problem of boundary
judgments1) All claims to knowledge, rationality,
and improvement depend on assumptions about what "facts"
and "values" are to be considered and what others
are to be left out. As they define the boundaries of the "problem,"
that is, the issue or situation taken to be relevant, I call
these assumptions boundary judgments. I also describe
them as "justification
break-offs," for they mark the point at which justification
ends; or as "contextual assumptions," for they can
help us understand the context that matters. The three concepts find a common
in systems theory: whenever we conceive of some part
of reality in terms of a whole of interdependent
circumstances, we need to make
prior assumptions about what belongs to it,
or more accurately, what should be considered as part
of the system and what should not. However, if you are not familiar
with systems thinking or prefer not to use its language,
it should be clear that the problem of boundary judgments poses
itself quite independently. It is not an artifact of systems
thinking or its language but represents a basic problem of all rational
thought, inquiry, and practice. Simply replace the term "system"
by "situation" or "issue" (or other suitable
terms that are used in your field of interest) to get the idea.
judgments and the interdependence of fact and values
The important point about boundary judgments is that they
are always in play, whether we are aware of them or not. So
the question is not whether we rely on boundary judgments but rather, how
carefully we identify and examine them, so as to understand
the ways in which they condition our findings and conclusions. Since
there is no such thing as perfect boundary judgments – perfect
boundary judgments would be those we can avoid – the crucial
issue is not so much what they are but how we handle them. We
cannot avoid the deficits of knowledge and rationality they
imply; but we can at least try to handle these deficits in transparent
and prudent ways. (Laying open value implications in professional
practice would be an example of transparence; applying the precautionary principle
may illustrate the quest for prudence in fields such as applied
ecology, technology assessment, and public health.) The
important point is to keep our boundary judgments open to critique
and revision. How do they
condition the "facts" (relevant circumstances) and
"values" (needs, interests, and aims) we take to be
relevant? How to they shape the "problem" or issue
that we are dealing with in the first place? How different might
things look if we revise them in various ways?
a rule, the issues we face or problems we try to solve, and the answers
or solutions we come
up with, are rarely more adequately defined than are the underlying boundary
judgments. In the language of problem solving, boundary judgments
imply assumptions as to whose needs and interests should be served in the
first place, who should be involved, and what circumstances
or aspects of the real world should be part of the definition
of "the" problem.
Different boundary judgments make us see
the world differently. Accordingly, different boundary assumptions
will lead to different problem definitions, to different selections
of relevant "facts" and "values," and accordingly
also to different solutions.
there is a second, perhaps even more important implication of
the inevitability of boundary judgments. They not only shape people's "facts" and "values," their
and "solutions," they also explain the way facts and
values are mutually dependent. Each time we consider new "facts," we
have implicitly changed our boundary judgments about what's
part of the picture and what is not, so that the relevant considerations
of value are also bound to change or in any case are in need
of revision. Conversely, new or revised value judgments imply
a change of boundary judgments, which may compel us to consider
new facts or can make the considered facts look different. Each
time our judgments of fact change, our value judgments are thus
to change as well. We have here a precise explanation of
the interdependence of facts and values, an interdependence
that is often asserted but rarely explained in precise
terms (if at all). Bringing in the concept of boundary judgments as a mediating
third allows us to better understand how facts and values
condition one another.
systems thinking If there is a field of thinking
that you might expect to have long since dealt systematically
with the methodological implications of boundary judgments, it would surely be systems thinking, given that
it is specializing on the use of "systemic"
or integrative, inter-
and transdisciplinary approaches to research
and professional practice. Systems thinking has brought forth many
specialized subdisciplines such as systems theory (including,
systems theory, complexity science, cybernetics, biological systems theory, and
social systems theory),
applied systems thinking or systems research (i.e., the empirical
study of systemic aspects of the real world, e.g., applied systems
analysis and systems design, operational research, information
systems design, etc.), and systems methodology (i.e.,
the development of methodological frameworks and tools for applied
systems thinking, so-called systems methodologies). You would expect that these fields
know how to handle boundary judgments well and can provide us
with widely used and proven frameworks for
boundary analysis and critique. You would be wrong!
is in fact a latecomer to the field of systems thinking. Only slowly the idea
has begun to receive the attention
it requires, supported by the emergence of what is now called
critical systems thinking (CST; for a concise, up-to-date
introduction, see Ulrich, 2012c and 2013; for advanced study,
consult 2012a, b). A main reason may be that with very few
exceptions (CST being the major example), the mentioned subdisciplines
have long struggled to free themselves
of the naturalistic, not to say positivist paradigm of science
that stood at their beginning; this paradigm makes it difficult
to deal with the implications of boundary judgments, notably
with their normative implications (i.e., the difficulty
that they are not objectively given but involve value
related reason may be that the need for systematic boundary
critique is bad news, of course, for all those researchers and
professionals who are looking for clean, objective and scientific
problem definitions and solutions. They will not, as a rule,
like the idea of a "critical" systems approach
(first proposed and systematically outlined in Ulrich, 1983) but will
prefer to do
without it. It is not helpful, they will say, for it only causes
us new problems. But this is not a particularly good argument;
for it implies that the difficulty is caused
by the systems idea. Yet the systems idea is merely the messenger
that brings us the bad news. Accusing the messenger, as an
age-old tradition has it, of causing
the bad news, so as to have an excuse for ignoring it, is convenient but
won't really help in handling the problem of boundary judgments
(Ulrich, 1981, and 1983, p. 225).
language of selectivity Perhaps a better idea
is to take the messenger seriously and to understand boundary
critique as an opportunity to confront a fundamental difficulty
that has always been
there and will always remain a crux in the quest for valid claims
to knowledge, rationality, and improvement – the mentioned,
unavoidable selectivity of all such claims. But what
exactly is the connection between boundary critique and selectivity?
Does it really make sense, readers may wonder, to locate all
selectivity of claims in underlying boundary judgments? Indeed
it does. As I explained on an earlier occasion:
judgments are the perfect target for this purpose, for unlike
what one might think at first, they reflect a claim’s entire
selectivity regarding both its empirical or normative content.
It is important to understand that boundary judgments are not
just one (perhaps even minor) among many other sources of selectivity
– for example, in the sense that once the reference system is
determined, it is then the specific content of our thinking
or discussion which determines how "partial" they
are. Rather, any partiality can and needs to be understood
as amounting to boundary judgments; for any content we do or
do not consider, and the way we consider it, implies corresponding
boundary judgments.… We cannot meaningfully talk about any aspect
of a situation or an issue without implying boundary judgments.
[Hence] the argumentative quality of
a reflection or discussion reflects itself in boundary judgments.
Wanting argumentation, say because we argue incoherently
or fail to anticipate side effects and risks of a proposed action
correctly, always amounts to modifications of the reference
system that we treat as relevant. Thus, if for example we consider
some aspect as relevant and perhaps even agree with others that
it is important, but then fail to take it properly into account,
due to lacking knowledge, to an error of judgment or some communicative
misunderstanding or distortion, we have in fact excluded that
aspect from our reference system. (Ulrich,
2005, p. 3)
judgments, then, are indeed a good leverage point for examining
selectivity. Without such an effort, selectivity
risks becoming a source of bias, partiality, and failure. The
good news is that since systems ideas meanwhile play a role in many
fields of research, boundary
critique is now increasingly recognized as an important methodological principle of
sound inquiry and practice. This holds true particularly for
a growing number of applied disciplines;
among them (to mention just a few) operations research and management
science, the design fields, public policy and planning theory, environmental planning and management,
social planning, development studies, technology assessment, evaluation research,
professional education and ethics, and many others.
systems heuristics, or facing the bad news Critical systems
heuristics, or shorter critical heuristics (CSH; see Ulrich, 1983,
1987), proposes a practical
framework that should help
us to deal with the bad news. The framework is grounded in systems
thinking along with practical philosophy, the philosophical
study of what good or proper practice and rational discourse
about it mean. (Well-known examples are American pragmatism
and the practical philosophies of Aristotle and Kant, all of
which play a role in CSH.) This theoretical grounding does not mean we all need now
to speak systems jargon or study philosophy. Once we have listened
to the bad news and understood its message, it is not so important
what language we speak but only that we take the message seriously.
Thus, in critical heuristics I often use everyday terms such
as "problem" or "problem situation" along
with more precise, theoretically grounded terms such as "reference
or "context of application," instead of merely or
mainly using systems language, for example, by speaking of "systems"
interest or of concern, or (to avoid the trap of reifying systems as if they were real entities) of "systems maps
The basic idea remains
the same: in order to reflect systematically
about what we know and should do about a situation of concern
– that is, more precisely, how we should assess related claims
to knowledge, rational action, or proposals for improvement
– it is never a bad idea to
surface the underpinning boundary judgments and to trace their
live practical implications for the different parties concerned, as
well as to systematically modify them and to check how different
the claims under consideration then look. A very good systems map
design should make its underlying
boundary judgments explicit and, in the case of a design, should also
point out how its concept of
"improvement" might look different if alternative
boundary judgments were chosen.
emancipatory use of boundary judgments But not all designs
are very good
designs. Hence it is important that ordinary people be enabled
to challenge systems designs or proposals for action of concern
to them, by learning to make visible to themselves and to others
the ways in which they depend on boundary judgments. This is
possible in principle, due to the fact that when it comes to
boundary judgments, there are no definitive experts. In respect
to these judgments, those who have the advantage of knowledge
and status or power on their side are just as much lay people as anyone
else. Or, to say it more bluntly, when it comes to debating
boundary judgments, experts do not look good. Nor do decision
makers, usually. Citizens, once they have got the idea, have
a real chance to be just as competent as those who "know
better" and to influence the way designs or proposals for
action look. This provides us with a crucial leverage point
for what I call emancipatory boundary critique, that
is, for giving a competent voice to ordinary citizens with respect
to boundary judgments (for introductory readings, see Ulrich,
1993, 1996, and 2000; for advanced study, consult Ulrich, 1983, Ch. 5).
The question is, how
can we identify and discuss boundary judgments systematically?
This is where the principle of "systemic triangulation"
and its underlying concept of the "eternal triangle"
1) This section, except the quote it includes from Ulrich, 2005,
is a revised and extended extract from Ulrich, 1996, pp. 15-19.
As we have understood by now, the concept of boundary judgments says that both the
meaning and the validity of a claim depend on how we bound the reference
system, that is, the situation or context that matters when
it comes to assessing the claim's merits and defects. On this
reference system in turn depend the facts and values we consider
in this assessment. We are facing an iterative movement of thought
in which the reference system considered (i.e., the boundary
judgments underpinning it), and the judgments of fact and value
applied to it (i.e., the selection of relevant circumstances)
mutually shape one another. The moment we change our boundary
judgments, the facts and values that matter will change as
well. For example, if we expand the system boundaries, new facts
come into the picture. But then, new facts can in turn make
us revise some of our boundary judgments. For example, if we
learn of previously unknown long-term effects of a proposed
action, we may want to extend the time horizon we consider so
as to sweep in those anticipated long-term effects (a
boundary judgment with respect to the relevant part of the future).
Changing the time horizon in turn may compel us to adjust
our value judgments (e.g., our sense of responsibility for
future generations), which then may again make the relevant
facts look different,
and so on. Thus boundary judgments strongly influence the way
we "see" a situation.
Since boundary judgments ("the
system"), observations ("the facts"), and evaluations
("the values") are so closely interdependent, they form what
I call an eternal
triangle – the eternal triangle of boundary critique (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The eternal
triangle of boundary critique: the interdependence of boundary judgments, observations,
facts we observe, and the ways we evaluate them, depend on how
we bound the system of concern. Different value judgments can
make us change boundary judgments, which in turn makes the
facts look different. Knowledge of new facts can equally make
us change boundary judgments, which in turn makes previous
evaluations look different, etc. (Sources: Ulrich, 1998, p. 6;
2000a, p. 252; 2000b, p. 18f; 2002, p. 41f; and 2003, p. 334)
triangle illustrates the
dependence of both "facts" (relevant observations) and
(relevant evaluations) on the reference "system" (boundary
judgments) and thereby, as we have noted, also explains the fundamental interdependence
of judgments of fact and value, namely, via boundary judgments. The
triangle figure offers itself since figuratively speaking, each angle in a triangle depends on the
other two. We cannot modify any one without
simultaneously modifying the other two.
is a case of what the French call a ménage à
everybody knows, mutual understanding can be difficult under
such circumstances. Differing boundary judgments make it difficult for people to communicate. Unfortunately, many
people do not appreciate the role that their boundary judgments play. As the concept is unknown to them, they suspect
the reason of mutual disagreement is that the other parties
got their facts wrong or rely on dubious ethical principles.
So they quarrel about statistics and ideologies. Because I am
right, the others must be wrong. Because I am responsible, the
others must be irresponsible. Because I am rational, the
others must be irrational. Because I am compelling, the others
must be idiots!
may sometimes be true, but more often the crucial difference
lies in differing reference systems. So long as the involved
parties do not see that they talk about different reference
systems, they will not really understand each other. In fact
it is quite rational that they do not. How could they reasonably
see the same facts and rely on the same value judgments, since
they are talking of different issues?
of disputing the other parties’ facts and values, it might then
be more fruitful to uncover the different systems of concern.
Once we begin to appreciate each other’s reference systems,
we can usually understand much better why our opinions differ.
Perhaps we can even agree about the reference system on which
we want to talk, at least in the sense that we focus on one
at a time. But
even if we cannot agree on such a coordinated handling of the
situation, we can at least appreciate one another’s
We need not agree in order to understand why we do not.
2) This section is an edited extract from Ulrich, 2000a, p. 251f;
a similar account can also be found in Ulrich, 2003, p. 334.
anatomy of selectivity The eternal triangle
is useful to explain – and remind us at all times – why reflective
practice of inquiry and professional intervention calls for
a systematic process of uncovering and examining the boundary
judgments that inform all our conjectures, findings and conclusions.
For this purpose critical systems heuristics (CSH) offers a table of twelve basic
boundary categories and, derived from it, a checklist of twenty-four
boundary questions. It also offers a small selection of what
I call "critically-heuristic
ideas," that is, essential general ideas such as the systems
idea, the moral idea, and the guarantor idea, along with a few complementary ideas such as the participatory idea, the
emancipatory idea, and the democratic idea, all of which can serve
as standards for reflection on the answers we give to boundary
questions. For the present purpose it is not necessary to explain
these boundary categories, questions, and ideas in any detail; interested
readers will find accounts in many of my publications (see, e.g.,
Ulrich 1983, 1987, 1993, 1996, 2000a, 2001, and 2013).
Instead, it is quite sufficient
to have a basic notion of the anatomy of selectivity –
the basic types of boundary issues – that
the boundary questions aim to make a subject of scrutiny and
discussion. Once these basic boundary issues are understood,
it does not matter how exactly we formulate the boundary categories
and questions; it will often make sense to adapt them to the
specific field of practice concerned. Here is a basic scheme,
in a language that should be relevant for many applied disciplines (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: The anatomy
are four basic boundary issues, each of which stands for a basic
source of selectivity in research and professional practice.
They are asking for a claim's sources of motivation, of control,
of knowledge, and of legitimacy. Each boundary issue is covered
by three types of boundary categories that ask for the major
group of stakeholders concerned, for this stakeholder group's
major concern, and for the crucial issue or related methodological
crux in need of clarification, respectively. The boundary questions
are so formulated that they also define the intent of the four
basic boundary issues / sources of selectivity, as well as of
the twelve boundary categories. (Source: derived from a representation
of the overall architectonic of critical systems heuristics in
Ulrich, 1983, p. 342; the present, simplified figure has
not been published as yet)
call the reflective or discursive process of uncovering a claim's
specific anatomy of selectivity boundary
critique (the general term for a reflective or discursive
approach) or also boundary discourse (the more specific
term for a dialogical approach). As explained above, I like
to describe this process with the
imagery of the eternal triangle; based on this imagery, I then
also explain boundary critique as a process
of systemic triangulation, that is, a systematic effort
of thinking through the eternal triangle.
concept of systemic
Since antiquity it was known that there
exists a fixed relationship between the sides and the angles
of a right-angle triangle, so that if two elements (say, the
value of one of the two acute angles and the length of at least
one side) are known, all sides and angles can be calculated.
This happens by means of mathematical functions that describe
these relationships, the so-called "trigonometric functions"
(sine, cosine, and tangent). This knowledge
was used for surveying land, that is, measuring distances between
triangulation points or determining their locations. The term triangulation
means the use of several (at least three) triangulation points to
this end, so that the principles of trigonometry could be applied.
times, this old idea of triangulation became a metaphor for
the use of more than one data basis for testing theoretical
hypotheses and conversely, for validating and interpreting data
in the light of alternative theories or perspectives. Particularly
in the empirical social sciences, the principle of triangulation
thus come to demand reliance on multiple perspectives and data
bases, the latter gained by alternative research methods, to describe and analyze social
issues; a seminal contribution is by Denzin (1970).
a practicing evaluation researcher, the principle of triangulation
was familiar to me; but only eventually, after starting to describe
boundary critique in terms of the "eternal triangle,"
it occurred to me that a useful way to understand boundary critique
was indeed by conceiving of it as a different, richer concept
of triangulation. The eternal triangle made it plain that the
conventional concept of triangulation, as used in the social
sciences, was insufficient in that it focused on the generation
of factual knowledge while at best affording a marginal role
to value judgments and entirely neglecting the role of boundary
judgments. Once I had made this connection between the eternal
triangle and scientific triangulation, it was only a small further
step to propose a systematic principle of systemic triangulation. In
fact, as I recognized with hindsight, I had proposed and applied
it all along, just without designating it as such! "Systemic
triangulation"– a term first used in Ulrich, 2000b, p. 18f,
and 2003, p. 334, but implicit in all references to the
eternal triangle – goes beyond the conventional concept of triangulation
by considering not only different data sets and corresponding
theories and research methods as bases for judgments of fact but
also different normative assumptions (judgments of value) and
reference systems (boundary judgments); in this way it is a
tool for gaining a deeper understanding of a claim's anatomy
of selectivity, including supposedly merely factual claims.
we have understood the idea, systemic triangulation can also
be described more simply as the reflective or discursive process
by which the eternal triangle is applied to specific issues
(Fig. 3). It is a core skill we need to develop in order
to become competent in boundary critique.
Fig. 3: Systemic
triangulation: the process of boundary critique
triangulation is the reflective or discursive process of systematically
applying the "eternal triangle" to the task of boundary
critique. As a new methodological principle, systemic triangulation
extends the conventional concept of triangulation in science by
considering findings and conclusions not only in the light of
multiple observations (judgments of fact relying on different
research methods, theories, and data bases) but also of different
ethical and moral perspectives (value judgments as to relevant
concerns and notions of improvement) and reference systems (boundary
judgments as to relevant situations or contexts). (Sources: Ulrich, 2012b,
p. 1317; adapted from Ulrich, 1998, p. 6; 2000a, p 252;
2000b, p. 18f; 2002, p. 41f; and 2003, p. 334)
triangulation also stands for an essential critical stance that
we need to cultivate in addition to the scientific attitude
of objectivity and suspended judgment, and/or the professional
virtue of detachment. It involves a conscious effort of "stepping back" from current
reference systems so as to appreciate the different perspectives
afforded by alternative conceivable reference systems. Such
a stance places high demands on a researcher's or professional's
ability to maintain the tension between divergent standpoints
and to suspend judgment while unfolding the views and consequences
they entail – perhaps the most distinguished competence a researcher
or professional can strive to cultivate.
the idea of systemic triangulation, the eternal triangle thus
suggests a useful analogy for understanding a core skill that
is conducive to systematic boundary critique, as well as a related
critical professional stance or ethic. A competent professional
will make it a personal habit to always consider
each corner of the triangle – relevant observations, concerns,
and boundary judgments – in the light of the other two, by
asking questions such as these:
- What new facts become
relevant if I expand the boundaries of my reference system
and/or modify my value judgments?
- How do my
valuations look if
I consider new facts that refer to a modified reference system,
or if I rely on the multiple perspectives that other
people have of the issue under consideration?
- In what way may my
reference system fail to do justice to the
perspectives of different stakeholder groups?
I may conclude this short introduction to the principle of systemic
triangulation with two quotes from earlier writings that capture
its consequences for research and professional practice (and
they are essential consequences, I think):
"Any claim that
does not reflect on the underpinning ‘triangle’ of boundary
judgments, judgments of facts, and value judgments, risks
claiming too much, by not disclosing its built-in selectivity."
(Ulrich 2002, p. 42; similarly 2003, p. 334 and 2005, p. 6)
triangulation is indeed highly relevant from a critical point
of view. It serves several critical ends:
helps us in becoming aware of, and thinking through, the
selectivity of our claims – a basis for cultivating reflective
allows us to explain to others our bias – how our views
and claims are conditioned by our assumptions. We can thus
qualify our proposals carefully, so that they gain in credibility.
allows us to see through the selectivity of the claims of
others and thus to be better prepared to assess their merits
and limitations properly.
improves communication, for it enables us to better understand
our differences with others. When we find it impossible
to reach through rational discussion some shared views and
proposals, this is not necessarily so because some of the
parties do not want to listen to us or have bad intentions
but more often, because the parties are arguing from a basis
of diverging boundary judgments and thus cannot reasonably
expect to arrive at identical judgments of fact and value.
And finally, as a result of all the above implications:
is apt to promote among all the parties involved a sense
of modesty and mutual tolerance that may facilitate productive
cooperation; for once we have understood the principle of
systemic triangulation, we cannot help but realise that
nobody has a monopoly for getting their facts and values
right, and that accordingly it is of little help simply
to accuse those who disagree with us to have got their facts
and values wrong."
and Reynolds, 2010, p. 287)
imagery of systemic
we have found, the imagery of a triangle quite naturally
offers itself for depicting the idea and process of boundary
so obvious a metaphor, given that in a triangle we cannot change one angle without
affecting the other two, just as in boundary critique we face
three interdependent types of judgment, each of which cannot
be changed without a need for revising the other two. No matter
at which corner point of the triangle we start to change things,
we'll end up changing all three. Perhaps this
obvious implication of a ménage à
trois, as I have put it, explains why I have never found it necessary to explain the
imagery of systemic triangulation in more than cursory form.
After all, it is a mere metaphor. Rather than explaining the
metaphor, I found it important to explain the methodological
considerations for which the eternal triangle is only a metaphor.
However, it is true that the metaphor is of interest in its
own right, given that it is meant to inspire a demanding kind
of professional stance and competence. Now that the principle
of systemic triangulation is beginning to find recognition in
ever more fields, it is certainly time to dedicate more attention
to its underlying imagery.
present short article is intended to correct the situation a
bit. It is in fact the most extensive account I have thus far
given of the principle. The impetus for doing it came from my
appreciated colleague and Senior Lecturer at the Open University in Milton Keynes,
UK, Martin Reynolds. When a publisher requested him to ask for my permission to reproduce
the eternal triangle, he took the occasion and asked me about the origin of its imagery. "I wonder,"
he wrote, "where your diagrammatic representation may have
been inspired from (if anywhere)?" (Reynolds, 2016) I certainly
found it a question worthwhile to consider, if not a wake-up
call reminding me that I had somewhat neglected this question.
It made me reflect on my personal idea history, and discover
that there was more to it than I had assumed. I did not anticipate
then that I might publish this personal reflection one day,
but here is the answer I wrote to Martin, exactly in the wording
I sent it to him except for a few minor editorial corrections:
There is no figurative source of the eternal triangle of
which I would be aware. It's rather the other way round, it
was the result of a rather long personal history of ideas. As
you may have noticed, I generally like conceptualizations of
issues that work with triple categories or options. (A recent
other example is provided by my focus, in the series of explorative
essays on the role and proper handling of general ideas, on
what I identified as three key ideas of Upanishadic thought
in ancient India, atman, jagat, and brahman, with the second
one being an unusual but for me crucial addition to the other
The way to the 'eternal triangle' was like this:
First, it had slowly dawned on me that the often asserted,
but methodologically somewhat nebulous interdependence of 'facts'
(empirical judgments) and 'values' (normative judgments)
could be patently explained by adding 'systems' (boundary
judgments) as the missing link as it were. So there I was, once
again, with one of my favourite triple characterisations.
Second, one day (I remember the moment quite well, as it
was one of those rare but precious 'Aha' experiences)
it occurred to me that a triangle offered itself naturally for
depicting the interdependencies between 'facts', 'values'.
and 'systems'. It's such a convenient way to capture
the need for thinking through the three core concepts (represented
by the triangle's corners) of 'facts', 'values',
and 'systems', as well as the interdependencies – often
also tensions or conflicts – between them (represented by the
triangle's sides); thinking through, that is, both conceptually / methodologically (how
to understand and handle the issues involved) and practically
(how to formulate / unfold these issues in specific situations).
As a third and last step, the name 'triangulation'
offered itself for these processes of 'thinking through'
the eternal triangle, both in general and in specific applications.
But of course, as a former, practicing social researcher I remembered
that the concept of triangulation already had a different, rather
narrow meaning in the social sciences; it meant, in essence,
the alternative interpretation of a given set of collected data
(or findings) in the light of alternative theoretical hypotheses
(or methods), or conversely, the examination of given findings
(or hypotheses) in the light of different sets of data. I had
always sensed that something was not satisfactory with this
conventional concept of triangulation, I now knew why: because
it ignores the essential role of boundary judgments. It had,
consequently, remained a bipolar concept, looking only at the
tension between empirical findings (or data) and theoretical
that informed them, whether in the form of theories or hypotheses
to be tested or methods. A well-understood
effort of triangulating research findings, it occurred to me,
had to include the effort of seeing / challenging them in the
light of different sets of boundary judgments (or 'reference
systems' as I also call such sets, as they serve as reference
points for assessing selectivity). The name 'systemic triangulation'
thus offered itself for this further-reaching (or deeper, if
that doesn't sound too presumptuous) concept of triangulation.
Further, since from a critical point of view, there is no natural
end (no stopping rule) for such processes of triangulation,
the figure of the triangle seemed very adequate (you can go
round and round the triangle, there is no natural end), and
so did accordingly the name I had given it, the 'eternal
In sum, the figure of the eternal triangle was really inspired
by the methodological conjectures that led to it, rather than by some other figurative source of which I was
aware then or would be aware today." (Ulrich, 2016)
conclusion from this short essay on the concept and imagery of
systemic triangulation is simple: systemic triangulation
is perhaps not a bad idea. The references that follow should help
you to inform yourself a bit more about the idea and then start
using it – the only way you can experience its heuristic usefulness
and critical force.
I hope you'll give it a try.
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