Monday, July 29, 2013

Flexible Disciplines, Flexible Boundaries, and Making Meaning

I think I have a bit more to say about boundaries, especially in terms of the boundaries that distinguish the academic disciplines. I've been arguing that the boundaries between, say, history and physics are nowhere near as rigid and as static as academic purists might insist, but neither are the boundaries between history and physics imaginary, capricious, and unnecessary as academic anarchists might insist. (I recognize that I am creating extremes with my contrast of purists and anarchists and that most educationists lie somewhere between or even outside these two extremes, but it helps me to see my point.) Boundaries are both necessary for human activity and knowledge and temporary.

I rely here on a few articles by South African complexity scholar Paul Cilliers and by Dave Snowden's Cynefin Framework, and my argument, I think, makes a basic assumption: that education and educational structures are complex systems tending to the chaotic, rather than complicated systems tending to the simple. I believe this is so despite the enormous energy expended in wrenching education into a simple system. Education ain't simple. It probably isn't even complicated. It's complex, at best. To my mind, then, the biggest problem with academic disciplines is that we try to move them into the simple and/or complicated domains of the Cynefin Framework where their boundaries are fixed, explicit, and easily taught, with clear canons of content and methodologies. In the simple or even complicated domains, it's easy to distinguish the historian from the physicist. In the complex domain, disciplinary and canonical boundaries are much more problematic, though no less useful, even necessary. Paul Cilliers helps me understand this.

In several critiques (Knowledge, Complexity, and Understanding (2000), Knowledge, limits and boundaries (2005), and Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely (2007), for instance), Cilliers argues that knowledge is best understood as an emergent property "constituted within a complex system of interactions". This view of knowledge avoids both extremes of the purist and the anarchist, or as Cilliers more accurately calls them: the fundamentalist and the relativist. As Cilliers says:
An understanding of knowledge as constituted within a complex system of interactions would, on the one hand, deny that knowledge can be seen as atomised ‘facts’ that have objective meaning. Knowledge comes to be in a dynamic network of interactions, a network that does not have distinctive borders. On the other hand, this perspective would also deny that knowledge is something purely subjective, mainly because one cannot conceive of the subject as something prior to the ‘network of knowledge’, but rather as something constituted within that network. The argument from complexity thus wants to move beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy. (Knowledge, limits and boundaries, p. 608)
Knowledge, then, is not representational, "linked to the sign which represents it", but relational, "the result of a dynamic interaction between all the meaningful components in the system … itself a complex process" (Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely, p. 85). This presents an immediate problem, however, given the open nature of complex systems. If complete knowledge must account for an infinite number of interactions across the open boundaries of complex systems, then how do we ever attain actionable knowledge, given that we have a limited amount of time? Because we, as knowledge makers, are ourselves contextualized, and each context limits the number of system components presented for knowledge making. In other words, though a single rose is ultimately connected through its complex interactions to the entire rest of the Universe, the meaning of the rose is constrained when I cut it from my own garden and present it to my wife on Valentine's Day, which provides a bounded context within which meaning can emerge. The boundaries make the emergence of a particular meaning possible.

Of course, the meaning is no more absolute than the boundaries that enable it. In the relatively straightforward example above, the meaning of the rose will be slightly different, perhaps radically different, for me than for my wife as we bring our different contexts to the event, but it will be similar enough that we can at least speak meaningfully with each other—though we should be mindful that the very stuff of most romantic comedies involves the different meanings drawn by men and women from even so well-bounded and commonly shared an event as Valentine's Day. Boundaries in complex systems are not permanent or rigid, though they can persist in recognizable contours for long times.

So to directly address my concerns with Marion Brady's dismissal of disciplinary boundaries, I think he slightly overstates his case. We cannot dispense with boundaries in complex systems such as academic disciplines if we want to create meaning, or knowledge. Likewise, we cannot calcify our boundaries without destroying knowledge. As Cilliers says it:
One can, and often should, emphasise the interrelatedness of systems. Often the boundaries of systems are constructions we impose in order to reduce the complexity. This can lead to oversimplifications, to reductive descriptions of the system. However, if boundaries become too vague, we end up with a kind of holism which does not allow much to be said. … We need limits in order to say something. (Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely, p. 88)
Perhaps, though, Brady's discontent with disciplinary boundaries comes from the usual interpretation of boundaries as "something that separates one thing from another" (Knowledge, limits and boundaries, p. 611). In this view of boundaries, one cannot be both an historian and a physicist at the same time. History and physics are separate things, and one cannot be in both places at once. Of course, complexity and quantum theories ignore this kind of classical logic. Cilliers makes some suggestions about how we might think differently about boundaries, ways that make sense within complex systems.

First, "we should rather think of a boundary as something that constitutes that which is bounded. This shift will help us to see the boundary as something enabling, rather than as confining" (p. 611). From this view, our skins, those well-known and most familiar boundaries, don't separate us from the rest of the world; rather, they enable our interaction with the world by helping to maintain our own integrity as a persisting complex system and providing somewhat stable and recognizable contours that the rest of the world can engage and through which energy and information may be exchanged. Likewise, disciplinary boundaries need not separate historians from physicists, but they should enable useful, valuable interaction between historians and physicists, shifting and stretching as different issues supply different contexts of meaning, again enabling a mutually valuable exchange of energy and information.

Next, we should rethink our physical images about the place of a boundary. We must replace our visual metaphors which force us to think of complex systems "as something contiguous in space." Complex social systems, Cilliers notes, are not necessarily contiguous; thus, "parts of the system may exist in totally different spatial locations." This is certainly the case with history as an academic discipline, which is not a spatially contiguous physical system. This implies that a historian likely belongs to many different complex systems (families, churches, political parties, etc) and "that different systems interpenetrate each other, that they share internal organs." So where's the boundary? It's always provisional, determined by the context referenced at any given time for any given event. Furthermore, Cilliers notes that any node in a system is "never far away from the boundary. If the components of the system are richly interconnected, there will always be a short route from any component to the 'outside' of the system. … the boundary is folded in, or perhaps, the system consists of boundaries only. Everything is always interacting and interfacing with others and with the environment; the notions of 'inside' and 'outside' are never simple and uncontested" (p. 611).

So maybe that can address Brady's concerns with disciplinary boundaries. At least somewhat.
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