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 The  Social Engagement of Social Science
Volume 3, The  Socio-Ecological Perspective

by Fred  Emery

This is the  third volume of the Tavistock Anthology. The first two volumes were  planned, brought together and edited by Eric Trist with the help of Hugh  Murray. He had planned and brought together the greater part of this third  volume. Unfortunately he died on June 4, 1993. He was getting into his  eighties and had had increasing medical problems during the last few  years. He had set himself a program that would have daunted a much younger  person. To set his mind at ease I had offered, in April, 1990, to help  with the editing of the third volume if that became necessary. I have  taken up the task that Eric had set himself. It is embarrassing to me that  he planned to include so many of my papers. There are some other matters I  might have argued with him - not serious ones - but this is his volume,  not mine. The only leeway I have allowed myself is to make some remarks  about the contributions he made, remarks that were noticeably absent from  the introductions he made to the first two volumes. These remarks are made  as matters of fact, not as homage.

The Tavistock Institute's  socio-ecological perspective did not emerge as an almost solitary product  of genius as did the socio-technical perspective, which seemed to emerge  almost full grown with the case study that Trist and Bamforth (1951 1/ Vol  I. II) published in Human Relations. There was, of course, an incubation  period, but even that was very personal. In private discussions, when  Trist and I were working together on the Bolsover mining project in 1952,  he said that he had been frustrated and disappointed that in the preceding  Glacier Metals project (Jaques, 1951 /Vol. I) there had not been a chance  to dig deeper into the realities of the day-to-day organization of work.  Pressures for the publication of the Institute's first major work  precluded that. While not denying the existence of some "unrecognized  cultural mechanisms" (Rice, 1951 1/ Vol l. I) he felt that much they had  observed had a straightforward explanation at a different level of  analysis. In the case study he and Ken Bamforth did of a longwall coal  mining system he brilliantly proved his hunch. He also brilliantly  demonstrated the value of the case study to a creative mind (Chein, 1945).  As I was to discover nine years later, he had foreseen most of the  conceptual structures needed for the foundation of the theory of  socio-technical systems (Emery, 1959/II:157-86).

The  socio-ecological perspective was announced publicly in a paper that Trist  and I published in Human Relations (1965a/Vol.III), "The Causal Texture of  Organizational Environments." That was not born from a single case study,  a single mind in a single year. It was born of a series of overlapping  case studies, took five years to birth and had the attention of many  midwives, not least of whom was the "invisible college" of 10 to 12  European social scientists that Jaap Kookebaaker and Hans van Beinum had  brought into existence in 1962. The first draft of the paper was prepared  for this group and debated over three two-to-three-day meetings (Emery,  1963).

Origin of the Concept

Let me first outline the  practical considerations that led to the development of the Tavistock  Institute's socio-ecological perspective and then go into the theoretical  background and implications.

From 1959 through the early 1960s and  leading up to our "causal texture" paper, the Institute was engaged with  some very large British organizations in serious efforts to define new and  viable missions in international markets such as aero-engines, agriculture  and consumer goods. It was these challenges that led us to develop the  method of search conferences (M. Emery, Vol. III). We found also that our  conceptual apparatus was not up to dealing with these tasks. It was a  challenge to develop further our notions of open systems  thinking.

In 1952 the Institute had welcomed von Bertalanffy's  (1950) concept of open systems. Up to then the Institute's main concerns  had been with intra-organizational problems and we had blithely gone along  with the closed system thinking implicit in even the best of the social  theorists (Emery and Trist, 1960/1969). Our concerns had moved to problems  of labor turnover and socio-technical systems. We were getting  theoretically bogged down in how to represent the permeability/rigidity of  boundaries. Von Bertalanffy's concept replaced the boundary problem with  the graspable, and much more measurable, transport equation deriving from  the inputs and outputs between a system and its environment. The notion of  boundary was shifted from a structural concept to a functional process in  keeping with our awareness of Angyal's (1941, Chapter 4) strictures. At  the time this seemed a big step. For once, we could start putting numbers  on the task environment and measure significant covariations. By task  environment we understood those directly related to the system as  customers, clients or those that supplied labor, goods and services, or  laid down the laws.

However, this left in place an important  constraint that we did not recognize at the time. Once inputs and outputs  had been identified over a period of time, for that period at least, we  could treat the system -plu s-task environment as a closed system (Herbst,  1962). So-called general systems theory did just that, and any difference  of the kind that some sought between classical analysis and a synthesizing  systems theory became simply a matter of verbiage. Empirically defining  inputs and outputs for a finite period of time did not establish any  theoretical links between system and environmental variables. Von  Bertalanffy effectively wrote off the environment at large as random - and  therefore unknowable. Being unknowable, it could be written out of our  scientific theories, or treated as a valueless constant.

Of course,  this was an intellectually comfortable position. Along with the  traditional closed systems thinkers in the social sciences, we could pride  ourselves on following the "hard" sciences in isolating our unit of study.  We could even hope eventually to represent that unit by a set of linear  differential equations (Herbst, 1962)! Both in method and in logic we, in  the social sciences, were all on the path to becoming respected as  "genuine" scientists.

Years later many social scientists were to be  captured by Ilya Prigogine, as we had been captured by von Bertalanffy.  Prigogine also defined the environment as random vis - vis the system, but  added the sophisticated touch that within this randomness there could  occur "large random fluctuations." A system exposed to a large random  fluctuation could evolve in unpredictable ways. This postulate of a second  order of randomness is no basis for a social ecology. The weight of  evidence seems to favor Rosen's (1978) judgment that "for all its apparent  novelty the paradigm of 'dissipative structures' has a conservative, and  even archaic, quality to it . . . the entire development treats the closed  isolated system as somehow primary" (p. 269). In the analysis of closed  systems, concepts could be used that referred only to the properties of  those systems and one could expect to use the ceteris paribus clause to  develop mathematical models or apply the grand logics based on abstract  universals (Emery, 1993/VoI. III).

This is where we were at in the  late 1950s with von Bertalanffy's concept of open systems. But we were  dealing with cases where the broader environment - the customers, labor  force, legislators etc. - was developing and changing the task  environments. These broader environmental changes were acting to change  the input/output equations as much as, if not sometimes more than, the  systems themselves.

More than that, it was possible to trace  through these broad environmental changes and they appeared as knowable  and as lawful as the changes occurring with systems or between systems and  their dedicated task environments.

Extending the Theoretical  Framework

We gradually realized that if we were usefully to  contribute to the problems that faced the cases mentioned above we had to  extend our theoretical framework. In particular, we had to discard the  assumption that systems or individuals could not know their environments  and the unipolar focus on the system, or individual as system. In a  positive sense we had to theorize about the evolution of the environment  and the consequences of this evolution for the constituent  systems.

Theoretically, these steps in the development of the unit  of study with which we were concerned can be formally represented as  follows:

a) L11 - where L represents lawful relations  and represents parts within the same system

b) L11 L12 - where 12 is output to the environment and 2l is input to  the
L21 system

c) L11 L12 L22 -  where L22 is the environment

The  environment represented by L22 is not the universe of the  physical scientist. An environmental feature that does not enter  significantly into an L21 relation is not an environment for  that particular system or class of systems. Conversely, a system that  cannot form significant L12 relations is out of place and will  not survive. It is the coexistence of L12 and L2 ,  relations that defines the bipolarity essential to a socio-ecological  perspective. When these relations are identifiable, we can start to ask  questions about the coevolution of systems and their environments.  However, the concepts that represent the properties of these relations  have to hae measurable references in both systems. Isidor Chein (1954) had  already spelled out the dimensions of the L 12 and  L2, relations to define what he terms "the geo-behavioral or  objective-behavioral environment" (p. 118). He explicitly put to one side  the problems of defining L22 - "this may be left to  fellow workers in other disciplines."

For our analysis of the  changing causal textures of organizational environments we chose Chein's  dimensions of goals and noxiants. These dimensions encapsulate the concept  of motivation and the question of the sufficient conditions of behavior.  This theoretical choice made it possible for us to make the main point of  our version of socio-ecology; namely, that these conditions are in  continuous flux between the individual and the social field. Sometimes the  individual is freely choosing goals, purposes or ideals and the means to  pursue them. At other times individuals can be seen to choose means and  ends because the social fabric has left them little choice. Either way it  is the individual in the social field that is choosing.

At the same  time - and this has been the prime difficulty - a different logic is  required. The system and its environment have their own identities but are  mutually determinative and hence are changing each other's identity. The  facts of this change, and the direction of change, are critical to the  course of their coevolution. Thus neither the system nor its environment  can be represented by abstract, unchanging universals. A concrete logic is  required that proceeds from material universals. Material universals do  not require the total identity of class members. For our purposes we  relied heavily on the concrete logic of organizations that Feibleman and  Friend (1945) had formulated and Sommerhoff's (1950; 1969) mathematical  model of the directive correlation of coupled systems. Sommerhoff was  explicitly dealing only with goal-seeking systems - the system environment  relation for living systems in general. It was, for us, a significant  confirmation of Heider's (1930/1959) claim that "a function is called  purposeful if it can be meaningfully referred to two different systems."  We never felt, in formulating the socio-ecological perspective, that we  were sociologizing psychology. On the contrary, we felt that we were  creating a universe of scientific discourse in which considerations of  human motivation could be raised above the belly button to the pursuit of  purposes and ideals.

This brief outline of the steps that led to  the emergence of the Tavistock Institute's socio-ecological perspective  would not, I think, be complete without some background. The number of  journals that now devote themselves to the history of the various social  sciences indicates some concern with how good new ideas emerge. Monographs  such as Danziger (1990) make it clear that the concern is with the  conditions conducive to creativity, not with finding geniuses. The  Tavistock Institute, from its conception, was concerned with the  conditions and the micro-climate required to attract and nurture creative  minds. That was its life blood. Trist, with Wilson, was also much engaged  with how scientific institutions could be structured so as to creatively  engage with the important practical affairs of society (Trist,  1964).

As pointed out above, this perspective did not emerge just  because some genius had a vision. It was nurtured and realized in  practice. For that some more substantial explanation is required. We need  some sense of the opposition that had to be overcome and the origin of the  forces that overcame the opposition.

Opposition to the  Paradigm

Let me deal first with the opposition to the paradigm  of socio-ecology. The separation of the poles of the social field and the  individual has been, throughout the twentieth century, firmly entrenched  in the independent academic disciplines of psychology - owning one  pole-and sociology - owning the other. Each has had its own bedmate -  psychology with psychiatry and sociology with anthropology - and both have  found their bedmates uncomfortable and ill-fitting as they have sought  scientific respectability. Both psychology and sociology had to advance by  becoming academic disciplines as neither had the wherewithal, until after  the 1950s, to advance themselves as professions such as medicine, law and  engineering. In academia, they had to avoid incurring the wrath of the  theological/philosophical elements that represented the core of the old  tradition and they had to win the support, half-hearted though it was, of  the new scientific academics.

In World War II, when even their  meager skills were called on, the two academic disciplines opted for a  crass nominalism -IQ was what IQ tests measured, and attitudes were what  people said when you asked them questions about nonfactual matters (for  example, asking "how old do you feel?" as distinct from asking "how old  are you"). They also much enhanced their competition as to who had the  theoretical answers to problems of human motivation. The sufficient  conditions for "combat fatigue" or "lack of moral fiber" depended on  whether you were consulting sociologists or psychologists. In the post-war  years there was a great expansion of the universities and an even greater  expansion of these two social science disciplines and less mutual  tolerance. The fate of social psychology, the would-be bridge between  them, is a good measure of this (Farr, 1993). Psychologists have  psychologized social psychology, and social theorists have gone off to  extemporize their own versions. The bridge does not reach far from either  bank. The last trafficable bridge was constructed by Asch back in 1952. It  is interesting that European pressure led Oxford University Press to  reissue the book in 1987, without change.

The changes in editorial  policy of Human Relations reflect this deepening rift. In 1947 the  journal was launched as a joint venture of the Tavistock Institute and  Kurt Lewin's group at the University of Michigan. It was dedicated to the  support and furtherance of interdisciplinary research in the social  sciences. In 1965 Trist and I had to reorganize the Editorial Committee to  a wider base and reformulate the editorial policy. Inthat "Restatement of  Editorial Policy" (Trist and Emery, 1965b) we felt it necessary to say  that "at that time (1947) it had seemed that a trend toward the  integration of the social sciences was a fairly reasonable expectation. In  1965 there was not sufficient vigor in interdisciplinary research to  warrant restriction to this area alone."

Lewin's and Angyal's  Models

We get a sense of the depth of this rift from the  troubles that Kurt Lewin and Andras Angyal got into when they tried to  build bridges by formulating an ecological perspective. Lewin (1933) put  forward the famous equation B = f (P X E). That is, behavior is a  function of the interaction of the person and the environment. Logically,  such an equation should be equivalent to the formula: area of a rectangle  = height X breadth. Given a change in area, one could not say, without  inspecting the figures, whether it was due to a change in height or  breadth or to simultaneous changes in both. Similarly, with a persistent  unchanging area, we could not, without inspecting the figures, rule out  simultaneous but compensating changes in height and breadth. Lewin's  formula had the potential to introduce a powerful and appropriate logic  for the study of socio-ecological systems.

Lewin was crippled in  his pursuit of this ecological program by two closely related assumptions.  He accepted the prevailing view of the psychology of perception (and that  of his mentor, the neo-Kantian philosopher of science, Ernst Cassirer)  that people could not perceive the invariant features of their world; they  had to construct, in their minds, an "as if" picture. The E in (P X E) lost its independent objective status and became the E that P was experiencing. L12 was outside  the "life space" in the "foreign hull." Lewin's second problem was with  motivation. Starting from the concept of "demand qualities" or valences in  the environment he could find no way to attribute to them an independent  quality. Eventually he made them derivatives of need states within the  individual. E once again disappeared. He knew what had happened. The very  last paragraph of his second monograph on conceptualizing B = f (P X E) reads as follows:

"One of the main objectives of both the  geometrical and the dynamical concepts is to develop a frame of reference  useful as much in social as in quasi-physical situations. An adequate  treatment of social problems, especially social conflicts, however, makes  certain distinctions necessary, particularly that between "own" and  "foreign" forces, which we have merely mentioned." (Lewin, 1938:  210)

Despite this theoretical blockage, Lewin went on to bring  together social and psychological variables in the seminal experimental  studies of "social climate." He continued, until his premature death, to  create intellectual and institutional support for interdisciplinary action  research. And yet, in his last year, he was searching for a theoretical  model in neo-classical economics - a thoroughly closed system  model.

Angyal (1941) put forward a much stronger restatement of  Lewin's ecological model. In both graphic and tabular form he presented a  model that is logically equivalent to our form of L, L12,  L21, L22 (pp. 125, 166). In the tabular form he  conceptualized the levels of symmetry between the social pole and the  organismic pole. He observed that "the symmetry of the table is due to the  fact that not different but identical phenomena have been considered with  the two opposite poles as points of reference." (p.  166)


"We cannot speak of subjective and  objective 'components' (as Lewin did) but only of biospheric occurrences  the aspects of which have no independent existence." (pp.  262-63)

Although he made a major contribution to the emergence of a  logic of systems, he foundered in his efforts to create a psychological  ecology that was at the same time a social ecology. In defining "the unity  of organism and environment" he sees only the role of "environmental  factors which function as opportunities and contraventions" (p. 263). With  this he dropped the notion of "demand qualities" - those qualities that  arise from the environment and sometimes override organismic  drives/motives. Next, he felt compelled to state that "the subjective pole  of the biospheric total process is the source of the organization; the  subject is the central, organizing factor" (p. 264). That is, in the last  analysis, the sufficient conditions for behavior are to be found in the  organism. This put him back in the mainstream of psychology with Hull,  Freud and Lewin. Lewin was scuppered by philosophy, Angyal by the then  state of the psychology of perception and motivation. It was only with the  emergence of psychological ecology, on the back of Gibson's (1979)  path-breaking work in perception, that the program put forward by Lewin  and pursued by Angyal once again found a foothold in the academic social  sciences (Shaw and Turvey, 1981).

Emergence of the Tavistock  Perspective

The Tavistock Institute's socio-ecological  perspective emerged, despite the rift in mainstream academic social  sciences, partly because of its engagement with the important social  affairs that were mentioned at the outset. Part of the cause should be  traced to its own history and its own culture. Most of the senior people,  in both the Institute and the Clinic, had served in the wartime Army  Psychiatry group. Thanks to the parlous state to which the British Army  was reduced after Dunkirk, social scientists were given the reins for  action research to a degree that was not matched in the other services, or  in the armed forces of the Allies. For five intensive years this group was  engaged in large-scale, multidisciplinary and collaborative field  experiments (see Volume I). Most of this action research involved social  and organizational structures and cultures as well as individual  behaviors. It was genuinely interdisciplinary and, of great importance to  the Tavistock culture, it was mostly very successful. To cap it all,  Trist, with Adam Curle (Curle and Trist, 1947), produced two conceptual  papers spelling out how they had bridged the gap between the social and  psychological determinants of behavior. He went beyond that to show how  these bridging concepts had been successfully operationalized and  measured.

In his paper "Culture as a Psycho-Social Process"  (1950/VoI. I), Trist argued for the rejection of the nominalism of  attitude measurement- "it was unable, externally, to make comprehensive  reference to the structure of social systems or, internally, to reach down  to the emotional phenomena at the deeper levels" (p. 540). In a phrase, it  was a bridge that did not reach either shore. Trist recognized the point  that Asch (1952) was to spell out two years later that the relation of the  individual to the social group is "a type of part-whole relation  unprecedented in nature. It is the only part-whole relation that depends  on the recapitulation of the structure of the whole in the part" (p. 257).  Culture had to be the bridge, the active process of  recapitulation.

"Culture represents the means, however imperfect,  at the disposal of the individual for handling his relationships. On it he  depends for making his way among, and with, other members and groups  belonging to his society." (Wilson, Trist and Curle, 1952/VoI.  I)

"Always, the actual existence of culture is in personal versions  (Sapir, 1927), however close such versions may be to each other. It is  this personal quality that allows culture to impart vitality to a society  and the culture-carrying individual to function as an agent of social  change." (Trist 1950/ Vol l. I: 543)

The culture is out there and  endows social relations with their objective demand qualities; how  individuals respond depends on how far the culture is also within  them.

In the early 1960s when the socio-ecological perspective was  emerging, the assumptions that Trist had spelled out were still very much  part of the Tavistock culture. They were the assumptions that had  attracted most of the younger members. They were the assumptions that  underlay this new perspective. This was not a closed culture, but was  biased toward discourse about, and with, those who were developing the  social sciences along those lines. Within the Tavistock Clinic this meant,  in particular, Sutherland (Vol. I) and Laing (1959). (Both were expected  to contribute to the first volume; Laing, unfortunately, died before he  could do so.) Beyond the Tavistock, and beyond those who have contributed  to this volume, was the "informal European group" and people like Asch,  Chein, Heider and Tomkins. Their concepts and methods, like our own, had  to stand up in the interdisciplinary engagements at the social frontiers.  We were well served intellectually by these friends but were ourselves few  in number.