Design for Living Complexities: Open course begins mid July

This course explores critical thinking about design in a range of areas of life and its complexities. It starts July 18 and continues for 6 weeks. The recorded presentations and subsequent discussion are taking place on google+. See for other options for participation (incl. for-credit graduate course) and links to more details about the course. An overview of the course is below. Read more of this post

Reflections on necessity

This is a long unfinished blog post from spring 2013, written for other participants in a small, international collaboration that was waiting to hear about funding of an innovative proposal on economic and political mobilization “from below”–how it may be produced, persist and be productive in spite of social-environmental crises and violence. Read more of this post

Fruitful, generative, cultivating…Alternatives to the terms creative and creativity

Why am I looking for alternatives to the terms creative and creativity?

  1. Because the history of creative begins with a divine power is what creates, which leads to a divinely given power (e.g., “genius” or “spark”) is involved in being creative (see Keywords by Raymond Williams).  Even if the term is extended to a talent that can be developed, the emphasis is on it being something that a person has, not on the conditions or relationships that support the expression of that talent.
  2. I am exploring with others the idea that “Everyone can think creatively,” which moves the emphasis to how one helps people (oneself included) open up or see alternative paths and how one dispells beliefs that creativity is something that special individuals have.  Even if I used the term creativity to refer to a path-opening conjunction of people (and their component strands), context, tools and processes, and focus on a product, the audience would still hear the other connotations referred to in #1.

Read more of this post

Design for living complexities, a course in development

Extracted from, a wikipage that invites reader input
Design is about intentionality in construction,
which involves

  • a range of materials,
  • a sequence of steps, and
  • principles that inform the choice of material and the steps.

Design always involves putting people as well as materials into place,
which may happen by

  • working with the known properties of the people and materials,
  • trying out new arrangements, or
  • working around their constraints (at least temporarily).

Critical thinking involves understanding ideas and practices better when we examine them in relation to alternatives. Read more of this post

From Social Theory to enactable, contingent social theorizing

In the late 1980s Roberto Mangabeira Unger laid out a “constructive social theory,” which centered on “institutional and imaginative frameworks of social life [that] supply the basis on which people define and reconcile interests, identify, and solve problems.” He went on to note: “These frameworks cannot be adequately explained as mere crystallized outcomes of interest-accommodating or problem-solving activities” (1987, p. 4). Unger sought to present a view of how these “contexts [or frameworks] stick together, come apart, and get remade” (1987, p.5). At the time I was attracted to his efforts but found his work too theoretical, that is, too difficult to translate into practical action. In my thinking about scientific activity I was exploring a notion of representing-engaging, while Unger seemed to be presenting a outside representation of our “society-making powers.”

The same tensions are evident—not resolved—in the summaries I wrote in the notes of Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago, 2005) on social theory in relation to environmental change and the relation of agency and structure(dness), which are excerpted in the next two posts (Social Theory, agency and structuredness).   The tensions also run through my recent thinking about combining Intersecting processes (which has an outside representational emphasis) with Historical scan (produced by a particular group at a particular time) to generate enactable, group-specific praxis.

How so?

1.  I am interested in social theory (but critical of what I call Social Theory) and think that intersecting processes provides an approach that improves on the well-known structure-agency duality (i.e., actions of social agents are enabled and constrained by social structures and, in acting, social agents imperfectly reproduce those structure).

2.  At the same time my preliminary notes on these issues take more of the representational stance I note above in Unger’s work (see next two posts).

3.  I am also interested in people’s problem-solving and path-charting abilities in well-facilitated collaborative processes (which Unger might criticize as putting too much stock on “crystallized outcomes of interest-accommodating or problem-solving activities”), but have wanted to find ways to inject understandings of structures (or Unger’s structure-making) into these processes.

4.  At the same time I am critical both of a. discussions of the kind what Obama should do, what U.S. policy should be etc., as if the speaker (or the listener) could be transported into that position and act true to their principles without having been changed by the process of assuming this role in the structured system; and b. discussions of the dynamics of capital (or fractions of capital, such as the finance sector) dictating what is possible, as if no-one could assume a role within the structured system that could alter the dynamics and as if the human actors were blind to the real dynamics.  These latter discussions don’t address well the heterogeneity of things people do and say, nor the shifting associations and, to borrow Unger’s words, how they “stick together, come apart, and get remade,” nor the shifts in what any one person does and say from one micro-context to another.

5. I am interested in social theory that addresses the preceeding heterogeneity, shifting associations, and contingency–that brings the multiple strandedness of changing social life into the center (as against being the variation or noise around the deeper [more essential] Social Dynamics [capitalization deliberate here]).  That’s why the variety of responses in the on-the-spot, off-the-cuff discussion about race interested me.  And it’s reflected in my recent thinking about combining Intersecting processes (which has an outside representational emphasis) with Historical scan (produced by a particular group at a particular time) to generate enactable, group-specific praxis.

6. Something I would say, at this stage in my thinking, is that the focus should shift a. from shaping a better social theory to allowing for social theorizing, and b. from representing social dynamics to enacting the social theorizing so as to repeatedly define and pursue engagements in the heterogeneous dynamics that intersect in all kinds of society-making.  Enactable, contingent social theorizing maybe unsettled and unsettling, but should social theorizing be more something all that much easier to grasp than society-making?

Intersecting Processes, autobiographical note

As a student and environmental activist in the 1970s I developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity.

As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior.

See and for more detail.

Note: Blog posts will also address critical thinking and reflective practice in environment, biomedicine, and social change, but the picture of intersecting processes will usually be there in the background.

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