April 19, 2005

subsystem / ecosystem dialectic


I am finally "really" reading your paper on "The Geometry of Family Theory." I have a question about your fundamental dialectical principle that involves "the relationship between a system and its environment, through which each is consituted as both a subsystem and an ecosystem" (p. 5). You may recall that I was going to use Evangelical couples as my subject for creating a model. Well, I've altered that a bit. I want to consider interracial families, specifically, and I've broadened the institution to the Christian church in America, specifically churches that are identified as multiracial (this is more researchable & definitive; plus, I've found a typology of 4 different types of multiracial churches). Anyway, my challenge is trying to see both family and church as both subsystem and ecosystem to each other...

So, here's how I'm thinking about this. I can easily imagine the family acting as a subsystem within the church, which acts as an ecosystem. However, the reverse side of the dialectical takes a little more thought (and a rum 'n coke, actually). I was envisioning this family sitting at home talking about how they feel accepted and included in their church. Insofar as they belong to a church, they would be influenced by the "group definition," i.e. values, norms, shared meanings, etc. And as they evaluate their experience, they are interacting with symbols which carry meaning for them. These symbols didn't emerge exclusively from inside each family member. They are, in fact, "emergent properties of wholes, not attributable to individuals alone" and as each person reflectively evaluates their experience, their reflection is "mediated by an internalized notion of groups" (Hanson, 1995, p. 41). Therefore, the family acts as the ecosystem in this other side of the dialectic and the church--in this family conversation--serves as a subsystem which interacts within each person to influence their self-reflection. The dialectic switches back and forth, depending on where the focus is, which aligns with the idea of dynamic boundaries.

Well? Am I close to the holy grail? I think I feel a light bulb starting to flicker...it began when I reflected on what Weeks meant by an "intersystems" approach, since both family and church are systems, but ever-evolving kinds of systems that interact upon (or transact) each other.


You're on the right track, I believe. In my view, "ecological dialectics" (or "dialectical ecology," if you prefer) reminds us of infinite multi-dimensionality rather than the more traditional linear dialectic (eg, Hegel's thesis/antithesis, etc.) Transactions are simplest and clearest between "near" or "adjoining" systems; however, GST, Gaia, etc. remind us that EVERYTHING is interconnected and multicausal. Thus, in principle, any given system can be endlessly explicated because it is infinitely interconnected with other systems that are infinitely interconnected, etc. etc. Practically speaking, to prevent overwhelming complexity we are forced to simplify--or "model"--a given part of a vast ecosystem. Therefore, to understand even a simplified model we should not lose track of the fact that, while we are designating something a "system" to be understood, we are actually studying a subsystem/ecosystem dialectic--which every system is. This, in turn, has methodological implications, the most important of which is: Work from the "top" (ecosystem) "down" (subsystem), because understanding the whole will be necessary to understand the parts. There are other corollary principles, but I won't go into those here. Hopefully, this clarifies the motivation and thinking behind my "Geometry of Systems" article, ie. three dimensional spherical modeling more closely approximates the "reality" of complex systems than two-dimensional "wiring diagrams" and X/Y axes graphs. I hope this helps rather than obfuscates.

Posted by gschache at 4:32 PM

April 4, 2005

Riegel's work on dialectics & cog development

I'm fascinated by something I found in Weeks' article that proposes an "intersystems" type of "metatheoretical approach to integrating individual and systemic formulations of human development. He quotes Klaus Riegel (1973) who invested himself in "dialectical operations and cognitive development" (p. 6). Riegel had a theory that humans develop in four different dimensions or levels. They include the following:

1. Inner-biological
2. Individual-psychological
3. Cultural-sociological
4. Outer-physical

He theorizes that development is more fluid when 2 or more of these areas are in synch with one another. That's an easy assertion, but I like the antithesis of this theory. He says that "Crises and developmental leaps occur when there is asynchronization between or among dimensions" (p.7). This is akin to the literature on spiritual transformation in individuals which points to crises or upheaval as an opportunity for a fundamental shift in one's paradigm. Of course, Riegel is pointing out the obvious and maybe missing the importance of the variety of contexts that the above levels are impacted by (I should read more Brofenbrenner and Hanson for more on that). Yet, something about this idea of these levels being asynchronized seems tolerable with dialectics. That is, a dialectical approach would hold the truths of all of these levels in tension, even when--and especially when--they seem contradictory.

Again, now, the challenge will be what this looks like in a model.



See my earlier comments about Erik Erikson. His widely recognized life cycle development model is firmly rooted in dialectics, and he notes that developmental "crises" are necessary and inevitable (he defines "crisis" as "a turning poing in development, one way or the other,"). And each of his "stages" is a life cycle balance, e.g. "trust vs. mistrust," "autonomy vs. shame/doubt," etc. In my view, Erikson's developmental scheme is one of the most comprehensive yet detailed systemic models ever devised (based, interestingly enough, on the work of Freud). It has both theoretical elegance and practical utility.

Posted by gschache at 11:47 PM

It's hard to maintain a systems lens

I had an experience over the weekend that illustrates how hard it is to integrate systemic concepts into an overall view of life. I was describing to a friend how the field of medicine interrupted centuries of intuitive parenting with a declaration of expertise on what is "best." Medicine knew enough to safely knock women out when they went into labor; knew how to duplicate the essential essence of breast milk through formula; and they provided a safe haven for babies in a nursey immediately after childbirth. There are other legacies (such as cautioning parents to not be overly responsive for fear that they would "spoil" their children), but this is a fair picture overall of the 1940-50's in medicine...

I went on to expound on the subsequent attachment research which has challenged many of the practices from the '40-50's. And I concluded that attachment research has affirmed what generations of parents have known intuitively for centuries. Essentially, I built my straw man up and then squashed him. Well, my friend heard what I was saying and understood that the medical model was a hiccup in an otherwise responsive style of parenting, but he challenged me with the observation that the 1940-50's produced some very prosperous things. In a general way he was saying, despite some unfounded notions things didn't just fall apart as these children grew up.

Initially I thought I would point out some of the emotional legacies of the detached parenting styles, but then I realized I would be dismissing an important element--the overall system. It may be that the generations that emerged from the '40-50's were adaptive in spite of the misconceptions of medicine, but it may be that there were some practicies instituted that carried unforeseen benefits. I realized then that it would be easy to duck the system-at-large and argue from the details of a cause/effect viewpoint. Starting with a Wholes approach means opening up room for the consideration that both virtues and dilemmas emerged from the 40-50's approach. To prove my point, it is tempting to discount that which I want to discount, but it would mean I sacrifice a systems understanding.

It's easier to talk systems than to think with it!


Erik Erikson did some of his most creative work during the 1940s and 1950s, including writing a good deal about how the developmental processes of childhood underlie eventual "virtues" in adulthood. He was able to do this, I believe, because he was dialectical in his approach--thereby avoiding some of the pitfalls of the early attachment literature (particularly Bowlby, who was writing around the same time period). Erikson refers to children biogenetically scripted to respond to an "average expectable environment" (a term originally coined by Heinz Hartmann). When environmental conditions become extreme--in any direction--developmental challenges result. Today, there is widespread agreement that healthy attachments form when "good enough parenting" takes place. The inherent dialectic of this is sometimes missed when we focus on the problems of parental "neglect," which are indeed problems. But "too much" parenting can be as damaging as too little. Can you see how well this fits with the dialectical notion of differentiation, ie. a balance between autonomy and connection? In my own work over the past few decades, I have pointed out that no one will ever write THE definitive book on childrearing (even though some very good ones have been published). To do so, we would first have to have complete certainty that we had discovered exactly what we wanted to produce in an adult--and all agreed to it. This would, in turn, sabotage both the biogenetic and sociogenetic requirements for diversity that are required for survival.

Posted by gschache at 12:29 PM

April 2, 2005

O' my Gaia!

James Lovelock who write "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" and "The Ages of Gaia" believes that science can demonstrate that the Earth is a living organism. At least, it maintains basically the same conditions in temperature, atmosphere, salinity and pH of the oceans, etc. These reflect commensurate conditions that should occur in living organisms. So, he comes up with the Gaia hypothesis based on the complex physical, chemical & biological interrelationships that work like a living organism. How can he claim that the Earth is a living organism?

He draws a parallel with the mighty redwood tree. With insights from physicist, Jerome Rothstein, he points out that 99% of a redwood is dead. It is "an ancient spire of dead wood, made of lignin and cellulose by the ancestors of a thin layer of living cells" (p.10). Similarly, it is theorized that many of the atoms that compose the rocks in the magma at the core of the Earth, were once part of our ancestral life. So, even "dead" elements are included within the biosphere of living organisms.

One thing I found surprising is that the chemical composition of Earth's atmosphere is comprised of chemicals that should react in a volatile manner, creating a state of disequilibrium. However, conditions on Earth have stayed favorable for life for 3.5 billion years without let up, (this is derived from the record of sedimentary rock). The so-called "ice-ages" (a hyperbolic term, apparently) only occured above north of the 45 degree North latitude and below the 45 degree South latitude. 70% of the remaining surface was mostly unaffected by these freezings. So, something about the Earth functions "like" a living organism to bring equilibrium; this implies design and Lovelock points to the Earth itself for answers.

I found a nice summary online of Lovelock's three points in this book:

"The 3 major principles he brings to light about Gaia are:
1. Gaia exhibits a tendency to keep conditions (e.g., temperature, air quality) constant for all terrestrial life.
2. Like other living systems, Gaia has vital organs at the core, and expandable or redundant ones on the periphery.
3. Under the worse conditions, Gaia responses similar to other cybernetic systems (i.e., where time constant and loop gain are important)"

A major implication of Lovelock's work is the interrelationality of all living things. Ecologically speaking, even so called "dead" things are interrelated with "live" things. We don't consider a redwood a mostly dead thing, and yet it is composed of mostly dead things. Similarly, humans in their environments are surrounded by things that seem unrelated or dead (at least in connection), but they should be considered according to Lovelock.

Whether we agree or disagree with Lovelock's conclusions, his method should inspire the way we create models. He asked expansively curious questions. Questions that would seem to resist even a sensical begninning point.

It seems that I should be gleaning more implications if Lovelock's theory has merit, that the Earth is a living organism. What else should I be considering?


Here's something to consider: That God IS the universe, i.e., Being-Itself (Tilllich), not a guy with a beard sitting around someplace a long way off waiting for us to show up there. You've got it right when you note that the questions raised by Lovelock resist a rational, sensible beginning point; they also resist a final answer ("I am that I am--the Beginning and the End"). Lovelock is doing post-modern science in relation to the age-old questions of life and reality.


One of the most significant learnings about ecology for me occurred a number of year ago when I attended a conference on epistemology at which Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Heinz von Forester, and others presented. I will always remember a presentation by a geologist (whose name I don't recall), during which he held up a large rack of test tubes in a darkened auditorium, and showed the audience all the colors of the rainbow in the light passing through them. He explained that these were layers of sedimentary rock obtained by taking core samples from the area of the Painted Desert in Utah. The colors were created by a broad spectrum of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, which over eons of time had found a way to co-exist in the same space by utilizing the atmospheric resources available. The concept of Gaia has been real (and concrete) to me ever since.

Posted by gschache at 4:40 PM

April 1, 2005

Aristotle vs. The Hopi

The Hopi Family Therapist and the Aristotelian Parents by Paul F. Dell

One issue that Dell tackles in comparing the worldview of Hopi Indians with that of white western family therapists is that of language. Dell reacts to Benjamin Worf’s linguistic relativism; namely, that what we think about reality is limited or enhanced by our linguistics. The wider the linguistic options, the more options of thought we have (hence, a prominent therapeutic technique is to expand a family’s conceptualization of its problem into something that promotes adaptation or choices). He goes on to show how grammar “is inherently metaphysical” because it determines how reality is delineated. For a westerner, grammar is divided between subjects and predicates (p. 124). The Hopi Indian “has a relational grammar that describes the world in terms of process” (p. 124).

Dell summarizes this distinction by demonstrating that western metaphysics divides reality into time, space, and matter, whereas the Hopi divide their view of the world into “space-time, events, intensity and preparing” (p. 124). The example that strikes me as relevant to model-making is what is considered to be real. Western reality stems from a substantive understanding of what can be divided and measured (thanks, in part, to Aristotle). The term “real” comes from the Latin root res which means “thing” (p. 124). Therefore, what is real is a thing, anything that can be thing-afied. The thing-view differs from the Hopi more process-view of what is real. For the Hopi, reality is analyzed “in terms of events, or more accurately, eventing…the continual flow of events that develop one in relation to another. ‘Eventing’ suggests emerging processes, whereas ‘events’ disconnect something from its ground and make it thing-like” (p. 124). It’s no surprise to me that the Hopi language is dominated by verbs. Indo-European language centers on nouns. The Hopi view is akin to a systems therapist who wants to describe a family’s reality in terms of dynamic processes versus thing-like objects. It’s the difference between saying “This family is dysfunctional” versus “This family experiences tension or conflict at times when members differ in what they value.” Apparently, Anatol Holt wanted to “stamp out nouns” (p. 125) in order to make room for more process ideas in the Indo-European’s language.

One way this would impact a model of family life is to challenge notions that a model should avoid a sense of the past or future of a family’s trajectory. It seems that many couples interpret PREPARE / ENRICH with little sense of the transitions that a couple will experience pre and post-marriage and pre/post-children. A model that would encompass past and anticipated changes would benefit from considering key events, not to mention other significant OR mundance events that would impact the relationship. Plus, events don’t just fit neatly into cause and effect phenomena, there is a circularity of effects working at multiple levels: intrapsychically, familially, societally, politically, environmentally, etc. Dell calls this the “interactional context” of an event (p. 126).

Dell repeats Aristotle question of what the essential qualities are that give rise to change. Is it the essential qualities of an object that determines its behavior? Or is there a sense that objects are more of processes always in a state of becoming? So, reality is a tight knit stream of past-present-future out of which processes emerge. So, an alcoholic father could be viewed as somehow internally broken and that determines his drunkenness or he could be seen as an agent moving between the forces of past-present-future, exhibiting both self-determination and reaction to sequences of events, with the possibility of new behaviors or identities allowed to emerge within his context. The Hopi would view the alcoholic as a series of processes rather than an object within a process, which follows their space-time conceptualization. This doesn't make sense in western space and time delineations, because a spatial object can be pulled out of time/space and examined/defined. The Hopi cannot divorce these, so an individual is understood as a process. The Hopi perform dances with intensity and repetition; it is their belief that this activity--performed in the present--will store up "invisible change that holds into later events" (Dell quote Carroll, 1956, p. 151).

I wonder if a family model that had a units of analysis that encompassed dyads rather than individuals would be helpful? I don't want to lose the ontology of individuality, but I want to broaden an atomistic worldview to include individuals-as-distinct-processes within relational contexts. So, how would I know an individual-as-process if I experienced one? I would become part of the process, as the researcher or therapist, no doubt, but how would I define them as a unit of analysis? The very idea of a unit is a atomistic, isn't it? Ok, enough questioning on this topic...this article raises some good clarifying questions.


You already know a table-as-process, a chair-as-process, a wife-as-process....so why is knowing a client family-as-process any different?


For more on "thing-ification," see Bandler & Grinder on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Also, the work of psychologist Eugene Gendlin, particularly Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. A background in process philosophy/theology, e.g., A.N. Whitehead, Henry Nelson Weiman, Teilhard de Chardin, is helpful for a really thorough understanding of the assumptions lying behind this kind of thought. Also, it's important to keep the basic principle of GST firmly in mind: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, the ongoing transformational processes of all systems (from physical to biological to informational to linguistic) are always "adding up to something more," ie., the emergent properties of systems that are so central to ecological and evolutionary frameworks.

Posted by gschache at 4:05 PM