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Jul 30 / Barry Clemson

Generating Shared Understandings of Societal Systems

Barry Clemson. Volume 1. Issue 2. July 30, 2012.

Abstract: Societal system means any sort of socio-technical-cultural slice of the world, e.g. a
neighborhood, an organization, an economy, or a government. In order to understand societal
systems, it is useful to ASSUME that all actors are honorably doing what their role directs them
to be doing. Avoiding value judgments during the analysis phase allows agreement on WHAT
the system IS and therefore facilitates a later discussion of desired changes.

A Metaphor: Political Non-Analysis

Our current style of political / economic analysis in the USA seems to go like this. Imagine that
we are polarized into several different groups arguing the merits of automobiles.

  • One group uses the term “automobiles” to mean Corvettes and Ferraris and is criticizing them because they are no good for plowing or pulling stumps.
  •  Another group uses the term “automobiles” to mean pickups and vans and is criticizing them because they have poor gas mileage and do not corner very well.
  •  A third group uses the term “automobiles” to mean luxury sedans and is criticizing them because they cost twice as much as Chevrolets.

Further, imagine that all of these folks thought they were all using the term “automobiles” to mean
the same thing. In this situation, each group will quickly decide that the others are stupid or
insane or otherwise up to no good. The groups will never be able to talk to each other until they
define what kind of machine they are talking about when they use the word “automobile”.

My suggestion in this paper is that we need to stop and define the type of “machine” (i.e., the
societal system) we are talking about before we can usefully talk about public policy issues.

I define “societal system” as some socio-technical-cultural system within a social
system. It may be the entire social system of the nation or any sub-system of interest
such as e.g., the financial sector or a single organization or a community or a family.

If we could get agreement on what we are talking about, we might be pleasantly surprised in our
value judgments about desirable policy changes. Ackoff (1976, 1981) argued that
people who have disagreed about everything for their entire life, typically discover they are in
agreement when they focus on an ideal desired state.

My experience in trying to dispassionately discuss political / economic issues is that people of
different political persuasions always end up arguing for or against different aspects of the
situation, much like the folks in the story about automobiles. No one can get past the value
judgments of, for example, the role of corporations in generating wealth or the role of unions in
protecting workers. The focus is always on our deeply held values with regard to some piece of
the puzzle and we never manage to consider the systemic whole.

How Might We Start?

Johnson (2012) says that it has been shown that it is not possible to make even simple
decisions without the input of our emotions. Therefore, it is neither possible nor desirable to
divorce our emotions from our study of societal systems, but we have some control over the role
that our values and emotions play in our deliberations.

The next four paragraphs provide examples of analyses in which it is assumed that all actors
are doing what their role directs them to do.

Consider an ecologists studying an Alabama forest where the kudzu vine covers vast areas.
The fact that the kudzu vine is crowding out many other species is not chalked up to evil intent
on the part of the kudzu.  The ecologist assumes the kudzu is merely doing what nature
intended for kudzu to do.

As a second example, an ecologist studying areas of Australia that are over-run with rabbits
does not assume evil intent on the part of the rabbits. The rabbits are merely doing what rabbits
are supposed to do.

The farmer whose crops are being devastated by kudzu or rabbits is probably rather emotional
about the situation, but that is a separate question and obviously is tied up with a value system.

For a societal example, think of the university professors who focus their work very narrowly.
For example, one student did a senior thesis (I’m not sure I remember these details exactly) on
the forces required to break a steel bar by twisting it. He then did a masters thesis on the
crystalline structure of a steel bar as it is twisted until it breaks. His doctoral dissertation looked
at the same question at the molecular level. Commenting on this sort of career trajectory, one wit
said that academics end up knowing more and more about less and less until finally they know
everything about nothing. If we are to understand this phenomena, it will do little good to look at
the characteristics of the individual scientists nor to question their motives, values, etc. We have
to assume that these academics are doing what their roles direct them to do. If we wish to
understand this tendency of academics, we have to look at the dynamics of science and
universities that generate this outcome.

For a final example, the proportion of the total wealth controlled by the top 1% of people in the US
has been increasing rapidly over the last couple of decades. If we want to understand the why
and how of this trend, it would be a mistake to focus on the characteristics of the wealthy 1%.
We have to assume the wealthy are doing what their role directs them  to do and then look at the
dynamics of the societal system that generates these outcomes.

We cannot understand the dynamics of societal systems unless our methodology is guided by
the assumption that the various actors are doing what their role directs them to do, i.e., they are
behaving rationally and honorably. As Bellinger (2012b) says “People always, always do
exactly what makes the most amount of sense to them in the context of the moment based on
their current understanding.”

We need to make this assumption of the actors doing what they are supposed to be doing even
when the behavior in question is illegal. Suppose, for example we are studying a system where illegal or even murderous activity is an important element. For instance, in Mexico the drug cartels are nearly as powerful as the government. For another example, in Afghanistan, the war-lords are a critical element in civil society. The fact that both drug cartels and war-lords operate outside of the law does not make their roles less important in understanding these societies.  Understanding a societal system is best done without value judgment on the various actors during the analysis phase, no matter how repugnant those actors may be to us personally.

I am not arguing that we should forget our values. I am not arguing that we should stop being
appalled by certain societal outcomes. My purpose in articulating this methodology is to find a way to understand certain outcomes that I think we should be ashamed of. It seems to me that we have little chance of changing those outcomes unless we gain a deep understanding of the societal dynamics that generate them.

Deep Understanding

What do I mean by a deep understanding of societal dynamics?  Any given societal outcome of
relatively long standing is a result of and supported by a whole range of factors. For instance,
consider the example of the very narrowly focused academics, i.e., the professors who know
more and more about less and less. If we wanted to understand the relevant societal dynamics
well enough to encourage academics to broaden their scope of expertise, we would have to
include at least the following ( I focus only on the USA because it is my country and the only one
I know intimately):

  • Relevant Organizations include university departments, professional journals and
    associations, funding sources, and the congressional committee structure (because of its
    influence on research funding), and governmental bodies such as NASA, National Institute of
    Standards, NIH and DARPA and many other government agencies that disburse research
  • The reward system within the relevant institutions. What behavior earns professional
    rewards, what behavior merits professional sanctions, what range of behavior earns neither
    rewards or sanctions.
  • The mental models, paradigms, and worldviews within the scientific community
    generally and particular disciplines specifically also help shape the work of the academic.

In summary, a  deep understanding of why so many university professors focus their work very
narrowly requires consideration of: organizational structures, reward systems, and the dominant mental models within the scientific disciplines.

A deep understanding of any societal arena would likely require a similarly wide inquiry.

Just the Facts

I am a constructivist which means, among other things, that I cannot separate myself from the
inquiry / research I do. Inevitably, my unique characteristics interact with whatever I am studying
and influence my findings. For the purposes of this paper, I would like to sidestep the most
radical constructivist position. I am interested in seeing if we can get some agreement regarding
societal dynamics among liberals and conservatives, among greens and libertarians, etc.

I am attempting to spell out a methodology for exploring societal dynamics that will hopefully
allow folks of very varied political persuasions to come to some agreement on those dynamics
and the trends implied by those dynamics. For my practical purposes in this conext, I define “the facts” as being what can be agreed upon by folks with a variety of different political perspectives.

It may well be that what is agreed upon may be a myth. For instance, the following notion was almost universally accepted until recently:  “economic growth is necessary and desirable”. Nevertheless, gaining a common understanding is a necessary first step in having a reasonable policy discussion. We should be alert to the possibility that our common understanding includes dangerous myths.  Ackoff (1974, 1981) dealt with a similar point in his discussion of idealized design / planning. Ackoff argued that if agreement could be reached on desired ends, then disagreements on means could be subjected to experiment in a way that would satisfy almost everyone.

I think a similar argument works here: if we could agree on what the current system IS, then we might also be able to agree on testing certain aspects of the relationship between our beliefs and reality.

The methodology

This discussion is necessarily focused on the USA because that is where my expertise is. I use
the US political / economic system as an example, but the method should be appropriate for any
societal system.

1. Americans very generally share the ideals of the rule of law, fairness, justice, and
rewards being based on merit. It seems to me that this provides a values based / emotional
starting point for considering our political / economic system.  Please note that a somewhat
different list of basic values would change the starting point of the inquiry, but would probably not
change the final result very much because of the inter-connectedness within the political /
economic system.

2. Our inquiry then looks at the interactions among, e.g., the law, the dynamics that
generate fair and just outcomes (or otherwise), and whether economic rewards are largely
based on merit or on some other criteria. It seems clear that such a starting point would quickly
expand our inquiry to consider the political / economic system pretty generally. It seems that Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) would provide a good approach to understanding the views of the various important actors in our society system. Systems Dynamics provides a powerful formal method for representing the results that we find with the SSM approach.

Bellinger’s Unleashing Understanding (2012a) provides an elegant and simple method for
developing the System Dynamics model(s) . Whatever specific systemic methods we use, it is
crucial to maintain our assumption that the various actors in politics and the economy are all
doing what they are supposed to be doing. This assumption should even extend to illegal /
criminal activity.

3. Our inquiry should continue until we have substantial agreement, across a diverse set of
political perspectives, on what the dynamics are within the political / economic arena.

4. We should consider the trends within our political / economic system as defined in step
three.  What can we say about where this system is tending to take us?

5. The final step is to ask the values / emotion question again: Is the system trending in a
direction that we want or should we look for leverage points for changing the trends?

Step five is also where we are likely to find it useful to question some of the assumptions that we built into our model. For instance, if we have assumed the desirability of continued economic growth and the model clearly suggests this assumption is driving us into catastrophe, then we should go back and see if we could get everyone involved to reconsider it.

This process of deriving implications from the model and going back to re-examine basic assumptions might well go through several iterations. For the process to be maximally effective in eventually agreeing on better policy choices, all of the key actors should be involved in each of these iterations.

Clearly the long-term, thoughtful learning process described in the previous paragraph is difficult to achieve because it would normally require substantial numbers of people to participate over an extended period of time. Success with Idealized Design / Idealized Planning processes (Ackoff, 1974, 1981) strongly suggests this is possible. In addition, there are powerful group methods such as Syntegration (Beer, 1994) that could be used for the iterations across the last several stages in the process. Syntegration would probably allow this process to be largely completed in a week or less, with a good likelihood of agreement on desired policy changes. At the very least, policy analysis would be advanced by identifying areas of agreement and areas of disagreement.

This paper suggests a simple methodology for generating a common understanding of a societal system.  It suggests that by using our values and emotions appropriately, i.e. setting them aside during the analysis part of the process, we might gain a shared understanding of the system of interest. If we gained a widely shared understanding of the system of interest, we could probably agree on how to change the system to generate more broadly desirable outcomes.

Barry Clemson worked in custom manufacturing, community development, educational evaluation, software development, university teaching (organizations & ST), consulting, construction (as a small contractor and carpenter), and as a novelist (in roughly that order). My study has been as eclectic as my work experience and has ranged broadly over the sciences. I started studying systems / cybernetics in 1967 when I discovered Stafford Beer. Stafford became a friend and my most important intellectual mentor and “management cybernetician” indicates my worldview / biases. I am committed to helping turn the current global mess into an opportunity for renewal.

Staff helping with this article: Editor: Anne Maguire, Reviewers: Gene Bellinger, Nicolas Stampf, Ivan Taylor, Richard Wright


Ackoff, Russell. (1974). Re-Designing the Future: A systems approach to societal problems. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Ackoff, Russell. (1981). Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or be planned for. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Beer, Stafford. (1994). Beyond Dispute: The invention of team syntegrity. New York: john Wiley and Sons.

Bellinger, Gene. (2012a). Unleashing Understanding. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. Vol. 1 Issue 1. [Referred 2012-07-26].

Bellinger, Gene. (2012b).

Checkland. Peter.

Johnson, Susan. (2012). Why We Have Emotions (and why we should not fight them). Reprinted from Psychotherapy Networker.

Citation Details for this Article
Clemson, Barry. (2012). Generating Shared Understandings of Societal Systems.  Systems Thinking World
Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. Vol. 1 Issue 1. [Referred 2012-07-26].
Available: . ISSN-L 2242-8577  ISSN 2242-8577

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  1. Callum / Apr 1 2014

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    • Barry Clemson / Apr 1 2014


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