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Categorical Straightjackets

PO: A suggestion for a de-patterning device for international organization descriptions

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Previously published in International Associations 26, 1974, 3, pp. 148-150. Also in: Les Problèmes du Langage dans la Société Internationale (Compte rendu du colloque, Paris 28-29 mars 1974). Bruxelles, Union des Associations Internationales, 1975, pp. 151-153


The principal concern of this symposium is to examine how well a limited number of key terms currently employed in international organization discourse convey, in different sectors and language systems, the concepts and meanings they supposedly represent. A related concern, however, is whether particular labelled categories used in describing organizations, match in subtlety and complexity the social reality which they are used to order. It is this second concern which is discussed here.

Current discussion of, and by, international organizations makes use of category systems like the following :

This approach polarizes attempts to discuss and describe international organizations so that any concepts representing intermediate conditions between the extremes of each concept pair are automatically excluded, or at best can only be handled inadequately with the use of neologisms which are themselves suspect. It is the purpose of this paper to suggest that such two- term conceptual straight-jackets are a direct impediment to creative thinking about the new forms of international social organization needed to respond to the increasing number and complexity of world problems. Just as it has been said that many organizations in existence today are memorials to old social problems, so it could be said that many categories in use today are memorials to old insights into the complexity of society, How has this come about and what can be done to remedy the situation ? In answering these questions and suggesting a solution, we shall make extensive use of the arguments made by Edward de Bono in a series of books (Edward de Bone. The Use of Lateral Thinking. 1967. The Mechanism of Mind, London. 1969; Lateral Thinking; a textbook of creativity. 1970; Po. beyond YES and NO. 1972.).

Nature of the difficulty

In dealing with our environment we have developed to perfection, aided by traditional logic, a method of thinking which depends upon a thing or quality belonging or not-belonging to some category. Intermediate conditions are not permissable. An organization is either governmental or it is not. A nation is an aggressor or it is not. A society is democratic or it is not. Language needs such rigid definitions. Otherwise communication would be impossible. But creative thinking does not need them, for rigid-box definitions make the slow evolution of ideas impossible, since an idea cannot drift in or out of a definition but must at all times be either inside or outside. Similarly new types of social organization corresponding to intermediate definitions are also inconceivable. The logical YES/NO thinking system is excellent for manipulating information held in fixed categories; it is not much use in the perception of new ideas and new ways of organizing society. The result of our YES/NO system is that the category systems become self-perpetuating, since they control attention. Category patterns persist even though they are no longer the best possible arrangement of information. The effect is cumulative. Patterns are created, become established and grow even more rigid. Conceptual patterns become reflected in institutional organizations, legal or administrative procedure and in educational programs which then help to perpetuate the original patterns.

A de-patterning device

It would not be worth making the above points unless an interesting solution had been put forward. Edward de Bono has done just that. He suggests that we make use of a new word, not as a descriptor (Except to describe the suggested de-patterning device itself, when it may be used as noun, adjective or adverb.) but as a means of " legitimately " placing a "creative " question mark against the categories and category-systems which have to be used in the grammatically correct sentences required for effective communication. The new word is not a neologism in the conventional sense since all neologisms' tend to be descriptors. The proposed word would have a status similar to the logical operators AND, NOT, OR, etc which are each the basis for an important conceptual operation between categories.

The particular world chosen by de Bono is "PO " (This could be considered as an abbreviation of possible, but de Bono does not mention this, probably because he wants PO to be free from associations.).

Use of PO

Returning to the list of term-pairs given in an earlier section we can now illustrate one use of PO by placing it as follows, between our usual organization descriptors, for example :

PO attacks the distinctions temporarily in order to let the information be used in a different way. It may also be used to indicate the arbitrariness of the division. Sometimes it may be the whole division that is arbitrary, at other times the division is useful on one level but arbitrary if carried to other levels. In the latter case PO may seem to be pleading for attention to what unites the fragments rather than what divides them. If so, this is a by-product. The function of PO is only to challenge the rigidity of the division. These points are illustrated by de Bono as follows. If one were to say "men PO women ", this would be the same as saying " people "or "humanity ". It would, however, be very different from saying "men and women "(or in the case which interests us "governmental and nongovernmental organizations "), since this deliberately keeps them distinct in order to add them together, whereas with PO the distinction itself is questioned.

Using PO suggests that differences might not be very basic, whereas the use of AND highlights the separate classes as in the case of "a whites and non-whites ". "Government PO people " would focus attention on whether there was any common interest between the two. PO is never a judgement, it is a device for legitimately challenging divisions within a frame of discourse to see whether any more complex or more useful notions emerge. PO is especially useful in bringing together those opposite extremes which are created by one another. In the search for more adequate concepts and forms of social organization, this is exactly what is required. It could be argued that the open society towards which we would like to move would be made up of organizations and organization networks with the following characteristics :

One does not want to lose the distinctness of each extreme, but to keep it and still show that an organizational system can be both of these things at once. It is the division and separateness (" the apartheid ") that is attacked by PO, and not the nature of the two qualities.

Interrelationship of diverse forms of organization

PO could also be used to question creatively the conceptual barriers which are imposed between a wide variety of forms of social organization. In each society many forms of organization flourish. In a given society, however, some may be more prevalent than others. It is most important to note that different forms of organization can substitute for one another. So that in one society a particular function may

be mainly performed by A-type forms of organization, whereas in another the same functions may be mainly performed by B-type and C-type forms. In the diagram (below), the central core represents the conventional, " permanent ", highly-visible organizations with which everyone is familiar. The sectors around it represent a selection of different forms of organization which may substitute for some conventional organizations under certain circumstances. In each sector an attempt has been made to indicate some specific types of substitute organization, many of which have well-established names (neologisms are shown in parentheses) (This section and in particular the following paragraphs have been adapted from : Anthony Judge and Kjell Skjelsbaek. Transnational associations and their functions. In: A.J.R. Groom and Paul Taylor (Ed). Functionalism; theory and practice in international relations. University of London Press, 1974.).

Diagram illustrating the various additional categories of organization which are important to the functioning of the social system and which may substitute for one another or for conventional organizations.

Additional categories of organization  important to the functioning of the social system


One example of how a need satisfied by a conventional organization may be satisfied by a functional equivalent in the table is the case of a " subscriptionship ". In one setting it may be necessary to have interaction between members via an "organization ", while in another the need for such interaction may be satisfied by a journal to which individuals can subscribe. Another example is the case of an "agreement " which may be considered an hyperformal organization. In one setting a written or even verbal agreement may satisfactorily regulate relations between members, in another an equivalent agreement may have to be administered by a secretariat via an organization. Where formal agreement is not possible, an "organization " may even perform the necessary mediating or negotiating functions between its members. A final example is the case of a meeting, and particularly large regular meetings, in a series. In terms of activity, this may be more significant than a small normally constituted organization.

One consequence of focusing on conventional organizations only is that functional equivalents, particularly in non-Western cultures, are excluded from the analysis, thus introducing cultural bias and jeopardizing comparative studies. Another consequence is that even within a certain culture an " organizational analysis " will exclude many styles of organization performing functions which mesh with those of the organizations we are trying to isolate for closer scrutiny, thus rendering the analysis incomplete. A complicating feature is that a conventional organization may, for example, perform functions for a " membership", but at ' the same time produce a periodical which serves as a focal point for a "subscribership " which is not identical nor coterminous with the membership. A further complicating feature derives from the dynamics of a social system in that the growth or decay of a particular organization form may be accompanied by transference of functions to another organization form, for instance due to change in technology. The ability to accomplish this transference may be hindered by inertial features, such as vested interests identified with particular patterns of organization.

Because we are trapped within our categorical straightjackets we are unable to appreciate fully the complex and subtle ways in which the various forms of organization share and switch the burden of particular social functions between them. Proposals for social change therefore tend to be based on a rather myopic vision of the functions currently performed by a limited number of conventional organizations, rather than on a panoramic view of the rich and complex organizational ecosystem in which many species flourish and interact. Perhaps discussion of the need for PO can help us to complexify our conceptual systems.

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