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Engagement: 14 Contrasting concepts of meaningful employment

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It is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of employment is held in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. The questions as to whether an individual can 'develop' through work (other than in the obvious ways that preoccupy educators, economists, physicians and psychologists) are not understood in the same way in different contexts.

The purpose of this exercise is to explore the quality of individual and collective engagement beyond the limitations of economic understandings of work and employment.

For some, although alternative modes of work are a reality, individual and community development does not necessarily mean a journey through a pattern of such less readily accessible modes. Neither individual nor community maturity has been effectively defined and it is uncertain whether they lend themselves to definition. And for many, the degree of individual suffering in the world renders quite absurd any discussion of human development that does not concentrate on basic human needs. In some traditions, however, it is the failure to cultivate some of these poorly recognized modes of 'work' which is directly responsible for the ills engendered in the world.

It is useful to attempt to identify alternative ways in which human employment can be perceived, as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints on providing any satisfactory definition. This will also make evident the difficulty of attracting any consensus on strategies of human development. Whilst it is possible to discuss these perceptual modes as models, a broader and more insightful discussion results from treating such models as part of a set of metaphors.

The following alternative perceptions are therefore discussed as metaphors of human potential and its implications for the process of human development. They are not mutually exclusive:

1. Ordered array

Modes of engagement can be viewed as constituting an ordered array, like stations on a subway network. Employment is essentially subject to order and discipline, as in many bureaucratic environments. This view would tend to befavoured by those who are used to defining their environment in an orderly manner, in terms which favour management and control, whatever the degree of simplification necessary. In such an array, all modes are relatively accessible, although some may only be reached through intervening conditions. Modes are different, but not necessarily better in any developmental sense. In this metaphor, development might be envisaged in terms of extending and complexifying the network into a rich array of modes. This would be contrasted with a less developed condition equivalent to a subway network with relatively few stations and (possibly unconnected) lines. Goals of human development might be expressed in terms of improving the stations, increasing the facility of movement throughout the network, and organizing the network into the most effective configuration of stations. (To be contrasted with...)

2. Disorder and chaos

Modes of engagement can be viewed as completely unordered, to the point of being essential chaotic and disorderly. Employment is essentially a chaotic process, as in many creative environments. This view would tend to be favoured by those who have lost control over their environment, realize that they are subject to more forces than they originally assumed, or simply prefer the challenge of the disorderly and unpredictable (cf William James, Bergson, Schopenhauer, Rousseau). Modes of engagement are then too confusing to present any stable or orderly features permitting them to be distinguished or labelled. In this metaphor, development might be more concerned with ways of experiencing this chaos more completely, responding to it in a manner unfiltered and uncensored by artificial orderings.

3. Static structure

Modes of engagement can be viewed as forming a static, semi-permanent set of psychological conditions (especially by those who benefit from such predictability). This view would tend to be favoured by those seeking a reliable workforce (employers), stable markets (advertisers), or faithful constituencies (politicians), over an extended period of time. The view is then reinforced by legislation and regulatory procedures anticipating the range of basic needs of the average citizen, which are held to be unchanging or to change quite slowly. Human development is then primarily the process of ensuring that more people have such needs satisfied. (To be contrasted with...)

4. Dynamic structure

Modes of engagement can be viewed as constituting a dynamic structure, in which the modes arise in the dynamic relations between static elements. This is typical of the approach to employment in the media world. Like harmonies and melodies,based on a configuration of established musical notes, such modes cannot be readily isolated and named. They only exist as dynamic relationships changing continuously. This view would tend to be favoured by those who respond to the unique opportunities of the moment, possibly because their survival depends on the uniqueness of their response. In terms of the musical metaphor, human development then becomes a question of being able to form more complex harmonies amongst the predictable features of the environment, encompassing for longer periods the disharmonies which might otherwise be considered more significant.

5. Discrete phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as distinct, with some form of boundary separating them. This view would tend to be favoured by those who need to distinguish clearly where they are, either from where they have been, or from where they want to be. As on a career ladder, each mode corresponds to a dependable step and there is no intermediate condition. In terms of this metaphor, human development may then be conceived as moving up a series of steps, possibly understood as a series of initiations, or developmental stages. From each successive step a broader view may be possible, incorporating those below it. (To be contrasted with...)

6. Continuous phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as part of a single continuous field of work. Jobs are understood as flowing and blurring into each other. In the light of field theories, particular modes might then be understood as interference patterns (cf Moiré patterns). In this metaphor, human development might be understood in terms of increasing the number and complexity of such interference patterns and increasing the facility for shifting elegantly between them.

7. External relationship to phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as externalities, as objects of investigation, and as 'places' that can be visited. Jobs are viewed as 'slots' into which people can be replaceably inserted. As such their existence is independent of any particular observer. This view would be favoured by those with either a rationalist or an empiricist orientation. This may be seen in the scientific investigation of states associated with biorhythms. It is basic to the assumptions in many educational development programmes. Human development is thus a question of acquiring the expertise, or possibly the technology, to gain access to such places at will. (To be contrasted with...)

8. Identification with phenomena

Modes of engagement can be held to be only genuinely comprehensible through an intuitive identification with theexperience they constitute, experienced by the observer as he experiences himself (cf Bergson, Hegel). The work is defined by the person who reinvents himself through that work. This view would be favoured by those whose views have been strongly formed by particular unsought personal experiences of altered states of engagement, largely unconditioned by external explanations and expectations. Human development from this perspective might then be viewed as progressive achievement of a more profound, enduring, and all-encompassing identification with such states through which identity itself is redefined.

9. Sharply defined phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as being directly experienceable (cf Descartes, Hume), like individually framed paintings. This is work as defined by job specifications and classifications. This view would tend to be favoured by those concerned with the objective reality of such states as joy, pleasure, and love. For them, any other kinds of engagement are unreal abstractions of no significance, other than as distractions from the concrete reality of human experience. Human development might then be viewed as a process of achieving more intense experiences more frequently, rather as an art connoisseur seeks greater exposure to better paintings, through which his taste is developed. (To be contrasted with...)

10. Implicitly defined phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as implying levels of significance greater than that immediately experienced (cf Hegel, Whitehead, Niebuhr, Proust). Work has a symbolic dimension and engagement in it implies much more than can be captured in words. As with the experience of an iceberg, this view would tend to be favoured by those for whom engagement encompasses both the tip and some sense of the invisible presence of its underlying mass (and the possibility that it may suddenly become visible). Significance is derived from the unexpressed presence or the potential of any moment. Human development might then be viewed as the birth of such potential and the increasing recognition of the immensity that remains unexpressed.

11. Inherently comprehensible phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as comprehensible in terms of existing paradigms or through their natural evolution. Work is what economic rationalists define it to be. This view would tend to be favoured by pragmatists, and those with a scientific orientation, for whom a satisfactory explanation in terms of collectively known factors must eventually be possible (if one cannot immediately be imposed). Human development is then a process of making what is known to the experts more widely accessible and of investigating what they do not yet comprehend. (To be contrasted with...)

12. Inherently incomprehensible phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as calling for explanation in terms of other frames of reference, which may not necessarily be accessible to the human mind (cf Plato, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Plotinus, Niebuhr, Toynbee). This view would tend to be favoured by many religious groups (doing 'God's work') and in cultures sympathetic to belief in other levels of being or realms of existence. Human development is then essentially an evolving mystery whose nature is beyond the grasp of the human mind.

13. Phenomena in a context of due process

Modes of engagement can be viewed as subject to known (or knowable) laws as a part of definable processes. Work is then the fulfillment of established procedures. This view would tend to be favoured by those endeavouring to develop programmes of human development in which certain modes are experienced at certain stages or developmental phases. Human development is then viewed rather like an educational curriculum through which people need to pass in an orderly manner, building on appropriate foundational experiences, to the possible levels of achievement defined by the outstanding pioneers of the last. (To be contrasted with...)

14. Spontaneous phenomena

Modes of engagement can be viewed as totally spontaneous conditions or peak experiences unconnected to each other. As in many creative forms of work, this view would tend to be favoured by those who perceive chance, accident or divine intervention to be prime explanatory factors. It is also natural to those who respond spontaneously to their environment, placing relatively little reliance on norms and expectations. In this view human development is the increasing ability to rely on the spontaneity of the moment and the ability to respond proactively to theopportunities it offers.

15. Comment

Clearly these different views are not mutually exclusive. They overlap in complex ways in the case of any culture, discipline or school of thought. The 14 views have in fact been elaborated on the basis of an investigation by W T Jones (1961), who developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized. The 14 views above form 7 pairs of extremes corresponding to the extreme 'polarized' positions on such axes. Jones showed how any individual had a profile of pre-logical preferences based on the degree of inclination towards one or other extreme of each pair. The scholars named in each case are those given by Jones as examples.

This note formed the basis of a brief presentation to a workshop on 'Engagement in the 21st Century' (Co-sponsored by the Center for Integrative Studies and the World Academy of Art and Science, University of Buffalo, 24-26 October 1996). The workshop theme was subtitled: 'Hi Ho, Hi Ho, its off to work we go'. The seven dwarfs who originally sang this song in the Disney cartoon were equated with the seven axes of bias above -- representing the seven stunted (or conceptually downsized) perceptions of employment in contemporary society. Since for each axis, one pole tends to be emphasized at the expense of the other, one may be considered as the repressed shadow of the other in the sense of Jungian depth psychology.

The challenge is to enrich the quality of engagement by exploring forms of employment implied by the many combinations suggested by these axes.


W. T. Jones. The Romantic Syndrome: toward a new method incultural anthropology and the history of ideas. Martinus Nijhoff, 1961.

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