By Werner Ulrich
How can those participating in research effectively reflect on their own assumptions about where they set boundaries around: problems, solutions, measures of success, knowledge claims and other aspects of research? These aspects are inevitably partial in the dual sense of representing a part rather than the whole of the total universe of conceivable considerations, and of serving some parties better than others.
How can examination of assumptions about boundaries be employed as an emancipatory practice to assess the assumptions of others and to point to better ways of serving the disenfranchised and marginalised?
I developed critical systems heuristics in the 1980s to support such boundary critique. It aims to enhance the ‘critical’ (reflective) competence of researchers, decision makers and other stakeholders, as well as of ordinary people. It provides ‘heuristic’ support in the form of questions and argumentation tools that make a difference in practice.
Critical systems heuristics poses questions about 4 basic boundary issues:
- Basis of motivation – Where does a sense of purposefulness and value come from?
- Basis of power – Who is in control of what is going on and is needed for success?
- Basis of knowledge – What experience and expertise support the claim?
- Basis of legitimacy – Where does legitimacy lie?
These four issues are essential for reflective practice in most (if not all) situations of problem solving, decision-making, or professional intervention, including in research on complex societal and environmental problems. The questions which form the heuristics are asked in the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ modes, to reflect fact and values, respectively. They are an aid to both self-reflection and reflection on the assumptions and practices of others.
SOURCES OF MOTIVATION
- Who is (ought to be) the client or beneficiary? That is, whose interests are (should be) served?
- What is (ought to be) the purpose? That is, what are (should be) the consequences?
- What is (ought to be) the measure of improvement or measure of success? That is, how can (should) we determine that the consequences, taken together, constitute an improvement?
SOURCES OF POWER
- Who is (ought to be) the decision-maker? That is, who is (should be) in a position to change the measure of improvement?
- What resources and other conditions of success are (ought to be) controlled by the decision-maker? That is, what conditions of success can (should) those involved control?
- What conditions of success are (ought to be) part of the decision environment? That is, what conditions can (should) the decision-maker not control (eg., from the viewpoint of those not involved)?
SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE
- Who is (ought to be) considered a professional or further expert? That is, who is (should be) involved as competent provider of experience and expertise?
- What kind of expertise is (ought to be) consulted? That is, what counts (should count) as relevant knowledge?
- What or who is (ought to be) assumed to be the guarantor of success? That is, where do (should) those involved seek some guarantee that improvement will be achieved – for example, consensus among experts, the involvement of stakeholders, the experience and intuition of those involved, political support?
SOURCES OF LEGITIMATION
- Who is (ought to be) witness to the interests of those affected but not involved? That is, who is (should be) treated as a legitimate stakeholder, and who argues (should argue) the case of those stakeholders who cannot speak for themselves, including future generations and non-human nature?
- What secures (ought to secure) the emancipation of those affected from the premises and promises of those involved? That is, where does (should) legitimacy lie?
- What worldview is (ought to be) determining? That is, what different visions of ‘improvement’ are (should be) considered, and how are they (should they be) reconciled?
As a rule, it makes sense to ask each question both in the ‘is’ and in the ‘ought’ mode. The ‘ought’ answers always help to clarify the standpoint from which a person is assessing a situation or related claim in the ‘is’ mode.
Furthermore, differences between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ answers are frequent, not to say the rule. As they point to unresolved boundary issues, they can drive the process of unfolding the selectivity of a claim.
However, the specific way in which the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ mode are combined – say, in what order they are employed – depends on the particular application of boundary critique which is of interest.
It would be a mistake to conceive of boundary critique as a kind of step-by-step technique for ‘boundary setting’, that is, as a method to determine ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ boundary judgments and to settle conflicts. No kind of methodology could claim to know the ‘right’ answers to boundary issues.
What boundary critique can achieve is to help the parties in appreciating their own boundary assumptions and those of others, so that they can then articulate any concerns in a cogent way. The decision on what boundary judgments should underpin practical action is then a question of legitimacy rather than of validity. Once the selectivity of claims has become transparent, democratically institutionalised processes of decision-making can work in a meaningful way.
What has your experience been in assessing assumptions about boundaries in your own research? Do you have additional tips? Are there other ways of assessing boundaries that you have found to be helpful?
To find out more:
Ulrich, W. (2005). A brief introduction to critical systems heuristics (CSH). ECOSENSUS project website, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. (Online): https://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_2005f.pdf (PDF 144KB).
Much of the text in the blog post is taken verbatim from this article. This article and my home page (https://wulrich.com/) provide references to additional work on critical systems heuristics.
Biography: Werner Ulrich PhD is retired Ancien professeur titulaire of the University of Fribourg (Faculty of Arts and Humanities) in Switzerland. He is a social scientist and practical philosopher with a particular interest in the philosophy and methodology of reflective professional practice and research. He is one of the originators of critical systems thinking.