Tag Archives: Gregory Bateson

biopsychosocial

Systemic practice / Social Constructionism / Meaning-making / Coordination


A segment of a social network
A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

§ Introduction:

I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am speaking as a British/Polish professional male (45), single child of a single parent family from London. In my early career I studied information and communication systems and worked in the City of London and across Europe as a technical design consultant of wide area networks. My family life is shared with my partner and our children. We both live and work in East Anglia.

I work as a counsellor & psychological therapist in private practice and one day a week I work as a systemic family practitioner where I work as a co-therapist at an acute in-patient unit. My core clinical training was in Counselling and Psychotherapy, where I became interested in classical psychoanalytic theories, contemporary psychoanalytic theories, psychodynamic theory and practice (attachment theories and object relations) as well as humanistic theories and practice. I hold higher degrees in psychoanalytic research and cognitive psychology.

For the last two years I have been deeply impressed by the systemic/relational approaches, methods and techniques and a concerted concern – more than ever, perhaps – with the patterns of connection which exist between people (Bateson, 1972), and, by implication, patterns of disconnection (Oliver, 2004).

Reflection in action: I should like to acknowledge my approach to personal and professional areas of my life as in transition; starting from a position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) of locating problems under intrapsychic psychologism I have shifted inexorably toward a systemic position using the communication perspective (i.e. both intrapsychic and interpersonal). I am grateful for the opportunity to come to this revised position so early in my therapeutic career and acknowledge the importance of the communication perspective in using the CMM lens to look at my relationships with others).

The coordinated management of meaning (CMM) rests upon the pragmatic concept that both meaning and action (i.e. meaningful action – pace Dewey), coextensively, inform how people make meaning, how they respond bodily and how they feel. For CMM these patterns of feeling, interpretation and action lead to possibilities and constraints in our shared communication and the creation of our social worlds. CMM allows us to position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) ourselves reflexively in relation to ourselves, others and the patterns and stories that we make (Oliver, 2004);

CMM can be thought of as a meta-theory derived from a postmodern communication perspective (see below); it is systemic, social constructionist, polysemous, critical, appreciative, subtle and complex.

§ Historical background

Post-psychoanalytic work from Bateson’s communication theories (e.g. Bateson, 1972, 1979) helped to instantiate a widely used approach to communication research (e.g. Bateson described levels of meaning in human systems as (1972: 201) “hierarchies of orders of recursiveness.”)

Therapists and researchers in the Palo Alto tradition shared a common view of therapy and research in that they understood both processes as being interactional and contextual. Their selection of these metaphors to study therapy remains a strong influence in the field to this day. Works like ‘Pragmatics of Human Communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes’ (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967/2011), offered a popular new model for strategic/solution-focused therapies, as presented in books such as ‘Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution’ (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974/2011) and ‘The Tactics of Change: Doing Therapy Briefly’ (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1982).

The clinical work of Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson viewed from a linguistics and language metaphor perspective contributed to the Strategic, Solution-Focused and Brief Solution-Focused and Neuro-Linguistic Programming approaches (Bandler & Grinder, 1975, 1979; Grinder & Bandler, 1981) to therapy and a formal notational system for human interaction (Grinder & Bandler, 1976). Bandler and Grinder matched the clinical work of Satir and Erickson with a multi- dimensional view of communication and language to produce a complex method to practice and describe therapeutic process.

In the Systemic-Milan-CMM tradition, Karl Tomm’s collaboration with Pearce and Cronen and other communication exponents (e.g. McNamee, Lannamann, & Tomm, 1983) contributed to a number of projects and papers created from a confluence of the circular notions of Milan therapy (Selvini-Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1980) with the circularity of a communication research approach proposed by CMM (Cronen, Johnson, & Lannamann, 1982; Pearce, 1976; Pearce & Cronen, 1980). As a result, Milan-style circularity in therapy took a reflexive turn with Tomm’s work (1987a, 1987b, 1988), and a turn towards curiosity with Gianfranco Cecchin’s therapy (Cecchin, 1987). A change in research, such as the notion of questions as interventions in therapy (Tomm & Lannamann, 1988), helped lead to the suggestion that research questions may also be seen as interventions and possibly as therapy (McNamee, 1988) and consultation tools, such as, reflexive inquiry (Oliver, 1992, 1996, 2004).

§ Social Constructionism

Burr (1995) acknowledges the major influence of Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) in the development of social constructionism (SC). In turn Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) acknowledge the influence of Mead, Marx, Schutz and Durkheim on their thinking. Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) therefore constitute a synthesis of these and other influences – for instance, de Beauvoir (1949/1972), when she writes: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

The origins of social constructionism can be traced in part to an interpretivist approach to social thought. Mead (1934), one of the originators of symbolic interactionism, and first wife of Gregory Bateson, can be viewed as forging a bridging narrative between the two fields. However, while SC and interpretivism may seem to share common philosophical roots, social constructionism does appear distinct from interpretivism. In common with constructionists, interpretivists in general focus on the process by which meanings are created, negotiated, sustained and modified (Schwandt, 2003). Proponents share the goal of understanding the world of lived experience from the perspective of those who live in it. Both arose as a challenge to scientism and have been influenced by the postmodernist movement. Interpretivism differentiates between the social and natural sciences and has as its goal the understanding of the meaning of social phenomena. While interpretivists value the human subjective experience, they seek to develop an objective science to study and describe it. There is then a tension evident between objective interpretations of subjective experiences. In other words, they attempt to apply a logical empiricist methodology to human inquiry. Thus, for Schwandt (2003) symbolic interactionism is an interpretative science.

Constructionists view knowledge and truth as created not discovered by the mind (Schwandt 2003) and supports the view that being a realist is not inconsistent with being a constructionist. One can believe that concepts are constructed rather than discovered yet maintain that they correspond to something real in the world. This is consistent with the idea of Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) and the subtle realism of Hammersley (1992) in that reality is socially defined but this reality refers to the subjective experience of everyday life; how the world is understood rather than to the objective reality of the natural world. As Steedman (2000) notes, most of what is known and most of the knowing that is done is concerned with trying to make sense of what it is to be human, as opposed to scientific knowledge. Individuals or groups of individuals define this reality. This branch of constructionism is unconcerned with ontological questions or questions of linear causation. It is worth emphasising this, since a lot of the criticisms of constructionism arise from ascribing claims to it made beyond this social understanding of the world.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) are concerned with the nature and construction of knowledge; how it emerges and how it comes to have significance for society. They view knowledge as created by the interactions of individuals within society as central to constructionism (Schwandt, 2003). For Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991), the division of labour, the emergence of more complex forms of knowledge and what they term economic surplus gives rise to expert knowledge, developed by people devoting themselves full-time to their subject. In turn, these experts lay claim to novel status and claim ultimate jurisdiction over that knowledge. For example, Hunter (1991) makes this claim for medicine, in that it has in time assumed much more control over defining illness and as a result has assumed control in situations well beyond its original mandate and so, enjoys a privileged position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) in society.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) view society as existing both as objective and subjective reality. The former is brought about through the interaction of people with the social world, with this social world in turn influencing people resulting in a form of habituation. That is, a frequently repeated action becomes cast into a pattern which can be reproduced without much effort. This habituated behaviour frees people to engage in innovation rather than starting everything anew. In time, the meaning of the habituated behaviour becomes embedded as a routine, forming a general store of knowledge. This knowledge is institutionalised by society to the extent that future generations experience this type of knowledge as objective. In addition, this form of objectivity may be continuously reaffirmed in the individual’s interaction with others.

The experience of society as subjective reality is achieved through primary, and to a lesser extent, secondary socialisation. The former involves being given an identity and a place in society. Indeed, Burr (1995) suggests that our identity originates not from inside the person but from the social realm. Socialisation takes place through significant others who mediate the objective reality of society, render it meaningful and in this way it is internalised by individuals (Berger & Luckmann, 1966/1991). This is done through the medium of language. Burr (1995) suggests that within social constructionism language makes thought and ideation possible and not the other way around. In SC Language is suggested to predate concept and provides a means of structuring the way the world is experienced.

Berger and Luckmann (1966/1991) maintain that conversation is the most important means of maintaining, modifying and reconstructing subjective reality. Subjective reality is comprised of concepts that can be shared easily with others. That is, there is shared meaning and understanding (i.e. grounded theory), so much so that concepts do not need to be redefined each time they are used in everyday conversation and come to assume a reality which is more or less taken for granted.

Reflection in action: SC bricklaying analogy

• Layer one: Labelling, naming, defining of social phenomena
• Layer two: How the social world is categorised into different groups
• Layer three: How we value those different categories; and how we order those categories
• Layer four: How we reinforce or challenge the valuation of those orderings or categories; how we contest value; how power and power differentials may contest value

§ CMM: A Rule-based Theory of Interpersonal Communication (1976)

Pearce’s (1976) early interest in interpersonal communication sets out to provide an interpretive heuristic; that is to say, it is, says Pearce (1976: 18) in his words, “unabashedly theoretical, deliberately based on a set of assumptions different from recent orthodoxy, and self-consciously two levels of abstraction away from observable exchanges of messages.”

Pearce (1976) considers that the orthodox understanding of interpersonal communication has held to a view, according to Harré and Secord (1973: 27-28) cited in Pearce (1976: 18), informed by a set of assumptions (1.) a mechanistic model to account for humans (2.) a lineal conception of causality (3.) a positivist methodology. Pearce (1976) contrasts his [heterodox] theoretical perspective for CMM as (1.) a diverse set of models (2.) a set of alternative modes of explanation for human action (3.) social science characterised as pluralistic and naturalistic.

For Pearce (1976) the transactional nature of interpersonal communication goes beyond a listing of the rules or a description of how individuals follow rules since the outcome (i.e. verbal or non-verbal communication) is the result of a non-totalising input from more than one individual – i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thus a conversation which occurs may not resemble the rule-governed behaviours of either person seen independently. As a result, therefore, Pearce (1976) situates CMM as an explanation which must be able to account for [both] the effect of each person [locutor] on the other as well as [and] each person’s rule-governed behaviour.

One might say that for Pearce (1976) inclusiveness of different types of rules is an acknowledgement and an embrace of an important both/and position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) toward communication, that is, a holding-in-mind of the conceptual difference and reciprocity between how we communicate (process) and what we communicate (content).

Working from an assumption that human action is diverse and complex, and that each type of behaviour necessitates a different form of explanation, Pearce (1976) is led to a conclude that “a science which is appropriate for studying interpersonal communication must be pluralistic and naturalistic.” Here Pearce (1976) is explicitly contrasting normal science (i.e. natural science) (see Kuhn, 1970) – with its reliance on scientific method (objectivity, falsifiability, replication of results and hypothetico-deductive inferences) – against the state of social sciences at the time of writing. Pearce’s (1976: 19) call for “plurality and naturalism” in the study if interpersonal communication has its forebears in the privileging of the interpersonal realm within sociolinguistic theories of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard as well as chiming with the wider movements within the emergent paradigm of postmodernist thought (i.e. post-structuralism and deconstructionism).

Pearce (1976: 20) helps us to better understand interpersonal communication problems by locating these problems as problems at the level of both meaning-making (within episodes) and coordination (across episodes) (see below). Here episodes are defined as, following Harré and Secord (1973: 153): “any part of human life, involving one or more people, in which some internal structure can be determined.” It is clearly an imprecise definition, useful precisely because of its imprecision: for episodes can be enacted and/or determined by actors rather than observers, episodes may vary widely in scope and breadth, and the definition is interpersonal (intersubjective) not merely personal (subjective). Pearce (1976: 21) goes on to differentiate between three “referents” for episodes as he sees them and indicates that problems occur in their coordination: Episodes1, Episodes2 and Episodes3.

• Episodes1 “consist of patterns of meaning and behaviours which are culturally sanctioned and which exist independently of any particular individual or dyad.” These include social institutions and ritualised behaviours. (Pearce states that these are public symbols identical with the concept of “significant symbols” outlined by Mead (1934))

• Episodes2 “consist of patterns of meanings and behaviours in the minds of individuals and are similar to discussions of images, plans, acts, or definitions of situations” These are private symbols which express intention or actions relating to how one participates in social interaction.

• Episodes3 “consist of the communicators’ interpretation of the actual sequence of messages which they jointly produced.” They are “episodes-as-coenacted following Cicoural’s (1974) notion for an “assumption of reciprocal perspectives” and Garfinkel’s (1967) notion of background expectancies.”
Pearce (1976) uses Kelly’s (1955) psychological theory of personal constructs (Constructive Alternativism) to elaborate the importance not just of coordination between and across episodes, but, also, in the service of predicting divergent outcomes in terms of agreement and disagreement, and, confirmation and disconfirmation. This prediction of divergence and polysemy is not also without considerable meaning to Pearce (1976), and is an important feature of his thinking put to the service of better understanding the as yet unexpressed with meaning-making, as we shall see later.

For Kelly (1955) we may recall his general theory of personal constructs, where he suggested that even within a culture, individuals tend to develop their own idiosyncratic ways of characterising others. The influence of Kelly’s (1955: 3) Constructive Alternativism on CMM and more generally on social science cannot be understated owing to his considerable influence on interpersonal communication:

Reflection in action: implications of Kelly’s (1955) PCT

• Objective reality is less important than intersubjective reality (for social sciences)
• Emphasis on how events are construed
• People choose different construal’s
• Choice underpins people’s meaning-making and actions

Thus to Kelly’s (1955) thought people possess different personal construct systems which develop adaptively over time and these people are in-themselves likely to become habituated towards these constructs when forming their understanding from the perceived impression of others. Constructs are in turn reliant upon Anticipation/Prediction and Construct. (These two processes were mapped by Kelly (1961a) onto a grid termed the repertory grid technique.)

Nonetheless, having noted the important implications (i.e. plurality and polysemy) freighted by Kelly’s (1955) personal construct theory and the implications for better coordination and the challenges to coordination obtaining from this premise, Pearce (1976: 26-27) goes on to examine rule-governed behaviours from a naturalistic perspective and uses the terms constitutive rules and regulative rules. Here constitutive rules are defined as the rules in establishing acts/meanings which are required for the episode to be enacted and regulative rules as the array of allowable acts from which the person may choose from. Both of these descriptions of rules may be validated by comparing them to the actors’ perceptions and behaviours, although the actors themselves should not also be expected to be fully aware of or able to articulate either set of rules or their meanings.

Thus if communicators (interlocutors) are following the same rules their coordination problems are easy and an observer could readily describe their conversation (episode3) by identifying the rules. However problems may arise in coordinating the management of meaning and describing the ensuing conversation when the communicators follow different rules (e.g. their episodes2 are different) (Pearce, 1976: 28). Pearce (1976: 28) suggests that “a researcher must identify those sequences which are based on consensually shared rules and those which are not.”

Pearce (1976: 29) offers a practical syllogism (see Von Wright, 1971) as an explanatory tool for exploring each person’s rule governed actions.

1. A wishes B to occur;
2. A knows/believes that he must do X if B is to occur;
3. Therefore A does X.

Where:

A is a person
B is an episode, and
X is a particular behaviour given meaning by its location in the episode.

For Pearce the coordination problem is one traced to a difference in one or both of the premises (1. or 2.), and the communication problem may be explained by contrasting those syllogisms which explain the behaviour of each individual (3.).

In this way Pearce (1976:30-31) is able to address the scientifistic concern of those critics of CMM’s capacity to predict and confers at least some ability to control – “but in a special way consistent with its own assumptions” – interpersonal communication. A theory of social action, such as CMM, may therefore “develop propositions about communication situations in which coordination problems are likely, about persons who will be more or less able to coordinate their management of meanings with specific others, and about the effect of using particular coordination strategies.” Moreover, entirely consistent with the premise of pluralism mentioned earlier (p. 18), some propositions may or may not conform to a linear causal explanatory model – indeed, Pearce (1976: 31) acknowledges that some on-going patterns of interpersonal communication may be accounted for as systemic in nature (Watzlawick et al., 1967 in Pearce, 1976). In so doing Pearce (1976) is clearly aware of the actuality that from a systemic perspective communication does not necessarily find purchase through reliance on a linear causal explanation (but rather on a reliance upon both teleological and circular – recursive – causal explanations).

In addition, emergent propositions, such as those located through the systemic view of communication – say, the use of metacommunication as a negotiation strategy using CMM – lead Pearce (1976: 31) to surmise “an irreversible increase in the level of their [clients] self-awareness” and “an assumption of causality (or necessary interdependency) among the components of the communication system.”

That is, not only does Pearce (1976) firmly hold to a belief that self-awareness is a beneficial corollary affect, but also, and importantly, that he is led to suggest the presence of a necessary interdependency (or alternative causal relation) among the various component episodes which in concert form the basis of the CMM theory of interpersonal communication. This is a single, barely explicated sentence in the overall text written in a scholarly passive tense, yet it is one, I believe, where the impact of the sentiment conveyed could so easily be overlooked; to my thought this small section of the text represents an ecliptic reference to what Pearce later in the endnotes alludes to as reflexivity (1976: 33n6).

§ CMM – Research base & “the communication perspective” (1980)

Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) book on CMM expands upon suggestions made earlier by Pearce (1976) and Cronen, Pearce and Snavely (1979) that took seriously the empirical possibility for social research from a “communication perspective.” That is, Pearce & Cronen (1980) is written from a meta-theoretical perspective which might provide an overarching edifice from which all of the social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology, linguistics, communications theory, etc.) might be surveyed.

Pearce and Cronen (1980: 273-283) used a serpentine (timeline) model to track both (‘Jan’ and ‘Dave’ study) participants interpretations of sequential episodes over time. This study provided empirical support for the somewhat counterintuitive suggestion that ‘good’ communication does not necessarily require understanding. It soon became clear that CMM could produce some quite unexpected results. In another study (p. 216-223) Harris, Cronen & Lesch asked students to describe the communication competences of “newly met conversationalists.” The results obtained suggested shifting patterns in which individual competence correlated to the structure of the social system.

This finding was suggested to support CMM’s perspective on interpersonal communication as a complex, fluid and plastic concept rather than supporting a mechanistic, linear view of social action.

A’s social world:

Story of self: confident, successful

Relationship: mutually supportive Episode: damage control

Episode: annual performance review Relationship: victim/victimizer

Episode: annual performance review

Relationship: purely professional

Self: competent and tired of having to cover for Bill’s mistakes

B’s social world:

Adapted from Pearce (2006) Serpentine model

§ Cronen, Johnson and Lannamann (1982)

This article presented a new theory of reflexivity in systems of social meaning and action. Cronen et al. (1982) argue that Russell’s Theory of Logical Types, which formed the basis of the early work of the Palo Alto group (e.g. Bateson, Haley, Weakland, etc.), rests upon an inappropriate and largely outdated epistemology. The theory offered here by Cronen et al. (1982) rejects the assumption that reflexivity and paradox have the same or coincident boundaries. It is further argued that reflexivity is a natural and necessary feature of human systems of meaning. New analytic tools are offered for discerning problematic from nonproblematic reflexive loops. Their new tools take the form of a symbol that can be used to represent the rules that organize reflexive relationships. Cronen et al. (1982) theory also contains a set of statements designed to restrict conditions under which problematic reflexive loops have consequences for a person’s mental wellbeing.

§ Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985)

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) introduce the possibility of offering a dialectical account of higher order social change without advancing a fixed overarching grammar for social change, whilst, preserving qualities of radical transformation and continuity based on a natural and plural basis. Their choice is CMM theory.

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) believe that radical transformation takes place (i.e. phase 4 in their 0-7 phase model) where an inversion of hierarchical order takes place. In this way episodic patterns have become inverted with life scripts and family scripts – at the next higher orders of context. The practical example is offered of family A, whom, it seems, have become habituated to examining every instance of life script and place in the family myth from within a [dislocated] context of each particular social encounter. As a consequence they are quite stuck in unwanted repetitive patterns (URPs) between, on the one hand, what they do and how they relate to others, and their life scripts and family myth on the other.

Pearce, Cronen and Tomm’s (1985) paper neither offers nor suggests a deterministic or probabilistic law of change. Rather it is the case that Pearce, Cronen and Tomm (1985) do offer a CMM-based modelling option of and for higher order change using a suite of principles concerning time, consciousness, action, hierarchy, and recursivity.

§ Post-Milan: from Neutrality to Curiosity (1987)

Just as Maria Selvini Palazzoli (1974) had described her transition from psychoanalysis to systemic practice under the influence of Haley (1963) and Watzlawick et al. (1967) so too Gianfranco Cecchin (1987; 1992) describes the evolution of his approach from structure toward constructionism.

Cecchin (1992) outlines the evolution in his theory and practice as informed by three main shifts in his emphasis and, therein, his approach:

• Energy to Information
• Entities to Social constructions
• Family to therapist

A closer look at the shifts in emphasis in Cecchin’s work may reveal much about how he, in a position (Harré & Langenhove, 1999) of systemic trainer and theorist, might explain the evolution in his systemic ideas.

In 1987 Cecchin wrote what was later to become a seminal systemic paper. Entitled, Hypothesizing, Circularity, and Neutrality Revisited: An Invitation to Curiosity, Cecchin’s (1987) paper subtly delivered an epistemological bombshell in the form of a reply to the Milan teams’ paper describing the foundation of their working principles (Hypothesizing – Circularity – Neutrality, Selvini et al., 1980).

In his paper, Cecchin (1987) sought to re-examine the principle concepts contained in Selvini et al (1980) Milan systemic manifesto and instead assert his new conviction that therapeutic neutrality in action and language was nothing more or less than an ideal – for family system and therapist alike – which simply could not ever be realised. Cecchin feels impelled to make it clear that he now knows that it is impossible to be neutral.

Cecchin (1987) had looked back upon his former foundational principles of working (i.e. hypothesising, circularity and neutrality) and made the following observations:

• Hypothesising is a technique
• Curiosity is a framework for working (i.e. a systemic approach)
• Hypotheses are stories told (i.e. only of use for as long as they remain relevant)

Thus, looking again at Selvini et al. (1980) one might be drawn to summarise as follows:

• Approach – Neutrality
• Method – Circularity / Paradox
• Technique – Hypothesis

Whereas, a close look at Cecchin (1987; 1992) might result in a subtle difference with quite significant contextual implications for systemic work:

• Approach – Curiosity / Reflexivity toward co-constructed meaning
• Method – Circularity / Questions replacing statements
• Technique – Hypothesis

Cecchin (1987) goes on to reposition the concept of curiosity as defining his approach to systemic thought and action. Cecchin argues that once the ideal approach of therapeutic neutrality is no longer tenable it ought to be replaced by something – curiosity – inherently more flexible and characteristic of an openness toward lived experience and the uncertainties of lived experience, for only then are we more able to become better helpers and/or systemic practitioners; not worse, not stuck merely in a series of techniques without ever questioning their or our own efficacy (Cecchin, 1987: 5): “… when our neutral position ceases to help us generate hypotheses, we have, no doubt, lost our curiosity and become social controllers.”

He continues by proposing a framework, an approach, to systemic practice, which he views as the crucial – though unexplored – underpinning for the original Milan team’s (see Selvini et al., 1980) founding principles, he writes (1987: 5): “If we are curious, we question premises – our own and those of the family we are treating. A family’s interactions with us should facilitate questioning our own premises. Not only are we intervening in their systems, but families are also intervening in our systems – helping us to become better systemic thinkers. The idea of a recursive relationship among neutrality, hypothesizing, and circularity, as guiding principles, proposes a framework that invites us to be more curious about symptoms in therapy – those of families as well as of therapists.”

§ Neutrality – an irreducible moral dimension: Lang, Little & Cronen (1990)

Lang, Little and Cronen (1990) suggest a consistent view with which to identify different types of action/activity from a systemic position of co-constructed realities. They lean heavily on Maturana’s (1985) concept of domains of knowledge: aesthetics, explanations and production. Long et al. (1990) are led to conclude that an appreciation of Maturana’s (1985) domain concept raises vital questions about the nature of neutrality within and across the domains which he views as spanning the professional systemic field.

Lang et al. (1990) suggest that ‘morality’ and ‘a moral posture’ are necessary features of any approach which spans the domains of aesthetics, explanation or production. In so doing they recall Aristotle’s (see Poetics) concept of a position in relational context across and between theory and practice, praxis. Lang et al. (1990) conclude that as systemic practice is intimately interested in human action – and by definition in these domains of knowledge (see above) – then a moral posture ought to be a necessary principle of any systemic approach/framework.

§ Approach Method and Technique: A model for identifying differences (1992)

Burnham’s (1992) paper outlines a coherent model for differentiating between types of systemic activity and how those activities might be viewed as relating when working within a systemic practice framework. We will then see whether and how Burnham’s (1992) AMT model might also be useful to understand both the movement of approaches, methods and techniques from Milan (e.g. Selvini et al., 1978) to post-Milan (e.g. Cecchin, 1987) and CMM (e.g. Pearce and Cronen, 1980; Cronen, Johnson and Lannamann, 1982; Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) in the service of a coherent structure for a more general understanding of the implications of social constructionist thought on systemic thought during this period.

In his paper Burnham (1992) suggests that his systemic understanding can be explained using an Approach – Method – Technique (AMT) model. The AMT model seeks to make clear both the context for and the implications of deriving meaning from a hierarchically organised, theoretically and clinically coherent, and recursively connected systemic model of working (following CMM, see below). Burnham’s (1992) influences are many and varied, however he plainly locates meaning as something derived from a context (pace Bateson 1972) and the two terms themselves (i.e. context and meaning) as acting in a recursive relation to one another (pace Pearce & Cronen, 1980; see below CMM).

Burnham (1992) locates and offers to define each term in the AMT model in the following way:

• Approach – Lenses and dispositions in a recursive relation; Reliant upon abstraction – learning to learn (see Bateson, 1974); e.g. family system understood as if a human system.
• Method – Different practices which serve to organise an approach e.g. use and appreciation of circularity (both in terms of questioning and causality).
• Technique – Different activities organising a method through practices, tools, training and therapeutic skills; Reliant upon rote learning (see Bateson, 1974); e.g. hypothesising.

And, thus, we might chose to visualise Burnham’s (1992) AMT model using the following three tier hierarchy:

• Approach
o Method
 Technique

It is worth noting that just as an overarching context (i.e. A →M) acts by contextual force in a downward direction upon the meaning of a sub context, so too, there might also exist an implicative force acting upwards upon and changing the meaning of the contextual setting above (i.e. T→M).

Given this relation between a strong contextual force and a weaker implicative force it is possible to designate the relation between AMT as hierarchical, coherent and recursive (i.e. A↔M↔T) following Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) suggestion for coordinating and managing systemic thought and practice.

§ Tracking: Hedges (2005)

Hedges (2005) is interested to investigate how it is that in co-constructing futures we (as systemic practitioners) are attending to the minutiae of grammar, metaphor, noticing the hidden-obvious and slowing ourselves in our work. Hedges (2005) is keen to point out that using these techniques allows us to better track the episodes of our work with families, and, therein, to expose the myth surrounding the notion of systemic work as somehow discreet from depth/exploratory work (i.e. psychodynamics).

He introduces and questions the possibility of a greater correspondence between notions of ‘depth’ and ‘breadth’. He questions whether the demarcation of ‘depth’ as a psychodynamic preserve is sustainable in the light cast by philosophy of language (e.g. Wittgenstein, 1953), systemic thought (e.g. Anderson, 1997) and co-constructionist (CMM) theories (e.g. Cronen, 1990; Cronen & Pearce, 1991) of making/managing social reality and meaning which would indicate otherwise.

Hedges (2005) utilises Bruner’s (1986) notion of metaphor as a ‘crutch’ to begin his investigation into the tracking techniques which might bring mutual benefit or insight. Bruner (1986) suggests that metaphor enable us to navigate meanings that, once utilised, can be discarded or hidden from view. Hedges (2005) suggests that in tracking metaphors – others’ and our own – is crucial to the better exploration and questioning of the co-construction of meaning in the work. Indeed, Hedges (2005) links metaphor and their use to the collective folk wisdom (see C. G. Jung) of the contextual background culture/society. Adding to this rich gestalt the clear difficulties which arise when/if one allows metaphor to remain unexplored, invisible or untold (see LUUUTT model of CMM).

Following Anderson (1997), Hedges (2005) also suggests that tracking an episode also requires slowing down the stories told. That is, slowing the natural pace of a normal dialogical flow. This technique is suggested as a counter measure to ‘knowing’, and, by implication only, may increase curiosity.

Attending to language does not mean only attending to spoken language. Non-verbal communication is a powerful form of communication which Hedges is keen to explore, again, in the service of techniques which can help in the exploration of co-constructed meaning-making. We must, urges Hedges (2005), attend carefully to exploring the range of full bodily communications of the other (see Tom Anderson, 1990).

Tracking also entails noticing. Hedges (2005) suggests that simplicity and familiarity can act to hide aspects of actual experience. That is to say, familiarity can sometimes obfuscate noticing what is in front of one’s nose. Hedges (2005) reiterates the importance of the notion of noticing bodily communications (i.e. non-verbal communications) as these can give us vital information to enrich the meaning/s available in a specific episode. However, Hedges (2005) is swift to point out that when one is noticing things are not simply found, instead, they are always co-constructed through joint action (see Shotter, 1993; 1995). This insight into the technique of noticing allows Hedges (2005) to conclude that episodes are always temporary, unfinished and composed of punctuations (pace Jackson and Bateman in Watzlawick et al., 1967).

Hedges (2005) recalls Pearce’s (1994) notion that ‘social worlds are too complex to perceive … all at once’ and thus reminds his reader of Bateson’s (1972) suggestion that ‘we divide experiences into frames’. By pointing to frames theory, Hedges (2005) is also following Goffman’s (1974) notion that frames turn what would otherwise be meaningless into something that is meaningful. Not so dissimilar one might say to Bateson’s (1972; 1974) famous ideas about the intimate relation and multi-laying which exists between context and meaning.

Frame theory closely looks at our frames of reference, say:

• Time
• Boundaries / Liminality
• Structure

It is, for Hedges (2005), in the appreciation of the multi-laying of episodes (see Bateson, 1974; Cronen and Pearce, 1982) which allows for a broader, deeper construal of the co-constructed and recursive (reflexive) nature of both episodes and frames. Hedges (2005) provides the following example of multi-layered frames and contexts which may commonly appear in an episode:

• Stories about the (current) relationship
• Stories related to the clients family
• Personal identity stories
• Religious stories
• Gender stories
• Cultural, ethnic, racial, colour stories
• Cultural and societal stories

The example above appears to be a good fit with the LUUUTT model of CMM (see LUUUTT model; Pearce Associates, v1.1, 1991). But what if, Hedges (2005) asks, one feels like one ought to act in certain way under certain circumstances regardless for any evidence that acting in that way is or has ever been beneficial? Here then, Hedges (2005) is calling our attention to the presence of so-named de-ontic logic in lived experience. An example might be something which informs our understanding and situates us towards certain contexts and seemingly automated responses – much like morality can shape our actions because of preconceptions of what is received to be ‘right’ or ‘good’ (see G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 1993).

§ Making Social Worlds: Pearce (2007)

Pearce (2007) stresses the importance of the communication perspective. He strongly suggests that one ought to look at this perspective and not merely through it. That is, Pearce (2007: 1) urges the reader to “develop our ability to identify (critical moments) and act wisely in these moments.” Pearce is convinced that powerful forces are pulling us forward and backward as a species and he invites us to consider some communication abilities – a communication perspective – which might in fact move us upwards.

Pearce (2007) appears keen to look into the future; a future where he apprehends a growing tension across societies between the demands of communication and technology. Pearce (2007) cautions his reader not to follow blindly in the tracks of those who have acted in the name of progress by repeating the same mistakes over and over. Instead, Pearce (2007) states his conviction that real progress comes from a re-positioning towards difference.

Pearce (2007) might be suggesting that progress is often viewed in first-order terms – when, for instance, we ought to be able to recognise a moral dimension (see Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) which may necessitate a greater, wider sense of urgency. Pearce (2007) leans on Gladwell’s (2000) notion of a ‘tipping-point’ and situates his concern for the adoption of the communication perspective as acting upward progress in terms of upward evolutionary progress.

Pearce’s (2007) retelling of the tragic events of 11th Sept 2001 is poignant and subtle insofar as drawing his readers’ attention to the important background information lacking from most media sources of the time. Pearce (2007) sees these gaps as important mistakes in communicating a story with seemingly little regard paid to how apportioning blame, victimhood and persecution might affect the lives of a great many innocent people with no connection to the disaster save their common cultural identity.

He provides a framework of a different approach as possessing the following characteristics:

• Constructing a richer narrative of the other, ourselves and the historical context
• Constructing a more systemic description of events; beyond the jejune use of misleading binary oppositions, such as ‘us’ and ‘them’ / ‘win’ and ‘lose’ / ‘good and ‘evil’
• Facilitating awareness of implicative and contextual forces and noting responsibility for contributing to the pattern in which we find ourselves; also, noting the opportunities for acting in new, novel ways – not merely reacting in obvious familiar ways.
• Changing the context of ‘ground theory’
• Attending to generative (‘appreciative’) narratives as far more productive than degenerative (‘deficit’) narratives e.g. “Your culture lacks …”, or “Your culture is wrong because …”

Reflection in action: I use this model regularly to track episodes in my work with families.

Stories lived

Storytelling

Stories told

Stories told by clients sometimes exhibit a limitation of vocabulary in the area of description connecting meaning and action. The concept of deontic logic (see von Wright, 1971) produces a heuristic model of the “oughtness” that people may feel within specific moments (or episodes). The combination of this oughtness is termed the “logical force.”

Context 1 (e.g., self-concept)
Context 2 (e.g., relationship)

Context 3 (e.g., episode)

Antecedent act action Consequent act

There are recurrent patterns in communication which may create difficulties. Using CMM theorists have become aware (e.g. Cronen, Johnson & Lannamann, 1982; Cronen, Pearce & Tomm, 1985; Oliver, 2004) of these patterns and developed a number of ways to invite clients to escape them. These patterns include unwanted repetitive patterns (URPs), strange loops, charmed loops, unanticipated consequences and reciprocated diatribes (Pearce 2006).

Cultural story / Relationship story / Identity story

Episodic pattern

Feeling: I feel pressured ≠ I feel relief

Interpretation: I don’t feel confident I feel confident

Action: I should not speak ≠ I can speak freely

Adapted from Oliver (2004) revised strange loop model

Here in the example above the episodic pattern is one of a polarizing defensive pattern which has been termed a ‘strange loop’. The strange loop is a kind of hypothesis or narrative (story) which can take the form of a paradoxical figure-of-eight pattern.

‘Approach-Method-Technique': An Introduction to Milan, Post-Milan and Social Constructionism


burnham boats
burnham boats (Photo credit: akosikenet)

1. Curiosity & Co-Construction

§ Introduction: A model for identifying differences in Approach Method and Technique

Let’s begin by turning first to Burnham’s (1992) paper, in particular, where he outlined a coherent model for differentiating between types of systemic activity and how those activities might be viewed as relating when working within a systemic practice framework. We will then see whether and how Burnham’s (1992) AMT model might also be useful to understand both the movement of approaches, methods and techniques from Milan (e.g. Selvini et al., 1978) to post-Milan (e.g. Cecchin, 1987) and CMM (e.g. Pearce and Cronen, 1980; Cronen, Johnson and Lannaman, 1982; Lang, Little & Cronen, 1990) in the service of a coherent structure for a more general understanding of the implications of social constructionist thought on systemic thought during this period.

In his paper Burnham (1992) suggests that his systemic thinking and practice might be explained using an Approach – Method – Technique (AMT) model. The AMT model seeks to make clear both the context for and the implications of deriving meaning from a hierarchically organised, theoretically and clinically coherent, and recursively connected systemic model of working (following CMM, see below). Burnham’s (1992) influences are many and varied, however he plainly locates meaning as something derived from a context (pace Bateson 1974) and the two terms themselves (i.e. context and meaning) as acting in a recursive relation to one another (pace Pearce & Cronen, 1980; see below CMM).

Burnham (1992) locates and offers to define each term in the AMT model in the following way:

  • Approach – Lenses and dispositions in a recursive relation; Reliant upon abstraction (i.e. metacommunication) – learning to learn (see Bateson, 1972); e.g. family system understood as if a human system.
  • Method – Different practices which serve to organise an approach e.g. use and appreciation of circularity (both in terms of questioning and causality).
  • Technique – Different activities organising a method through practices, tools, training and therapeutic skills; Reliant upon rote learning (see Bateson, 1972); e.g. hypothesising.

And, thus, we might chose to visualise Burnham’s (1992) AMT model using the following three tier hierarchy:

  • Approach
    • Method
      • Technique

It is worth noting that just as an overarching context (i.e. A →M) acts by contextual force in a downward direction upon the meaning of a sub context, so too, there might also exist an implicative force acting upwards upon and changing the meaning of the contextual setting above (i.e. T→M).

Given this relation between a strong contextual force and a weaker implicative force it is possible to designate the relation between AMT as hierarchical, coherent and recursive (i.e. A↔M↔T) following Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) suggestion for coordinating and managing systemic thought and practice.

§ CMM – coordinating the making and management of meaning

As previously touched upon above (see section 1.), Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) paper on the coordinated management of meaning (CMM) theory suggests that meaning might be construed as: (a) made/managed between at least two positions (i.e. co-constructing their social reality) and (b) is a context-sensitive process. They also indicate in their theory that CMM is a rule-based theory comprised on the one hand by Constitutive rules (i.e. essentially rules of meaning, used by communicators to interpret or understand an event or message). And on the other, Regulative rules (i.e. essentially rules of action: which determine how to respond or behave).

In other words, Pearce and Cronen (1980) may be said to be suggesting that meaning-making strongly echoes Bateson’s (1974) theory of meaning; in that, they share a belief that there can be no meaning without a context to situate that meaning. For example (see Pearce, 2007: xv), if we were to examine the simple sentence, “Look here! See this!” should we suppose that the locutor is summoning us to explore, to inquire, to a kind of very serious playfulness, or that they wish to elicit our submission?

Pearce and Cronen (1980) suggest that the act of meaning-making around this and other sentences like it can only be understood within a transpersonal context and that not to appreciate the crucial importance of context in meaning-making leads (us) toward all-too literal misunderstandings and, at worst, conflict.

There might be some correspondences in intentionality and reciprocity in dialogical space between individuals to be researched further in the thought of Bateson (1974), Pearce and Cronen (1980; see also Cronen and Pearce 1982; Pearce 2007) and the ‘Dialogical principle’ (‘I-Thou’ relation) described by both Martin Buber in his work Between Man and Man (Trans. Gregor-Smith, 1947) and Carl Rogers’ (1961) seminal work, On becoming a person.

Notwithstanding any perceived or real conceptual connection between these thoughts mentioned above, Pearce and Cronen’s (1980) CMM model has received a good deal of close attention by social theorists, communication specialists and systemic practitioners alike. One of the reasons for all this well-deserved attention is, perhaps, the simple elegance of the CMM model itself.

Cultural       Patterns

Social Group Scripts

Life       Scripts

Interpersonal

Relationship

Episode

Speech Act

Content

Figure 1. CMM hierarchical model adapted from Pearce & Cronen (1980), Cronen & Pearce (1982) and Pearce (2007)

For Burnham (1992), as we saw above, CMM theory offers a purposefully structured social constructionist model for systemic meaning-making and co-constructing social realities – making social worlds systemically, so to speak. It might be said to achieve its systemic aim principally because of three main factors (see Burnham, 1992):

  • CMM is hierarchically organised; thus, privileges context
  • CMM is theoretically and clinically coherent
  • CMM is recursively connected; thus, circular and reflexive

§ Post-Milan: from Neutrality to Curiosity

Just as Maria Selvini Palazzoli (1974) had described her transition from psychoanalysis to systemic practice under the influence of Haley (1963) and Watzlawick et al. (1967) so too Gianfranco Cecchin (1987; 1992) describes the evolution of his approach from structure toward construction.

Cecchin (1992) outlines the evolution in his theory and practice as informed by three main shifts in his emphasis and, therein, his approach:

A closer look at the above shifts in emphasis in Cecchin’s work may reveal much about how he, in a position of systemic trainer and theorist, might explain the evolution in his systemic ideas.

In 1987 Cecchin wrote what was later to become a seminal systemic paper. Entitled, Hypothesizing, Circularity, and Neutrality Revisited: An Invitation to Curiosity, Cecchin’s (1987) paper subtly delivered an epistemological bombshell in the form of a reply to the Milan teams’ paper describing the foundation of their working principles (Hypothesizing – Circularity – Neutrality, Selvini et al., 1980).

In his paper, Cecchin (1987) sought to re-examine the principle concepts contained in Selvini et al’s (1980) Milan systemic manifesto and instead assert his new conviction that therapeutic neutrality in action and language was nothing more or less than an ideal – for family system and therapist alike – which simply could not ever be realised. Cecchin feels impelled to make it clear that he now knows that it is impossible to be neutral.

Cecchin (1987) had looked back upon his former foundational principles of working (i.e. hypothesising, circularity and neutrality) and made the following observations:

  • Hypothesising is a technique
  • Curiosity is a framework for working (i.e. a systemic approach)
  • Hypotheses are stories told (i.e. only of use for as long as they remain relevant)

Thus, looking again at Selvini et al. (1980) one might be drawn to summarise using Burnham’s (1992) AMT model as follows:

  • Approach – Neutrality
  • Method – Circularity / Paradox
  • Technique – Hypothesis

Whereas, a close look at Cecchin (1987; 1992) might result in a subtle difference with quite significant contextual implications for systemic work:

  • Approach – Curiosity / Reflexivity toward co-constructed meaning
  • Method – Circularity / Questions replacing statements
  • Technique – Hypothesis

Cecchin (1987) goes on to reposition the concept of curiosity as defining his approach to systemic thought and action. Cecchin argues that once the ideal approach of therapeutic neutrality is no longer tenable it ought to be replaced by something  – curiosity – inherently more flexible and characteristic of an openness toward lived experience and the uncertainties of lived experience, for only then are we more able to become better helpers and/or systemic practitioners; not worse, not stuck merely in a series of techniques without ever questioning their or our own efficacy (Cecchin, 1987: 5): “… when our neutral position ceases to help us generate hypotheses, we have, no doubt, lost our curiosity and become social controllers.”

He continues by proposing a framework, an approach, to systemic practice, which he views as the crucial – though unexplored – underpinning for the original Milan team’s (see Selvini et al., 1980) founding principles, he writes (1987: 5): “If we are curious, we question premises – our own and those of the family we are treating. A family’s interactions with us should facilitate questioning our own premises. Not only are we intervening in their systems, but families are also intervening in our systems – helping us to become better systemic thinkers. The idea of a recursive relationship among neutrality, hypothesizing, and circularity, as guiding principles, proposes a framework that invites us to be more curious about symptoms in therapy – those of families as well as of therapists.”

§ An irreducible moral dimension: Long, Little & Cronen (1990)

Long, Little and Cronen (1990) suggest a consistent view with which to identify different types of action/activity from a systemic position of co-constructed realities. They lean heavily on Maturana’s (1985) concept of domains of knowledge: aesthetics, explanations and production. Long et al. (1990) are led to conclude that an appreciation of Maturana’s (1985) domain concept raises vital questions about the nature of neutrality within and across the domains which he views as spanning the professional systemic field.

Long et al (1990) suggest that ‘morality’ and ‘a moral posture’ are necessary features of any approach which spans the domains of aesthetics, explanation or production. In so doing they recall Aristotle’s (see Poetics) concept of a position in relational context across and between theory and practice, praxis. Long et al (1990) conclude that as systemic practice is intimately interested in human action – and by definition in these domains of knowledge (see above) – then a moral posture ought to be a necessary principle of any systemic approach/framework.

§ Tracking: Hedges (2005)

Hedges (2005) is interested to investigate how it is that in co-constructing futures we (as systemic practitioners) are attending to the minutiae of grammar, metaphor, noticing the hidden-obvious and slowing ourselves in our work. Hedges (2005) is keen to point out that using these techniques allows us to better track the episodes of our work with families, and, therein, to expose the myth surrounding the notion of systemic work as somehow discreet from depth/exploratory work (i.e. psychodynamics).

He introduces and questions the possibility of a greater correspondence between notions of ‘depth’ and ‘breadth’. He questions whether the demarcation of ‘depth’ as a psychodynamic preserve is sustainable in the light cast by philosophy of language (e.g. Wittgenstein, 1953), systemic thought (e.g. Anderson, 1997) and co-constructionist (CMM) theories (e.g. Cronen, 1990; Cronen & Pearce, 1991) of making/managing social reality and meaning which would indicate otherwise.

Hedges (2005) utilises Bruner’s (1986) notion of metaphor as a ‘crutch’ to begin his investigation into the tracking techniques which might bring mutual benefit or insight. Bruner (1986) suggests that metaphor enable us to navigate meanings that, once utilised, can be discarded or hidden from view. Hedges (2005) suggests that in tracking metaphors – others’ and our own – is crucial to the better exploration and questioning of the co-construction of meaning in the work. Indeed, Hedges (2005) links metaphor and their use to the collective folk wisdom (see C. G. Jung) of the contextual background culture/society. Adding to this rich gestalt the clear difficulties which arise when/if one allows metaphor to remain unexplored, invisible or untold (see LUUUTT model of CMM).

Following Anderson (1997), Hedges (2005) also suggests that tracking an episode also requires slowing down the stories told. That is, slowing the natural pace of a normal dialogical flow. This technique is suggested as a counter measure to ‘knowing’, and, by implication only, may increase curiosity.

Attending to language does not mean only attending to spoken language. Non-verbal communication is a powerful form of communication which Hedges is keen to explore, again, in the service of techniques which can help in the exploration of co-constructed meaning-making. We must, urges Hedges (2005), attend carefully to exploring the range of full bodily communications of the other (see Tom Anderson, 1990).

Tracking also entails noticing. Hedges (2005) suggests that simplicity and familiarity can act to hide aspects of actual experience. That is to say, familiarity can sometimes obfuscate noticing what is in front of one’s nose. Hedges (2005) reiterates the importance of the notion of noticing bodily communications (i.e. non-verbal communications) as these can give us vital information to enrich the meaning/s available in a specific episode. However, Hedges (2005) is swift to point out that when one is noticing things are not simply found, instead, they are always co-constructed through joint action (see Shotter, 1993; 1995). This insight into the technique of noticing allows Hedges (2005) to conclude that episodes are always temporary, unfinished and composed of punctuations (pace Jackson and Bateman in Watzlawick et al., 1967).

Hedges (2005) recalls Pearce’s (1994) notion that ‘social worlds are too complex to perceive … all at once’ and thus reminds his reader of Bateson’s (1972) suggestion that ‘we divide experiences into frames’. By pointing to frames theory, Hedges (2005) is also following Goffman’s (1974) notion that frames turn what would otherwise be meaningless into something that is meaningful. Not so dissimilar one might say to Bateson’s (1972; 1974) famous ideas about the intimate relation and multi-laying which exists between context and meaning.

Frame theory closely looks at our frames of reference, say:

  • Time
  • Boundaries / Liminality
  • Structure

It is, for Hedges (2005), in the appreciation of the multi-laying of episodes (see Bateson, 1974; Cronen and Pearce, 1982) which allows for a broader, deeper construal of the co-constructed and recursive (reflexive) nature of both episodes and frames. Hedges (2005) provides the following example of multi-layered frames and contexts which may commonly appear in an episode:

  • Stories about the (current) relationship
  • Stories related to the clients family
  • Personal identity stories
  • Religious stories
  • Gender stories
  • Cultural, ethnic, racial, colour stories
  • Cultural and societal stories

The example above appears to be a good fit with the LUUUTT model of CMM (see LUUUTT model; Pearce Associates, v1.1, 1991). But what if, Hedges (2005) asks, one feels like one ought to act in certain way under certain circumstances regardless for any evidence that acting in that way is or has ever been beneficial? Here then, Hedges (2005) is calling our attention to the presence of so-named de-ontic logic in lived experience. An example might be something which informs our understanding and situates us towards certain contexts and seemingly automated responses – much like morality can shape our actions because of preconceptions of what is received to be ‘right’ or ‘good’ (see G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 1993).

 

§ Making Social Worlds: Pearce (2007)

In his quite recent work Pearce (2007) stresses the importance of the communication perspective. He strongly suggests that one ought to look at this perspective and not merely through it. That is, Pearce (2007: 1) urges the reader to ‘develop our ability to identify (critical moments) and act wisely in these moments.’ Pearce is convinced that powerful forces are pulling us forward and backward as a species and he invites us to consider some communication abilities – a communication perspective – which might in fact move us upwards.

Pearce (2007) appears keen to look into the future; a future where he apprehends a growing tension across societies between the demands of communication and technology. Pearce (2007) cautions his reader not to follow blindly in the tracks of those who have acted in the name of progress by repeating the same mistakes over and over. Instead, Pearce (2007) states his conviction that real progress comes from a re-positioning towards difference.

Pearce (2007) might be suggesting that progress is often viewed in first-order terms – when, for instance, we ought to be able to recognise a moral dimension (see Long, Little & Cronen, 1990) which may necessitate a greater, wider sense of urgency. Pearce (2007) leans on Gladwell’s (2000) notion of a tipping-point and situates his concern for the adoption of a communication perspective as acting upward progress in terms of upward evolutionary progress.

Pearce’s (2007) retelling of the tragic events of 11th Sept 2001 is poignant and subtle insofar as drawing his readers’ attention to the important background information lacking from most media sources of the time. Pearce (2007) sees these gaps as important mistakes in communicating a story with seemingly little regard paid to how apportioning blame, victimhood and persecution might affect the lives of a great many innocent people with no connection to the disaster save their common cultural identity.

He provides a framework of a different approach as possessing the following characteristics:

  • Constructing a richer narrative of the other, ourselves and the historical context
  • Constructing a more systemic description of events; beyond the jejune use of misleading binary oppositions, such as ‘us’ and ‘them’ / ‘win’ and ‘lose’ / ‘good and ‘evil’
  • Facilitating awareness of implicative and contextual forces and noting responsibility for contributing to the pattern in which we find ourselves; also, noting the opportunities for acting in new, novel ways – not merely reacting in obvious familiar ways.
  • Changing the context of the ‘common ground’
  • Attending to generative (‘appreciative’) narratives as far more productive than degenerative (‘deficit’) narratives e.g. your culture lacks … your culture is wrong because …

2. Prejudice, Reflexivity & Praxis

The next four papers under consideration (i.e. Long et al. 1990; Cecchin, 1994; Krause, 2002; Burnham, 2005) call our attention towards the theme of awareness and acknowledgment using a post-Milan approach to systemic family practice; in particular, to the good practice of exploring our own assumptions and prejudices and challenging them.

§ Uncertainty, risk taking and ethics in therapy: Krause (2002)

Let’s consider Krause’s (2002) paper where the communication perspective is positioned. That is, communication is a context, says Krause (2002), which acts as a fundamental primary process binding and embedding the human experience of the social world.

Krause (2002) views communicating and communication per se as ontological concerns. That is, a concern in relation to human existence and not a matter of knowledge, or how we might come to acquire knowledge (see epistemology).

Krause (2002) argues that precisely because communication involves uncertainty and new knowledge – see Bateson’s (1971) notion of ‘news of difference’ – cross-cultural communication is possible, whilst, in coincidence, pointing to the responsibilities of the therapist (in a cross-cultural setting) to ensure that those communications are – rightly – at all times respectful, anti-oppressive and non-discriminatory.

Clearly, Krause (2002) hastens to add, in the immediate and certain presence of uncertainty there will of course be risk. Risk is a necessary requirement within all communication in no small part due to perennial presence of uncertainty. That said, Krause (2002) suggests that risk is also an important factor when it comes to explaining difficulties related to prejudice and/or prejudicial attributions. Contrary to liberal explanations reliant on genetics, Krause (2002) highlights the importance of an increased awareness and understanding of social differences as crucial to better understanding endemic or localised prejudices and oppressive practices. (Here Krause (2002) specifically cites the findings of the second Stephen Lawrence enquiry.) (see Macpherson, 1999).

For Krause (2002), the concept of culture is an all-encompassing term which includes within its scope conscious and unconscious experiences, thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Culture also spans over and across generations of experience (i.e. intergenerational/familial scripts) as well as over and across individual experience (i.e. transpersonal scripts). That is to say, for Krause (2002), the term culture embraces a vast compass of lived experienced; it (culture) is an overarching context which embeds and binds (supervenes over) all conscious and unconscious, personal and transpersonal actions and/or processes.

Krause (2002) suggests that attention be drawn to the link between our awareness of the continuity of culture and, most crucially perhaps, the continuities of which we are most unaware which can so easily occur and sometimes appear to us as ‘natural’. Krause (2002) urges us to pause and reflect at length upon what we might consider natural.

Following in the lineage of other notable thinkers on values and ethics in practice (e.g. Moore, 1903; Arendt, 1958; Szasz, 1974; Cecchin, Lane & Ray, 1994; Barnes & Murdin, 2001) Krause (2002) situates prejudice as a necessary condition of communication – which is to say, that prejudice is viewed as an unfortunate reality of bias and attribution inhering within any form of communication. For Krause (2002) there is no escape from prejudice, so to speak.

Nonetheless, following Hoffman (1997), Krause (2002) agrees that we ‘see’ (i.e. perceive) the world through cultural lenses, particularly so, in those cases where our awareness is not wholly focused on an object, or instances where our attentional spotlight may be drawn to other objects. It is rather, for Krause (2002), crucial that we orient ourselves to becoming aware of and open to noticing (see Tracking; Hedges, 2005) those partially available objects – those minutiae of episodes – which, can exist at the very margins of our sensory experience and of others too; for it is these semi visible objects, says Karuse (2002), that those objects in the dimmed light of the periphery of our attentional spotlight can go unattended or unnoticed in spite of the actuality that such objects of concern can often be those most benefitting from the rigour of increased attention and awareness.

Keeping pace with John Dewey (see Experience and Nature, 1929) and Whyte (1997), Krause (2002) – no doubt informed by the influence of sociology and/or social psychology – seeks to locate the experience of the individual in the wider cultural context (i.e. within the experience of social action) through the use of such terms as social ‘actor’ or social ‘agent’. To paraphrase Krause (2002) the social actor is perhaps the individual who is actively and intelligently engaged in pragmatically creating some insurance despite a patent lack of assurance. Which is to say, if we, as social actors, take seriously the implications of the uncertainties of meaning said to exists at the heart of all communication, then, one might come to choose to act with a greater degree of moderation and restraint in the sure knowledge that no lasting or definitive future outcome, no predetermined consequence, can be assumed to exist.

Krause (2002) ardently believes that we cannot eliminate uncertainty from our lived experience; however, following the metaphor above regarding differences between insurance and assurance, what we can do is perhaps better orient ourselves (i.e. as systemic practitioners) toward acknowledging uncertainty as inextricably bound to an altogether more encompassing contextual appreciation – namely, culture. Thus, increase our understanding (predicated on an acknowledgement) of the patterning or mechanics or reach of this conceptual entity which we call uncertainty.

Nevertheless, Krause (2002) is wary of and alert to the dangers presented by the variously constructed dispositions and instruments of power. Power, For Krause (2002), corrupts communication precisely by exploiting the channel made available by strong contextual forces (see CMM; Bateson, 1971; Pearce & Cronen, 1980; Cronen & Pearce, 1982). Power, – or power differential – one might say, could easily be imagined as a necessary consequence of the supervenience of a larger context over a smaller context. In systemic terms, then, power may be one of the corollaries of difference.

In conclusion Krause (2002) offers the reader some consolation in the form of a rejoinder: it is in acting upon the reflections above (i.e. uncertainty, risk, not knowing, and acknowledging uncertainty) that we may advance despite the presence of uncertainty; perhaps even to take tentative steps towards ethically informed guesses and risk-taking.

§ An irreducible moral dimension: Long, Little & Cronen (1990)

Long, Little and Cronen (1990) suggest a consistent view with which to identify different types of action/activity from a systemic position of co-constructed realities. They lean heavily on Maturana’s (1985) concept of domains of knowledge: aesthetics, explanations and production. Long et al. (1990) are led to conclude that an appreciation of Maturana’s (1985) domain concept raises vital questions about the nature of neutrality within and across the domains which he views as spanning the professional systemic field.

Long et al (1990) suggest that ‘morality’ and ‘a moral posture’ are necessary features of any approach which spans the domains of aesthetics, explanation or production. In so doing they recall Aristotle’s (see Poetics) concept of a position in relational context across and between theory and practice, praxis. Long et al (1990) conclude that as systemic practice is intimately interested in human action – and by definition in these domains of knowledge (see above) – then a moral posture ought to be a necessary principle of any systemic approach/framework.

§ Managing prejudice: Cecchin (1994)

Cecchin’s (1994) paper suggests that we consider a move into a post-ideological process of questioning our prejudices and questioning how these prejudices affect those with whom we relate and communicate. For Cecchin (1994) awareness of and challenging prejudice is a matter of good ethical practice.

Cecchin (1994) provides three interesting vignettes which serve to demonstrate how prejudices (i.e. discrimination, bias and attribution) and the interaction of prejudices between therapist-team-client may in actuality transport our understanding of ourselves and others far beyond what might ordinarily be described as a useful technique.

Cecchin (1994) believes that there are predominant organising biases in the field, as follows:

  • The attempted solution is the problem
  • The Male dominated society is the root problem
  • We must tease out the attempted solutions and elaborate on them
  • If we just talk to the client in imperceptible ways something will happen
  • When in doubt ask what would happen if a miracle happened
  • Differentiate – take an “I” position
  • The hierarchy is confused

§ Enjoining with clients through the action of relational reflexivity: Burnham (2005)

Burnham (2005) locates praxis as something one does; it is an action – following in the traditional usage employed by Aristotle.

Burnham (2005) says that in 1991 he became interested in thinking about ‘questions about questions’. That is, how warming the context of an episode about the context of the content and process of an episode as such revealed much that could or could not be co-constructed between client/s and practitioner/s.

Burnham (2005) distinguishes self-reflexivity from relational-reflexivity in the following ways:

S-R is thus conceived as;

  • Pace Hoffman (1992), S-R is considered to be a process in which a therapist makes, takes or grasps an opportunity to observe, listen to, and question the effects of their practice, then use their responses to observation/listening to decide ‘How to go on’ in the episode or the work in general
  • One might say it (S-R) is a process of putting self-reflection/insight into action

R-R is thus conceived as;

  • The intention, desire, process and practices through which therapists and clients explicitly engage one another in coordinating their resources so as to create a relationship with therapeutic potential. This would involve initiating, responding to, experiment with, and elaborate the ways in which they relate
  • Relational-reflexivity is, thus, an example par excellence of praxis; that is, an ethical aspiration which can develop into a practical technique

Burnham (2005) follows Bateson’s (1972) notion that warm ideas have a better chance of survival than cold ideas. By embracing Bateson’s notion and extending it, Burnham (2005) suggests that by ‘warming the context’ the therapist can help to improve the readiness of the client/s toward the therapeutic work.

Burnham (2005) suggests that warming the context for questions – perhaps even with regard to the praxis and usefulness of questions about questions – can be a more effective technique for learning about the coherence (i.e. personal preferences, family style, cultural values) of the client/s with which we are working.

In so doing, Burnham (2005) is safely coordinating his resources in a way which ‘guesses’ and ‘takes risks’ with uncertainty, whilst also, crucially, does so respectfully and safely by moving at the pace and tempo of the episode or work set by both the therapist and the client, coextensively.

Reflections on systemic family therapy


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In seeking to describe the key concepts and approaches which inform systemic practice with families and couples one faces a simple, yet clear, problematic; systemic theory and practice subsist in an intellectual space larger than the sum of its concrete representations. Notwithstanding, a conceptual groundwork may certainly take place. A system, for instance, may find significance as a complex, rule-based organisation consisting of parts, sub-systems and functional processes. The scene of systemic concepts, more broadly, might be situated as obtaining from an overarching, paradigmatic shift in relational psychotherapeutic thought. Indeed, systemic concepts may be said to be a contemporary relational therapeutic modality which may actually deconstruct traditional Cartesian phenomenology and, in turn, represent a mode which radically subverts notions favouring a privileged individualised psychopathology and categorical diagnostic truth alike. (Where once there was the intrapersonal, so there came to be the interpersonal, so to speak.) Following this reasoning, pragmatic reconstructions now appear to mark each stage in a tentative apprehension of the nature of (skewed or schismatic) relational systems (i.e. the family): a system with sub-systems (e.g. Minuchin, 1974); culture and acculturation; the life-cycle and/or transitions (e.g. Carter and McGoldrick, 1980; Duvall, 1977; Erikson, 1997; Gorell Barnes, 1998; Haley, 1973); family scripts (e.g. Byng Hall, 1995); the core or assumed or automatic behaviours, beliefs, and lexicological meanings obtaining from members of the family; and the repetitive behaviours presenting. Moreover, this revaluation of values, pace the purview contended to be sited in systemic thought here, aim to locate the relationship, difference and origins of change (morphogenesis), mental representations, and processes (i.e. personal schema, social constructivism; see also Gergen, 1973; Hegel, 1994; Kant, 1999, Kelly, 1955; Kuhn, 1962; Piaget, 1950) in terms of equilibrium and constancy (i.e. homeostasis, morphostasis, ‘Milieu de l’intérieur’; see Bateson, 1972) and situate each at the heart of cybernetic (e.g. Weiner, 1949) systemic praxis. That is, systemic thought might be construed as ethically-oriented collection of theories and actions situated in the heat of the family group as if it were a naturalised system of systems (i.e. a cybernetic system; see Bateson, 1972; Haley, 1973; Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas, & Jackson, 2011).

It is, then, in the act of location and amplification that problematic relations within the family – as a system of systems – that the personhood of the persons involved can become absolved of pathology. Within this act of systematic location (more correctly this biopsychosocial act of location), the context and ecological epistemology of the ‘in-between’ becomes the pathological space where the relational system itself is understood to operate, and where it is examined most closely and reflexively. Freed from pathologisation the identified person (i.e. previously the site of the symptom) can be reinstated – intact – back into a dynamic, relational economy of the family group. In other words, where reinstated the personhood of the family group members are re-established as an actualising entity effectively restored, de-marginalised and de-alienated; that is, sovereign entities held within an equitable therapeutic relation: story intact; place of origination intact; milieu intact; relational environment intact (i.e. heteronomy and power established). Thus it is from a systemic perspective where, to my thought, there opens up a transitional space – an ethically informed rationalist space (vide postmodernist) – marked with an openness to the continual revaluation for the self and other, coextensively (i.e. reflexive and contra value-free facts) (see Lyotard, 1984). In the transitional space envisioned here for systemic praxis (i.e. theory and ethical practice), the face-to-face encounter may be transformed from an act of mere pathology into an intimate ethical encounter situated squarely within the otherness occupied by the other (see Levinas in Hand, 1989).

Above we saw that the importance placed upon the principle of inclusivity toward the other in an empathic space which remains forever other to us (see Levinas in Hand, 1989). That is to say, a systemic position toward change, to my thought, at least, may come to purposive fruitfulness within the space opened-up through empathic acts of reflexion (vide self-reflexivity). My conception here is that systemic skills (e.g. reframing) take place within a system in the ‘in-between’ space of that system that facilitate and foster change (‘the difference that makes a difference’; Bateson, 1972: 315f) (i.e. second-order cybernetics or mutual influence, as opposed to first-order cybernetics or ‘change from outside’). Change, thus conceived, takes place where the family-image (i.e. ideal of the family) reconnects with the presenting family (i.e. the real family) (see Laing, 1969) there may be a good deal of relational activity to be necessarily observed, for example: in the dramaturgy of enactment (e.g. Minuchin & Fishman, 1981); in positive and negative feedback loops (acts of self-correction), in circularity (i.e. in the equifinality of communication and causality; e.g. Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas, & Jackson, 2011), and punctuation (i.e. as if the ‘springboards’ for repetitive patterning; e.g. Watzlawick, Beavin Bavelas, & Jackson, 2011). Each of these processes may be viewed as if an artefact derived entirely from relational processes (not relational content) of a system; each in turn a function and process ripe for what may, epistemologically, be termed, on the one hand, cybernetic information (‘a difference which makes a difference’) (Bateson, 1972: 315f; see also Derrida, 1978), or, on the other, an archaeology of genealogy (i.e. using genograms) (e.g. Bowen, 1978; see Foucault, 1967; 1972). Furthermore, here through the conceptual frame made available by a systemic epistemological revaluation, change and difference are conceived as transposable terms.    It is in the pursuit of insight – gained precisely through the skilled use and practice of reflexivity – individual family group members, and therapists alike (i.e. self-reflexivity), might begin to discern appearances of complementarity (i.e. polarisation of behaviour) and symmetry (i.e. similarity of behaviour), and, perhaps, the corollary possibility for arresting schismogenesis (i.e. fragmentation of the system) (e.g. Bateson, 1972). In the overt or covert introduction of conceptual boundaries, strategic means may be employed by the therapist in pursuit of greater regulation, control mechanisms, and/or as expeditious toward first or second-order change (i.e. in the former the same roles and rules as prior are seen, in the latter rule changes are made) (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Bateson et al., 1956; Jackson, 1957; Kelly, 1955; Maturana, 1978; Maturana and Varela, 1980). Another important skill with systemic applicability in the description of complex behavioural patterns is reframing (i.e. subtle acts of positive redescription) (e.g. Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 2011). Reframing allows important new dimensionality of the object of concern to be encountered in situations otherwise lacking a positive aspect; new choices and options can thus be brought within the sensible reach of the brackets of lived-experience in the service of change.

My clinical psychotherapeutic training was gained over four years in broadly-based humanistic, psychoanalytical, and phenomenological studies to postgraduate level. I have also studied cognitive psychology and psychoanalytical history at Masters level. Prior to clinical training I worked for ten years in the field of virtual private network design. My choice to study systemic practice reflects a core belief in the effectiveness of systematic and relational perspectives. Systems, I might venture to suggest, have played a central and enduring role in my life thus far; and this fortunate actuality, to my thought, lends itself to a strong sense of continuity and, therein, bolsters my sense of self-identity, whilst also providing a modicum of subjective meaning. (It is noteworthy perhaps that many systems are chaotic in nature and, therein, difficult to derive meaning from.) Thus it is that in writing this short essay, for instance, I feel warmed by the thought that I may have chosen a good path on my journey toward increasing self-awareness and personal development.

Power, alongside authority and oppression, have for some not inconsiderable time been a specific research interest of mine. Power may find a broad significance as a disposition toward the other as seen in the terms exchange-power (e.g. economic) and co-ordination-power (e.g. individuals or groups): ‘There is somehow power in the system or in the culture we have inherited, and that power controls us, sometimes in deleterious ways.’ (Honderich, 1995: 709). My own weltanschauung on power (and oppression) is one inclined toward and appreciative of critical thinking, political science, liberalism, analytical philosophy, historical materialism, and phenomenology (e.g. Canetti, 1962; Foucault, 1967; 1978; 1985; 1986; Hobbes, 1990; Hume, 1990;
Heidegger, 1962; Marx, 2000; Mill, 1962; Nietzsche, 1990; 1996; 2005; Schopenhauer, 1958; 1970). In turn, my ethical praxis can also be said to be informed by close readings of humanism, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, analytical psychology, feminism, rationalism, and an interest in the principle Upanishads (e.g. Hume, 1877; Lacan, 1977; LeBon, 2001; Jung, 1969; Kristeva, 1984; Rogers, 1961; Warnock, 1967). Furthermore, though I should very much like to say much more, I fear that what this combination of influences makes for I cannot precisely say in the space allowed. That said, at the most general substantive level, I might broadly align myself with those for whom power, obedience, and oppression in the helping professions is a matter of the utmost ethical concern (e.g. Bond, 2000; Canetti, 1962; Foucault, 1967; 1978; 1985; 1986; Guggenbuhl-Craig, 1971; Milgram, 1974; Szasz, 1970).