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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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?


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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