19 February 2007

Complex Constructivism, and an Emergent Methodology

As promised in an earlier post, here is a considerably more in-depth discussion of my research methodology. Warning: this is a long and dense post that aligns a constructivist standpoint with complexity theory, and describes Constructivist Grounded Theory with an Emergent Ground as a new, qualitative methodology. If you would prefer more entertaining fare, why don't you head on over to hear about Google's Master Plan to take over the world. For the brave academics in the audience, read on!

Sense-making and Constructivism

Methodologically, my research is challenged by two axiomatic notions: that the nature of engagement among individuals or organizations or both have changed in ways that are complex – that is, non-linear and non-deterministic – over the past one hundred years; and that individuals are generally restricted in their ability to describe their experience of the effects of those changes by a vocabulary that is grounded in hundred-year-old constructs and conceptions. Those who would report on aspects of their organization’s culture, management style, or interactions among customer and supplier organizations would be likely to describe their experiences in terms that draw referentially on bureaucratic or hierarchical structures, and their operational consequences and adjuncts, even if such structures were nominally “anti-hierarchical” or “post-bureaucratic,” terms that themselves reinforce the identified problematics. Karl Weick (2001), among others (Browning & Boudes, 2005; Snowden, 2000), might characterize such descriptions as the result of sense-making, or self-reinforcing, rationalized interpretations of behaviours that are reflexively justified according to those interpretations. Weick argues that normative behaviours in a social setting create interpretations of events that become reified in social relationships, and subsequently crystallize into organizations. Over time, interpretive justifications of events become based on these social expectations of behaviour rather than on individuated reasons. The combination of justification processes and expectations create the effect of self-fulfilling prophesies, as well as self-perpetuating conceptions of reality.

According to Weick, this process occurs approximately as follows: The entrenched justification for any action or social behaviour reflects the sense that people have made of the world. Consequently, people act on that sense without realizing that in acting they reinforce that particular interpretation of (inter)actions which is merely one interpretation among many. Although there is no intrinsic superiority of any of the multiple interpretations, one is given preference above the others, creating a form of self-fulfilling prophesy. The environment of interactions so created by specific interpretations of actions that are imposed on that environment has an interesting consequence: the environment increasingly resembles the interpretation. Thus, the privileged interpretation becomes entrenched as reality and truth, albeit a local reality and truth. That reification provides sufficient justification to view any other possible interpretation with skepticism, or outright rejection. This intrinsic process of sense-making and reinforcement represents a positive feedback loop with respect to meaning (2001, p. 15-23).

Weick’s reasoning is consistent with my contention that the common, contemporary view of organizations in terms of BAH – bureaucracy, administrative controls and hierarchies, and even their referential direct opposites, post-bureaucratic and anti-hierarchical forms – reflects the reinforced sense-making of actions and decisions that are justified in terms of those forms. To break this self-referential, positive feedback loop, any new paradigm or metaphor cannot be justified by referencing either BAH foundations, or any actions, decisions or interpretations that are dependent on BAH foundations. Rather, it must find its own justification relative to some other contextual ground that suggests alternative social relationships and “behavioural commitments” (Weick, 2001). Recasting the ground enables new justifications to emerge that subsequently can be validated (or not) in the context of the new paradigm, whatever it may be.

The Paradox of Constructivism, and a Complex Resolution

This reasoning highlights both the importance of assuming a constructivist standpoint when attempting to understand individual and collective interpretations of experiences and events, as well as the problematics and limitations of constructivism when attempting to understand newly emergent phenomena. On the one hand, “constructivism assumes the relativism of multiple social realities, recognizes the mutual creation of knowledge by the viewer and the viewed, and aims toward interpretive understanding of subjects’ meanings” (Charmaz, 2000, p. 510). Michael Quinn Patton describes it this way:

Because human beings have evolved the capacity to interpret and construct reality – indeed, they cannot do otherwise – the world of human perception is not real in an absolute sense, as the sun is real, but is ‘made up’ and shaped by cultural and linguistic constructs. … What is defined or perceived by people as real is real in its consequences. (Patton, 2002, p. 96; emphasis in original)

On the other hand, reality that is perceived and constructed according to a well-entrenched contextual ground is, de facto, the interpretive lens through which all subsequent events and actions are interpreted, irrespective of any as-yet-unperceived changes in the dynamics of that ground. A way to reconcile this apparent paradox of constructivism – that the effects of individually perceived reality may persist long past the time when the circumstances that constructed said reality have substantially changed – may be through the application of a complexity model. Indeed, constructivism is quite consistent with the principles of complexity theory as outlined earlier with reference to Cilliers’s (2005) characterization of complex systems, if the system in question is a system of meaning. Weick (2001) cites Gergen’s (1982) three principles of constructivism that I recount here, with particular points of comparison with complex systems emphasized: (1) as events occur, they change the emerging current context from which both earlier and subsequent events have meaning; (2) the reference against which the interpretation of any event is contextualized is itself the product of a network of interdependent events and interpretations, often mutually and collectively negotiated among a network of people; (3) as a consequence of the previous two principles, the meaning of any given event is interpreted differently by different people, with collectively agreed meaning being achieved through processes of consensus, or the exercise of power (Weick, 2001, p. 10).

Complex systems are often described in mathematical terms using Henri PoincarĂ©’s topological approach. In mathematics, and particularly in topology, solutions to sets of nonlinear equations are often depicted as sets of curves drawn through an n-dimensional phase space, where n represents the number of variables in the equations. A point that “travels” along one of these curves defines the state of the system at any time; its movement over time is called its trajectory[1]. The trajectory of the point is called an attractor, with three topologically distinct forms: point (a system that eventually reaches stable equilibrium, representing the end of change and growth; i.e., death), periodic, meaning a system that has regular oscillations between two states, and strange that applies to chaotic systems such as those characterized by Cilliers as exhibiting properties of complexity. Strange attractors tend to create distinct patterns of trajectories for a given system, although the precise location of a point in phase space at a particular time cannot be accurately determined. This means that the system is non-deterministic – its future state cannot be accurately predicted from its past state(s). Substantial changes in the type, shape or existence of an attractor, corresponding to substantive changes in the nature of the defining parameters (e.g., contextual ground of the system) is called a bifurcation point, and marks a state of instability from which a new order of greater complexity can emerge (Capra, 1996).

Now, consider a system of meaning, such as that typically described as emerging from a constructivist standpoint. Constructivism holds that people confer meaning onto their lived experiences by virtue of a complex intermingling of individual and collective past experiences that provide context – in other words, the system’s history – and current perceptions of events. A (contingently) stable meaning or interpretation can be considered to be an emergent property of that system of lived experiences. In complexity terms, that stable meaning can be described as the trajectory of meaning travelling through a phase space defined by a set of parameters that might include individual history and memory, group history or collective memory, consensus processes, cultural influences, normative behaviours of one or more social networks, and other similar factors, forces and causes[2]. The person’s constructed reality, that is, the trajectory of meaning through the phase space of lived and interpreted experiences, can become disrupted when one or more of the parameters of that phase space significantly change. Although a person may attempt to hold onto familiar, “privileged” (Weick, 2001) interpretations, the time during which the formerly stable meaning is disrupted is chaotic, and hence, often confusing for the individuals and groups concerned. At the bifurcation point, sufficient interpretive energy is injected into the system to enable emergence: the creation of a new stable state of higher order than before; in other words, the creation of new meaning and interpretation of events.

Constructivist Grounded Theory

I contend that the paradox of constructivism to which I referred delineates the methodological challenges that I identified at the beginning of this discussion, namely the challenge of participants describing their organizational experience in other than BAH terms. This challenge can be resolved by effecting a bifurcation in my research participants’ perceptions and interpretations of their lived organizational experience with respect to the changed ground of the UCaPP environment. Because the emergent structure of any complex system, including a system of meaning, cannot be predicted, the subject of the current research is the discovery and description of that new, emergent meaning and interpretation of organization. The methodology most appropriate to this undertaking is constructivist grounded theory, as characterized by Kathy Charmaz (2000), modified by the insertion of a changing ground. Charmaz describes constructivist grounded theory as follows:

The grounded theorist’s analysis tells a story about people, social processes, and situations. The researcher composes the story; it does not simply unfold before the eyes of an objective viewer. This story reflects the viewer as well as the viewed. … We can use [the critiques of grounded theory] to make our empirical research more reflexive and our completed studies more contextually situated. We can claim only to have interpreted a reality, as we understood both our own experience and our subjects’ portrayals of theirs. (Charmaz, 2000, p. 522-523)

A constructivist grounded theory distinguishes between the real and the true. The constructivist approach does not seek truth – single, universal, and lasting. Still, it remains realist because it addresses human realities and assumes the existence of real worlds. … We must try to find what research participants define as real and where their definitions of reality take them. … We change our conception of [social life] from a real world to be discovered, tracked, and categorized to a world made real in the minds and through the words and actions of its members. (Charmaz, 2000, p. 523; emphasis in original)

In essence, Charmaz uses the analytical techniques of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1973; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), contextualized in a constructivist standpoint, to enable the emergence of knowledge about the “world made real in the minds … of its members” (2000, p. 523). I intend to extend Charmaz’s technique by, in effect, nudging some of the parameters of the participants’ meaning phase space, and allowing the participants to describe the resultant changes in their perceived meaning trajectory. Putting it more simply, over the course of one or more interviews, I will enable the participants to change the ways in which they describe their individual and group engagement with organization, freeing them from the former vocabulary of bureaucracy, administrative controls, and hierarchy.


  • Browning, L., & Boudes, T. (2005). The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: a comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models. Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 7(3-4), 35-43.
  • Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Charmaz, K. (2000). Grounded theory: Objectivist and constructivist methods. In Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 509-35). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Cilliers, P. (2005). Knowing complex systems. In Richardson, K.A. (Ed.), Managing organizational complexity: Philosophy, theory and application (pp. 7-19). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing Inc.
  • Gergen, K.J. (1982). Toward transformation in social knowledge. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1973). The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research & evaluation methods ( 3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Snowden, D. J. (2000, 2001/10/16). Cynefin, a sense of time and place: An ecological approach to sense making and learning in formal and informal organizations. Retrieved January 30, 2007, from http://www.knowledgeboard.com/library/cynefin.pdf.
  • Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

[1] This concept is most easily imagined as a point moving through physical space relative to reference axes of length, width, and breadth. At any time, the “state” of the physical system can be defined in terms of the point’s position; its path through space is the trajectory. Similarly, in a complex system, there would be more dimensions, each dimension, or variable, referring to a parameter that uniquely defines an aspect of the system being described.

[2] Used in the Aristotelian sense, as opposed to linear causality.

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jonhusband said...

Is it correct to assume that you know of Dave Snowden's work in this area? He calls it Complexity, Narrative and Sensemaking.

Mark Federman said...

Yes. For example, check the references to this piece: Snowden, D. J. (2000, 2001/10/16). Cynefin, a sense of time and place: An ecological approach to sense making and learning in formal and informal organizations. Retrieved January 30, 2007, from http://www.knowledgeboard.com/library/cynefin.pdf.

Anonymous said...

methodologically we cannot use the theories of complexity in an analogy form to prove the challenges you mention in the social domain (Humans). There must concrete theoretical support. Bifurcation or any other form used in complexity theory are not more than gestures that could stimulate individuals and could not at the same time. The change or emergence from such gestures can only be observed thru time and one should be aware of positive as well as negative outcomes. No gestures no matter how positive the intentions can lead to a positive outcome. I would suggest a narrative-theme like methodology that accounts for just what happens. Emergence, change and complexity theory implies just that. 'No one can control or direct change'.


Mark Federman said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sam. The observations you make, and your suggestion are, in fact, accounted for in the method that I am using in the empirical work (which, of course, I have not specifically outlined here). The question of whether individuals' experiences of their workplace changes when introduced to a framing of organization in terms of relationships is part of the investigation.

However, so far, as I "nudge" my participants' system of meaning-making, they are indeed changed by the experience which is what I would expect from my prior experiences in teaching perceptual change in media theory. In fact, with one participant, his entire demeanor changed when his mental context changed from a western mentality to a non-western mentality during our conversation - this was a startling observation for me, but one that is entirely consistent and "predictable" (as much as anything is predictable) from the methodology that I have outlined, and with which I am experimenting.

The other nice thing about the paradigm within which my research is framed is that, I don't have to prove anything in my thesis.