Limits to Human Potential
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Originally published as a joint document of Mankind 2000 and Union of International Associations (Brussels, 1976). Selected "limits" published in Transnational Associations, 28, 1976, 10, pp. 444-446; 29, 1977, 4, pp. 147-151
3. Limits to use of hierarchical approaches
4. Limits arising from behaviour in complexity
5. Limited ability to cooperate
6. Limits of knowledge and experience
7. All in everything
8. Constraints of space and time
9. Erosion of confidence in organized relationships
10. Loss of community of discourse
11. Erosion of communication and travel ability
12. Assumption that the observer or change agent does not change
13. Limitation of ability to discover and choose
14. Limited ability to recognize problem displacement
15. Erosion of democratic processes
16. Constraints imposed by secrecy
17. Concept of societal complexity limited by imposed constraints
18. Assumption that further human evolution may be ignored
19. Limited ability to face the unknown
20. Limited ability to face the negative
21. Limited significance of rationality and appeals to values
22. "We" and "They"
23. Apathy, cynicism, hopelessness and disillusionment
24. Entrapment and alienation of committed activists
25. Repetition of learning cycles
26. Limited ability to recognize personality needs and problems
27. Nebulous features of societal problems
28. Limited ability to tolerate diversity
29. Limited collective social attention span
30. Limited ability to perceive and describe social processes
31. Limited ability to develop meaningful meta-viewpoints or justify the need for them
The perceptions expressed in draft form in this document arose as a result of the preparation of the first edition of the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential (1976). That reference book is the first product of an ongoing process initiated in Brussels in 1972 by the Union of International Associations and Mankind 2000 [subsequently entitled Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, 4th ed. 1994-95].
The collection and processing of a considerable variety of information on every kind of world problem, and on the attempts at their solution, forced the editors to look at the nature of such problems in general and the psycho-social context within which solutions were advocated or attempted. Some reflections on these matters appear in the introduction to some sections of the Yearbook or in its Appendixes. It seemed useful however to try to clarify these perceptions to facilitate further discussion.
The point of this document is therefore to draw attention to a series of constraints or difficulties which seem to prevent mankind from responding successfully to the current crisis condition of the world. It is not the intention to focus on conventional, well-publicized difficulties or inequalities which many assume to be at the origin of the current unsatisfactory situation. Arguments of this type have been put forward on many occasions and from many points of view. Many are summarized in the Yearbook which describes some 2600 recognized world problems.
This document is concerned with highlighting those difficulties which prevent the successful achievement of the objectives of any remedial programme of social significance at this time. It is particularly concerned with those cases where there is consensus concerning the desirability of remedial action, specially where some coherent plan of action has been formulated, and where the usual problems of funding and other programme resources have been eliminated.
This document is also concerned with highlighting those difficulties which prevent the successful implementation of programmes designed to facilitate human development and for the full realization of human potential not as remedial action, but in an attempt to go beyond what has already been achieved.
Just as it is not the intention to focus on well-publicized difficulties, the focus is also restricted to the kinds of difficulty experienced even when the individuals and organizations concerned perceive themselves to be sincerely working in the interests of mankind as a whole, whether within their community or through transnational bodies. It is not concerned with difficulties deriving from corruption, deliberate misuse of structures, procedures and processes, or actions of other than benevolent intent, however limited the domain of application.
The question could be raised as to whether there is any benefit in identifying such difficulties, given that we all know that there are obstacles to significant change. Also, many of these difficulties have been described at great length in more suitable contexts. In answer, however, there does seem to be a case for attempting to portray within one framework the variety of interacting difficulties as they stand at the moment. There Is usually a tendency to bury such recognition in the postmortem on some programme which has failed - and, to avoid offence, such analysis is usually made informally or in documents whose circulation is highly restricted. By treating these difficulties as independent of any particular named context, they can be considered with less emotion and defensiveness. Hopefully by expressing them in this way, it will be possible to provoke a creative response which will show a way past the limits as defined.
Many would also claim that most of these problems would be eliminated if humanity organized itself within one ideological framework, under one governmental system, with one system of ethics or values, with one religion, within one legal framework, etc. Whilst any or all of these may emerge as an attempt to respond to the immediate crises, it is unclear just how long humanity would be satisfied with such frameworks. History would seem to indicate that the period of satisfaction becomes increasingly shorter. It is brought to an end by the re-emergence of one or more of the limits or constraints on social interaction which are noted in this document. These limits would seem to function to protect the psycho-social diversity of humanity - which may be of most importance for its long-term survival. At the same time, we are faced with the paradoxical situation that they also appear to prevent the degree of social interaction and organization which seems to be essential for any adequate response to the current crises.
The full realization of human potential is associated in some way with the development of diversity restrained or contained by some unifying framework. Debate and social experiment will continue to focus on the meaning to be attached to "diversity" and "unifying framework and the forms to which they can usefully give rise under different conditions.
Few of the perceptions in this document are original. Some have been recorded many times. It may be useful to include references in a later version.
In discussion about the psycho-social system within which we are immersed and of which we form a part, we define features of that system such as as concepts, organizations, roles, etc. We are aware that these interact in a variety of ways. There is consensus that the extent of this interaction is very great, because society is so complex. It is therefore widely agreed that it is impossible to give adequate consideration to all interactions. This is the basis for the current division of labour in which special concern is given by some people or groups to some features of society - but few are able to give consideration to much beyond their own central concern. We cannot allow ourselves to be sensitive to too many interactions or else we would be recognizing a situation of such complexity that we would be unable to determine where or how to act.
It becomes increasingly easy to act as we limit the number of interactions to which we are sensitive and which we feel obliged to define as relevant. To the extent that we can manage to define interactions as irrelevant, we therefore increase our immediate freedom of action.
Clearly, however, those interactions which we define as irrelevant and which we successfully avoid taking into consideration, will eventually have some impact on the actions which we undertake. Very strong interactions which are ignored may prevent our project or programme from even getting through its first phase, thus necessitating a general re-assessment during which those factors would presumably be taken into account. Weaker interactions which are ignored may simply prevent the project or programme from being evaluated as a success once terminated. The evaluation may not even clearly identify them and the responsible organizations may justify the continued use of the same project formula by deliberately or unconsciously interpreting the project evaluations in order to highlight whatever positive results they can claim to have achieved without fear of credible contradiction.
Interactions of an even weaker nature may never be detected. They may simply have the effect of completely eroding the positive achievements of a programme over periods of time corresponding to the degree of weakness of the interaction. Clearly such interactions will not be noted if they are only evident 5, 10 or 50 years after the completion of the original programme - namely beyond the time horizon of any political group bent on re-election.
Interactions are not all negative in consequence by any means. Clearly ignoring positive interactions may prevent them from being used to ensure the success of the programme - whether In the short-term or in the long-term.
Although we have a very clear theoretical and operational understanding of the way single organizations, groups or institutions function, this understanding does not extend to include the way groups of organizations function together as a network. Even when a person within an organization interacts daily with client organizations, competitor organizations, pressure groups, etc., the perspective is still very much a case of "we" and "they"
This therefore means that the ability of a particular group or institution to function skillfully within a network of other bodies is essentially limited to a strategy of self-advantage. This may however be partially compensated by some understanding of the needs or responsibilities of the larger group of bodies to which it belongs (e.g. industrial sector, charitable bodies, or academic societies. etc.), but again this is largely seen in terms of self-advantage.
Cooperation between organizations, if it occurs, is most developed between two organizations, where each is directly aware of its own advantage. Such cooperation is decreasingly successful as the number of organizations involved in the network increases. This is matched by a rapid decrease in the sophistication of interorganizational mechanisms used as well as a reduction in expectation of the benefits of such cooperation. So, for example, a group of 20 or more bodies might be quite satisfied to have an occasional meeting together at which praise would be given to the notion of cooperation between them and to the exchange of ideas. Any activities for the group proposed within such a contexts would tend to be of symbolic or token significance only and would have to be defined such as not to constitute any form of threat to the sensibilities of any of the group.
These difficulties are increased where the organizations involved are of a different nature, have a different structure, or use different modes of action (e.g. governmental/ nongovernmental, profit/nonprofit, research/action programme, etc.). As the diversity increases, so does the tendency of each subgroup to perceive the activity of others as being of marginal relevance or importance.
Clearly with such constraints, it is difficult to achieve any concerted interorganizational strategy to make best use of the resources of the network in question in order to achieve significant change. In fact, even if the organizations are of an extremely activist nature, the conservatism and paralysis of the network as a network - increases as the number of organizations involved increases.
It Is for this reason that any attempt to "mobilize" a network of organizations behind some particular issue or banner succeeds to the extent that large numbers of organizations are prepared to express agreement on fundamental issues (e.g. environment, human rights, etc.). It fails to the extent that such expressions, whilst sincere, are usually of a token nature and do not constitute an operational mobilization of any significance. The simplistic attempts by activist organizations to achieve such mobilization appeal to only a limited number of bodies. The others do not wish to be absorbed into activities which deny the significance of their own special approach or concern.
The need to interrelate the approaches of different disciplines, in
order to understand a social problem situation and to be able to recommend
appropriate remedial programmes, is now increasingly recognized. The "inter-disciplinary"
approach is now in fashion and an essential element in many requests for
programme funds. However, on closer examination, it is possible to discover
that this requirement, far from constituting any form of progress, is only
the symptom of the pathological state of knowledge at this time. The specialization
without limit of scientific disciplines has resulted in an increasing fragmentation
of the epistemological horizon. Specialists cannot be asked to testify
with regard to the unification of the sciences insofar as these specialists
by their vocation and training are ignorant of, or deny this very unity.
Even those who profess to stand for the unification of the sciences cannot
be trusted, for each one of them would be satisfied in defining their familiar
point of view, and more or less justifying their own individual presuppositions.
Clearly with such constraints it is difficult to achieve any concerted interdisciplinary activity to make best use of the intellectual resources available in order to guide significant change.
Clearly the subtle and dramatic distinctions between the viewpoints of different ideological camps, and the political and governmental positions to which they give rise, impose severe limitations on the viability or permanence of any compromise.
In most domains of social activity large quantities of information are
generated, stored, transferred, manipulated, retrieved, etc. To do this
increasing use is made of sophisticated information systems which are being
progressively transferred to computers. Once an information system has
been developed, and the necessary administrative procedures and computer
programmes have been adopted, modifications are costly and difficult to
Classification systems are widely used by disciplines and administrations,
and within information systems of every kind. They are essential as a means
of filtering and ordering the large amounts of information which must be
handled within every social domain.
Even when organizations and Institutions have some degree of inter-communication
or common policy, their programmes in some particular geographical, topic
or problem area may nevertheless be only nominally integrated if at all.
This may lead to situations in which bodies which are supposedly collaborating
In fact have programmes which compete for resources, conflict with one
another, or even nullify each others positive achievements.
There are many cases in which organizations of every kind have similar
administrative problems and facilities (e.g. office space, office
equipment, mailings, billing, secretarial and specialist staff, etc.).
In such cases, whether or not they have similar concerns and there is any
possibility or justification for actual programme collaboration, it would
be possible for such organizations to save resources and increase their
efficiency and effectiveness . This could be done by sharing those administrative
facilities they have in common in order to reduce their general office
overheads. A typical example Is for two bodies to share a photocopier,
permitting them to eliminate one machine (if they each have one) or to
justify the rental of a larger and more efficient one at greater cost.
For many domains of activity special attention must be given to such
disparate concerns as: research to advance knowledge, education to disseminate
that knowledge to students, public information to reformulate that knowledge
for a wider public, programme administration to use that knowledge in the
course of programme activity, policy formulation to use that knowledge
to reformulate programme strategy, etc.
Different modes of communication appeal to different people due to a
mix of factors such as: educational background, tradition, cultural context,
personal preferences, experience, etc. A particular Individual, or class
of individuals (e.g. sociologists, artists, etc.) will therefore tend to
have a preference for material structured according to one or more such
fairly distinct modes as: written textual presentation, formal verbal presentation
(at a lecture), informal verbal presentation (face-to-face dialogue) ,
dramatic representation (theatre, cinema, etc.), concrete experience (in
physical contact with the situation), audio- visual representation, use
of abstract structured presentations (matrices, graphs, models, etc.),
mathematical equations, and so on.
People tend to move or drift through the social system into those groups
and organizations which are engaged in the change processes most congenial
to them. As individuals develop they may reach stages when a given change
process and its organizational support seems unfruitful or unsuited to
their desire for self- expression. The individual needs fresh fields to
conquer, a new life-style or a new mode of work. The development of the
individual implies life-style mobility and organizational and social change.
Social change and development requires development of the individual to
adapt to new challenges.
Intellectual, affective and physical skills are very unequally distributed
within any society. Aside from constituting a problem in its own right
(and as such not dealt with here), such unequal distribution introduces
major obstacles to interaction within society. These may of course be aggravated
by associated problems of class, culture, race, etc. but they may also
be independent of them as well as of factors such as: educational background,
experience, tradition, etc. Affective handicaps, for example, are common
in those with intellectual skills whatever their background.
Humanity dwells upon this planet as one species amongst several million
plant and animal species upon many of which it is directly, or indirectly,
dependent. The relationship is not one-sided, for many of these species
are increasingly dependent, whether directly or indirectly, on humanity's
activities and protection.
To the extent that each science is a well-formed language, each language
thus created encloses the associated knowledge in an axiomatic space isolated
from that of similar languages. Knowledge expressed through one language
cannot be "translated" Into that of another language by any theoretically
acceptable means. In particular any such attempt cannot be legitimated
from within the language of origin or from within the receiving language.
(This is equivalent to the problem of translation between natural language
- for which there is no theoretical basis) . As with natural language translation,
all that is possible is the establishment of some degree of analogy or
isomorphism between statements in two languages. Clearly any such parallels
are increasingly difficult to establish as the difference between the structure
of the disciplinary languages increases.
The multiplicity of languages is a major dividing factor in world society,
reinforcing geographical, socio- economic, political, ideological, professional
and religious separatism. It prevents or hinders communication and the
spread of education, and thus aggravates misunderstanding and mutual suspicion.
It is widely assumed that people or organizations acting on problems are attempting to improve the system (as a whole). But in the case of politicians, academics, and organizations in general, it is not always the substantive problem which is important. This is in many cases merely a symbol for the territory constituted by the issue.
b. Organizations in general, including supra-national agencies, are locked into complex games. Again it is not program effectiveness which is the criterion but rather the territory constituted by the problem for which the program was created. Organizations become "learning environments" and role habitats and have a system maintenance, rather than a system change, function. "The organization is the message."
c . In the academic environment, again it is territory which is the prime concern. A new hypothesis is viewed, if at all, as a territorial intrusion. Even if it is satisfactory, in terms of explanatory power, it will be analyzed in terms of opportunities for publishable criticism or counter proposals which will
improve the academic status of the scholar. A scholar must dissent to distinguish himself from his fellows.
Much activity is therefore a question of "toumer autour du pot" in order to ensure maintenance of the status quo. One perceives a central but unintegrated truth which one does not wish to see integrated and expressed explicitly because this would "take apart" and render "transparent" one's system and life style.
Problems are recognized and organized for in order to provide a structured environment of such dimensions and complexity as is adequate for one's ability to respond.
The stimulus of the presence of the problem is a reinforcement to one's identity. It is selected to provide a domain on which one can demonstrate one's ability to master one's environment.
"Progress" and the acquisition by an individual or group of adequate "identity" may be basically incompatible. "Identity" is achieved in terms of certain organizational or conceptual structures or invariants which become progressively more widely recognized as one's identity is accepted as a reference point in society. But each person reaches a stage at which he feels he has found and is satisfied with his identity and associates it closely with a unique set of invariants defined as his territory.
Progress and social change are essentially the change in the constellation of organizational and conceptual patterns which govern behavior. Progress must therefore threaten those identified with any existing set of invariants. Their loss of identity may not be compensated by the opportunities for new identity in the new situation. The society may be stripped of identification opportunities causing the culture to decay or decrease in richness.
Despite of much publicity, the number and complexity of the interrelationships
between societal problems, whether at the world or community level, is
still only adequately conceived by specialists. It is this large number
of interrelationships which, whether ascertained or not, greatly restricts
the range of action open to the policy maker. And it is this situation
which has brought about the tendency for the solution of one problem to
create a number of new ones, often in fields only distantly related at
first sight to the original matter.
The debate on social policy at the local, national or world level is
full of appeals to concepts such as equality, justice, peace and liberty.
These are abstract concepts of great ambiguity and imprecision. In part,
their power and usefulness is due to this, since each generation is then
obliged to redefine the content to be associated with such terms.
At the basis of the personality of every person or group there is a set of pre-rational temperamental biases which are reflected in the individual or group aesthetical or theoretical products and In the value preferences. These may be positioned somewhere along axes of bias such as the following:
2. Static vs dynamic, namely the range between a preference for the changeless, eternal, etc. and a preference for movement, for explanation in genetic and process terms, etc .
3. Continuity vs discrete, namely the range between a preference for wholeness, unity, etc. and a preference for discreteness, plurality, diversity, etc.
4. Inner vs outer, namely the range between a preference for being able to project oneself into the objects of one's experience (to experience them as one experiences oneself), and a preference
for a relatively external, objective relation to them.
5. Sharp focus vs soft focus, namely the range between a preference for clear, direct experience and a preference for threshold experiences which are felt to be saturated with more meaning than is immediately present.
6. This world vs other world, namely the range between a preference for belief in the spatio-temporal world as self-explanatory and a preference for belief that it is not self-explanatory (but can only be comprehended in the light of other factors and frames of reference) .
7. Spontaneity vs process, namely the range between a preference for chance, freedom, accident, etc. and a preference for explanations subject to laws and definable processes.
Despite of increasingly widespread recognition of common or overlapping
values and concerns underlying the majority of religions, the ability of
organized religions to find some basis for formal interaction amongst themselves
remains low. This is not only the case between religions having the same
historical origin, but even more so between religions of different historical
In an increasingly urbanized and mechanized society people are forced
into positions of greater physical proximity and face-to-face contact with
one another. In many cases there Is an increasing possibility that they
will either incur unwelcome obligations as a result of such contact or
be exploited. Consequently people feel it necessary for their own psycho-social
well-being to limit severely the confidence they place In others in such
daily encounters to the point of avoiding involvement in assisting at the
scene of accidents or in other personal crises to which they are exposed.
Clearly the difficulties encountered In organizing social and personal relationships to take into account and balance the qualities and attributes of both sexes constitute a fundamental barrier to the full realization of human potential. The complications resulting from persistence in inadequate attempts to achieve this balance, or to compensate for the failure to achieve It, or to create the impression that it has been achieved, only serve to aggravate the situation.
Clearly the progressive erosion in the ability to create and maintain a family environment rich in psycho-social meaning constitutes a significant deprivation both for the growing child and for the maturing adult. This is the case whether it is a question of the traditional nuclear family, an extended family circle or any communal living substitute. This impoverishment of the psycho-social environment, and its significance for the psycho-social integration of the individual, constitutes a fundamental constraint upon the full realization of human potential.
Due to the fragmentation of society and the alienation of significant proportions of the younger generation from the values, social structures and modes of activity of the elder generations, the difficulties arising from the generation gap are increasing. It Is no longer certain that the younger generation can be significantly involved in programmes of importance to the older generation. It is no longer certain that the younger generation will be particularly interested in the plight of the very old. Equally, however, it is certain that the older generations will refuse to relinquish their traditional hold on the direction and manner of evolution of society. This built-in conflict situation clearly constitutes a significant constraint upon the full realization of human potential in society.
In most psycho-social domains there is an acknowledged lack of any overarching structure which could provide a framework to interlink the preoccupations within that domain. Examples include: the absence of any world governmental structure of significant power, the absence of any value or ethical system of universal significance, the absence of any adequate system of world law, the absence of any world religion, the absence of any worldwide comprehensive information system, the absence of any worldwide subject classification system, the absence of any philosophy or ideology of universal appeal, the absence of any system unifying the sciences, etc. Whilst any such structure might well have a negative or constraining influence on activities of the domain in question, the importance of its integrating effect must be recognized, whether or not it is implemented by force or without the full understanding of those whose dissenting viewpoints are suppressed or condemned. The absence of such structures also hinders any recognition of the interrelationships within the domain in question.
Paradoxically it appears that, just as in natural ecosystems, it is
only where such over-arching structures are present that a wide variety
of subordinate units can be tolerated, for otherwise such units "compete"
amongst themselves for resources, thus maintaining the variety of the system
at a relatively low level. (The presence of such structures also makes
It possible to conceive of the world as "functionally round" rather than
in terms of completely unrelated "functional continents".)
In every social domain there is a predilection for simplistic hierarchical
organization of the interrelationships between concepts, between organizational
units, between problems and wherever else there is a need for classification.
And yet society is constantly exposed to evidence that these hierarchies
do not contain the complexity with which they have to deal, nor do they
facilitate the emergence of styles of organization more complex than the
In a complex psycho-social environment In which those involved must
simplify their perception of their surroundings in order to be able to
act and survive, additional dynamics occur. Individuals, groups and institutions
use that part of the environment upon which they have some conceptual or
operational hold as a "territorial" base from which to interact with others.
There therefore emerges a form of territorial behaviour in which each attempts
to build up the significance and size of his own territory at the expense
of others. This occurs between organizations, between disciplines or schools
of thought, between languages, between cultures, between ideologies, between
religions, between values, etc; in fact within all the domains denoted
by the "inter" limits identified earlier.
There is a marked inability for individuals, groups or institutions
to cooperate. This is the case whether their interests and concerns are
the same or different. When the same, they compete for the same resources
and find themselves obliged to safeguard and promote their own advantage
by denigrating the merits of others and emphasizing their weaknesses. When
different, they may still compete for the same resources and find themselves
obliged to safeguard and promote their own advantage by denigrating the
concerns of others and emphasizing their irrelevance. In both cases hostility
may well be overt.
Individuals, groups and institutions which have built up a fund of knowledge,
experience and understanding for themselves tend to be primarily concerned
with the elaboration, implementation, and wider recognition of their own
perspectives - whatever the merits of other perspectives . The experiences
which they have had to endure to bring them to their position of expertise,
understanding and eminence frequently leave them battle-scarred, idiosyncratic
and unable to work with others. They may well be unconscious of their own
defects and their negative effects in any situation.
It is frequently appreciated that everything is interconnected and that
every issue has to be examined in terms of its potential relationship to
other issues. But in debate on any matter, there is seldom consensus on
how issues should be distinguished and interrelated. One response is to
consider issues in isolation and assume there are no relevant interconnections.
Where there is consensus on the importance of interconnections, the only
others response is to attempt to consider everything in every forum of
debate. This is then used as an excuse for simplifying the issues and picking
out those which are "most important" .
Increasingly people, particularly those in positions of responsibility,
find that they have little time: to read and absorb information relevant
to their tasks, to learn new skills relevant to their tasks, to travel
to environments where they could absorb alternative perspectives on their
concerns, or to relax and digest what they have acquired.
In an increasingly urbanized and mechanized society, people are forced to depend to a greater extent upon a wide variety of organized relationships. These relationships which define some of the individual's different roles in society include: citizen/local government, citizen/state government. citizen/law enforcement agency, worker/trade union, consumer/advertiser, consumer / manufacturer, student/education system, reader/newspaper, employee/corporation, viewer/television, etc. These relationships become progressively more organized and out of the control of the Individual bound into them.
The perceived "distance" between the individual and the body controlling the relationship is increasingly greater. However, as this distance increases and information concerning manipulation, distortion and similar abuses of the relationship become Increasingly widespread, the individual's confidence in them as meaningful and beneficial to him decreases.
The next decades will probably see an increasing disenchantment on the part of the individual with any "distant" structure or chains of conceptual or organizational relationship which are supposed to be relevant to his concerns . The acceptable number of links in such chains "out" from the individual may be decreasing year by year. There is liable to be a general loss of confidence in links which the individual cannot inspect for himself. This applies to news media, TV documentaries, advertising, expert and political statements . This is significant because it is the projection of this confidence into such structures which provides the energy and oil to make our more sophisticated control structures work. Without such confidence, such structures can only persist as shells with symbolic value. Individuals will isolate themselves into relatively small communities.
It is widely recognized that the whole system is becoming less and less credible and acceptable to (i) the younger generation, (ii) the man- in-the- street, (iii) the developing world. As yet, however, we have no clear historical parallel to provide the necessary perspective. Perhaps a useful parallel is that of the place of the Catholic Church and religion in society after the Renaissance.
We now have a new Universal Church with its orders, namely the intergovernmental organization and its components bodies. In the interstices of this system we have new "protesting" sects, namely other organizations, governmental, academic, business, voluntary, trade union, and otherwise The Church considers itself the one true church and is anxious to enfold the dissenting and in some cases, heretical groups. The latter are anxious to spread their message at all costs. Most organizations are anxious to proselytize. There are ecumenical movements amongst the protesting organizations, for they realize that they lack the strength of unity.
We have with this system an organization-based society, just as that period had a religion-based society. One must belong to an organization. Organization has become a religion with a strangle-hold on thinking in the Western world. It is "the only way of getting things done" . The processes that cannot be organized are ignored or condemned - just as the activities in the past which could not be given a religious association were ignored or condemned. A non-religious perspective was inconceivable and smacked of heresy.
Today it is the younger generation which is opting out of the societal religion in search of a more organic life style. The results are condemned, as quackery, superstition, witchcraft and deviltry were condemned.
But the weakness of the organized society is that it is detached from the needs and individuality of the person - but particularly from his perspective. It is becoming "irrelevant". People increasingly slip through the grasp of organizations. (Our preoccupation with static organizational and conceptual structures may appear to the eyes of the future as irrelevant and irritating as does Columbus' preoccupation with the religious salvation of the Caribbean Indians .)
Clearly this erosion of confidence constitutes a real constraint on the realization of human potential within modern society.
The Increasing uniformity of terminology, and the reduction in the problems
of translation and interpretation, undoubtedly facilitate formal communication
and apparent agreement. Despite this however, such agreements are not well-grounded.
Behind the misty wall of words, the diverse, even contradictory, interpretations,
motivations and utlizations, are an indication of fundamental divisions
concerning values, for example.
Despite the very large investments made in communication and transport, the accessibility and usability of such facilities tends to be eroded. In the case of postal services, the cost of mailing increases, the number of deliveries decreases and the delivery delays increase (e.g. 2 to 4 months for intercontinental surface mail). In the case of the telephone service, the cost of telephoning increases, the installation delay increases, and the amount of traffic overloads many exchanges. In the case of air travel, the cost increases in a manner which effectively prevents travel to distant destinations which were accessible until recent years (and despite empty seats and unused planes) . The cost of fuel and speed limits are also reducing the possibility of long distance road travel.
In an Increasingly complex society, which is highly dependent upon communication to maintain its coherence, the ability of the "average individual" to communicate is being eroded. At the same time the ability of the elites to communicate amongst themselves and at the mass of the population is increasing. The delays incurred in ordinary communications may be such as to ensure that the goods or information are received long after the time at which they could have been relevant to ensure an appropriate response to a crisis situation.
Increasingly such communication and transport facilities that are available are structured to facilitate priority or bulk traffic between a limited number of key locations. The priority of traffic between other locations is reduced and may well be much more costly. (It is, for example, often cheaper to fly from one African country to Europe and then back to a neighbouring African country, than to fly from one to the other directly.) Such restrictions pose considerable problems for the political, social and economic development of any regions. More genErally they pose a problem for the development of variety in isolated areas as opposed to the convergent development at a limited number of central locations.
There is an implicit assumption that the psycho-social environment can
be observed and acted upon without there being any associated change in
the observer or in the change agent. The academic assumes the ability to
take up some neutral stance, often at a higher level of abstraction, from
which effective observation can take place without either changing the
observed social processes or being changed by them. Organizations and institutions
act in the belief that they can intervene in social processes without there
being any negative consequences and without their being changed by the
action. In both cases there is an assumption of independence from social
processes, although both are forms of social activity.
Despite the increasing availability of goods, services, facilities,
and experiences, and the investment of considerable amounts of money in
publicizing the existence of many of them, there is relatively little that
is done to facilitate the process of choice and discovery in the midst
of such diversity. This is the case in almost every situation where the
Frequently a social problem can be eliminated to the satisfaction of
all concerned (from the electorate to the policy-maker) by eliminating
the particular set of symptoms by which it was recognized and which gave
rise to the call for remedial action. Action of this kind merely ensures
that a new set of symptoms emerges in some other social domain. The new
set may well be considered more acceptable or may be less easy to focus
on as the basis for an effective campaign for remedial action. Some time
will also be required before the new set of symptoms can be effectively
recognized. It may in fact be very difficult for an organization to see
that its programmes merely displace a problem into the jurisdiction of
some other body - whose own actions will eventually result in the problem
being displaced back again or into the jurisdiction of a third body. (Institutions
may deliberately move problems through a network of jurisdictions as a
way of legitimating their own continued existence.) Such displacement may
be difficult to detect because one set of symptoms may be apparent in legislation
(e.g. legal discrimination), but when eliminated may then take on an economic
character (e.g. economic discrimination), which if eliminated may then
take on a social character (e.g. social discrimination), and then a cultural
character, etc. Such displacement chains may loop back on themselves and
develop side chains which are difficult to detect since each organization
is only sensitive to the problem symptoms in its own domain and considers
symptoms of the same problem in other domains to be acceptable or of secondary
The complexity of society has resulted in the proliferation of governmental
units and procedures designed to respond to the multiplicity of issues
and requirements for regulation. This proliferation has not been accompanied
by any commensurate development In parliamentary procedure, nor any significant
increase in the amount of time available for debate and legislation. Consequently
the responsibility for processing information on increasingly complex matters
falls upon units of bureaucracy. Frequently the complexity of the issues
precludes little more than token parliamentary debate on the matter. There
is therefore little more than symbolic parliamentary control under such
Many aspects of government policy formulation and government agency
activity are increasingly shrouded in secrecy. The same is true for the
activities of many commercial and industrial enterprises. This secrecy
is not only passive but is reinforced by various forms of tacit or explicit
censorship in the media . It is accompanied by use of the media to disseminate
distorted information and various forms of propaganda.
In ordering understanding of societal complexity, there is a well-established
tendency to impose a relatively simple conceptual framework to facilitate
the task of grasping and explaining the environment. Thus irrespective
of the diversity present in the environment, it is often considered satisfactory
to distinguish not more than 5-10 categories in any field of concern. If
any larger number is used, the adequacy, credibility and comprehensibility
of the explanation becomes increasingly suspect. (There is evidence that
individuals have difficulty in distinguishing between more than about 7
colours, tastes, sounds, odours, etc.) It is of course permissible to distinguish
a number of levels of sub-categories within any such framework, but again
the scheme becomes increasingly unsatisfactory as the number of levels
goes beyond 5-10.
The assumption is made that evolution of man has now ceased or may be
ignored and that man may control his future. But the structures with which
we Identify and which we are learning how to modify may merely be temporary
containers for an ongoing evolving life-process. Evolution may now be mainly
along psycho-social lines but it will be as invisible to us as it was to
our physically changing ancestors.
In every domain of society there are unknown factors and circumstances
with unpredictable elements which may combine together in unforeseen ways.
The existence and probable future emergence of these currently unrecognized
factors tends however to be more or less deliberately ignored by the individuals,
groups and institutions acting in those domains. It is much simpler to
recognize and respond to the predictable for which the allocation of resources
can be clearly justified in the light of past experience. It is very difficult
to conceptualize the unknown. Consequently it is difficult to justify the
allocation of resources and the restructuring of organizations in order
to prepare for unforeseeable events and crises. To legitimate this stance,
the tendency is to treat the unknown as non-existent or irrelevant.
Individuals, groups and institutions have considerable difficulty in
developing adequate procedures for soliciting, channelling and processing
feedback on the negative consequences of their own positive action or the
absence of any significant consequences at all. They avoid exposure to
and acknowledgement of error, or any attempt to seek out its manifestations
and use information derived from the failure as a basis for learning. Any
report on an organization's actions minimizes any negative references and
is usually deliberately written so as to disguise failures as much as possible.
No institution, nor any cultural ethnic, occupational or other group will
make known an analysis of its own weaknesses unless it feels confident
that the content can be ignored or blamed upon external circumstances.
There is a widespread assumption that a rational explanation and/or
an appeal to appropriate values is a sufficient justification and guarantee
for valid action or maintenance of a position. Great efforts are therefore
made to generate appropriate rational explanations and to give expression
to them in action plans for organizations .
Because of the complexity of society and the individual's increasing
sense that he has little control over his environment, it becomes progressively
easier for people to lay responsibility for conditions they find disagreeable
at the door of an ill-defined, amorphous "they" . "They do this to us"
, "they should change things", etc. "They" is whoever may be considered
responsible or free to act.
Faced with an increasing number of Increasingly interrelated problems
against which no programmes seem to have any significant remedial effect,
individuals lapse into states of apathy, cynicism, hopelessness or disillusionment.
This occurs whether the Individual has a variety of social powers and resources
at his command, or whether he has none at all. The situation is aggravated
by those who benefit from such circumstances.
Each generation produces a number of well-qualified individuals concerned
with one or more social problems and prepared to commit themselves and
their careers in an effort to achieve a significant impact upon them. As
in any occupation, some years are spent learning the dimensions of the
problem and the possibilities for action. Thereafter, however, many of
these individuals find themselves forced into positions of compromise.
In an effort to stick to their original values, they come into conflict
with structures and resource realities which often prevent anything more
than token action. They are encouraged to be patient and find that patience
changes little. They find that those who have preceded them lapse easily
into cynicism or are satisfied with minimal change. They find that those
who are similarly inspired and who should be their allies are frequently
hostile and suspicious of any form of cooperation of more than a token
In many social domains time and a variety of collective experiences
have created amongst those concerned an awareness of which actions are
feasible, viable and useful and which are not. Such collective learning
is difficult to transfer to others in such a manner as to enable them to
understand the (usually relatively sophisticated) dynamics which limit
the value of seemingly obvious positive actions. Since there is a certain
turnover of organizations, groups and individuals concerned with the problem
in that domain, those entering the context for the first time tend to initiate
proposals, recommendations and programmes which past experience has shown
to be a waste of resources or of otherwise limited value. They will however
have difficulty in recognizing this and will attribute past failure to
ineffectiveness of those involved at that time.
Wherever individuals, groups or institutions work to remedy social problems,
there is an inability of all concerned to admit openly the psycho-social
needs of the individuals and groups involved. It is only in informal discussion,
and in the absence of the concerned individual, that there is frank discussion
of how to confer a sense of prestige by suitable juggling of organizational
procedures and positions, appropriate use of flattery, etc. The facilitation
of individuals "ego trips", for example, is often an absolutely essential
condition to their further support of a project. Even when two organizations
or initiatives should be merged in the light of all available information,
this will be opposed (behind the scenes) by the personalities involved
unless their status needs can be fulfilled.
The limits and constraints noted above, whether singly or in combination, effectively split the psycho-social universe into a multiplicity of overlapping fragments. Within each such fragment, whether large or small, communication and consensus can be readily established. These bounded fragments therefore constitute domains within which particular views and forms of organization are protected, developed or consolidated. They provide protected contexts for the development of alternative forms which could not survive were the boundaries not present.
The constraints (and the problems whose solution they hinder) constitute features of society which provide a challenge and stimulus which may well be essential to its healthy development. The boundary defined by the whole set of limits may well be the barrier, frontier or shell through which mankind has to break if it is to emerge into a new phase of development, but by which It must be protected in order successfully to complete the current phase.
Such constraints and problems whilst a challenge are also energy absorbents . Each increment in human development increases the mobility and activity of the individuals in question. This energy must be channelled and absorbed in an adequate variety of structures and processes for in their absence the energy may be released in an uncontrollable and disastrous manner.
As in the natural environment, when such limits are overcome the interaction between the diverse viewpoints and organizational forms may lead to the predominance of those most appropriate to the conditions of the time. However, the maintenance of such bounded environments ensures the preservation and development of alternative forms which may prove most appropriate under different conditions or in a later time period.
There appear to be many ways in which mankind is limited. Attempts to by-pass these limits constantly run the risk of being compromised or entrapped. Many of the limits are difficult to express in a form which could provide a basis for agreement upon some remedial action, if such were possible. The existence of some of the limits can easily be questioned by those who have not been exposed to them and their consequences.
There would appear to be a strong case for devoting resources to a clarification of these limits and the extent to which they jeopardize the functioning and success of every action programme whether currently operational or planned for the future.
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.