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10th September 1986

Comprehension of Appropriateness

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Paper submitted to Rome workshop, 10-13 September 1986, of the Project on Economic Aspects of Human Development (EAHD) of the Regional and Global Studies Division of the United Nations University. [also a searchable PDF version]
Concrete vs Theoretical 
Comprehending complexity 
Metaphors: a resource for inter-paradigmatic comprehension 
Collective comprehension span: the time dimension 
Diversity and its comprehension 
Diversity of complementary functions: ordering requisite variety 
Configuration of modes as a resonance hybrid 
Need for insightful metaphors 
Comprehending the status of the new mode 
Patterns of policy cycles 
Impotence of appropriateness: the dilemma of Nth order modes 
Paradoxical strategies 

1: Dimensions of comprehension diversity 
2: Communicable insights 
3: Interpretation of cross-cultural information processing 
Figures 1-8 


This paper explores certain assumptions associated with the comprehension of socio-economic systems appropriate to optimum human development. It questions the notion which seems to prevail that any desirable alternative is readily comprehensible and that the inherent logic of it can render it credible, whether in scholarly discussion or in the court of public opinion. 

In particular, although recognizing the vital importance of such initiatives, the paper questions the status enthusiastically attributed to socio-economic alternatives, such as have been recently articulated in The Other Economic Summit series (London, 1984, 1985) and presented in book form (1). In contrast this paper focuses not on the merits of particular modes of organization (however attractive), but rather on the apparent need to shift periodically between policies or modes of socio-economic organization - as exemplified by the very recent decisions of the Chinese leadership to correct certain inadequacies in their own economic system by switching from an established Maoist mode to 'other approaches', where appropriate, including approaches characteristic of modes opposed to theirs (e.g. legalization of bankruptcies, discontinuation of guaranteed job security). 

This paper also questions our collective ability to produce a rationally designed response to the global problematique as is, for example, suggested by recent studies emerging from United Nations University projects. In criticizing progress towards a New International Economic Order (2) or in reflecting on the global problematique in terms of 'development as social transformation' (3), the authors of these studies believe in the possibility of bringing about some 'fundamentally new' mode of socio-economic organization, 'but only if we recognize (the NIEO) for what it is and what it means in terms of the fundamental logic of world is not possible to grasp the wholesomeness of this fundamental logic outside the emerging 'world-system approach' to the study of our contemporary capitalist historic world system.'(2, p. x). Whilst the penetration of such studies is highly valuable, it is argued here that their assumptions concerning their own privileged relationship to the new mode fail to embody dimensions vital to the appropriateness of such a mode. 

The body of this paper develops work done by the author in the UNU project of Goals, Process and Indicators of Development and published in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (4, especially Sections CM and KD). The Annexes are adapted from work done for the UNU project on Information Overload and Information Underuse (5). 


The following assumptions are frequently implicit in discussions of alternatives to present approaches to economic and political organization, especially as they impact on or constrain human development in ways which are considered undesirable. 

Given recognition of any alternative mode of socio-economic organization that builds on the strengths of what has been achieved, but remedies the factors giving rise to the perceived defects, a set of such assumptions might include: 

The above assumptions do not constitute a tidy set. In fact the last six could be considered as reformulations of aspects or implications of the third. 

The intention here is to illustrate the comprehension dilemmas arising from these assumptions, bearing in mind that if the assumptions do not hold, such explorations can only be indicative rather than unambiguous. The object is to highlight the practical implications for the design of an appropriate new mode and how it might be perceived and received. Before doing so, however, it is appropriate to address the dynamic associated with the debate between those emphasizing a 'concrete' approach as opposed to those emphasizing a 'theoretical' approach. 

Concrete vs. Theoretical

The issues raised by such assumptions, and any effort to explore their possible significance, can be relatively easily avoided by taking either a 'concrete' position or a 'theoretical' position. This can be used as a practical illustration of the dilemma to be discussed subsequently. 

For those emphasizing a 'concrete' perspective, such questions appear to be a device to avoid getting to immediate grips with pressing problems and devising practical solutions to deal with them. What needs to be done appears obvious and the only difficulties in implementing such solutions are the ones created by those who resist unreasonably the envisaged steps. Because such groups can be defined as unreasonable, they can also be defined as part of the problem which needs to be remedied. The merit of this position is that it can indeed respond effectively to current crises by ignoring subtleties of significance, whether for a wider geographical area, for a broader social context, or for a longer period of time. The approach to the time dimension is one of intense focus on the present, ignoring longer term perspectives in a spirit of 'let us cross each bridge as we come to it'. Such effectiveness is effectiveness according to short-term rather than long-term criteria. 

For those emphasizing a 'theoretical' perspective, the pressing need is seen to be one of understanding the processes involved, in terms of some appropriate model, in order to be able to make an informed appropriate decision at some future time, when sufficient insight has been gained. The question of when that moment will be is avoided, because the commitment is to understanding and not to deciding and implementing particular decisions. Any practical response to the crises of the present are thus avoided, with the possibility of continually postponing the moment of decision by the need to obtain further insight to render it sufficiently appropriate. This perspective solves the problem of other competing schools of thought by declaring their arguments to be poorly formulated, ill-informed, or in some subtle way inappropriate. 

Within neither of these emphases is it considered appropriate to envisage the possible inappropriateness of the priorities which emerge from pursuit of that emphasis. Neither can envisage constraints on its own relevance or conditions under which the other may be more appropriate. The fact that both approaches are actively and usefully pursued in society is a result of considerations which neither emphasis could articulate within its own perspective, and certainly could not justify.

Comprehending complexity

The remainder of this paper considers the possibility that the appropriate global socio-economic mode of organization is necessarily more complex than is accepted within any particular frame of reference. It is therefore more than probable that it cannot be fully comprehended within any single frame of reference. 

The probability is increased in the light of the classic study of axiomatic systems by Kurt Gödel (6). Prior to this a climate of opinion existed among mathematicians in which it was tacitly assumed that each sector of mathematical thought can be supplied with a set of axioms sufficient for developing systematically the endless totality of true propositions about a given area of inquiry. Gödel demonstrated that no system can be comprehensible without being self-contradictory. In doing so he showed that it is impossible to establish the internal logical consistency of a very large class of deductive systems, unless principles of reasoning are adopted which are so complex that their internal consistency is as open to doubt as that of the systems themselves (7). 

Care should be taken in dismissing the relevance of such insights to the comprehension of social systems. A recent discussion of their relevance in the Financial Times concludes that although 'he was concerned specifically with systems of symbols such as mathematics and other languages... experience indicates that the principle applies to organizational systems too. Its implications are particularly destructive for bureaucratic attempts at management. Their tendency is to lay down systematic rules intended to cover every eventuality and, when they don't, to lay down more rules supposed to close the loophole. Whilst Gödel's principle suggests that any such process is necessarily self-frustrating, almost all bureaucracies seem determined to believe otherwise.'(8). 

This also suggests the merit of reflecting on the relationship between the political axioms in terms of which attempts are made to govern countries and groups of countries, especially to the extent that they are embodied in political slogans reflecting values which are 'axiomatic'. Such slogans presumably preclude consideration of modes of organization which are not built directly upon such axioms. But Gödel also showed that there is an endless number of true arithmetical statements which cannot be formally deduced from any given set of axioms by a closed set of rules of inference. The dramatic implications of this has just recently been demonstrated in the world of chess, traditionally referred to as the 'Game of Kings' because of the manner in which it simulated the strategic problems of a leader. There are many axioms governing the different possibilities of winning in a chess endgame situation. To the considerable astonishment of the chess community, a very recent computer analysis of endgames has however demonstrated that there are many other ways of winning, unforeseen by such axioms, and in some cases inconsistent with them (9). Comprehending appropriateness might be illustrated by the problem of comprehending the nature of an n-dimensional object (e.g. a hypercube) whose elements represent factors in a mathematical model of a socio-economic system. Portions of the representation can be comprehended when they are represented as 2 or 3-dimensional diagrams of cross-sections of the n-dimensional structure. Integrating a set of such representations tends to be a task beyond the current abilities of the human mind. 

It could be argued that it is not vital that the n-dimensional object be comprehensible in its entirety, provided the mathematical representation can be proved to be satisfactory. This is the case with the current use of hypercubes as the basis for the organization of new, and more efficient, forms of computer memory. Provided the product finally works, people do not feel that it is necessary to understand it in its entirety. The wiring diagram can be represented, even though it is meaningless to those making the sequence of connections between the parts. 

This attitude is not however acceptable in the case of the presentation of some new mode of socio-economic organization, whether at the macro or the micro level. It is one thing for people to have confidence in leaders (or experts) who can claim to comprehend such a mode in its entirety, even though their followers do not. Most social innovations in the past have been implemented on this basis. It is quite another thing when the appropriate mode of organization cannot be fully comprehended by any leader (or expert), especially, as is the case at present, when the motivations of such elites are increasingly considered questionable. 

The situation is further complicated by the learning dimension. If the appropriate mode was fully comprehensible, it would then exclude the possibility of a learning dimension. It would permit learning within that mode, but it could not render explicit (and would therefore probably preclude) learning beyond the framework imposed by that mode. It could not permit learning by which the framework itself would be challenged. It would thus be consistent with human development within a framework implemented at a particular historical moment, but opposed to human development arising from insights emerging subsequently. Such a mode would therefore be consistent with human development in a 'minor' key but not with human development in a 'major' key, namely development requiring paradigm shifts. 

A response to this situation is not to expect or require that the appropriate mode be comprehensible in its entirety to any one person or group. It could be expected that different people or groups would be capable of comprehending different features or processes of that mode and would then act to ensure their implementation. But, necessarily, such people or groups would then not comprehend the justification for the activities of other people or groups concerned with other features or processes. 

The socio-political situation would then be one in which: 

The difficulty is that, in such a context of partial comprehension, no group (e.g. Group A) would be in a position to distinguish between: 

In such a situation, for the contextual mode to function appropriately, the groups would act in support or opposition to each other to provide a system of checks and balances that would permit human development to occur in the optimum manner. No group could effectively take a position within this context in support of the contextual mode. It would, because of the necessary partiality of its comprehension, quite validly be perceived as acting to further certain interests consistent with that partiality. 

The challenge then is to explore ways of improving comprehension of fruitful patterns of interaction between groups and perspectives which of necessity must function in shifting coalitions in support and opposition to one another. 

Metaphors: a resource for inter-paradigmatic comprehension 

Metaphors are a special form of presentation natural to many cultures (10). They are of unique importance as a means of communicating complex notions, especially in interdisciplinary and multicultural dialogue, as well as in the popularization of abstract concepts, in political discourse, and as part of any creative process. They offer the special advantage of calling upon a pre-existing capacity to comprehend complexity, rather than assuming that people need to engage in lengthy educational processes before being able to comprehend. Although frequently used in international debate through which strategies are defined, their strengths have not been deliberately explored to assist in the identification of more appropriate strategies and in the manner of their implementation. 

Each development policy may be considered a particular 'answer' to the global problematique. And yet no such answer appears to be free from fundamental weaknesses. A shift to an alternative policy becomes progressively more necessary as the effects of these weaknesses accumulate. However, since each such policy reflects a 'language' or mind-set whereby a worldview is organized, as indicated above, no adequate 'logical' framework can exist to facilitate comprehension of the nature of such a shift or of the process of transition between alternatives (11). But many familiar metaphors of alternation exist through which the characteristics and limitations of such a shift may be understood. 

This paper assumes that the challenge to comprehension is such that, just as in the case of fundamental physics, discussion of the subtle complexity of an appropriate new socio-economic mode, and its relationship to human understanding of it, can only proceed forward with the aid of devices such as metaphors which call upon other faculties of the human mind. 

Collective comprehension span: the time dimension

In order to be able to base some appropriate new form of socio-economic organization on a new pattern of insights, it is clearly necessary that collective comprehension of that pattern should persist in a coherent manner over a period of time. The length of time required must clearly be at least of the same order as that of any major cycle of processes through which the well-being of that new mode is ensured. By a major cycle is meant one which encompasses the shifts between the alternative paradigms or modes of operation required to correct for deviations or the accumulation of characteristics impeding the long-term development of that society. Since the majority of policy-making is tied to electoral cycles of from 1 to 7 years, and several electoral cycles may be required to compensate for each others excesses, it is probable that collective comprehension of such larger cycles is inadequate, to the extent that it exists at all. 

It is interesting that the dimensions of this collective comprehension problem of time cycles can be beautifully illustrated by a metaphor whose features are very familiar to all, namely the circulation of traffic. The movement of traffic of different kinds, of different densities, at different speeds and with different directions, especially in an urban environment, is (self-) regulated by a range of techniques. These include: 

Whilst drivers may bend and break such rules occasionally, they recognize the wisdom of them in most situations -- for their own continued survival, if not for that of others. 

To improve traffic flow, traffic signals may be used permitting an orderly alternation in direction of movement (e.g. from the right or from the left). These may be phased in various ways to improve flow in an area (e.g. the green phasing for a group of vehicles moving at constant speed along a route through the area). Area traffic control responsive to a range of traffic conditions may optimize flows by comparing current conditions to models based on past experience. Traffic of different types may also be segregated: pedestrians from vehicles, local from long-distance (e.g. on expressways with merging lanes and cloverleaf junctions). 

Movement of traffic under such conditions is only possible because the collective comprehension span exceeds that of:: 

People are prepared to tolerate the priority given to others, knowing that priority will be given to the group of vehicles with which they are currently associated in accordance with the priority of traffic flows at that point. They are prepared to tolerate traffic moving in directions other than their own, knowing that at some time they may find it necessary to be moving in those same directions, perhaps on a return journey. 

However, if the time span comprehended was reduced to the same order as that of the traffic signal cycles or less, a very different situation would prevail. A stoplight would be perceived as an unjust deprivation of rights. The traffic able to move at that time would be perceived as having acquired undue privileges, since it is composed of vehicles moving in other (and therefore irrelevant) directions, and especially if relatively few vehicles were traveling in that direction at that time. The sense of pattern would be completely lost. Only the direction of one's current journey would be of any significance. Traffic moving in the opposite direction could quite legitimately be forbidden. 

If the appropriate mode of socio-economic organization is to be comprehended in this light, the implication from the earlier arguments is that it is highly probable that the prevailing collective comprehension span is less than that of the cycles by which that mode is to be sustained. Constituencies advocating opposing policies are perceived like streams of traffic coming 'from the right' or 'from the left' or even 'from the opposite direction'. Since the pattern of the appropriate mode cannot be comprehended in its entirety, such alternative policies can only be considered as a misguided or dangerous use of resources. The possibility that implementation of the policy favoured by one's group might be temporarily interrupted, to ease the build up in the pressure in favour of another, could only be considered unreasonable. 

Use of this metaphor is not intended as a means of rendering existing injustices acceptable. Even in terms of this metaphor, there are some groups that have been waiting at a traffic junction a very long time for a green light to give them some degree of priority. The purpose of the metaphor is to provide a more accessible framework within which the interplay of priorities can be discussed. When should the flow of traffic on an expressway be interrupted to allow traffic from a side road to cross or enter the mainstream? Where is it appropriate to construct merging lane ('cloverleaf') junctions or underpasses? Where is it more appropriate for low frequency traffic to detour to an entry/crossover point? What are the major routes on the road map? 

The metaphor indicates a way of thinking about how the progress of groups of different kinds, developing at different rates in complex social environments, could order their conflicting policies with minimal mutual interference. Some form of cycle of signals might be used to enable groups with conflicting policies to progress during alternate periods. Actions of groups of different types may be segregated. The progress of groups with conflicting but interrelated policies may be facilitated by devising means for such policies to filter through each other (as at traffic 'roundabouts') rather than cut across each other. 

The prevailing approach may be seen, in the light of this metaphor, as one in which groups promoting different policies are given start/stop priority over each other in succession, in order to express their viewpoints. In the case of the alternation of political parties in power, an election is a process through which a decision is taken on the traffic signals. But in general, present policy control in this metaphor can be compared to a procession (or 'progress') in one direction with the support of security forces which ensure that all access roads be blocked off and all opposing traffic suppressed. When the procession has petered out, another such 'convoy' may be organized, by another coalition of forces, in another direction to cater for the traffic stream blocked by the first. This corresponds to a very primitive traffic control approach. It takes no account of the sophisticated blend of control and delegation of responsibility to drivers which is characteristic of modern traffic patterns. 

Diversity and its comprehension

Various approaches to diversity and its comprehension are presented in Annex 1 (Dimensions of comprehension diversity) and in Annex 2 (Communicable insights). These are based on work presented elsewhere (12). 

Diversity of complementary functions: ordering requisite variety 

The traffic metaphor offers some insights into how the relationships between such contrasting approaches and policies might be regulated, in a largely self-organizing manner. It does not help to understand how such a diversity of functions is necessary to constitute a viable socio-economic organization. 

If, as suggested above, the complex of socio-economic functions required to further appropriate human development is such that only portions of that complex are comprehensible or meaningful to any one group, it is to be expected that each such group would build on that feature of the complex which it finds comprehensible. Such clustering of 'comprehensions' could well be partially determined by cultural, historical and related factors, themselves possibly engendered by the necessary dynamics of the functional complex. 

As an indication of the difficulty of understanding the requisite diversity in such circumstances, the simplest case is that in which a group understands one 'half' of the functional complex and builds on that understanding. The other 'half' would then necessarily be perceived as incomprehensible or irrelevant, or rejected on some other basis, possibly as dangerously misguided and a threat to that portion accepted as meaningful. There are many examples of policies and systems of organization polarized in this way: centralization vs decentralization, right vs left, industry vs environment, communism vs capitalism, etc. But although such polarized cases appear simple, they clearly arouse such violent dynamics in any situation that it it not possible to expect any creative resolution between them. Their relationship defies comprehension and automatically calls for the elimination of one or the other. 

A more complex case, might be one in which four groups each understand a 'quarter' of the functional complex and each build systems of socio-economic organization on that understanding. But in this case it is probable that anyone of the groups, although unable to enter into full understanding of the three other perspectives, would at least be sensitive to the functional advantages of certain features of them. They are not rejected so completely or so automatically as in the case of simple polarization. Nuances emerge as is evident in countries with a diversity of political parties. It remains true however that there is no 'meta-perspective' through which the complementarity between these different perspectives can be comprehended. From any one perspective it is not fully apparent what functions the others serve. 

It is in this context that it is useful to view the results of Geert Hofstede's multicultural survey of work-related values discussed in Annex 1 and interpreted in Annex 3 (see especially Figures 5 and 6). Each of his four major clusters constitutes an alternative way of viewing socio-economic organization. From any one of them it is possible to generate indicators showing how the others are unsatisfactory on some important dimension. A typical example of this is the Anglo-Saxon/American perception of the inefficiency of 'latin' approaches to organization or the utter chaos and incomprehensibility of Asian or African systems of organization. In the light of such a perspective, there would be many to recommend the replacement of such other systems of organization by the so obviously successful American/Anglo-Saxon system. The recent success of such alternative modes of organization as that of the Japanese, makes this case much less credible. Nevertheless any such cluster perceives its own preferred mode of organization as performing functions in a manner superior to that of others --although that superiority may not be measurable in terms of efficiency. 

This raises the question as to whether the alternative cultural perspectives indicated by Hofstede are not necessary to embody the necessary functional diversity for the healthy functioning of the global village. It is not, as is frequently assumed, that there are other, often quaint, modes of socio-economic organization which are simply part of the 'rich pattern of life on the planet'. In some as yet poorly understood way, it would seem probable that each such perspective has some distinctive, essential functional role to play within the functional complex as a whole. It remains unclear how these functional contributions are to be recognized, especially when decisions have to be made to continue or to terminate certain possibilities. As in the maintenance of an ecosystem, when does the culling or elimination of a species significantly reduce the ability of the ecosystem to survive and develop? 

Configuration of modes as a resonance hybrid

See also (13) 

Although David Bohm's perspective on the nature of implicate order (Annex 2) clarifies the challenge further, it does not say anything about the relationship between the different modes of perception and organization which can emerge, other than in the sense that they can be re-enfolded into an implicate order. Since the challenge is to deal with co-existent, and very different, frames of reference another perspective is also fruitful. 

The set of alternative structures, between which alternation takes place in any learning cycle, may be more clearly understood in the light of the theory of resonance. Johan Galtung first explored the possibility of using the organization of chemical molecules to clarify the description of social organization (14). He dealt with fixed structures and not with the transition between alternatives. The theory of resonance in chemistry is concerned with the representation of the actual normal state of molecules by a combination of several alternative 'resonable' structures, rather than by a single valence-bond structure. The molecule is then conceived as resonating among the several valence-bond structures, or rather to have a structure that is a resonance hybrid of these structures. 

The classic example of a resonance hybrid is the benzene molecule of 6 carbon atoms for which F A Kekulé introduced the idea of oscillation between two alternative structures. The pattern of oscillation was later extended by Linus Pauling to include three more distinct alternates. The actual configuration is a resonance hybrid of the five forms, which through quantum mechanics has been shown to have an energy less than any of the alternate structures (see Figure 1). This is potentially of great significance for any social structure analogue, in view of the call for a low-energy society. Given the fundamental role of the benzene molecular configuration as the basis for most living structures, it is worth asking (in the light of the sixfold restraint discussed in earlier entries) why it is composed of six atoms. The answer is that it is this configuration which ensures minimal strain on the distribution of the four valency bonds of each carbon atom, thus resulting in a minimal energy configuration. It is worth reflecting on this model in the light of the research showing that the upper limit for effective committee or task force organization, the basis for social organization, is seven, plus or minus one. 

Such structures recall the context of Bohm's arguments concerning unfoldment of explicate forms. The wave function representing a stationary state of a resonance hybrid in quantum mechanics can be expressed as the sum of the wave functions that correspond to several hypothetical alternates. The proper combination is that sum which leads to a minimal energy for the system. Of significance in any social structure analogue is that the higher energy of each alternate is associated with some degree of 'distortion' (different in kind in each case), which effectively renders the alternate meta-stable. (Also worth exploring is the contrasting concept of a 'resonance particle'. This is any exceedingly unstable high energy particle, which may be considered as a composite of several relatively stable low energy particles into which it may decay.) 

Figure 1: Resonance hybrid: illustrated by the benzene molecule
(reproduced from the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential)
Resonance hybrid Some chemical molecules cannot be satisfactorily described by a single configuration of atoms. The theory of resonance is concerned with the representation of such molecules by a dynamic combination of several alternative structures, rather than by any one of them. The molecule is then conceived as 'resonating' among the several structures and is said to be a 'resonance hybrid' of them. The classic example is the benzene molecule (represented on the left) with 6 carbon atoms. This is one of the basic components of many larger molecules essential to life. Its cyclic form only became credible when Kekule showed that it oscillated between structures A and B. Linus Pauling later showed that it in fact it is between all five alternative forms (and as such requires less energy than for any one of them alone).
The concept could be used in designing, describing or operating organizations, especially fragile coalitions or volatile meetings. It may provide a key to the 'marriage' between hierarchies and networks. It could also be used to interrelate alternative definitions (theories, problems, policies, etc.), especially where none of them is completely satisfactory in isolation. The underlying significance then emerges through resonance between the set of alternatives


Implications of alternation between various conditions
(Reproduced from Alternation between Variable Geometries: a brokership style for the United Nations as a guarantee of its requisite variety, 1985, which has larger images)
Figure 2 Figure 3
coaction trigrams
Relation between distinctions established with a Cartesian coordinate (x,y) system and a BaGua trigram system, namely between a Western linear coding system and a classical Eastern holistic system. Dashed lines in the figure indicate transformation pathways between different conditions involving minimal change (ie one trigram line only).
(a) y = dependent variable = superior line; x = independent variable=inferior line
(b) full line = positive value; broken line = negative value
(c) when superior line and inferior line are of different value, middle line neutralizes value of the line of opposite value
(d) when superior line and inferior line are of the same value, different from middle line, the value of the middle line takes precedence over the value of the inferior line
Applications:(a) Cybernetic system: x = work function; y = control function. (b) Ecosystem: x = subordinate species; y = dominant species. (c) Cognitive consonance/dissonance: x = communicant; y = communicator

Resonance hybrids could well provide a key to the conception, design and operation of coalitions of people or groups using forms of information or modes of information processing so different that the coalitions could not cohere for any length of time in one single form but could be stable if the coalition alternated between distinct forms. Underlying this possibility, hybrids are also of interest in integrating incompatible perspectives, paradigms and policies without eroding their distinctiveness in some simplistic compromise (see Figures 2 and 3). Whilst the value of using such resonance models may be contested, they do have the advantage of shifting the debate, currently somewhat sterile, to a level at which the merits of particular answers are no longer the sole issue. The need is for investigation of 'resonable' structures, however 'unreasonable' they may appear from any particular perspective. They open the way to more fruitful discussions both about how alternation between the contradictory information characteristic of a complex society can be improved and about the kinds of social structures that could be based upon such patterns of alternation. 

Need for insightful metaphors 

It is difficult to obtain coherent patterns of insights from conventional analyses of the implicit languages used in different sectors of society. There is therefore a strong case for exploring metaphors, and patterns of metaphors capable of focussing and highlighting insights concerning the creation, storage and distribution of information. 

The difficulty in exploring patterns of alternation between modes of organization is the seeming lack of concrete (as opposed to abstract) examples by which the credibility of such patterns in practice may become apparent. The rotation of agricultural crops is therefore an interesting 'earthy' practice to explore in the light of the mind-set which it has required of farmers for several thousand years. 

Crop rotation is the alternation of different crops in the same field in some (more or less) regular sequence. It differs from the haphazard change of crops from time to time, in that a deliberately chosen set of crops is grown in succession in cycles over a period of years. Rotations may be of any length, being dependent on soil, climate, and crop. They are commonly of 3 to 7 years duration, usually with 4 crops (some of which may be grown twice in succession). The different crop rotations on each of the fields of the set making up the farm as a whole constitute a 'crop rotation system' when integrated optimally. Long before crop rotation became a science, practice demonstrated that crop yields decline if the same crop is grown continuously in the same place. There are therefore many benefits, both direct and indirect to be obtained from good rotational cycles (15, pp. 170-8): 

The situation is somewhat different in the case of single-species forests where 'rotation' is the guiding principle in the special sense of the economic age to which each crop can be grown before it is succeeded by the next one. (For example, on a 100-year rotation required for oak, one per cent of the forest would be clear cut each year, and a further 20 percent thinned out). In total contrast to crop rotation is the 'monoculture' cropping system in which the same crop is grown every year. This is possible on a large scale only by the heavy application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. It leads to long-term problems of soil structure and erosion, as well as to the accumulation of pollutants. 

Because of the short-term advantages of fertilizers, efforts to design new approaches to crop rotation have been limited. It is only with the resurgence of interest in non-exploitive, non-polluting agriculture that such possibilities are being investigated (16). From an agronomist's perspective, the problem is to strike a balance between harmonizing the three-fold soil-plant-climate relationship and those of the economic constraints of production. Because such threefold relationships are now fairly well understood, rotation cycles can now be considered as a whole in which the order and the plants used are of secondary importance. The problem is to ensure that the soil-plant-climate relationship is in an optimally balanced state at every moment in order to become increasingly independent of its past. The production constraints complicate this evolution and the choices possible, especially when requirements change rapidly without taking into account the recent history of a crop rotation (16). 

There is a striking parallel between the rotation of crops and the succession of (governmental) policies applied in a society. The contrast is also striking because of the essentially haphazard switch between 'right' and 'left' policies. There is little explicit awareness of the need for any rotation to correct for negative consequences ('pests') encouraged by each and to replenish the resources of society ('nutrients', 'soil structure') which each policy so characteristically depletes. 

There is no awareness, for example, of the number of distinct policies or modes of organization through which it is useful to rotate. Nor is it known how many such distinct cycles are necessary for an optimally integrated world society in which the temporary failure of one paradigm or mode of organization, due to adverse circumstances (disaster) is compensated by the success of others. It is also interesting that during a period of increasing complaints regarding cultural homogenization ('monoculture'), voters are either confronted with single-party systems or are frustrated by the lack of real choice between the alternatives offered. There is something to be learnt from the mind-sets and social organizations associated with the stages in the history of crop rotation which evolved, beyond the slash-and-burn stage, through a 2-year crop-fallow rotation, to more complex 3 and 4-year rotations. Given the widespread sense of increasing impoverishment of the quality-of-life, consideration of crop rotation may clarify ways of thinking about what is being depleted, how to counteract this process, and the nature of the resources that are so vainly (and expensively) used as 'fertilizer' and 'pesticide' to keep the system going in the short-term. The 'yield' to be maximized is presumably human and social development. 

There is no awareness, for example, of the number of distinct policies or modes of organization through which it is useful to rotate. Nor is it known how many such distinct cycles are necessary for an optimally integrated world society in which the temporary failure of one paradigm or mode of organization, due to adverse circumstances (disaster) is compensated by the success of others. It is also interesting that during a period of increasing complaints regarding cultural homogenization ('monoculture'), voters are either confronted with single-party systems or are frustrated by the lack of real choice between the alternatives offered. There is something to be learnt from the mind-sets and social organizations associated with the stages in the history of crop rotation which evolved, beyond the slash-and-burn stage, through a 2-year crop-fallow rotation, to more complex 3 and 4-year rotations. Given the widespread sense of increasing impoverishment of the quality-of-life, consideration of crop rotation may clarify ways of thinking about what is being depleted, how to counteract this process, and the nature of the resources that are so vainly (and expensively) used as 'fertilizer' and 'pesticide' to keep the system going in the short-term. The 'yield' to be maximized is presumably human and social development. 

Comprehending the status of the new mode

If a more appropriate mode of socio-economic organization is advocated, the question is how it is to be comprehended in relation to those which preceded it. Acting on the belief of continual linear forward progress, its advocates may hope that it will completely replace preceding modes, since their functions are supposedly more satisfactorily performed by the new mode. Advocates of other modes, relegated to the status of historical curiosities, will not of course see things in that light. In which case the new mode must enter into competition and struggle with the older modes. In the dynamics of the social system it is one more mode, which seeks to improve its 'market share' of public opinion. 

It may however be argued that the appropriate new mode should not be compared to a new species (a more evolved mutation) entering into an ecosystem and thereby modifying the pattern of relationships amongst the species present. Rather it should be compared to the pattern of relationships between the species, namely to the pattern of interdependence itself. In this light the appropriate new mode is a new pattern of interdependence between contrasting modes of socio-economic organization. This corresponds to Gregory Bateson's central thesis: 'The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that meta-pattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.'(17, p. 11). And it is in this connection that he warns: 'Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.' (17, p. 8). 

The difficulty, as stressed earlier, is that given that such patterns of interdependence cannot be comprehended in their entirety, any new alternative mode of organization comes to be perceived not at the ecosystemic level but simply as another species. And as such it fails to respond to the need for an alternative of global significance, however much success there is in imposing it as the dominant species. 

The argument of this paper is that, in such a situation, there is merit in exploring how the relationships between the existing alternatives are to be understood. Whether or not a new species is introduced, there would seem to be a need to understand what function each of the existing modes performs, under what conditions, and with what characteristic negative effects (which have to be remedied by some other mode). For it is the current spastic alternation between these existing modes which somehow ensures the relative viability of the existing system, not the sole contribution of any one of them (handicapped by the others, as its advocates would assume). 

It is clearly easier to deny this probability by arguing that some modes are clearly useful, up to a certain period of historical development, but they, and others, are completely inappropriate beyond that point. The dangers of such an argument become much clearer if the problem is compared to one of determining which species are useful and which should now be 'phased out'. It is not clear that man has developed sufficient understanding of nature to eliminate species which may be of unrecognized future importance (e.g. the case of medicinal plants) or in some way vital to the maintenance of food chains on which man and others species depend. In terms of this metaphor, man is still operating on the basis that any species which is in some way a nuisance or a danger should be eliminated. This would lead to the elimination of most carnivores, other animals and plants which endanger man's food supply, together with most insects and smaller species which do not directly serve man's immediate needs. More enlightened understanding of the environment has established that even the most undesirable species (e.g. crocodiles, wolves, spiders, snakes) have important functions to perform in particular environmental niches. 

To the extent that it is accepted that any new mode will not be met with universal support, and may well provoke the emergence of other modes to exploit or counteract it, then it can be argued that a major opportunity for significant advance lies in understanding how the dynamics of this ecosystem may be most beneficially 'cared for'. In this sense the dilemma of man in discovering the most fruitful relationship to the species in the natural environment reflects man's dilemma in discovering the most fruitful relationship to the variety of co-existing modes of socio-economic organization. (This is not a dilemma which the 'greens' have solved, or properly addressed, since they have apparently been unable to develop any coherent understanding of either their relationship to competing viewpoints, or of the appropriate 'stewardship function' in relation to the pattern of different schools of thought within the green movement itself.) 

The challenge of appropriateness may well be less a question of replacing the existing condition as of finding ways of shifting between its sub-conditions in a healthy manner. In arguing for a heterogeneity of epistemologies, Maruyama offers a beautiful metaphor in response to the (homogenistic) question 'but which one is correct ?' He suggests that in binocular vision it is irrelevant to raise the question as to which eye is correct and which wrong. 'Binocular vision works, not because two eyes see different sides of the same object, but because the differential between the two images enables the brain to compute the invisible dimension' (18, p. 84). The brain computes a third dimension which cannot be directly perceived and if we live in a multidimensional space even more epistemological 'eyes' are required (19, pp. 269-272). Reducing such vision to the parts in common provides much less than monocular vision. Each 'eye' has its inherent limitations and strengths, and the homogenistic 'eye' presumably also has its own vital contribution to make to the process of encompassing (or responding to) the complexity of our collective condition. His work, with Harvey's (20), demonstrates that a minimum of four such 'eyes' are required to describe the variety of perceptions of our collective reality. 

Patterns of policy cycles

In the light of the previous sections it is useful to ask whether the characteristics of the appropriate new mode of socio-economic organization are such that it can only be sustained by a cycle of policies, or even a pattern of such cycles. If this were the case then whilst particular policies, such as those of the 'left' or the 'right' or of other political hues, are necessary during particular phases of such cycles, they are not however sufficient individually to sustain the mode most appropriate to long-term human development. 

This question can be related to the dramatic problem, central to social organization, of whether a system of voting can be devised that is at the same time rational, decisive and egalitarian. In the classic analysis of this problem, Kenneth J Arrow advanced five intuitively appealing axioms (including unanimity and universal scope) that any procedure for combining or aggregating the preferences of individuals into collective judgements should satisfy (21). 

Treating 'non-dictatorship' as a sixth axiom, Arrow demonstrated that no constitution can exist which will obey all six simultaneously. What happens is that when three or more alternatives are faced, majority rule gives rise to voting cycles in which: Alternative A defeats Alternative B, B defeats C, C defeats D, D defeats E and E defeats A, as noted in a recent discussion of Arrow's 'impossibility theorem' by D Blair and R Pollak (22). For them: 'Thus the designer of voting procedures for legislatures, committees and clubs who accepts these conditions as necessary properties of constitutions is simply out of luck... If society foregoes collective rationality, thereby accepting the necessary arbitrariness and manipulation of irrational procedures, majority rule is likely to be the choice because it attains the remaining goals. If society insists on retaining a degree of collective rationality, it can achieve equality by adopting the rule of consensus, but only at the price of extreme indecisiveness. Society can increase decisiveness by concentrating veto power in progressively fewer hands; the most decisive rule, dictatorship, is also the least egalitarian.' 

It is worth noting here that Gheorghe Paun has explored an aspect of this dilemma using fuzzy set theory to demonstrate the impossibility of aggregating a small set of good social indicators to fulfil three natural conditions of a good indicator, namely sensitivity, anticastrophism and noncompensation (52). This establishes theoretically the noncomparability of certain social issues, which must somehow be 'managed' in an appropriate new mode of socio-economic organization. 

Blair and Pollak explore the possibility of designing acyclic constitutions which would avoid such voting cycles. The arguments of this paper indicate the value of exploring ways of designing 'constitutions' which embody such, seemingly unavoidable, cyclic phenomena, especially since they are evident in the necessary policy changes required to remedy the inadequacies of particular policies. The question is how to initiate such a design process, given the nature of the design required. 

In such a context, the process whereby any such particular policy comes into favour, and is subsequently displaced, is an integral part of such a policy cycle. The emphasis on such a cycle is in marked contrast to the prevailing emphasis on the dominance of a particular policy and the desirability of its continuing dominance for the long-term well-being of the society in question. However, by its very nature (as discussed above), no such policy cycle can be planned or programmed, for this would make of it merely another policycompeting with other policies in the cycle. It is here that the core of the challenge lies. It is the paradoxical problem of organizing self-organization. 

This paper suggests the merit of metaphors in catalyzing the emergence of an awareness of the necessity of policy cycles. It points to the lack of understanding of the nature of policy cycles and patterns of such cycles, especially as they might function in different cultures, resulting in the entrainment, and synchronization, of such cycles between cultures. This is surprising given the considerable research on economic cycles, which presumably call for some understanding of a corresponding cycle of policies to respond appropriately to the changing circumstances. This lack is probably due to to the fact that current policies are of such short-term scope that longer-term cyclicity appears irrelevant. Things may be changing however. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on work being undertaken at the prestigious Japan Economic Research Center by Yuji Shimanaka demonstrating the relationship of economic cycles, technological innovation and periods of social conflict to 11-year and 55-year solar cycles; the latter corresponding to Nikolai Kondratieff's long-term economic cycles (23). 

As an illustration, consider four contrasting policies currently competing savagely with each other for a larger 'market share' of public opinion support. The arguments of this paper suggest that this savage competition contributes to the emergence of an appropriate new mode only to the extent that it ensures successive dominance phases amongst the four policies according to a periodicity or rhythm to which there is, as yet, little collective sensitivity. 

Such a pattern might be illustrated, very crudely, by a diagram such as Figure 4. This shows how each policy acquires dominance because of the need to correct for deficiencies resulting from the (necessary) imperfections and excesses of the preceding policy, only to be displaced in its turn. The appropriateness to human development results, ultimately, not from any particular policy but from the extent to which the pattern of policies and the rhythm of their phasing becomes increasingly self-organizing. 


Place Figure 4 about here 


Understanding how such cycles of contrasting phases accomplish effective transformative work in society may be facilitated by a thermodynamic metaphor. The Carnot cycle of heat and work, basic to the operation of any heat engine, itself involves four successive and contrasting operations (expansion at constant temperature, expansion without change in amount of heat, compression at constant temperature, and compression without change in amount of heat). Any attempt to isolate and prolong unduly the most effective work phase simply jeopardizes the ability of the engine to continue operating. It is then quite inappropriate to view the non-work phases as 'inefficient'. The operation of a task force (or meeting) of individuals with distinct functions may also be interpreted as involving a cycle of phases in which each function enters and leaves the limelight in turn. This is best illustrated by the results of research by R Meredith Belbin into the roles required for good teamwork. These have been labelled as: chairman, company worker, completer-finisher, monitor-evaluator, plant, resource investigator, shaper and team worker (30). A preponderance of any one role type, especially the 'most productive', jeopardizes both the appropriateness of the group's work and its ability to renew itself and continue functioning. 

The different levels of attention required in discussing the relationship of distinct policies to policy cycles may be illustrated by the metaphors of walking and dancing. In walking the right and left foot are moved forward alternately, shifting the weight of the body from one to the other. Although in places of difficulty attention may be focussed on one foot to the exclusion of the other, the body can be more satisfactorily moved forward by focussing on the process of walking, namely on the alternation between the two contrasting positions. In a 2-party political process however, there is a necessary struggle between the 'right' and the 'left', with no institutionalized awareness of what is achieved by the process of alternation between them. There is little recognition of when it is appropriate to relinquish a policy in favour of an alternative and then renew it to fulfil a new role. This may perhaps be more accurately compared to the preoccupation of a drunkard, or a spastic, with the forward movement of one leg (temporarily forgetting the need for the other). 

Appropriateness of the 1st order may be compared to movement of a foot, whereas 2nd order appropriateness may be compared to the process of walking. Higher orders of appropriateness may be compared to dancing and to a cycle of dances. It is the movement between the steps, and the manner in which they are ordered, which renders the dance meaningful. Focusing attention exclusively on any individual step prevents the rhythm from emerging and thus obscures the meaning of the dance. It is the rhythm which guides the self-organization of a dance, based on the execution of the individual steps, whose importance can in no way be neglected. The test of the appropriateness of any new mode is whether it embodies a more 'seductive' pattern in Attali's sense (24). In terms of 2nd order appropriateness current policy initiatives may be compared to a drunkard's walk, a monotonous dance or, more dangerously, a lock-step march.

Impotence of appropriateness: the dilemma of Nth order modes

Cyclic patterns of policies, of which a very simple form is illustrated in Figure 4, clarify the essential dilemma of any appropriate mode. In any concrete socio-economic context, it is only possible to mobilize people in support of a basically short-term policy in response to the deficiencies of any policies currently dominant in the short-term. And this is indeed what is required to remedy thosedeficiencies. Such a 'new' policy can easily acquire an inherent moral rectitude, implying that any other policy is a dangerous aberration. The difficulty is that such moral rectitude continues to be associated with the policy long after it ceases to be appropriate to that particular cycle of policies. 

Policies contributing to a policy cycle may be considered to constitute a lst order degree of appropriateness. The policy cycle itself may be considered a 2nd order degree of appropriateness. Higher orders of appropriateness, cycles of policy cycles, may in fact be what is required for viable long-term human development. As the arguments of earlier sections have indicated, such higher order forms of appropriateness are increasingly difficult to comprehend. They cannot therefore inspire a sense of moral rectitude and consequently would appear to be necessarily associated with political impotence. Political power is concerned with struggle within the cycle, not with the movement of the cycle - and yet it is from cyclic movement that enduring social development emerges. 

Such difficulties are further aggravated by the constraints of democratic systems in which education and minimal levels of literacy are a continuing problem. This obtains both in industrialized countries, but especially in those developing countries characterized by population explosions. Grass-roots political wisdom, as well as the experience of sophisticated organizers of political campaigns, requires that issues be kept simple and comprehensible. Paradoxically in such circumstances 'ignorance is right', at least in political terms. 'Information is power' only in the sense of the power of elites to manipulate. But any such manipulation is itself constrained by the political necessity of communicating it in terms comprehensible to the largest constituencies. 'I do not understand, therefore I will not vote for you (because I question your motives)', is the ultimate constraint in a democracy. 

In complex social systems, such ignorance may also be the result of cultural preferences and background, even amongst the educated, whereby particular policies are viewed as inherently 'bad' or 'evil'. Much political 'mileage' may be guaranteed by the process of reinforcing such views and cultivating suitable political scapegoats. But this too is an inherent feature of policy cycles. Each policy acquires dominance to the extent that it can successfully cast other policies in a 'negative' light, such that its own 'positive' features are enhanced by contrast. The characteristic of any particular mode of organization are such that others must necssarily appear in a 'negative' light from that perspective. It is this positive/negative polarization which drives the cycle through a succession of inadequate perspectives which compensate for each others distortions. It also prevents any 'purely objective' discussion of which policy is appropriate at which time. 

In traditional societies this dilemma was partially resolved by considerable use of metaphors, parables, myths and legends to render comprehensible the need for 2nd and higher order policy neglected in industrialized societies in favour of economic models which are essentially incomprehensible to all but the very few. And it is valid to question whether those who claim to understand their significance are adequately informed about the dimensions of society they choose to exclude from such models. 

Paradoxical strategies

The comprehension dilemma may be further clarified by the possibility that paradoxical strategies (inconsistent with conventional policy axioms and accepted values), namely strategies which ostensibly encourage negative or maladaptive behaviour, may constitute a valid policy phase in an appropriate new mode. Paradoxical strategies have been used with great success in psychotherapy, although most therapists have been reluctant to employ them, not only because of their theoretical-clinical complexities, but also because of their inherent unorthodoxy (53). Although such an approach would be necessarily highly controversial on a collective level, it is even possible that certain negative social conditions can only be usefully understood as having been effectively engendered by the society, or its neighbours, as necessary developmental learning experiences for that society. If, after a decade of global modelling, the experts are still 'gropingin the dark' (54), such paradoxical methods of encompassing counter-intuitive (and essentially paradoxical) situations merit vigorous investigation. 

In Leon F Seltzer's extensive review of paradoxical strategies he explores the possibility of a 'metatheory' of therapeutic paradox (53). The apparent irrationality of such strategies is such that they 'regularly elicit - and in fact are to be associated with - reactions of surprise, confusion and disbelief' (53, p. 10). He notes Omer's argument that the single unifying factor is 'symptom decontextualization' whereby, through experiencing a problem from one or more alternative settings, it loses its problematic character because of the modified form that it acquires in a broader experiential perspective. Omer even suggests that the more widespread the dimensions of contextual modification, the shorter the time of treatment required and the greater the likelihood that significant improvement will take place (55). 

In this light, at the collective level one merit of policy cycles lies precisely in the manner in which they allow problems emerging through the inadequacy of one policy to be reviewed through other modes of social action. Such a cycle is thus essentially regenerative, or self-healing, in that problems emerging at one point in the cycle are reabsorbed at some other point. It is the cycle which provides the larger context in which societal problems are processed. And, if Omer is correct, the faster the cycle, the greater the probability that the problems will be successfully defused.


In exploring the possibility of bringing about a new mode of socio-economic organization appropriate to human development, this paper argues that no single mode is acceptable or is in itself wholly appropriate. Furthermore the appropriate mode by which people are inspired as an ideal is in practice inherently incomprehensible in its entirety, if only in order to function as a form of conceptual genetic pool of requisite variety, but especially since it is natural to prefer not to be consciously aware of the unpleasant realities and remedial measures which are the long-term (or geographically distant) price to be paid for the attractive facets favoured.

The appropriate response to this comprehension dilemma cannot, of necessity, be encapsulated in any particular theory, mode of action or metaphor. Rather the nature of the challenge calls for the use of sets of complementary tools, whether they be theories, modes of action or metaphors. It is through such sets of tools that greater degrees of appropriateness can be approximated, rather than through any particular one of them.

The special feature of this challenge is that the constituent elements of any such sets must of necessity be significantly different from one another, even to the point of mutual incompatibility and beyond. Indeed it would appear that the greater the degree of that incompatibility, containable within the set, the greater the probability that the required appropriateness will be successfully approximated.

Although the nature of such sets may be represented in approximate form by a complex of mathematical functions, their complexity must necessarily render them incomprehensible to most people, if not to everybody. And although the socio-political reality of such a situation may be portrayed as a pattern of struggle between alternative modesof action, the nature of everybody's active or tacit involvement in that struggle obscures any non-partisan understanding of the coherence associated with that pattern.

Whilst the situation may be more fully understood with the aid of particular metaphors, the degree of comprehension required appears to necessitate the use of sets of metaphors. At this point in time, the possibility of developing such sets of metaphors constitutes a significant unexplored opportunity. In the light of the arguments of this paper, the design of such sets amounts to the production of conceptual catalysts whereby the emergence of more appropriate patterns of socio-economic organization can be stimulated from many different perspectives. It is in the light of such sets of metaphors that an improved sense of appropriateness may emerge, both in terms of the ability to distinguish inappropriate, excessive policy initiatives (over-reactions and inadequate responses) and with respect to the timing of complementary policy initiatives (phasing and rhythm).

The challenge in the design of such sets of metaphors lies in discovering fruitful patterns, namely those which are likely to be more 'efficient' catalysts for appropriate human development. At this point it would appear that only metaphors of appropriate richness can provide adequate pointers and guidelines for such investigations. Thus metaphors themselves need to be explored to guide the design of appropriate sets of metaphors.

However, to the extent that this paper is perceived as exaggerating the argument for a particular perspective, that perspective requires that it should itself be vigorously dismissed in favour of other perspectives which complement it and counteract its necessary defects.


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