Integral Meta-Studies Blog

This blog is about big picture science. It's a place for reflecting on the emergence of integrative varieties of meta-level science and how they can be practiced in research activities and inquiry settings of all kinds. The notion of "integral" is used here to refer to all those meta-level knowledge traditions that have an integrative purpose.

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Metatheorising development - Let's take the student-teacher relationship for example

One of the starting points for an integral and integrative approach to meta-studies is the recognition that many different lenses exist for studying a topic. Those lenses can be applied at every level in the sense making holarchy - in understanding and intervening at the empirical level, in understanding and intervening at the middle-range level and at understanding and intervening on the meta-level.

When we study development for example, we can use a stage-based lens, a mediation lens or a learning lens. The stage-based lens sees development as the unfolding of structures (usually interior structures in consciousness). The mediation lens sees development as a mediated movement from the social exterior to the psychological interior. The learning lens sees development as the incremental acquisition of knowledge through the lifespan.

If we adopt these different lenses towards the development process we come up with different explanations and understandings. An integral view is one that brings each of these lenses into focus. I don't see Wilber's AQAL as an integral model of development because it does not use these three lenses but only the stage-based lens (sometimes in conjunction with other AQAL lenses).

To unwrap this a little let's take the student-teacher relationship as an example. From the stage-based view the teacher is at a higher level and the student is at a lower level. The relationship is one of expert to apprentice. There is a qualitative difference in their identities such that the student does not understand what the teacher is taking about until some dramatic mysterious transformation occurs. We see this, for example, in stage-based model of spiritual development where we have the wise guru teaching and assisting the development of the devoted student or disciple. This is an ancient model that goes back thousands of years and is the prevailing model of the he student-teacher relationship used in the AQAL-informed writings and research. There are however, other more contemporary models that have very different models for exploring and representing the he student-teacher relationship.

The mediation lens sees the student-teacher relationship in terms of peer learning and the scaffolding of individuals within social-cultural contexts. The relationship is not one of the learned and the ignorant or the higher and the lower but of situation and activity, of actor within a scene, or a role within a social context. Hence the learning focus is on what happens between teacher and student rather than what happens within the student.

The learning lens sees the student-teacher relationship as one of communication and the incremental accumulation of knowledge rather than dramatic transformation. The analogy here is more one of conversation between equals rather than conversion of the (unequal) student/devotee to the ideal of the teacher/guru.

Each of these three lenses offers a unique and powerful window onto the reality of the student-teacher relationship and, naturally, they each have their shadow sides and weaknesses. The weakness in the stage-based view is that the teacher can all too easily become the master and the student becomes the servant or slave. This relationship can obviously go very astray very easily and, by itself, this lens is an inadequate model to use for the development process in contemporary society. In my opinion, there is far too much reliance on this model for explaining the he student-teacher relationship in AQAL-informed circles. Particularly when applied to the area of spirituality the stage-based model suffers from serious shortcomings. First, the use of the stage-model needs some serious updating to contemporary views about stage-based development. Gurus and teachers who support evolutionary and stage-based view of development are very prone to overestimating the importance of the guru-devotee model and the qualitative differences that they assume exist between teacher and student. When practices within insular settings and non-traditional environments, these kinds of gurus often fall into all the traps of abusive power that many of us are aware of.

The mediational view can suffers from an overestimation of the place of socio-cultural factors in development. According the teacher becomes defined out of the social role rather than any particular expertise or actual mastery. Mediational development then becomes subject political manipulation and the power of legitimate structures can overwhelm the power of authentic structures. Here the teacher becomes the mouthpieces of the politburo or the corporation or the bureaucracy and the student becomes the subject of propaganda.

The learning lens can suffers from a lack of transformational power and can fall into a bland kind of incrementalism and ecclecticism that does not engage with peoples' vision or potential for extraordinary change. Here the teacher becomes the mechanical follower of the curriculum going through the incremental motions of low expectations. Using this lens the student take on the role of the one to be tested and anlysed to see if incremental learning has occurred. The student-teacher relationship becomes one of plain boredom and regimented regulation.

An integral view will take each of these lenses and combine to develop a more adequate and more enabling story of development and of the relationships that occur in that learning process. My view is that the archaic view of the teacher-guru and student-disciple has done its dash and can only be defended by those who are so immersed in stage-based development that they see no other meta-level possibilities for articulating growth (this is one of the many forms of altitude sickness that I wrote about in my last blog). I see development and learning relationships moving way beyond these limiting views of guru and student and engaging much more with the language of relationality, situational choice, shared play, communal learning, distributed intelligence, collective wisdom, reflexive learning, and action inquiry. The defence of the ancient models of student-teacher relationship, particularly where development is focused on the stage-based lens, seems to me to be a sign of regressive rather than evolution.

I see the pursuit of critical and integral meta-level studies as a scientific means for exposing and discerning these kinds of reductionisms and ideologies.

When does size matter?

A metatheory is a theory about other theories. Those other theories and their constituent elements are the "data" on which metatheorising is based. So, in building metatheory we need to draw a boundary around the kinds of data (other theories) we are interested in exploring. This boundary defines the domain of the metatheory. It doesn't matter how big or small that domain is, as long as we draw it and clearly describe it. Without any boundary around the range of relevance of the metatheory it cannot be tested and it cannot be validly argued that it accurately represents its data. No domain boundary equals no science.

The size of the domain doesn't matter in the building of metatheories. They can be really big, e.g. a metatheory for human development, or relatively small, a metatheory for behavioural approaches to treating phobias or a metatheory of green building design:

http://www.metaefficient.com/miscellaneous/unified-metaefficiency-theory

This point gets lost on lots of people who discuss metatheory. See this post for example:

http://dumbscientist.com/archives/theories-and-metatheories

The author of this blog decides what is a metatheory based on how big its domain and almost conflates that with the spatial reference of the theory. This is a very common misunderstanding of the nature of metatheorising. Under this misconception Big Bang theory and Darwinian evolutionary theory count as metatheories because they are so big in their domain of relevance but they are not metatheories. They do not meet the central definition of metatheories - They are not theories of other theories. They are theories of the empirical world of physical matter and biological speciation respectively. The size, i.e. the scope or domain, of a theory is not a criterion for acceptance as a metatheory.

Size of domain does not matter when figuring out whether a conceptual framework is a metatheory or not.

Where size does matter is when metatheory is developed that is specifically intended as applicable to a large domain of disciplines and fields of scientific study. This is usually the case with what have been called integral theories and metatheories. I use the term "integral" in reference to the long tradition of meta-level thinkers and researchers (Roger Bacon, Vladimir Solovyov, Pitirim Sorokin, Jean Gebster, E. F. Schumacher, Ken Wilber, Bill Torbert, Ervin Laszlo and many others) who have tried to develop overarching big pictures through the accommodation of many other theories and systems of thought. Integral metatheories have very ambitious domains of relevance - all theories of personality, all theories of change, all theories of human development, all social science theories, all theories of spirituality, etc.

The problem with integral metatheories is that they often lose sight of the necessity for drawing any domain boundaries at all. They become a little too ambitious in the scope of relevance for their frameworks. They generalise their ideas way beyond the domain boundaries that define their data set (if they ever collected any data, i.e. sampled other theories/metatheories).

So size of domain does matter when we try to build integral metatheories. However, when we set out to build these huge integrative frameworks we need to be extra attentive to the issues of domain and boundary setting. We had better make sure i) we have clearly identified the domain of the metatheory, ii) we have sampled data across the whole range of the domain, iii) provided a rationale for our sampling process, and iv)know when we are making solid claim about the generalisability of the metatheory and when we are making more speculative meta-conjectures.

As far as I can tell Wilber's AQAL metatheory falls short on all these counts. For example, how can an AQAL-informed researcher respond to the question - "How do you know that AQAL accommodates all the major theories of human development?" The only answer that they can give to this point is that "Wilber says so". Any metatheoretical system that relies on this kind "argument-from-authority" response is not scientific. (See Wikipedia's page on this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority

So domain size doesn't matter when we want to define a metatheory and it does matter when we want to define an integral metatheory. But whatever the type of metatheory we are researching, we had better pay special attention to defining its domain if we want our metatheories to be based on scientific evidence as well as idiosyncratic insight.

Altitude Lens Sickness

One assumption for developing an integral metastudies approach to big picture research is that there are multiple lenses that have been used to develop those overarching schemas. All of these lenses need to be included in a comprehensive view of complex social realities. One of the most enduring of these lenses is the altitude lens. This lens looks at temporal complexity through the discourse of stage-based development.

Altitude lenses have been a common element of big pictures for many thousands of years. They typically map out some set of qualitatively different stages of growth and they propose that the changing nature of complex processes can be understood as a series of unfolding stage potentials. Altitude lenses come in a variety of forms, soft, hard, spiritual, cognitive, interpersonal, individual and collective but they all share this element of a vertical shift from one level to another. Wilber's levels, Spiral Dynamics colour stages, Fowler's stages of faith, Piaget's cognitive stages, all these are examples of the application of the altitude lens to various domains.

As with all lenses the altitude lens is subject to different kinds of truncations and reductionisms. I call these reductionisms the varieties of altitude sickness and, in a spirit of playful finger-pointing, I will briefly describe a few of these here:

1. Lens absolutism: This is the general problem of relying solely on one lens to explain vertical development.

2. Stagism: This is where all developmental capacity is thought to be function of the whole-of-system movement from one stage to another. This ignores the evidence that incremental learning and evolutionary process can result in transformative development.

3. Developmentalism: This is the view that transformative change is the result of changes in an individual's own structures rather than the structures that exist in their social and material surrounds.

4. Immediatism: This is the lack of awareness of the role of mediation in vertical development. For example relying on Piagetian models of structural change to the exclusion of Vygotskian ones.

5. Pigeon-hole(ism): This is the tendency for stage-based theorists to assume that those who are critical of stage-based models are relativists.

6. Vertical co-dependency (student variety): This is the assumption that only those at a higher stage can teach those from lower stages.

7. Vertical co-dependency (teacher variety): This is the assumption that those at a lower developmental stage need to be taught by those from a higher developmental level.

8. Communal altitudism: This is the assumption that a community of the adequate can only be constituted by those of requisite altitudinal level.

9. Individual altitudism: This is the view that you must know the altitude of your critic to judge whether their criticism is valid or not.

10. Altitude metricism: This is the seriously mistaken view that we need to be able to measure the altitude of individuals to be able to help them develop.

11. Lack of oxygenism: This is the syndrome of delusional symptoms that the human mind suffers from when it reaches a certain altitude.

12. Altitudinal fascism: This is the illness that besets a country when those who wish to take or maintain political power view all of its history in terms of the stage-based development of an elite group.

13. Altitudinal collectivism: This is the illness that besets a country when those who wish to take or maintain political power rationalise any action in terms of the stage-based development of the collective.

14. Altitudinal leaderism: This is the assumption that we need enlightened leaders to have enlightened communities.

There are many other varieties of altitude lens sickness. These are a few of the most damaging ones. They warn us that over-relying on any single lens for describing growth, development, evolution, progress, improvement, or advancement is dangerous. When they are closed to scientific criticism from any source, all forms of big picture research are susceptible to the many malaises that can infect meta-level studies.

Meta-level research, crossing boundaries and appreciating differences

Boundary crossing is one of the essential characteristic of performing meta-level research - boundary crossing within disciplines, between disciplines and across disciplines and of, course, within, between and across other non-disciplinary related boundaries as well. When we play with conventional boundaries with a little awareness we get to see a broader picture. Meta-studies is largely about how we move across different conceptual, methodological and cultural (meaning-making) boundaries and what we do with the results of that movement. Creativity and fecundity flow from meta-level boundary crossing in the same way that natural systems thrive when their ecologies are diverse and rich in difference. Without diversity and difference meta-level research stagnates and turns more towards ideology than any kind of authentic science. My colleague Dr Wendelin Küpers brought to my attention this week a paper by Philipa Rothfield (2005) on the issue of universalism and its tendency towards the homogenisation of diversity. Here’s a few snippets:.

The concern expressed here is that universalism is liable to overstep its brief, that the desire to universalize is itself vulnerable to corruption.

In light of the many forms of social inequality inherent in social life, it appears that the universal impulse is all too readily co-opted towards hegemonic forms of utterance and appearance. In these instances, the universal becomes homogenized, and difference is thereby effaced according to dominant norms of articulation.

Dr Rothfield writes from a particularising perspective, one that values diversity and difference above all else. Her world is not one of the meta-studies researcher. She is not interested in finding universal patterns, generalising orientations and underlying architectonics. But her point is even more valid because she writes from the other side of an important boundary - that which lies between the universal and the particular, between the integral and the diverse, between the local and the general. She says to watch out for the domination of one over the other. All metatheorists, integral theorists, transdisciplinarians and systems theorists need to be mindful of this danger. Where when and to what extent do we, as big picture researchers and practitioners, promote diversity, look for the differences, find problems with our meta-frameworks. Do we systematically question our generalisations and test them against the plurality of theories that are our data? Do we occasionally remind ourselves of the dark history of metatheories and big pictures and unifying philosophies? Do we build these questions into our methods and designs? And if we don’t, why don’t we?

References

Rothfield, P (2005), 'Differentiating Phenomenology and Dance', Topoi, vol. 24, pp. 43-53.

Boundaries and no boundaries

Defining boundaries are essential for the development of any person or any field of human endeavour. There is no exterior place and no interior state that does not have boundaries. As a parent, I know the crucial importance of setting and observing boundaries in bringing up my children. I also know that the first thing to do in setting a boundary is not to lay it out straight away, but to work out what to do when, not if, those boundaries are crossed.
Science too has its boundaries and it is an essential aspect of creating any conceptual system that domains, key terms and constructs be delineated and defined. Defining boundaries in the creation of metatheories can be a tricky business but this makes it even more important to do so. Because metatheories often cover a lot of territory the task of setting the domain of that metatheory can often take a back seat to the issue of integrating lots and lots of stuff. The big picture building aspect of constructing the meta- can subsume the more humble task of seeing where the limits to these ideas may be. At the most basic level the science of metatheorising needs to be very aware of the central importance of boundary setting so that it can remain humble in its work.
Humility is important in science because humility allows for doubt to arise. Humility allows for questioning to emerge in the face of mystery rather than answering when we may not have all the answers. We set boundaries out of the recognition of our limitations and the need to communicate those limits to others.
When integral metatheorising does not set the limits to its knowledge, when it does not define the domain of its expertise, when it does not describe the contours that mark out its place in the world of knowledge and ideas then it is no longer a science. It is an exercise in aggrandisement, of self exaltation and ultimately, if no boundaries are ever acknowledged of delusion.

The big picture and the little picture

As well as having an eye and an ear for the minute, the mundane, the morsel of gossip and (sometimes unfortunately) the modicum of truth, we humans also have an instinct for developing big pictures, big stories and big ideas. There are many different types of big pictures and they can arise from any area of personal and cultural activity. Big pictures can be poetic (Dante's "Divine Comedy"), musical (Mahler's Resurrection Symphony), philosophical (Hegel's system), political (Roosevelt's New Deal), literary (Xavier Herbert's "Poor Fellow My Country"), mythic (the Vedas) or spiritual ("The Book of Revelation"). And, of course, as we will explore in this blog, they can be scientific.

In this blog I want to focus on a particular kind of grand scale, scientific, big picture building called integral meta-studies. My thinking here is that if, as appears to be the case, we have this instinct, this insatiable desire to build big stories and explanations and apply them for better or worse in the real social world, then we might as well do it with a little bit of scientific rigour. Big pictures are powerful and they can have a great impact on the natural and social worlds we inhabit and, when they are partial or distorted in some way, those impacts may not always be for the best. The mixed outcomes of such big pictures as Marxism and Monetarism are evidence enough of that.

Big picture or metatheories have not always been developed as systematically, as holistically or as integrally as they could have been. Sometimes these big pictures have missed out the interiors, sometimes they have neglected the collective realms, sometimes they have fallen into the trap of developmentalism and ignored mediational explanations. If we’re going to build these things we might as well do it properly. If we are to keep creating these grand stories of understanding and explanation, if we are going to connect the plurality of views and construct our big pictures, we might as well do so with the benefit of science. Even with all its limitations and unhappy biases and blind spots, science, in the broadest sense of that term, is still a vital source for engaging with the search for meaning and for uncovering the many truths that lie within and around us. Perhaps more importantly, science, at its very best, is a means for remaining humble and questioning about the limits of what we can know, what our big pictures can tell us and how they can shape and influence the many worlds we live in. Yes, the track record of big picture science is not particularly good but that’s all the more reason for upping the standards. The disastrous outcomes of 20th-century big pictures are no reason for abandoning this task. If anything, they raise the importance of founding and validating big pictures on and through scientific grounds.

There will be very little system to my entries for this blog. There will be no order for explaining what metatheory is, what integral metastudies might be or what metatheoretical lenses are. If definitions, references and explanations are needed then let me know and we can deal with them. Otherwise if a topic comes up we’ll have a go at it. But whatever territory we might wander through the focus will be on this question - How do we scientifically build and test our big pictures?

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