CEPA eprint 3972

Embracing human experience in applied systems-thinking

Córdoba-Pachón J.-R. (2011) Embracing human experience in applied systems-thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 28: 680–688. Available at http://cepa.info/3972
Table of Contents
Varela on cognition
The applied systems-thinking take on autopoiesis
Embracing (more fully) human experience in intervention – some suggestions
Applied systems-thinking involves the use of systems methodologies and concepts to facilitate intervention in social situations. In this area, a body of knowledge has been accumulated to promote informed use of systems methodology. Still, how human experience is considered and used in intervention is limited to what methodologies prescribe or what facilitators do with it. In this paper, we revisit the ideas of autopoiesis and in particular the research project pursued by one of his original authors (Francisco Varela). Following Varela’s intent to develop a middle way in science, we reflect on how applied systems thinking could take a step back regarding how human experience is integrated into intervention. We conclude the paper with a number of suggestions to make applied systems-thinking more permeable and sensitive to human experience and therefore open to compassionate thinking and action.
Key words: Francisco Varela, autopoiesis, applied systems-thinking, human experience, systems methodology.
Applied systems-thinking is to many a body of knowledge, which originated in biology and has spread into other areas including cybernetics, ecology, psychology, operational research, information systems and management science (Beer, 1967; von Bertalanffy, 1968; Churchman, 1968; Ackoff, 1981; Ulrich, 1983; Kapra, 1997; Midgley, 2000). The idea of a system as a bounded set of inter-dependent elements, which as a whole exhibits a number of ‘emergent’ properties, is now used to study and manage complex situations in organisations and society. Springing from the idea of a system, a number of methodologies have been developed to support the work of facilitators dealing with complexity in intervention. These methodologies are to be used in an informed manner so that they can be combined, assembled and employed according to their strengths and weaknesses (Jackson and Keys, 1984; Midgley, 2000; Mingers, 2003), and with a view to improve possibilities for dialogue and emancipation of those involved and affected in a situation. Methodology use also involves consideration of issues of power, which could inhibit dialogue as well as the intervention process itself (Ulrich, 1983; Flood and Jackson, 1991; Mingers, 1992; Flood and Romm, 1996; Midgley, 2000; Jackson, 2003). Some of these methodologies support the diagnostic and design of communication structures in order to help individuals manage the variety of information that surrounds their work and thus to contribute to the sustainability of their organisations (Beer, 1985; Espinosa et al., 2008).
In countries like the UK, applied systems- thinking has strongly focused on systems methodologies. This has positively contributed to spread the use of systems ideas in different areas of human activity including information systems, environmental management and community development (Midgley et al., 1998; Midgley, 2000; Jackson, 2003; Clarke, 2007; Córdoba, 2009; White and Lee, 2009). In its development, however, applied systems-thinking has, to some extent, overlooked other systems ideas and theories. This is the case of the theory of autopoiesis and further developments undertaken by Francisco Varela.
Autopoiesis is a theory that describes a basic mechanism of how living beings self-produce, or in other words, how they maintain themselves (Maturana and Varela, 1987; Varela et al., 1993). In applied systems-thinking, the biological origins of this theory have been acknowledged and to some extent incorporated to inform systems interventions (Cordoba, 2002; Bilson, 2006; Córdoba and Midgley, 2006; Mingers, 1995). The theory has also been compared with other (Western) ones in relation to its explanatory capacity of social phenomena (Mingers, 1995, 1997; Midgley, 2000; Shen and Midgley, 2007). What seems to be missing is a more in-depth consideration of how the theory and in particular how Francisco Varela took it forward could continue providing insights into the complexity of social situations. Varela’s research project, and his ideas about human experience could help us to enrich methodology-based intervention and future developments in applied systems-thinking.
This paper aims to revisit autopoiesis with a view to explore potential relationships between Varela’s ideas and applied systems-thinking. We focus on how autopoiesis influenced Varela in his quest to develop a ‘middle way’ in science. In particular, his understanding and use of human experience could inform how systems methodologies are used to better promote improvement in social situations.
The paper is organised as follows. We first present the main tenets of autopoiesis with its underpinning commitment to continuously promote co-existence. We then revisit criticisms of autopoiesis from applied systems-thinking, which fail to consider the full potential of human experience as a source of reflection and improvement. We then revisit Varela’s ideas on human experience and suggest some possibilities to help applied systems-thinking and systemic inquiry.
Autopoiesis describes a mechanism by which living beings (systems) maintain their separate existence (identity) from their physical environments. To do so, the theory provides a number of key concepts. The first one is that of the organisation of a system or the set of physical parts and interactions, which take part in a number of processes to constitute the system. In other words, they help a system to continuously present itself as a self-contained, stable and autonomous unit (Maturana and Varela, 1987), as a ‘whole’ with an identity (Varela et al., 1993).
The organisation is a subset of a systems structure, which enables systems to modify their relations and parts. Perturbations in a system’s structure contribute to trigger changes in the organisation of a system. However, any change is but internally determined by the structures of both a system and its environment in a process of structural coupling. The end result is the dynamic conservation of a system’s identity or alternatively its disintegration.
Autopoietic systems are part of a larger class, which exhibit both organisational and operational closure: whilst they are in constant exchange of matter and energy with their surroundings, they persistently produce a closed ‘whole’ (organisation), including the system’s own rules of existence (Luisi, 2003). In this type of systems, the ‘whole’ becomes not the sum of its parts but the sum of all its constituting processes (Rudrauf et al., 2003).
With these and other concepts, autopoiesis proposes a mechanism by which processes and interactions between different subsystems of a system (e.g. chemical, biological, nervous) contribute to produce the system’s own organisation and with it its self-production (Varela, 1979). In human beings, self-production has resulted in a complex network of processes (nervous, hormonal, mechanical, among others), which also enables us to develop activities of a higher level. These activities are manifested in what an external observer sees from a system, for instance, our ability to negotiate our way through the world (cognition) or our capacity to do things purposefully. Maturana and Varela (1987) emphasised the nature of what we see as observer as grounded in our autopoietic conditions as living beings. For both Maturana and Varela, cognition is best seen as
as an effective action, an action that will enable a living being to continue its existence in a definite environment as it brings forth its world (Maturana and Varela, 1987: 29-30).
In human beings, the mechanism of autopoiesis can encourage us to consider the nature and attributes of self-production for both ourselves and those of the human beings we interact with. According to Maturana and Varela,
We do not see what we do not see and what we do not see does not exist. If we want to co-exist with the other person, we must see that his certainty – however undesirable it may seem to us – is as legitimate and valid as our own, because, like our own, that certainty expresses his conservation of structural coupling in a domain of existence – however undesirable it may seem to us…A conflict can go away only if we move to another domain where co-existence takes place. (Maturana and Varela, 1987: 242, 245-246)
This speaks about the continuous dependence between autopoietic systems and their environments so that any change is mutually determined by their structures and hence by what their (biological) organisation allows them. For human beings, this means that we are autopoietic systems in continuous interaction with others. We need to pay attention to how we understand the unique history of interactions of ourselves and those we are observing so that we are aware of how any change is a product of our own experience and how experience can impact both our biological and cognitive structures.
Since formulating the original arguments about autopoiesis, Maturana and Varela followed different paths, often with similarities and contrasts. Maturana has focused on studying language as a phenomenon emerging from our autopoietic condition and our sense of cooperation and respect with others (Maturana, 1988, 1998). In an intervention, the mutual influence between biology and language could be used to promote compassionate conversations and help individuals (for instance, in a family or users of social services) break from established and self- destructing patterns of interaction with each other (Bilson, 1997, 2006). Varela pursued a more in-depth understanding and use of human experience as an element, which given its rich nature and potential impacts for human beings could contribute to help researchers bridge gaps between different scientific communities. In his project, experience’s objective (cognitive, neuronal) and subjective (phenomenological and spiritual) attributes could be continuously connected in what he regards as a ‘middle way’ in science (Varela et al., 1993). In the next section of the paper, we refer to some of his ideas about cognition and human experience.
Varela on cognition
Francisco Varela pursued a number of ideas throughout his career, and it is impossible here to give a full account of his work. The reader might like to see a good summary of Varela’s work in the review undertaken by Rudrauf et al. (2003) and the dialogue between Varela and Poerksen (2006). We describe now some of Varela’s ideas about human experience starting from his take on cognition.
In the view of Varela and collaborators (Varela et al., 1993), Western scientists investigating the phenomenon of cognition have relied on finding and prescribing representations of that which we know. In these representations, we tend to separate phenomena from the people who ‘perform’ or ‘observe’ cognitive activity. The end result has been a polarisation between (extreme) objective and subjective explanations about cognition. Cognition is then (objectively) explained as a by-product of physical mechanisms or as a fully subjective (experiential, spiritual) activity. These positions are difficult to conciliate.
As Varela et al. argued (1993), any attempt to represent these and other ideas about how knowledge is produced in cognition is groundless. This means that there cannot be a fixed reference of knowledge or its activity, which we can cling to, because such reference requires (i) a full understanding of the knower as an autopoietic system, which has, in a particular moment in time, a myriad of interactions, which constitute that which she or he does and (ii) a community of observers that are adequately equipped to make full sense of the dynamics of the knower and to adequately represent such dynamics.
In order to understand cognition, it is necessary to embrace both human experience and its scientific understanding, which Varela sees as complementary. He then proposes that cognition is better conceived of as a process of embodiment, one which is not only mediated through our brains and bodies but also co-dependent and in continuous coupling with what happens ‘outside’ ourselves (Varela et al., 1993). Cognition is not a process of representing, reasoning and acting but a continuous self-production of our identity as autonomous human beings.
For Varela, the human experience of cognition needs to be critically assessed, something that requires a full account from whoever is the subject of it[Note 1] as well followed by validation with those observing it (Varela and Shear, 1999). Because cognition ‘emerges from the background of a world that extends beyond us but that cannot be found apart from our embodiment’ (Varela et al., 1993: 217), scientists need to devise appropriate methods to capture the human experiences of cognition and thus their subjective as well as physical manifestations. Moreover, scientists are to facilitate continuous circularity and mutual influence between concepts and ideas about human experience from different scientific communities. In Varela’s (1993) view, this is the role of a ‘middle’ science. In this type of science, scientists would strive to understand and represent what becomes invariant in human experience (i.e. networks of connections in the brain), as well as developing ways to train people to ‘bracket’ or suspend their judgments during their experiences so that certain regularities could be observed and then addressed (Varela and Shear, 1999).
These ideas about human experience could permeate the activity of the applied systems- thinking community. However, in order to do that, it is important to consider that applied systems-thinking needs to ‘let go’ of its fixed views about autopoiesis and systems methodology and embrace human experience as a source for individual and collective improvement.
The applied systems-thinking take on autopoiesis
Applied systems-thinking has remained somewhat isolated from and suspicious about autopoiesis. In this field, a first wave of criticisms (Mingers, 1995, 1997; Midgley, 2000; Shen and Midgley, 2007) has emphasised the fragility of the theory in explaining complex social phenomena, in particular, situations in which issues of power and coercion are at play. Critics argue that at best, the theory provides a useful metaphor to complement other social theories including Gidden’s structuration theory (Mingers, 1996). For facilitators in social intervention, the theory can help them and participants to be aware of their participation in a situation and of the bounded nature of the knowledge that is produced (Midgley, 2008). This knowledge also includes what facilitators consider the ‘environment’ of a situation (Espinosa et al., 2008).
An effort to integrate autopoiesis in intervention (Cordoba and Midgley, (2006) has helped facilitators to identify a variety of concerns from those involved and affected in a situation, with a view to broaden the boundaries of the enquiry. In this case, autopoiesis supported a wider identification of issues in intervention, which could be further debated and addressed with the help of systems methodologies. This effort contrasts with other criticisms about autopoiesis, mainly its exclusiveness in co-existing with other systems ideas and methodologies (Shen and Midgley, 2007). However, this lack of inclusivity is precisely what applied systems-thinking, according to Zhu (2010), suffers from, given that there is only a limited number of methodologies that are reported to be used in applied systems interventions. An additional effort needs to be made by those facilitating an intervention in order to acknowledge their cognitive difficulties of mastering several methodologies (Brocklesby, 1997). Furthermore, more needs to be said about what happens in practice with facilitators. As Keys (2006) suggested, facilitators need to be more explicit about their own experiences in using methodologies and the decisions they take in the flow of events when intervening in social situations. To facilitators of a systems intervention, this is an invitation to recognise our autopoietic nature and with it our limitations and possibilities.
Systems methodologies (and even combinations of them) can also be limited in capturing the complexities of human experiences of participants. In intervention, one of the main aims of dialogue between facilitators and participants is to identify and debate on issues and conditions that would enable improvement in the form of structuring agendas for systemically desirable and culturally feasible changes for improvement (Ackoff, 1981; Checkland, 1981; Ulrich, 1983; Midgley, 2000). Improvement is be negotiated with the help of systems concepts and models. Within this process of negotiation, human experience is seen first as a source for identification of concerns, issues and possibilities, which are then abstracted or translated in systems terms (i.e. conceptual models or boundary questions). Human experience becomes a ground in which feasible and culturally acceptable changes are to be integrated and take place. Participants (human beings) become temporarily detached from changes that they then have to implement. Any new ‘experience’ is then uprooted from them, and subordinated to what a methodology prescribes, An intervention could potentially perpetuate improvements that only result from systems methodology.
In this regard, Varela himself would consider notions like that of a system (Varela, 1989) or that of a methodology (Varela et al., 1993) as historically determined and thus ‘groundless’ (Varela et al., 1993). Care should be taken when using notions or concepts, in particular if their use contributes to the ‘swallowing’ of one scientific community by another, leading to their mutual stagnation (Varela and Poerksen, 2006). These concepts though could be potentially useful in enabling us to establish a ground for dialogue. In Varela’s view, continuous and appropriate translation as well as circulation of notions and concepts is to be encouraged between scientists. After all, notions and theories like autopoiesis have enabled communication between natural and social scientists.
It follows that applied systems thinkers scientists would need to avoid clinging too much to concepts (methodologies) to claim their power as ‘experts’ in facilitation (Taket and White, 1994). The tendency to be fixed on a systems methodology as the course of action to follow regardless of who is using it or who is being affected by it can limit our understanding of the human experiences of the people involved in our interventions. This could also blind us to possibilities of improvement in a present situation in which we need to continuously be ‘sensitive to conditions and genuine possibilities [of change]...[and] negotiate our way in a world that changes continuously… [a world in which] what counts as relevant is contextually determined by our common sense’ (Varela et al., 1993: 123, 144, 145).
In order to address this limiting (methodological) fixation in applied systems-thinking, in the next section of the paper, we follow some of Varela’s ideas to propose a number of suggestions to embrace human experience as a space for both reflection and improvement.
Embracing (more fully) human experience in intervention – some suggestions
Senge (1999) proposes that individuals and organisations can enhance their learn capabilities through the application of systems ideas and models to help them visualise limitations and implement opportunities for learning. In his description, he refers to ‘personal mastery’ as a key element for learning and improvement. This means that organisations need individuals who are able to develop themselves with a deep sense of purpose about their roles in life. Appropriate conditions should be put in place in organisations to enable people to pursue those purposes.
As individuals, it is essential to have a profound, ‘gut like’ vision about what we want to achieve in life, something that commits ourselves to pursue noble and ultimate purposes. In the way of developing visions, at the personal level, there are a number of patterns or ‘habits’ that hold us back from engaging with deeper causes and our ‘raison d’etre’. These patterns take us back to old ways of behaving and responding to circumstances. Being effective and developing our vision for Senge (1999) is about learning to avoid or break such patterns and to develop healthier ones, which align more clearly to our vision.
For Varela, breaking such individual patterns involves acknowledging that ‘although there is a constant struggle to maintain a self, there is no actual self in experience’ (Varela et al., 1993: 237). So-called representations of the self, his or her mind or even what different selves aim to co-construct (i.e. methodologies) have no fixed points, which are separate from what we experience. What remains constant is our desire to grasp the self, in other words to self- reproduce it:
The street fighter mentality of watchful self- interest can be let go somewhat to be replaced by interest in others…One’s very habitual patterns of grasping, anxiety and frustration are the contents of mindfulness and awareness. The recognition that those are empty of any actual existence manifests itself experientially as an ever growing openness and lack of fixation. An open-hearted sense of compassionate interest in others can replace the constant anxiety and irritation of egoistic concern (Varela et al., 1993: 243, 247).
Similar to developments of areas like psychoanalysis, Varela and Shear’s (1999) take on human experience is for it to be both structured and open to continuous interpretation. The aim of methods is to represent human experience as a dynamic configuration of bodily processes (Varela and Shear, 1999; Rudrauf et al., 2003). With appropriate training and methods, people’s human experience can be observed as a ‘whole’. This involves focusing attention on how experience is constituted from the perspective of those enacting it and their attempts to ground it or fix it. Experience can then be expressed, challenged and refocused. This can help individuals to develop a sense of ‘clearing’ in relation to a situation (Varela, 1989). When fixed notions can be carefully observed and reflected upon in experience, not only visions but also possibilities for genuine and compassionate action can be worked up (Varela et al., 1993).
Developing awareness on human experience can help facilitators and participants to ‘let go’ and thus enrich their understanding of it and with it possibilities for dialogue. As scientists, the search for methods to represent human experience more fully can also put us in touch with different scientific communities and, as Varela pursued, enable a continuous circulation of knowledge between them. A more comprehensive understanding about human experience could be a source for new developments in applied systems-thinking. This would require, among other things, to work at the level of developing more experience-sensitive methods, as well as promoting communication and interaction between different disciplines.
A more comprehensive (holistic) consideration of human experience as embodied in the continuous coupling of individuals can lead people in an intervention to confront their own self’s ego- grasping habits. For participants, this means that they can let go (temporarily) of fixed ideas about what happens (or should happen) in a situation and focus on what they experience at a present time, (for instance their feelings of uneasiness) also with a view of valuing their ‘commonsense’ response in and to situations (Varela and Poerksen, 2006). Facilitators also need to let go of the absolute nature of their roles and methods employed and focus on a more intimate and daily-life-based activity to understand and be part of other people’s experience as it occurs. Speaking about commonalities between family therapy and cognitive science, Varela says
…‘good’ therapists can both share in and understand, yet distance themselves from the involvement of the actors [in a situation] (Varela, 1989: 20) (brackets added)
If we take this as facilitators of a systems intervention, the preceding statement does not mean attaching or detaching ourselves fully to/from the situation in the search for deep rules but rather being able to detach from it when appropriate. This can also help us to review our purposes related to facilitate the intervention and the purposes of the intervention itself and define alternative or complementary courses of action, which are grounded in the experience of both participants and facilitators. As facilitators, we can participate in the definition of improvements as we see them fit and without the full ‘approval’ given by a systems methodology. If we train our ‘minds’ to become vigilant in experience, it might also be possible to catch our attempts to self-produce as ‘experts’. Understanding and breaking from such attempts can help us to promote a more dynamic understanding of human experience and human change, to develop a sense of compassion and co-dependence with the world around us, and potentially to modify the nature of our relationships with the human and physical world (Varela et al., 1993).
With these ideas, the door is open for these ideas on autopoiesis human experience from Varela can help applied systems thinkers to value our biological condition and that of the people we work with in interventions. They can also help us engage more personally and let go of what systems methodologies prescribe, to strive to represent and to use experience in action as a source of improvement and to engage with other scientists in the search for better ways to improve social situations in intervention.
In this paper, we have explored the possibility of how Francisco Varela’s work could be a source of reflection for applied systems-thinking. Departing from Varela’s ideas on autopoiesis and cognition, we have focused on how his appreciation of human experience can be a source of enrichment for the use of systems methodologies in intervention. Varela’s ideas have invited us to avoid certainty and fixation. A quest to show that systems ideas work in intervention can potentially take applied systems-thinking into extremes, one of them being methodologically focused. Currently, this sense is not allowing this body of knowledge to acknowledge its limitations in dealing with human experience. Neither is it providing people involved in intervention to explore alternatives to ground their ideas about improvement. This ‘self-producing’ feature of applied systems-thinking needs further critical review.
A proposal has been made for applied systems thinkers to engage more fully with human experience. This includes becoming critical of both the experiences of participants and facilitators in an intervention. Developing methods to foster better capturing, critique and validation of human experience, as well as inter-disciplinary communication with those scientists (holists, reductionists) who are currently studying human experience in complex situations are areas to be investigated in future research.
Varela’s challenge to Western thinking can also be taken forward to shift the current goal of applied systems-thinking from accumulating knowledge to that of becoming a facilitating discipline. With our paper, we invite the applied systems-thinking community to acknowledge the limitations and opportunities that lie ahead, to avoid a sense of complacency in the pursuit of our scientific activity and to put the human being at the centre of what we do.
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This can also require the help of a mediator to ask questions about what someone is experiencing (Varela and Shear, 1999).
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