cannot conceive of systems without assuming some kind of systems
boundaries. If we are not interested in understanding boundary
judgments, that is, in critical reflection and debate on what
are, and what ought to be, the boundaries of the system in question,
systems thinking makes no sense; if we are, systems thinking
becomes a form of critique.
(W. Ulrich, "Critical
systems thinking for citizens,"
1996b, p. 171)
a New Civil Competence
A basic idea of my research program Critical
Systems Thinking (CST) for Citizens (see Ulrich, 1995, 1996b, 2000;
now "CST for Professionals & Citizens") is that critical systems thinking as
I understand it in my work on critical systems heuristics (CSH)
– compare the motto cited
above – may be of interest
not only to professionals but also to citizens. As I am going
to argue, the use of the systems idea for critical purposes
has the potential to provide citizens with a new
competence in citizenship, a skill that might help them
to articulate their concerns in ways that are both relevant
In addition to
explaining why I believe this is so, I propose to consider some implications for an
adequate understanding of professional and managerial competence
today. My basic thesis in this respect is that
competent management (or professional work) and competent citizenship are inseparable.
I first presented these ideas to the Faculty and research students
of the Lincoln School of Management in England, in January 1997, I adjusted
the name of my research program accordingly and described it
in terms of "critical systems
thinking for citizens and managers." As description of my
general methodological interest though, I continued to speak
of "critical systems thinking for professionals and citizens," so
as to include practitioners of all fields of professional practice (whether
managers or researchers) as well as lay
(citizens), in short, everyone who is engaged in or affected
problem solving and decision-making. I hope readers will
agree at the end that aiming at such a large target group, immodest
as it may appear, is perhaps not entirely inappropriate in this case.
systems thinking In
the face of such big ambitions, it is advisable to quickly recover
some sense of modesty. I would like to avoid a possible misunderstanding from the outset: the idea
is not that everyone – citizens, managers, professionals, researchers,
politicians – should become proficient in systems thinking
thinking, as it is also called). Much less do I see systems
a paradigm or approach that would be applicable to everything
or even furnish a kind of overall "theory of everything,"
as some systems theorists might certainly have you believe. Nor do I believe,
as some of my colleagues in the field of "applied systems
thinking" or systems methodologies appear to assume, that adopting a "systems approach" can
and should produce some superior
kind of rationality as compared to other frameworks of thought. Of course not. It's people, not methods, who
make views and values matter. People are different, as are their
preferred methods. Any method or tool has its strengths and limitations, its
merits and defects. What matters is appreciating the differences.
Cultivating some pluralism of theories, methods, and perspectives
is always desirable.
I find a number of other theoretical frameworks just as important
as systems thinking. Among them are practical philosophy (or philosophy of practice) in the tradition
of Aristotle and Kant; philosophical pragmatism in the tradition
of the American pragmatists (esp. Peirce, James, and Dewey);
and contemporary discourse theory and discourse ethics, along
with related ideas on deliberative democracy, in the
tradition of critical social theory and thought (esp. Apel and
Habermas). So I tend to employ systems thinking as one among several frameworks
of thought (but hardly ever as a unique framework), when and
insomuch as it helps me in making ideas of interest clear. As
I have come to believe, a critical systems perspective indeed
has some merits with respect to my concern here, of finding
a new source of competence that citizens could share with professionals
and decision-makers and which would therefore enable all of
them to coproduce relevant knowledge and reasoning for
About promoting civil society The essential concern of
my research program is civil society, not systems thinking.
I understand by a civil society
"a society in which the basic source of legitimacy lies
with the individual citizen" (Ulrich, 2000, p. 247).
Such a society will accordingly promote a multiplicity of opportunities
for citizens to articulate their concerns, through
basic education for all (including basic civil, social, and
political education; compare, e.g., the respective educational
program of Ireland, see CSPE, 2016) as well as through
institutionalized forms of participation in all domains and
at all levels of society.
Educational and institutional
opportunities must come together: chances for participation will achieve little
unless citizens know to articulate their concerns in ways that
count as relevant and competent, just as such skills
alone achieve little without conforming, institutionally secured chances
for using them. My focus in what follows is mainly, but not
exclusively on the side of skills, that is, on personal (cognitive)
and interpersonal (discursive) competencies rather than on institutional
settings. The question is, What can systemic thinking contribute to preparing citizens
and managers for their roles in a living, civil society, and how might this
contribution change our notions not only of competent citizenship but also
of competent management? I would like to offer three
basic propositions concerning this issue:
basic propositions My first proposition concerns
the role of competent citizenship for a functioning civil
society. If by a civil society we understand a society in which
ordinary people can effectively participate in decisions on
matters of collective or public (as distinguished from purely
private) concern, a basic challenge is how we can render ordinary
people capable of participating actively. Contrary to what is
often assumed, I propose that citizenship
is not well understood if we see in it mainly a question of
civil rights; rather, it is always also – if not in the
first place – to be understood as a question of
civil competencies. To me, democracy is a kind of
government that enables people to become competent members of
a civil society.
second proposition concerns the role of systems thinking
in this. I suggest that systemic thinking has something important to contribute to the current
revival of civil society. I believe it holds a key
for giving ordinary people (managers as well as citizens) a
new competence in citizenship. The key concept we need
to consider in this regard is the methodological core principle
of my work on critical systems heuristics (CSH), the concept
of a critical employment of boundary judgments (first
introduced in Ulrich, 1983, 1984, 1987, and 1993) or, with a
convenient short designation, the principle of boundary critique (first
suggested as a short name in Ulrich, 1995, 1996a and b, and used increasingly
see, e.g., 2000; 2001, 2003; 2006a-c; 2012b; 2017a-c; Reynolds
and Ulrich, 2010).
The relevance of boundary critique in the present context is
that it proposes a critically-reflective and argumentative skill that is
easy enough for ordinary people (including ordinary professionals
and decision-makers) to learn, yet at the same time is also
relevant enough to make a real difference.
third and last proposition concerns the role of management (and
hence, of managers) in a civil society. It seems to me that the idea of a civil
society, and the consequent concern for competent citizenship,
have a lot to do with a proper understanding of the societal
function of management. I believe that managers in future need
to include the two previous propositions in their concept of
good management. Competent managers, that is, will need to
be competent citizens in the first place!
is a vision for management education involved in these three
propositions that looks very fitting indeed with a view to contemporary management
challenges: to adequately prepare managers for the future,
management education might well see its most important mission in educating critically minded (and
for a civil society. Such a perspective would make a genuine difference
to the "managerial" mindset conveyed to managers by
today's management education. I believe that the idea of "critical
systems thinking for citizens and
managers" (or, as I designate it now, CST for professionals
& citizens) has something essential to contribute to this vision,
and I would like therefore to try and explain in this essay why
and in what ways this may indeed be so. Let
us begin with a few reflections on each of the three
propositions, before then explaining the idea of boundary critique
and how it works in a bit more detail. The focus throughout
will be on the importance of civil competencies for a functioning civil
Contemporary Notion of Citizenship The contemporary
notion of citizenship is dominated by the concept of civil rights.
Following the English sociologist Thomas H. Marshall, who in
1950 published his seminal study on Citizenship and Social
Class, it has become customary to associate citizenship
with three basic kinds of citizen rights: civil rights
strictly speaking (i.e., civil liberties such as freedom of speech
and other forms of protection of the individual from the state);
political rights (i.e., rights of political participation, typically
by voting or by holding political office); and social and economic
rights (i.e., the right to social security and welfare). Marshall's
influence was such that when we speak of civil rights today,
we usually mean all three kinds of citizen rights. That is to
say, the incorporation of social rights into the concept of
citizenship has become generally accepted, although their concrete
meaning remains of course a matter of political dispute. Marshall's
(1950, p. 96) personal view was that the incorporation of social
rights meant to create "a universal right to real income
that is not proportionate to [read: independent of] the market value of the claimant,"
an idea that comes surprisingly close to present-day calls for
an unconditional basic income. His point was of course that
without some minimal economic independence, it is not possible
to exercise civil liberties and political rights of participation,
with the consequence that citizenship risks remaining an empty
concept. For a thorough account of Marshall's work and
its importance for the development of modern citizenship theory,
see Barbalet (1988).
spite of the astonishingly modern aspects of Marshall's work,
there are reasons to doubt whether his notion of citizenship
is still sufficient today. The ongoing process of modernization
has changed the meaning and relevance of classical citizen rights.
The societal process of rationalization,
German sociologist Max Weber (e.g., 1930, 1968, 1991) could still designate
the expansion of the spheres of scientific and bureaucratic
rationality to ever more areas of life, appears to undermine
the role of citizenship. So does the ongoing process of economic
globalization. Experience shows that conventional
citizen rights do not enable citizens sufficiently to control
these technological, economic, and administrative developments and their repercussions upon people's
daily life worlds.
They tend to render people incompetent in matters that affect
their daily lives. Many citizens lack the skills to
see through, or even argue against, the arguments of those who
have the say in the omnipresent rationalization processes that change
their lives, often enough also endanger their health,
kill their jobs, and degrade the natural environment. This experience
makes people feel powerless. Many stop to engage themselves
actively in matters of public concern; they retreat to the private
sphere of work and consumption and no longer care to exercise
their rights of political participation.
Another problem is that conventional citizen
rights do not seem to address all the major
issues that concern citizens today. Today's civil
rights developed historically around major
political struggles of the early days of capitalism
and industrial class society, I am thinking
especially of the social question. How could a capitalist society ensure a minimum of welfare
and integration to the dependent working
classes? While capitalism inevitably involves inequalities between social classes, citizenship
involves rights that are recognized as belonging
equally to all members of a society, independent of social class. Thus citizen rights
were to ensure a certain redistribution of
resources and chances of participation to the dependent working classes. Citizen rights
became a source of social and political integration; they laid a basis for the subsequent
development of the "welfare state compromise"
practiced in the Western democracies after the Second World War (see, e.g., Bendix, 1964, p. 73;
Barbalet, 1988, p. 83; Habermas, 1996, p. 501).
Important as these issues continue to be, they
do not exhaust the universe of issues that move citizens today. As an example, we may think of
the ecological question and, linked to it, the
problem of achieving a sustainable world-wide
economic and social development. Environmental hazards are no longer limited to
certain social classes, they can affect everyone. Social rights may help those affected
to claim protection or compensation but they
do little to prevent such hazards in the first place, for they do not enable citizens to control
the production and distribution of risks.
A second example is provided by the issue of
industrial democracy or, more generally speaking, of democracy at the
workplace, an idea that is not contained in
Marshall's concept of civil rights, either.
Although most of us spend much of our time at the workplace, this idea has remained scarcely
developed in our actual practice of democracy.
third example is the problem of securing the democratic control
of science and technology. This problem is gaining importance
because of the growing reach of our scientific and technological
means, which poses new problems of ethical and democratic legitimation
(cf. Ulrich, 1994). It may suffice to mention the problems of
nuclear waste disposal and of genetic engineering.
a last and somewhat different example, another source of the
loss of meaning of citizenship that comes to mind is certainly
the shift of ever more decisions that affect our lives to supranational
levels of decision-making. Examples are provided by the ongoing
process of economic "globalization" and, partly prompted
by it, efforts at strengthening supranational government in
many regions of the world. Citizenship in Marshall's comprehensive
sense has been institutionalized thus far only at the level
of the nation-state, which means that citizens cannot democratically
control an increasing number of decisions that are taken remote
from them yet affect their lives at the national, regional,
and local levels.
What supranational bureaucracies and global economic players
such as multinational corporations do or neglect to do affects
many people, whose citizens' rights do not effectively reach
beyond the national boundaries. For example, the free and easy movement of
capital and of jobs across national boundaries is beyond democratic
control even though it may have important effects at local,
last example is different in nature from the previous examples.
The core issue here is one of institutionalizing a new, global
economic world order, one in which the range of application
of citizen rights would converge better than today with the
range of action of private corporations and supranational bodies
of decision-making. The issue concerns more the wanting institutionalization
than the substance of citizen rights. In their substance, there
are so many issues which already in the "old" and
present economic world order are beyond adequate democratic
control of those affected; think only of the persisting socioeconomic
discrepancies between developed and underdeveloped regions of
the world, or of unresolved ecological issues such as global warming,
diminishing biodiversity and many others, or of the
ethical questions raised by new technologies such as genetic
engineering and robotization. So long as world citizenship and
some kind of democratically controlled world government are
not institutionalized, and this may not happen very soon, the
only solution may be to regulate the freedom of the global
market in such a way that it does not undermine the freedom
of citizens to control matters of collective interest democratically.
This means limiting "free markets" to areas and spaces for which
institutionalized democratic processes can set norms of regulation.
The European Union (EU) and other supranational economic unions
that have been emerging in recent decades (e.g., ASEAN,
MERCOSUR, NAFTA, AEC) could provide intermediate levels to this end.
However, such supranational bodies tend to be remote from the
citizens' reach of influence.
Taking the example of the European
Union, it still lacks provisions
for an adequate democratic control of the basic "Four Freedoms"
of the EU Single Market (or Common Market), sometimes also referred
to as its five freedoms – the free movement of goods, services
(including entrepreneurial establishment), people (including
labour), and capital and payments. The way in which these freedoms
are interpreted and regulated through the EU's executive,
legislative, and judicial bodies obviously affects the citizens of
the member states quite considerably, but thus far these bodies
are accountable only to the governments of their respective
member states. The EU today embodies a common market and a political
union but not a civil society in the sense intended here. Europe
has yet to set up institutions of corresponding democratic control,
among them first of all a European citizenship, a European constitution,
and a European executive elected by and accountable to the people.
Similar observations could be made with respect to the other
economic unions and, at a global level, with respect to the
United Nations. But again, this is an institutional issue of
the future which is not in the centre of the
present essay's concern.
problem of complexity What
these different examples have in common is that the issues in
question reach beyond the participatory chances of citizens
even though they may be of crucial importance for the development
of our late-industrial societies. Apart from the institutional
problem just mentioned, the core problem appears to be the complexity
of these issues. Granting to citizens the necessary rights of
participation and of democratic control is not enough to ensure
effective participatory chances and influence to them. If the issues are beyond
their understanding, how can they argue their concerns in a
competent manner? Is an ever-increasing gap between citizen
rights and the actual capability of citizens to participate
the Idea of Civil Society My conclusion
from the preceding considerations is that a different concept of citizenship
is required today, one that would give a central part to civil
competencies rather than to rights only. I propose to understand
citizenship as a status that is constituted by civil competencies
as much as by civil rights. Only thus can the role of the citizen
effectively change toward active citizenship, a notion
that Habermas (1996, p. 497) associates with the existing
Swiss democracy but which (as a Swiss citizen) I prefer to associate
with the idea of civil society in general. The ideal is to create
a society in which ordinary people have an effective – and equal
– chance of participating actively in the making of public opinion
and political decisions. The reality, unfortunately, is less
ideal. For too many people, citizenship does not appear to mean
much more than a number of rights (including the right of residence)
that go along with a rather passive status of membership in
rediscovery of civil society But
is such a change not illusory? Did we not just mention a number
of examples that suggest a loss of meaning of the
concept of citizenship, in Switzerland no less than in other
countries? Paradoxically, it seems that the growing
awareness and frustration of many citizens in view of their experience of incompetence
and impotence is beginning to give rise to an amazing counter-movement:
the notion of civil society is enjoying a new, unprecedented
popularity. We are witnessing a rediscovery of civil society
that manifests itself not only in the sociological and political literature (see, e.g., Cohen,
1983; Keane, 1988; Walzer, 1991; Seligman, 1992; Kumar, 1993;
Hall, 1995; Sandel, 1996; Barber, 1998, to mention just a few early authors from a rapidly
growing body of literature) but also in actual changes in society
and in the ways citizens understand their role. These changes
suggest to me a gradual shift of the essential "locus of
control" (the actual steering centre of societal developments)
from institutions such as parliamentary democracy and governmental
bureaucracy, along with scientific, professional, and industrial
organizations – institutions that historically have been driving,
and continue to drive, the process of rationalization – to citizens,
including citizen groups or movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the
world-wide social media, and the public sphere in general. A new, increasingly global
but also increasingly differentiated and
decentralized kind of political culture (or perhaps, at times,
subculture) appears to be emerging in many societies; a political
culture in which citizens and citizen
groups develop new skills of monitoring, evaluating,
and influencing the activities and omissions of the "old"
mention just a few such competencies that come to mind, citizens
everywhere are learning to make better use of the public media,
including the new possibilities of information access and exchange
through world-wide communication networks. They use these means
to organize themselves outside the mainstream of the established
political system and also to make the most of the available
means of legal action and, at times, civil disobedience. They
engage themselves in participative forms of inquiry and planning
such as citizens' initiatives or action groups, "planning
cells" and "citizen reports" (e.g., Dienel, 1989, 1991) or "citizens'
juries" (e.g., Crosby et al., 1986), "hybrid fora" of scientists and
citizens (e.g., Gibbons et al., 1994), stakeholder-based evaluation
(e.g., Bryk, 1983), participatory action research (e.g., Fals-Borda
and Rahman, 1991; Whyte, 1991; Reason, 1994) and other forms
of collaborative and community-based research and engagement
(e.g.., the development of "crowdsourcing" initiatives). And finally,
of particular interest here, they benefit of the new facilities of world-wide
communication and collaboration to increase their critical awareness
vis-à-vis the rationality claims raised by vested interests
or by experts and political lobbies who serve these interests.
this is not to deny that there also exists an opposite tendency
toward increasing political abstinence (e.g., on the part of
young people); but the symptoms of a deinstitutionalization
and decentralization of political processes appear more significant
to me. The phenomenon of political abstinence within the old
political system is probably itself an expression of the shift
of the political to new political arenas, it need not necessarily
mean a general loss of political interest. Citizens turn away
from the institutionalized political system (which, they feel,
does not give them a sufficiently competent and meaningful role)
rather than from the res publica as such. Take, for example,
the observation that when environmental issues are at stake,
citizens in many societies now increasingly dare to "think
for themselves," quite according to Kant's (1784) call to Enlightenment:
sapere aude! – dare to know! Who else if not active citizens
can ultimately be expected to be in charge of controlling the
increasingly threatening repercussions of the rationalization
process upon the social life world?
of course, we must not rely on wishful thinking. The point of
my conjectures is not a sociological prediction but rather,
a methodological argument. Or, to put it differently, the
issue here is not so much whether a revival of civil society
along the lines I have suggested is actually taking place but rather,
how we can provide citizens, no less than managers and professionals,
with new and better skills for active and responsible citizenship
than are available to them today.
If some of the considerations I have suggested are not entirely
mistaken, a sustained development of civil society will not
be possible without a simultaneous development of the competencies
of both professionals and citizens. This is
the context in which I see a role for critical systems thinking
as I understand it,
that is, for systems thinking as a form of critique (Ulrich,
1996b, p. 171; cf. the motto cited at the outset of this
essay). It is a skill that in turn will
inform a well-understood concept of competent management and other kinds
of professional competence, and consequently it will then also
change the ways such competencies are taught, formally awarded
or socially attributed, and practically exercised. Hence, before
explaining the notion of "systems thinking as a form of
critique," a quick look at the situation of professionals (including managers) is
Developing the Idea of Professionalism
In many respects, it seems to me the
situation of professionals today is not so different from that
of citizens. I have outlined my understanding of this situation
in a previous essay (see
Ulrich, 2011) and thus can be brief here,
focusing on the nexus between professionalism and civil society.
It seems to me that the contemporary concept of professionalism,
similarly to the concept of citizenship, has remained rather
underdeveloped with a view to the reflective competencies needed
for effective and responsible participation in
civil society. Professional competence is still understood
rather one-sidedly today in terms of expertise and
status conveyed through formal training and examination, and
in some fields (e.g., in the health and legal professions) also
through membership in professional organizations.
Yet in a civil society, formally
awarded expert status is obviously not a sufficient
legitimation for the consequences that professional intervention may impose on citizens. In view of the ever-growing scope of professional
intervention, professionals need new critical skills that enable them to exercise
responsibility in handling these consequences, that is,
for example, to explore and assess these consequences systematically and to deal
in open and
transparent ways with the value implications and practical effects
or long-term impacts they may have for all those concerned. That is to say,
professionals need critical competencies similar to those we considered
above for citizens; consequently, such consequences also need to become an integral part
of our contemporary concepts of
professionalism and of adequate professional training.
Professionalim and citizenship There exists a deep connection between the
two concepts of competent citizenship and professionalism. Just as
citizenship requires not only civil rights but
also civil competencies (which often benefit from people's
professional and everyday skills), it
seems to me that well-understood professional competence requires not only expertise and
the status and actual influence upon decisions that come with it but also a proper
understanding of citizenship. I therefore propose that we should teach future professionals to exercise
their professional competence not only in terms of expertise but equally in
terms of competent citizenship. From such a perspective,
that professional will be considered a competent professional who also is a competent
Ulrich, 2000, for a fuller argument on this "critical turn"
of the concept of professionalism).
But of course, strategies of promoting civil
competencies in professionals and citizens must rely on an approach that is sufficiently general
and basic to be accessible to a majority of ordinary people. If
critical systems thinking – systems thinking as a form of critique –
is to help us in this endeavor, we must find ways to translate
it into a language that ordinary people can understand and are
willing to use, and which is really capable of empowering them
in a new and meaningful way. The core concept that I have in mind is
fundamental to my understanding of critical systems thinking, I mean the already
of a critical employment of boundary judgments (Ulrich, 1983, pp. 225-314; 1987;
1993) or, in short, "boundary critique" (Ulrich,
1995; 1996a, b; 1998; 2000; 2001). What, then, is boundary
critique, and why should it
become a generic competence of ordinary citizens and professionals
is time now to introduce this idea.
Developing the Systems Idea
If we are to provide not only professionals
but also citizens with the
kind of new competencies we have discussed, we should face the
fact that ordinary people will probably always have a disadvantage of knowledge and skills in comparison to specialists,
that is, people with access to special expertise, including
decision-making bodies and vested interests that can pay for such expertise.
Linked to this asymmetry of access to knowledge is often also a disadvantage of status and influence,
and thus of actual influence. Because they are not usually able
to argue in comparably compelling ways, citizens may be heard
but (whether consciously or not) are not really taken seriously;
what they have to say does not count as an equally competent
contribution as that of the specialists and office holders.
We must thus try to find a source
of competence in citizenship that is available equally to people
with or without access to special expertise.
democratic vision Hence,
than presupposing, or trying to achieve, ideal conditions of
symmetry – of knowledge, skills, status and power –
between ordinary citizens on the one hand and experts and office
holders on the other hand, it may be a better idea to employ the systems idea
for the purpose of dealing effectively with the usual asymmetry
of situations. The challenge then consists in employing the systems
idea as a countervailing argumentative force or compensatory
competence as it were. Citizens will thus not need to be equally
knowledgeable and skilled as those with access to special knowledge;
instead, they will be able to demonstrate in compelling ways
why such special knowledge is not sufficient to justify the
claims based on it and what other claims may have equal merit.
I propose that we
can accomplish such a genuinely democratic vision of a civil
competence for all by introducing to citizens and professionals
alike what I call the critical kernel of the
systems idea. It should be clear though that the following account,
like the entire essay, is written primarily for academic readers;
its concern is methodological clarification rather than didactic
critical kernel of the systems idea The critical
kernel of systemic thought consists in its reminding
us of two fundamental limitations of knowledge, and consequently
of the quest for grounding rational
practice in knowledge and reason. The first is
the claim, implicit in this quest but difficult to prove in
practice, that we consider all possibly relevant circumstances and concerns,
that is, in the terms of Kant's unsurpassed account of this
fundamental principle of reason, the relevant "totality
of conditions" or, as he also puts it, the "whole
series" of conditions or whole
relevant "system" (1787, B379f, 444, 673, 860); the second,
that in consequence we can rarely if ever be certain to know
and understand enough.
Even where an issue
or situation of interest is well defined, the job of considering the "whole
relevant system" is by no means a trivial matter. It requires
us to understand all conceivable options of viewing the situation,
and thus to explore all those known or unknown, often interdependent
and outside the situation that could possibly have some bearings
on our understanding of it – an undertaking that finds no natural boundary.
We encounter here the very methodological core of the idea of
boundary critique: reason cannot renounce its fundamental
requirement of considering everything possibly relevant, yet
the actual practice of any quest for comprehensiveness is always
limited and thus deficient. At the same time, however, there
is no definitive, fixed boundary beyond which the quest for
understanding the "whole" relevant system or totality
of conditions to be considered might not reach; which means
that a critical revision of assumed boundaries is always possible.3)
Systems, or the Context that Matters In
order to keep this requirement within reasonable limits, so
that we may hope to achieve some certainty as to whether our
claims to knowledge, understanding, and rationality do indeed
the whole relevant system or come reasonably close to such comprehensiveness, we would need to be able to delineate
the whole system at issue in some objective, comprehensive and definitive way. But there
is only one system of which we can say for certain that it represents
the whole system, namely, the universe. Any other system
we take to be relevant for assessing a claim's meaning and validity,
including what we call a "system" in everyday speech
(meaning some specific system of primary interest or concern as distinguished
from others), needs to be distinguished from the universe by means of
selections, whether they are conscious or unconscious,
our own choice or that of others.
In critical systems thinking,
a precise way of conceiving of these selections is in terms
of "reference systems"4)
and of related "boundary
- a reference system is a whole
of circumstances or conditions selected from the (assumed) universe that together
make up a context for assessing the meaning and validity of
a specific claim; whereas
- boundary judgments are the acts
of selection by which we delimit a specific reference system from
other conceivable reference systems and/or from the universe
(as an ultimate reference system for reflecting on the selectivity
of all other reference systems, an idea that in practice becomes
important especially in moral reasoning).
Combining these two definitions,
we can define a reference system in its simplest operational
definition as follows:
a reference system is a set of boundary judgments
that together inform a claim.
context that matters In somewhat less precise
terms, with the advantage of being closer to everyday language
yet without losing pragmatic relevance, we can understand the idea
of a reference system as referring to the "situation"
or "context" that is taken to matter for determining
relevant facts (circumstances) and values (concerns) and conforming
paths of rational action. In other words, the reference system
to which a proposition or claim refers defines its context
of concern. Accordingly, my preferred "pragmatic"
definition is this:
reference system is the context that matters when it
comes to assessing the merits and defects of a proposition.
(Ulrich 2000, p. 251)
we can understand boundary judgments as contextual judgments
that delimit a specific situation or context of concern
from its physical and social environment; that is, they
define the borders of concern.
major kinds of reference systems (or contexts) The most basic
and best-known reference system of systemic thought, apart from
the notion of a system of primary interest itself, is the notion
of a system's environment. For all practical purposes, there is no system without environment. In
fact, the system/environment distinction is constitutive of
system thinking inasmuch as the two reference systems are defined
by a shared boundary: by definition, any part or aspect
of the world (the universe) is either part of the system of
interest or of its environment. We may well try to define a
system of concern as comprehensively as possible; but ultimately,
a clear definition requires delimiting it from its environment.
Accordingly, systems thinking is not the same as holistic thinking.
Holistic thinking stands for an ideal in which the environment
would become an empty class; systems thinking stands for a careful
and transparent handling of what is treated as environment.
It follows that in applied systems thinking, as in all applied
thought, contextual judgment is always in play. What we mean
by a "system" is a matter of selection, whether we are aware
of the selection criteria or not. This is why the concept of boundary
judgments (Ulrich, 1983, p. 225ff) is so fundamental to any critical employment of the
systems idea. It helps us – and reminds us – to understand the
inevitable selectivity of our claims.
system/environment distinction, constitutive as it is for systemic
thought, is not sufficient with a view to the end of appreciating
selectivity. It cannot
adequately ground a critically tenable concept of systemic rationality,
by which I mean a type of argumentation that lays open the reference
systems on which its rationality depends. I take it that critically
reflective systems thinking (CST) cannot do without
a systematic attempt to clarify its underlying concept of rationality,
in general as well as in each specific application – in general,
that is, by clarifying the types of reference systems
and forms of boundary judgments in terms of which it is to examine and
qualify all its claims; in each application, by systematically unfolding
the selectivity of specific claims in terms of their underpinning boundary
judgments. Proper ways of doing that, and of thus buttressing situational
claims to relevant knowledge, rational action,
or resulting improvement, reach beyond the S/E distinction. Fig. 1 depicts
three fundamental boundary issues and four resulting types of reference systems that play a fundamental role in rational practice; Fig. 2 will subsequently introduce
a forth, logically subordinated boundary issue.
1: Three basic boundary issues
in critically systemic thought
S = system (or
of primary interest; E = relevant environment (or decision-environment); A = context of
application (or context of responsible action); U = universe
(or total conceivable universe of discourse)
Boundary judgments define borders of concern. Any
definition of S leads to the two additional boundary issues
of demarcating from U both E and A. The two issues can be distinguished
as follows: if the issue is whether some part of U influences
S in a relevant way (U->S), then we are concerned with E; if however
the issue is whether some part of U is influenced by S in a relevant
way (S->U), then we are concerned with A.
Ulrich, 1998, p. 6)
identify the kind of reference systems required for critically
reflective practice, we first have to remember that no practicable approach can ever
be comprehensive (or "holistic") in its outlook and
rationality. No-one and no kind of approach or method can do justice to the whole world.
Applied systems thinking has no advantage in this respect. This
means it is not a particularly useful idea to define the environment
of a system as the latter's logical complement within the universe.
It's not that the definition would be wrong, only that it is
not good enough for critical purposes. The pitfall of an illusory
claim to some kind of superior (because supposedly holistic)
rationality that the system/environment distinction helps to
avoid would then merely have been shifted from the ways we think
and talk about "systems" to our handling of the "environment."
As was previously the case with an unqualified notion of "systems"
thinking, our references to the environment would once again
risk succumbing to an illusion of comprehensive knowledge and
understanding. But as already said, systems thinking cannot
redeem such a claim, no more than any other conceivable approach
(a danger of which for instance the environmental or "green"
movement does not always appear to be sufficiently aware, cf.
vs. irrelevant environment It follows that in
careful systems thinking we need to develop the basic system/environment
distinction further. On the one hand, there is a need to distinguish
the environment that is effectively taken into account (i.e.,
the considered environment) from the remaining, unconsidered
environment, be it that the latter is considered less important
or simply is beyond current knowledge and understanding. To put
it differently, we should always be clear about what we treat
as relevant environment and what not – "relevant"
or "irrelevant," that is, to S. On the other hand, there is a need to
recognize that the system/environment distinction, unlike what
conventional systems thinking appears to assume, does not exhaust
the fundamental boundary issues we need to consider in the quest
for rational practice. There is a "missing element,"
a forth basic kind of reference system to which I refer as the
context of application. Let us, then, define and explain
these two additional types of reference systems.
A part of the universe is relevant
environment (E) if it does not belong to the system of concern (S)
but nevertheless influences the latter and/or coproduces its
measure of improvement; it is irrelevant environment (or simply a part of the universe,
U) if it does not influence
the system or if the way in which it influences the system is
of no concern, that is, it does not coproduce the system's measure
practice, this definition is operationalized by the question:
What real-world conditions outside S are (or are to be) treated
as relevant environment and thus should receive full attention
in defining and justifying relevant knowledge, rational action, and resulting
improvement; and what other conditions may (or need to) be treated
as irrelevant environment, that is, as not meriting such attention?
systems thinking begins when we recognize how limited our ways
of handling this question tend to be. There are basically two such limitations. First, we cannot possibly treat the entire universe
as relevant environment; so we should always examine and lay
open what aspects of the universe we are treating as irrelevant
environment or, more precisely, as if they were
irrelevant environment. Second, there are limits to the ways
we can do justice even to what we recognize as relevant environment;
so we should examine and lay open what kinds of concerns or of
we associate with the relevant environment, as if they
amounted to all the relevant concerns or rationality aspects outside
S there are.
the first limitation, note that the systems-theoretical meaning of
"relevant environment" differs from its everyday ecological
meaning: in systems thinking, the reference system for identifying relevance
or irrelevance is the system of primary concern rather than
the planetary ecosystem or even the universe. More precisely, E stands for a system's
(or its designer's or manager's) decision-environment,
that is, the totality of circumstances or conditions on which a system's current
state and further development depend but which are not under the system's or
its decision-maker's control (i.e., not part of S). This is
why above we defined E as that part of the universe which is
not part of the system S but coproduces its measure of
success or of improvement. Conversely,
that part of the universe which is not recognized to matter
for S, in the sense of not coproducing its measure of success,
will be likely to be seen and treated as irrelevant environment.
the second limitation, it arises as a consequence of the first:
not only what we consider as relevant environment but
also how we deal with it tends to be conditioned by our
"systems perspective," that is, by the limited context
of concern that we associate with the system of primary interest.
Critically speaking, what is not recognized to be in the latter's interest –
that is, any interest that is not grounded in references to S
– will not receive
the same kind of systematic attention and care, even if
lip service is paid to it and although it may be recognized
to be important
from an alternative perspective that is not focused on S (say,
an ecological perspective concerned with some different region
of the planetary ecosystem, or an economic perspective concerned
with distributive effects outside S). So long as S is the main
reference system for establishing rationality and measuring
improvement, such issues will not
be part of the systemic rationality at work and will instead
be relegated to a less important, if not irrelevant, status. One
might of course shift perspective and treat such an alternative
concern as the system of primary interest, but then one has
created a new environment that once again can only selectively
be treated as relevant environment – the logic remains the same.
We may speak of a
dominating "managerial" or "strategic" logic
of a thus-conceived systems rationality (i.e., a rationality
perspective grounded in references to S): in this logic,
the system's environment will really be "relevant"
and thus receive all conceivable attention inasmuch,
and only inasmuch, as doing so serves the interests associated
system of primary concern. We must conclude that refining the
S/E distinction with the additional, subordinated boundary issue
of delimiting the relevant from the irrelevant environment (E/U),
although necessary from a critical perspective, is not sufficient
for grounding a critically-reflective approach to rational practice.
context of application In
my specific approach to critical systems thinking, critical
systems heuristics (CSH), a third type of basic boundary issue is
important; I mean the distinction between the system of concern
(S, as delimited from E)
and what I call the context of application (A, as delimited
The context of application (A)
refers to that part of the universe (U) which is influenced or "affected"
system (S) but which, unlike the relevant environment (E), is not
necessarily influencing or "affecting" the system;
that is, the success of S need not depend on considering A.
practice, this definition is operationalized by the question:
Where do the consequences
of systemic rationality arise, and how does the thus identified
of application (A/U) differ from that of justification (S/E)?
this core question makes clear,
the context of application introduces a critically-normative
perspective that ultimately is grounded in moral principles
of fairness and responsibility, and in democratic principles
of participation and legitimacy. That is, it asks where responsibility
and legitimacy lie in dealing with all those affected or concerned
by what counts as rational practice. The symbol "A" for the context of application
– the real-world context to which the normative implications
and distributive consequences of systemic rationality "apply" – can therefore also be understood to designate
the context that matters for responsible and legitimate action,
in short, the context of responsible action.
respect to this critically-normative issue, terminological accuracy
is key. The now fashionable reference to "the stakeholders"
is not sufficiently accurate to make sure the essential questions
are addressed. The
following definition aims to define the issue with due accuracy:
The context of application (A) includes two overlapping categories of stakeholders
(and of related stakes
and stakeholding issues) that are in need of systematic distinction, those
involved and those affected, whereby the crucial
boundary is that between
those affected and involved on the one hand and those affected but
not involved on the other hand.
having a say or being able to voice ones concerns
individuals or groups concerned
Stakes: the concerns
Stakeholding issues: economic trade-offs
and ethical conflicts between competing goods and values, and
related issues of assessment and legitimation
practice, the main distinction is between those stakeholders
who are affected and involved, that is, have a
say in or about the management of S and E, and those affected
no such influence. In traditional terms, this second category of stakeholders refers to third parties. Third
parties have to live with the (so-called)
external effects of systems rationality – "external," that
is, from a rationality perspective that is grounded in S only.
Accordingly important for proper stakeholder analysis is boundary
critique with respect to this particular aspect of the context
of application: which stakeholders among all those effectively
or potentially affected have adequate influence on
the process of will-formation, and which others don't? The crucial
boundary issue is the one marked in Fig. 2 with
a bold boundary line (in orange color),
between stakeholders who are involved and those who are not.
2: Those involved vs. those affected but not involved,
how they relate to the two reference systems (S) and (A)
S = system (or
situation) of primary interest, A = context of
application, U = universe. While
A as delimited from U (A/U) includes all those
affected and thus provides the basic reference system for responsible
action, the crucial boundary issue is often how those affected
but not involved (A/S) are treated.
(Source: adapted from
Ulrich, 1983, p. 248)
it comes to dealing systematically with the context of application,
thus have two overlapping boundary issues that should never
be confused or blurred: its external delimitation from the
and its internal differentiation into the two kinds of
stakeholder situations (A/S). In the short notation I propose,
the slash stands for a logical disjunction (Latin for "separation"),
which in German
logic is also – more accurately and closer to everyday language
– called exclusion (read: "A or S but
not both"); compare expression 3.6 in Bochenski (1959,
p. 12) and in Bochenski and Menne (1965, p. 28). In
my specific usage here, the first letter stands for a considered
reference system and the second for an excluded one; hence A/S
reads: "A excluding S" or "A as delimited from S,"
or logically less sharp but perhaps closer to everyday speech,
"A rather than S."
The first of
these two boundary issues (A/U) – the external delimitation
of A – leads in its ultimate
consequence to the moral question contained in Kant's
principle of moral universalization (better known as the categorical
imperative): which stakeholders are (or have to be) excluded
from being recognized and treated as belonging to those affected,
and how might I/we (as involved parties) experience and justify
this circumstance if we were to find ourselves in their situation?
The issue, in short, is moral universalization – testing a
for its moral universalizability.
The second issue (A/S)
– the internal delimitation of A – leads in its ultimate consequence to the democratic
question contained in the vision of a participatory civil
society: which stakeholders are to be involved and what
kind of participation or influence are they to be given? The
issue, in short, is participation – examining a claim for its
sources of legitimacy.
addition, stakeholders and related concerns may also be found to be part of the relevant
environment E in the sense that from a rationality perspective
grounded in S, they merit special attention due to their actual or potential
influence on S. In the logic of the boundary issues involved,
the possibility of A's overlapping with E is captured through
the combination of the two basic delimitations of A from S (A/S)
and S from E (S/E). The combination of these two boundary judgments
is logically equivalent to "A excluding S and E"
(A/[S/E]); a proper empirical identification of the stakeholder
group of those affected but with no effective control or influence
upon S, is thus ensured.5) We thus arrive, once again, at the three
basic boundary issues illustrated in the previous Fig. 1, the tasks of delimiting from the
total universe of conceivably relevant circumstances and conditions
U the three selective reference
systems S, E, and A, which in practice amounts to the four boundary
issues S/E, E/U, A/U and A/S. Neither of these boundary issues appears
to really have been treated systematically and with the necessary terminological
accuracy in the
so-called theory of stakeholder management; yet all are crucial for assessing managerial claims to relevant
knowledge, rational action, and resulting improvement.6)
2 makes it obvious just how insufficient the lip service
paid routinely to "the stakeholders" is in view of
the divergent rationality perspectives at issue. Instead
of distinguishing clearly between the different reference systems
involved and systematically addressing the different rationalities
they may entail, the literature regularly glosses over such
distinctions, almost as if its interest were more in concealing
than examining the rationality conflicts in question.
To avoid such
glossing over the issues and resulting situations of ambiguity
or doubt as they regularly arise when decision-makers and professionals refer
their "caring about stakeholders"
– doubts, in particular, as to what role is actually given to specific groups
of stakeholders and what a proper handling of their concerns
would mean, and ultimately, what rationality perspectives are
in play – some basic terminological conventions may be
References to "stakeholders" in general – just like
references to the "context of application" in general
basically be understood to include the two basic groups and
thus to require an accordingly differentiated handling.
References to "the involved" may always – without
further ado – be understood to include stakeholders who are
both affected and
References to "the affected" – so long as there is
no definitive evidence that all of them are also involved –
should be understood to require a systematic focus on stakeholders
who are affected but not
Where clarity of
reference systems is essential – and in stakeholder management
it should indeed be considered essential – it may often be advisable
to explicitly refer to the group of "those affected but
not involved" rather than merely to "those affected"
or to "the stakeholders," or alternatively to
introduce the three suggested definitions in the first place
before then employing
the shorter terms.
the last reference system to be defined, we have the
residual reference system U:
The universe (U) stands
for the entire conceivable universe of discourse, that is, the
totality of conditions and consequences of rational practice
that might be relevant for understanding a specific situation
or issue of interest but which are not usually known completely
and, inasmuch as they are known, cannot as a rule be fully included
and examined in S, E, and A.
universe U is a residual reference system that includes all
those (possibly unknown) conditions and consequences that have
not been included in the considered reference systems S, E,
and A. It is the total conceivable universe of discourse
as distinguished from the actual universe of discourse that
is made up of S, E, and A. In other words, U comprises the sum-total
of all conceivable options for enlarging the actual universe
of discourse – as well as for revising the reference systems
S, E, and A – and as such cannot be delimited in any definite
way. Like S, E, and A, U serves a mainly critical purpose, that
is, their delimitation must in principle always remain a revisable
selection. But unlike S, E, and A, which at some point will all
to be delimited pragmatically so as to allow us to pass from deliberation
to action, U will always remain an "open" context
that offers a basically infinite number of further options for
delimiting any of the other reference systems.
distinguished from E, U can be understood to stand for the (supposedly)
"irrelevant" environment, that is, for that part of
the environment which at any stage of reflection or deliberation
is not considered to matter for S. U is a residual reference
system from which so far unconsidered aspects of the environment
may be drawn into the light of the "relevant" environment
E, as it were. The fact that the universe cannot ultimately
be bounded compels us to face the inevitable lack of guarantee
with respect to environmental
conditions and resources. No kind of systems rationality (as
grounded in references to S/E and E/U) can fully control all
the external conditions on which it depends; all systems rationality
therefore depends on an assumption of sufficient control
over these conditions. In short, thinking about U and the ways
it may not be adequately considered in E furnishes a conceptual touchstone for reflection on the
inevitable limits of S's environmental control, and thus for
qualifying (i.e., limiting) all related claims accordingly.
distinguished from A, U (as already hinted above) can be understood to stand for moral
questioning and delimitation of claims. Perhaps the most
consequent application of this concept is to be found in what
Kant (1793, B157f; cf. Ulrich, 2009a, p. 10) called
"enlarged thought," that is, in considering the presuppositions
and consequences of a proposed action or moral judgment from the perspective of
a progressively larger community of responsible agents oriented
towards mutual respect, fairness, and cooperation. It is a rational
perspective that ultimately leads to the ideal
of a global moral community, to which Kant
(1786, B74f, 83f, 127) famously referred as a "kingdom of ends." This
is what his principle of moral universalization means; it is
a critical test rather than a method of justification. It requires
us to reflect on the ways our reference systems for responsible
action (A/U) are bound (sic!) to imply a lack of moral justification.
like in the case of the other reference systems, but even more decidedly so,
U in this moral sense then serves a mainly critical purpose.
It is usefully understood
as a mere limiting concept, an idea towards which we can direct
our thought and efforts but which we will never quite realize.
no kind of practical knowledge and action can do justice to
this ultimate touchstone of normative arguability, there is
no definitive boundary for approximating it either. It thus
provides orientation and critical distance at once. In short, thinking
about U and the ways it may not be adequately considered in
A furnishes a touchstone for reflecting on the inevitable limits
of moral justification
of our claims, and thus for qualifying (i.e., limiting) them accordingly.
summary Four basic reference systems and corresponding
boundary issues will need to inform the practice of boundary
critique to be considered in Part 2 of this essay:
system (or situation) of primary interest (or primary concern) S;
relevant environment (or decision-environment) E;
context of application (or of responsible action) A;
universe (or universe of discourse) U.
can conveniently refer to this framework as the S-E-A-U formula (or scheme) of boundary critique. The
corresponding, crucial boundary issues are these:
Independent of any specific operationalization of boundary critique
as we will consider it in Part 2, the S-E-A-U scheme can serve
as a tool for reflective practice. Applied to specific situations,
it can help us think about the selectivity of problem definitions
and solution proposals. It allows us to see
claims to relevant knowledge, rational action, and resulting
improvement in the light of the reference systems
that inform them – the "contexts that matter" when
it comes to assessing their defects and merits.
normative content of such reflection is left to the user, as
scheme (included the test of moral universalizability associated
with U) does not predefine any particular word view of
its own but rather encourages the users to become aware of their
or other people's normative
assumptions. Conforming to the aim of identifying and unfolding
selectivity, the scheme's proper use is for value clarification
– along with reflection upon the rationalities at work
– rather than imposing any predefined value orientation or even
introducing some hidden agenda. Accordingly, the considerations
inspired by the scheme and used in this essay for illustrating its use and relevance, have been grounded explicitly (as it should
be) in the author's personal vision of professional and managerial
competence, a vision that connects such competence with a new
concept of "competent citizenship" and a corresponding
development of civil society. The result would be a new type
of reflective practice, aimed at systematically examining the
selectivity of claims, in which citizens and professionals could
meet at eye level.
thus "enlarged" our horizon of reflective practice,
we are now prepared to turn to the more immediately practical
question of "how to" implement and guide such reflection.
Part 2 will to this end propose a selection of basic tools for
boundary critique drawn from my work on critical systems heuristics
(CSH). Once readers have captured the spirit of this type of
reflection, they should then also be prepared to develop more
such tools specifically adapted to their field of practice.
I would like to conclude this first part with
a few reflections it prompts concerning the impoverished state
of present-day "systems rationality."
against an impoverished systems rationality
Our epoch has certainly come a long way since Kant (1787)
systems idea as a core concept of his critical philosophy of
reason. I would argue that his ideas on critique and reason
are as important and powerful today as then; but as far as the systems idea is concerned, I fear the
way has led us downhill. Modern – by now conventional – systems
theory is only a shadow of what Kant intended with his critique
of reason. It is now a placeholder of what is normal rather
than a critical instance of what might be the norm, that
is, a guide to critically-normative reflection and deliberation
on the meaning of good and rational practice. It has largely
lost sight of the ethical and ultimately moral dimension of
practical reason that
for Kant was still a systematic and indeed primary part
of applied reason; a dimension of reason that could lead us
beyond the narrow limitations of empirical knowledge and theoretical-instrumental
reason. As measured by Kant's richer, two-dimensional
conception of reason, systems rationality
has indeed become a strikingly impoverished concept. It now stands
for a one-dimensional rationality in which the functional or
instrumental triumphs over the ethical and moral.
present essay differs a bit from the ways in which I have more
explained the need for bringing back in to our contemporary notions
of rationality and competence the "other,"
critically-normative side of reason, for example, by referring to
Kant's (1788) concept of practical reason and moral philosophy
or to Max Weber's (1968)
ideal types of rational action, or to Habermas' (1984-87) concept
of communicative rationality or the ideas of other authors that have strongly
influenced me (e.g., Aristotle, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Churchman),
or to some combination of their ideas
(compare, e.g., Ulrich, 1988; 2006a; 2009a, b; 2010a, b; 2012a; and 2013). The
visions I find in these outstanding guides are still present
and alive in my thinking, but methodologically speaking, my
present focus is on analyzing the divergent rationalities
at work in human practice in terms of the reference systems
to which they refer, whether explicitly or implicitly.
have introduced to this end four reference systems that
are fundamental to my understanding of boundary critique in
critical systems heuristics (CSH), summed up conveniently in
the S-E-A-U formula. Applying this framework to a critique
of conventional systems thinking reveals a striking deficit
in the contemporary
concept of systems rationality: it is grounded in references to S and E only, but not
also to A and U. This explains why a critical (or critically-normative)
perspective, as proper reference to A would require it, is not
a systematic part of systems rationality today. To be sure,
ad hoc references to A are always possible and will be
considered by people of good will; but such references will remain voluntary
add-ons rather than being understood as a systematic,
that is, intrinsic and mandatory part of rational practice.
Accordingly, it should not surprise us that the concerns of
those affected but not involved are so rarely taken into account as an
integral aspect of all critically tenable claims to relevant knowledge,
rationality, and improvement. They may be considered more or
less seriously or superficially but ultimately, when it comes to resolving the
between competing ends or measures of improvement, along with
value conflicts and clashing rationalities, they do not really count in a thus-conceived
view of accountability.
a universalizing, critically-moral perspective as proper
reference to U might be understood to require it, is not a systematic
part of this prevalent systems rationality. But without such a
perspective, it is difficult indeed to deal with the moral core
of both ethical conflicts and economic trade-offs as they face us
in the quest for rational practice. This explains why systems
thinking has found it difficult in the past to come to terms
with the normative content of even the most "rational" practice and to develop tools for a transparent, critically-normative
handling of selectivity and boundary judgments. In
Part 2, as announced, we will try and see how boundary critique can contribute
to this need.
of Part 1/2, to be continued with Part 2/2 >>
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