technology – actually exist in practice.  Given their entitative linguistic bias, cultural heritage, and daily economic imperative to generate measurable forms of value, organizations are likely to continue to have a desire to crystallise, fix, and control.  In response, by preserving a resolute focus on situated activity and resisting the temptation to fasten on entities, development workers are able to play a vital role in juxtaposing developmental rhetoric with reality.

‘Participation’: Box ticking in development organizations

It is ironic that the field of development is sometimes held up within mainstream management circles as an example of rampant box-ticking.  In an influential edited book in 2001, Cook and Kothari undertook a detailed analysis of ‘participation’: a rampant form of ‘best practice’ within development organizations.  The book describes the runaway transformation of ‘participation’ from an initial reaction to the technocratic approaches to development of the 1960s and 1970s, through a phase of methodological orthodoxy in the 1980s and early 1990s, into a form of ‘tyranny’.  In particular, the chapter by Mosse captures neatly the way in which initial, participatory aims become co-opted by a rationalist insistence on enframing the unenframeable:

Participatory goals are ‘official models’ in Bourdieu’s (1977) sense, maintained through practices and ‘officializing strategies’ that translate the ground-level operational and tactical concerns of a project into authorized categories (just as villagers themselves translate their concerns into the valid categories of the project).  In this sense, participatory goals including ideas about ‘peoples’ knowledge’ and ‘participatory planning’ are significantly (if not primarily) oriented upwards (or outwards) to legitimize action, to explain, justify, validate higher policy goals, or mobilize political support rather than downwards to orientate action.” (Mosse, in Cook and Kothari 2001:27).

The participation example is interesting in that it identifies a specific instance of best practice, and describes its process of gradual distortion into a pathological form: a literal ‘tyranny’ of box-ticking, as stakeholders increasingly compete for the legitimacy that accompanies possession of the participative ‘high ground’, at the expense of alignment with the actual practice of peoples’ experienced realities:

As a legitimizing idea, ‘participation’ is sufficiently ambiguous to allow many different readings, and several shadow or subordinate models – rationalities validating action from different points of view.  Experience of ‘participatory development’ in India is testimony to the diverse agendas clothed in the language of ‘participation’: government agencies use ‘participation’ to reach expenditure targets through enrolling NGOs or community institutions in implementation; public works agencies view ‘participation’ as a mean to reduce operation and maintenance costs, marketing agencies may see ‘participation’ as a means to enhance an organization’s profile, or the ‘seed’ for future markets; while for NGOs participation may mean patronage and reputation-building (ibid. 29).

As a result, ‘participation’ has become a discursive football, which, Moss argues, is little more than a representation; a model oriented towards non-local concerns that ironically displaces, rather than encourages, a focus on project practices and can be used to secure discursive (and presumably financial) advantage.  Consistent with the argument set out here, this is primarily because of an inability within a continuingly rationalist mainstream development community to engage with language and thinking that is open-ended, action-based, and social.  One wonders how many more of the emerging PM approaches described by Chambers risk the same fate.

I will be adding references shortly