Complex responsive processes – 4 pillars of thought, 5 key insights.

Before starting this post, and for those readers interested in attending the next Complexity and Management Conference, next year it will be slightly earlier: 17-19th May 2019.


This post is the theoretical introduction to the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating, which I gave in the afternoon of the one-day workshop preceding this year’s Complexity and Management Conference. It informs a whole raft of publications written and edited by Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin, Patricia Shaw and myself along with all the theses of graduates of the Doctor of Management (DMan) programme at the University of Hertfordshire, who now number 72 (60 doctorates and 12 MAs). The perspective has also been adduced by a wide range of consultants, scholars and graduates of other programmes. I mention this at the beginning of the post because I often get asked ‘what next for complex responsive processes?’, or ‘what or who constitutes the complex responsive processes community?’ I think the question is sometimes aimed at asking who decides what the perspective of complex responsive processes is, to which the answer must be, the original authors, everyone and no one. The glorious thing about ideas is that once published, they belong to everybody, irrespective of whether they are reproduced or developed in ways in which the ‘original’ scholars would recognise. And when other people develop the ideas in their own way, then this just leads to opportunities for further discussion. This is not to suggest that as far as I am concerned ‘anything goes’. The point about having an intellectual position is that you are prepared to argue for it, whilst acknowledging the perspectives of those you argue with.

The perspective of complex responsive processes rests on four pillars of intellectual tradition: it draws on insights from the complexity sciences; it is based in Norbert Elias’ processual sociology; it takes up key ideas from pragmatic philosophy, particularly from Mead and Dewey; and it borrows from the group analytic tradition as set out by SH Foulkes, particularly in terms of the working methods which we adopt on the DMan programme. What all four have in common is that they are concerned with phenomena in a state of flux and change over time, and they are focused more or less on how global patterns arise from micro-interactions, or how micro-interactions embody global patterns. Our particular interpretation reads paradox into the working of complex adaptive systems models (CAS), just as see paradox deployed by Mead, Dewey, Elias, and to a lesser degree, Foulkes. In other words, and in the perspective of complex responsive processes you can see Heraclitan dialectic running through our interpretation of CAS, in the work of the pragmatists and Elias, which draws on Hegel, and perhaps more falteringly in Foulkes. Elias and Foulkes are also informed by the thinking of Freud. There are links, then, between the four pillars of thought which underpin the perspective.

One effect of drawing particularly on the latter three bodies of thought, process sociology, pragmatism and group analytic theory as a way of re-presenting the natural science discipline of complexity theory in social terms, is that they pose a radical challenge to the idea of the rational, autonomous individual and the notion of entities in a state of rest. Of course, complex responsive processes is by no means the only perspective to do so: this is equally true of critical management studies, process organisation studies, feminist perspectives, to name but three.

Pillar 1 – Insights from evolutionary complex adaptive systems models
There are five key properties of evolutionary CAS, multi-agent computer models programmed to follow non-linear rules, which we go on to think about in social terms.

The first is that the model is never in equilibrium and never in a state of rest.

The second is that the precise pattern of the interacting agents is unpredictable over the long term. CAS have the quality of stable-instability or predictable-unpredictability.


The third is that there is no one locus of control: whatever happens does so because of the activity of all of the agents interacting with each other locally.

The fourth is that the local activity of the agents and the global pattern which they produce has the quality of a paradox. The evolving pattern arises from locally interacting agents, while the quality of their interaction is constrained by the global pattern they produce. Agents are both forming, and are formed by population-wide patterns both at the same time.

Finally, the model evolves because of the diversity of the agents, their heterogenous behaviour, and because of the constraints that they place on each other.

If we think about these properties and argue by analogy in social terms, then we might come to think about the consequences for social life, more particularly organisational life, in these terms. The following table is reductive, but compares and contrasts some more orthodox assumptions about management and compares them with assumptions derived from complexity models.


Pillar 2 – the Influence of Norbert Elias

Computer models are, after all, just that: models. Norbert Elias had his own concerns about the way that natural science models, particularly from biology, were imported to help understand social phenomena. This was particularly to do with parts/whole thinking and the idea of levels and boundaries so prevalent in systems thinking. Rather than drawing on particularly biological models to think about social life, Elias suggested the idea of the game (also to be found in both Mead and Bourdieu) because he was concerned to find ways of describing processes of flux and change which are never at rest. This relates to the first insight from the complexity sciences which I alluded to above. So, rather than thinking about society as if it were comprised of entities, or assuming that society is stable, goes through a period of change and is then stable again, perhaps it is more helpful to think of it as being in a constant state of flux and change. Elias does not to deny the existence of relatively stable regularities in social life which may persist for some time. There are some social regularities, like forms of oppression for example including racism, which may persist for centuries.

Let’s take the second and third insights together, the idea of the predictability of social life and its controllability. Elias dealt with these extensively in his major work, The Civilising Process, but perhaps best sums up his key insights here:

It is simple enough: plans and actions, the emotional and rational impulses
of individual people, constantly interweave in a friendly or hostile way. This
basic tissue resulting from many single plans and actions of people can give
rise to changes and patterns that no individual person has planned or created.
From this interdependence of people arises an order sui generis, an order
more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of the individual
people composing it. (Elias, 2000, p. 366)

Perhaps we might think of Elias as the first social complexity theorist. As more and more people depend on more and more others, more of the time so the chains of interdependence become longer and longer. Elias produces an image of large numbers of people bound together by bonds of elastic: as one person moves so others in the vicinity are affected. The way this ripples out in the broader network is unpredictable.

What we take from Elias is also the idea that social evolution is coterminous with the evolution of a sense of self. In order for highly developed societies to function it is necessary for us to govern ourselves as much as we are governed: both form the habitus. Instead of expressing our emotions more openly, as we may have done in previous ages, we learn to internalise them, thus finding ourselves coping with ‘rising tides of guilt and shame’, an internalised form of authority. If you like, this is Elias’s formulation for the idea of forming and being formed. We continue to shape society just as we are shaped by society in our turn, governed by internal regulation which keeps us members of groups throught the threat of exclusion.

This is not the only paradox at the heart of Elias’s work. He tries to cut through the dualism of subjective and objective, by suggesting that both are unhelpful for reflecting on social life if we are social through and through. Instead he offers the paradox of involved detachment, or detached involvement to think about how we continue to be absorbed in social life, yet have the ability to reflect upon it both at the same time. There is no ‘I’ without ‘we’ – we become the individuals we are because of our membership of different groups, reflecting our particular place in the social network. Social life is individualising.

Lastly, power relationships are at the heart of Elias’ idea of social evolution. Power is a functional characteristic of all our relationships because we are interdependent: our need for each other both enables and constrains us. The pattern of power relating in a society, within groups and between groups, Elias referred to as a figuration, another way of thinking about the game. The interweaving of our intentions, the warp and weft of society, is mediated by fluctuating power relationships, which would be one way of thinking about how social life evolves.

Pillar 3 – the pragmatists
Both Dewey and Mead were also influenced by Darwin and Hegel, and were preoccupied by the constant evolution of social life and ways and means of thinking about it that were systematic, but also appropriate to the subject/object of study. Dewey helps us think about method. He doubted our quest for certainty, as if we had an ability to take a ‘god’s eye view’ on human experience – and like Elias he thought that because we are social beings, we can only become wiser by combining our knowledge about the world with our experience of the world. Starting with the original pragmatist CS Peirce, pragmatic philosophy doubts that there will ever be an end to inquiry: there is, in the words of Richard Rorty, no final vocabulary. The task then, is to deploy the productive use of doubt and to find more and more helpful ways of being together to achieve the things we think are worth getting done. Thinking evolves, and with it practices and talk of practices.

For Dewey social life repeats itself, and for that reason we produce habits, or social shortcuts, which mostly serve us well. But because life never repeats itself in quite the same way, and is constantly evolving, so we should be prepared to evolve our habits of thought/action to cope with new circumstances. Mead’s formulation of the social object is similar to Elias’ idea of the interweaving of intentions to produce the habitus. A social object is not like an object in nature, but is a tendency to act in similar ways in similar circumstances by large numbers of people. The precise way a social object reproduces itself depends on who takes part, when and where, so it will have the quality of regular-irregularity with which we are now becoming familiar from the complexity sciences. For Mead, there is always a struggle over what he terms the ‘life process of the group’ – as there is for Elias; we negotiate our differences through power relationships although he never uses that term.

Paradox figures large in the thinking of both Dewey and Mead. For the latter there is a paradox at the heart of mind and self: mind and self arise from the paradox of the I/me dialectic. We are able to adapt socially because we can take ourselves as objects to ourselves and consider how others, in Mead’s terms the generalised other, might respond to our responses. We anticipate the anticipations of others: in a way, self-consciousness is like a fractal, individuality and society arising both at the same time. Mead also offers us a non-linear understanding of human communication. Meaning arises in the gesture and response taken together.

Both Dewey and Mead had a lifetime preoccupation with politics. They were both involved in social projects in Chicago and were convinced of the merits of democracy because it is a form of social life which obliges different valuations of the good to become public. At the heart of the pragmatic project is groups of people in conversation, deliberating, arguing to agree upon the next best possible step for ‘us’.

From the pragmatists we derive the insights that individuals are social through and through, from the very development of their self-consciousness; that we should take every day experience seriously in finding more helpful ways of going on together, and that thinking evolves in conversation and reflective deliberation.

Pillar 4 – the influence of Foulkes and Group Analytic theory
As a contemporary and sometime friend of Elias, Foulkes developed a form of therapeutic practice based on the principle that the best place to find out about groups is in a group. Three key insights inform his work: from Goldstein, and latterly from Elias, is the idea that whatever we take to be the ‘whole’, it is not reducible to studying the parts taken in isolation. The focus of attention, then, is on the forces of dynamic interaction where social life is never in equilibrium. The second theme of influence is of psychoanalysis itself, with its particular interest in the workings of the unconscious, and the conflict which takes place in groups. These manifest themselves as repetitive patterns in individual and group behaviour and often prevent human beings from understanding one another, and themselves. And the third, following the Frankfurt school and the sociology of Elias, is sociological, that first and foremost human beings are members of groups: they are social through and through.

Foulkes argued that in any group of 8 or more people the whole of society is present: we are each of us in our own way ‘deviations from the norm’. We might consider this too as a demonstration of paradoxical and fractal thinking, that the body is in the social world and the social world is in the body. Groups are individualising. They are also the locus of encounter with difference and one’s own self as it is reflected back through the mirroring and responses of others. Anyone who has sat in a group analytic context will have had a radicial encounter with the dialectic of intersubjectivity. Group analytic settings are also epxriences of radical uncertainty: no one knows what the participants in the group will talk about, and how the themes talked about will continue to organise the experience of being together in the group.

Group meetings on the DMan programmes are opportunities to practice sitting with uncertainty, to encounter self/difference, and to develop reflexivity: in Elias’s terms we might understand this as becoming more detached about our involvement.

This is a very brief overview of the key influences on the development of the body of ideas we term complex responsive processes of relating. It still offers a radical alternative to ways of thinking about human organising which does not depend on assumptions that social life is predictable, and that human beings are autonomous rational animals maximising their utility. By drawing on the complexity sciences and clothing insights derived therefrom in social theories, it offers some unsettling insights which might be challenging to managers trained in a more orthodox tradition. The first of these is that we are not closed off from one another, but are interdependent and social through and through. The second is that our interdependence means that we are always exposed to the unintended consequences of the interweaving of everyone’s intentions: we cannot predict or control the future. This is not the same as saying that we shouldn’t try to influence it. And lastly, if what happens does so as a result of what everyone is doing, then the focus of research becomes exactly that: what is it that everyone is doing together, and what sense might we make of it together?



3 thoughts on “Complex responsive processes – 4 pillars of thought, 5 key insights.

  1. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    Great overview! I was wondering, what is meant by unconscious in the context of complex responsive patterns? Is it just the repeating patterns, or does it include also e.g. a thought of some “form” where the patterns emerge from?


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