How do you choose what you want to study – or learn more about, or better understand, or solve?  In systems work, this entails the drawing of a boundary.  The boundary separates what is to be examined from what is to be excluded.  It defines the question or the problem.  While this may seem patently simple, it is both the most fundamental step in a learning process, and the most complicated.

If you were a beginning student in science you might to study something like the food-gathering behaviors of pigeons as a project.  Then you would have to decide where to find pigeons to observe.  Pigeons seem to gather in parks in many cities, so that might be a convenient place to start.  But when you get there and find pigeons eating bread from discarded hamburger buns, or popcorn tossed at them by children, what does that tell you about pigeons in general?  You assume that you can generalize what you found to other birds like the ones you studied, but does that represent all pigeons?  When do more research you find that pigeons and doves actually share the classification Family: Columbidae, and that there are 300 species within this one category, in locations all over the world.  Most likely, the ones you saw in the park were feral Rock Pigeons, but even the terms pigeon and dove are not always used consistently.  Since this particular project has no significant consequences, you just describe what you observed and predict that it applies to most pigeons like the ones you saw.

But what if you chose to study something much larger in concept, but less tangible?  What if you chose to study fear?  How would you begin to think about drawing a boundary?

Traditional researchers would probably react in a number of ways.  First, they might tell you that you were crazy – that you can’t study things so large and nebulous.  Then they might suggest that you narrow your study to some extremely small focus, like the fear response in rats subjected to unfamiliar stimuli, or whether fear can be detected by scent through hormonal changes in humans, or how fear affects perceptions of market conditions by stock brokers.  You would then have to operationalize your definitions in order to have variables which could be observed and measured.  In this case, the approach itself largely determines the boundary.  If you’re going to do scientific research you have to do research that fits science.

You might decide to take this approach out of expediency (so that you could pass a class or complete a dissertation or get a grant.)  But is studying finite aspects of fear the same as studying fear as a phenomenon?  Frankly, no.

Then is it feasible to study fear as a phenomenon?  It is theoretically possible.  It clearly would not be easy, and there would be many, many disagreements about definitions and distinctions and approaches or methods.

The point is that if you want to study a particular thing, you need to be clear about what that is and draw the boundary appropriately.  Most people don’t question this because it seems so obvious.  I want to study pigeons so the boundary is around pigeons, right?  Yes, until you learn that you need to distinguish between pigeons and doves and 300 species of them.  Fortunately, science is filled with taxonomies for classifying almost everything, so you could just rely on those for making distinctions about pigeons (probably.)

If I want to study fear, is it any less “real” than pigeons?  I doubt that many people would question the reality of fear, but still find it hard to compare to something they could see and touch.  Whatever fear is, it seems to occur in animals as well as in humans.   In fact, it seems to play a very crucial role in the behavior of most species above a certain level of anatomy and functioning.  In order to study fear, though, I need to be as clear as I can about what that phenomenon is so that when I try to describe it I am describing it, not other things that may be related.

Drawing boundaries only gets more complicated when you begin to consider the many factors that can go into it.  If the research or learning process is done simply on my own, for my own benefit, with no implication for any other people, then my decisions about boundaries can be fairly arbitrary.  The way I define the subject may or may not make sense to other people, but I can just decide and deal with any consequences or complications.  That rarely happens, though.  Most research is carried out for some purpose in cooperation with other people, or at least with the intent that the findings will be accepted and understood by other people. In that case the boundary choices make more difference.

Systems theorists such as West Churchman, Werner Ulrich, Gerald Midgley, Mike Jackson, et al. have stressed the need for boundary critique – a process of questioning the choice of boundaries based both on philosophical and ethical considerations.  Historically this was left to the Scientific Community or groups of professional experts to decide.  The problem was that the drawing of every boundary involved a process of decision-making, and whoever was involved in that brought with them an existing pool of knowledge, ignorance and biases.  In addition, many outcomes of affected people who were not a part of the process.

The discussions behind all of this got deeply into questions about the nature of knowledge and reality.  If we can ultimately only understand the world through our senses and tools, as interpreted in our brains and through the languages that have evolved within our cultures, what is it that we really know?  This is a critical question, but it’s been at the heart of debates for decades and is not going to get resolved here.

The result of these discussions led, in systems, to the links with participatory processes.  If there was no absolute, fixed “truth” about the universe – if every way of understanding was limited, and involved some levels of interpretation – then you needed to think carefully about who was involved.  If you omitted an important way of understanding, you might well miss important factors.  From an ethical standpoint, people who are to be affected by decisions should have a chance to be involved in the information on which the decision is made.  (From a practical standpoint, including stakeholders often garners support and reduces resistance when it comes time to implement a decision.)

The point in relation to boundaries is about how we decide to draw them.  If things in the world are “real” then the boundaries that we use simply follow the natural boundaries in the world.  If feral Rock Pigeons are an absolutely distinct species, then there should be no question whether one is or is not.  (Not being a biologist, I’m sure what all the distinguishing characteristics are at the level of species.)

The messier question this leads to is whether systems are real.  This is also a long-standing debate.

My Proposition: Systems are real for us, as humans, to the extent that we enact them.

This is not, for me, a matter of verbal or intellectual agreement.  It is the extent to which we live as though things are real.

If this is skirting the issue about the nature of reality, I probably fall into a middle ground, so let me add just this much.  If I slam my head down onto my desk, I expect that it will hurt – and I expect that it will hurt every time that I do it (until I lose consciousness.)  Moreover, if we all slam our heads down onto our desks, I suspect that our reports of the experience will be fairly similar.  Our heads and our desks are likely to seem quite real.

Not everything is quite that clear, though.  When I was working in mental health in the 1980s, homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (classification of mental disorders) as a mental illness.  Between the 1950s and the 1980s, depression was added to the DSM, with specific criteria to differentiate it from other disorders.  Psychiatrists and other mental health care practitioners felt the need for a way to name a pattern of activity that they frequently encountered in practice.  Benefits providers, on the other hand, strongly resisted this, since it codified the disorder as a medical malady that would need to be covered by insurance.  Today, there is a debate about whether apathy should be included as a disorder in the upcoming revision, DSM-V.

My proposition is not intended to mean that systems are arbitrary human constructions.  To the degree that we enact them, we endow them with real characteristics.

I’ll address that more in the next posting.

One thought on “Boundaries

  1. In your descriptions related to boundary, it strikes me that you’re coming from a phenomenological approach, i.e. there’s a phenomenon in the world that a researcher wants to understand in greater depth.

    This is a style or working from data to theory (i.e. making observations and then building theory based on that data). It’s in contrast to working from theory to data (i.e. developing hypotheses and either finding (or not finding) support for the theory.

    Working from data to theory is inductive. Working from theory to data is deductive.

    It’s important to remember that science can be both inductive and deductive. The story about an apple falling onto Newton’s head — which led to a theory about gravity — is, in effect, inductive science.

    In either case, defining a boundary for study is necessary. It is important to remember that that boundary as part of the mental model that human beings have to create within our brains. The world isn’t naturally bounded in the same way that we need to draw distinctions in our own minds.

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