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5 Reflecting on experience: the role of second-order abstracting

5 Reflecting on experience: the role of second-order abstracting

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Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   437

identification of categories of experience, articulated in narratives and p

­ hilosophical

arguments, which we might call first-order abstracting from the experience of local

interaction, there was an added generalisation expressed in the mapping and modelling of relationships between the categories, which we might call second-order

abstracting. This is a form of simplification by abstraction which manipulates the

categories of first-order abstractions and therefore operates at yet another remove

from direct experience. This abstraction from the abstraction of categories of experience makes it easier to split the second-order abstraction off from the experience

through reification and so lose the sense of the paradox of immersing and abstracting at the same time. Second-order abstracting activity seeks to simplify, standardise

and measure, so reducing elaboration, multiple interpretations and mystery. The

consequent clarity and uniformity makes it much easier to exert some control on

the activities of others from a distance.

In our ordinary, everyday local interaction with each other, in which we accomplish all our joint activities, we always have been and still are immersing ourselves

in the experience of such interaction and at the same time we are abstracting from

that experience by simplifying, generalising and categorising in the forms of narrative and philosophy as first-order abstracting, and also in the modern world we are

frequently articulating generalisations/idealisations of the categories of experience as

maps and models which can be described as second-order abstracting. Local interaction in the modern world, therefore, necessarily includes the formulation and interpretation of second-order abstractions as one aspect of what we are doing together

in organisations. Certainly, to be included in groups of managers one must be a

skilled participant in the dominant discourse conducted in terms of second-order

abstractions. In our immersion, our preoccupation in the game of ordinary, everyday organisational life, we are together meaningfully patterning our interactions

by drawing upon both the first- (narrative) and second-order (models and maps)

abstractions which have evolved in our community, and in so doing we are together

changing the abstractions in our local interaction. We are largely unconscious of

how we are relying upon abstractions and find it difficult to notice just how readily

we reify them and so cover over our preoccupation in the game.

This activity of second-order abstracting involves the following:

• Objectifying and categorising. Here phenomena from celestial bodies down to

social patterns, modes of thinking and individual human feelings are placed in

well-defined bounded ‘spaces’ where differences within categories are obliterated

and all difference is located at the boundary.

• Measuring the quantitative aspects of these categories (and nowadays the qualitative too by means of quantitative proxies) using standardised measures.

• Averaging out differences within categories and interactions between categories.

• Analysing the data so produced using mathematical, statistical and other analytical techniques.

• Selecting regularities and stabilities and forming hypotheses about relationships

between entities, particularly causal connections often involving, by deduction,

some hidden mechanism or whole.

• Modelling, forecasting, specifying probabilities with given distributions of variances, mapping, articulating rules and schemas.

438  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

• Prescribing rules, laws and moral norms.

• Setting targets, planning, monitoring and envisioning.

The scientific method is the paradigmatic example of the activity of second-order

abstracting. It is also an essential activity for governing the modern state and modern organisations, because its aim is to standardise and so remove diversity to make

activities legible to people at some central point, so enabling some degree of central


How the modern state came to rely on second-order


Scott (1998) provides a number of examples of how the modern state has come to

rely on what he calls ‘state simplifications’, which are what we mean by abstractions. The modern state with its increased centralisation relies heavily on tax revenues to function and it has therefore had to develop an efficient method of taxation.

Until fairly recently in Western Europe, tax collecting was rather arbitrary and open

to cheating. It often involved force and relied heavily on the local knowledge of

tax collectors. The principal problem of reforming the most important of the taxes

in earlier times, the tax on land wealth, was that the practices of land tenure were

extremely intricate and varied considerably from one local context to another –

very different tenure arrangements could be encountered geographically very close

to each other. Detailed local knowledge was required in order to know what it

was possible to collect, hence the need for local tax collectors, and any attempt to

rationalise and centralise tax collection was blocked by the impossibility of those

at the centre gaining knowledge about all the varieties of tenure arrangements. The

locals would always be able to conceal the real situation from uninformed central

tax collectors. In Scott’s terms, the property-owning system was illegible to the state,

and so a centralising state could only succeed if it could impose a legible property

system. This meant that economic activities and all landed wealth had to be identified, measured and attached to some individual or group of individuals. Measuring

wealth and changing tenure arrangements was a major political act. It would be

necessary to impose the reforms, because a simplified, unified and transparent

property system would profoundly shift existing patterns of power relations and so,

naturally, any reforms would be resisted.

An important move in the reform of the property systems of Europe occurred

first in Holland, Denmark and France around the Napoleonic era: cadastral maps

of rural areas were prepared. A cadastral survey is one on a scale sufficiently large

to show accurately the extent and measurement of every field or other block of

land, thus precisely identifying land boundaries. However, accurate measurement

of the immense variations across small areas was not possible. The maps had to be

simplifications of some kind, and the more orderly the actual land tenure practices

the more useful the maps would be. Surveyors then pressed locals to consolidate

their disparate holding of strips of land into neater farms which could be measured.

So the act of measuring was producing patterns of tenure that could be measured.

Measuring was more than a detached scientific act; it was a social, political act as

are all acts of measuring human activity. Simplified and consolidated tenure was

the ideal, but what actually happened in each local situation still varied as locals

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   439

carried out unauthorised consolidations or appeared to be operating according to

­authorised consolidations while they continued to farm their strips as before. However, although not accurate, the abstraction and universality of the maps applied the

same objective standard across the populations. The cadastral map, therefore, makes

local conditions legible to the state but only in a highly simplified way, because the

actual wealth and its taxable capacity depends on its detailed production capacity,

still only known to the locals. No matter how much detail the map makers include,

the maps inevitably remain simplifications based on averages, while farmers rarely

experiences average crops or average rainfalls. Uniform administration requires

standardised measurements and calculations, but they cannot reflect the actual complexity of the farmer’s experience.

Scott emphasises how what seems to be an objective, scientific, value-free activity

of measuring and classifying, in fact, established new institutions administering title

deeds, fees, applications and other matters. The maps were changing the world in

many respects to accord with what could be measured and in doing so they were

shifting patterns of power relations in which administrators became more powerful

and cultivators less so. This early application of measuring, standardising, establishing a property system provides us with important insights into what we are still

doing today in the dominant discourse. The dominant discourse lays great emphasis

on simplifying and abstracting in an attempt to bring about the uniformity which

enables some control from a distance. Attempts at centralised control do require

some imposition of uniformity and in so doing shift patterns of power relations,

which has an effect on shaping behaviour. As an example, take the government targets for the National Health Service in the UK. In the 1990s the government imposed

waiting-time targets on all hospitals in England and Wales, and some ten years later

most hospitals were indeed meeting those targets. Apparently the setting of uniform

targets does shape behaviour.

However, standardising, mapping and modelling inevitably leaves behind real

people, replacing them with simplified averages. So, the activity of second-order

abstracting produces articulations of generalisations and idealisations in relation

to hypothetical wholes which have the effect of focusing on what is believed to be

important across a whole population and this could and often does render invisible

the experience of local interaction. This is by no means a criticism, because without

the activity of second-order abstracting there could be no modern state or policies

of improvement, nor would it be possible to govern large organisations. In reflecting

an ideology of order, rationality, harmony, design, control and improvement, the

activity of second-order abstracting does change the world and is essential for the

kind of lives we live in modernity. However, second-order abstracting does render

rationally invisible the disorder, diversity, deviance, conflict, compromise, manipulation, cheating, trickery, power plays, concealing and revealing of ordinary, everyday

experience which also changes the world and so also needs to be understood.

The activity of second-order abstracting necessarily involves the postulating of

an entity outside our local experience and we easily come to believe that it actually

exists, that we can be outside it, observe it and then ‘move’ it around, or that it is

the only possible way to think. This kind of belief in second-order abstractions is

the foundation of today’s dominant discourse about organisations and management.

What is striking about such formulations is just how thoroughly people disappear

from view. For example, Chris recently attended a meeting of managers who had

440  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

been summoned to a presentation of the next phase of their company’s strategy

prepared by the deputy CEO. The presentation proceeded in a way that one might

expect if one starts from an understanding of strategy based on the perspective of

the dominant discourse: the deputy CEO set out the company’s new vision, mission

and values and an implementation plan. These were developed on the basis of tens of

meetings and discussions with company staff and were then represented with slides

showing nested boxes, hierarchies of superordinate and subordinate goals some of

which were not yet filled in. The vision was the Archimedean point on which the rest

of the strategy hinged. To reassure his audience that he was in control of a managed

process, the deputy CEO even showed slides of blank nested boxes to demonstrate

how the work would unfold. As the meeting continued some of the managers present expressed disquiet at the new vision, which looked very similar to the old vision,

and was told by the deputy CEO that, actually, the board had already made up their

mind what the vision was to be. This provoked disquiet amongst some as to the

point of all the numerous meetings which had been held to consult on the strategy if

key aspects of the strategy had already been decided. To overcome what may have

felt like a growing rebellion, the deputy CEO stuck with his presentation and tried

to reassure them that he knew what he was doing in the development of strategy.

What was interesting about this exchange was how the deputy CEO increasingly

took refuge in the sequence of slides showing boxes and hierarchies as he struggled

to come to terms with the managers in the room and their disgruntlement. The slides

presented an orderly and sequential world which was very different to the live experience of querulous managers he was being invited to deal with.

Second-order abstracting is a major activity in organisations today. It is also a

major aspect of organisational research and management education. Economic,

industrial, and organisational trends are abstractions. Strategy discussions are

abstraction. Vision and mission statements are not only abstract generalisations but

also idealisations of those abstractions. Targets set for public-sector organisations,

or any other organisation for that matter, are abstractions. However, to label as

second-order abstractions so many of the activities that take up peoples’ time in any

organisation is not to denigrate or dismiss such activities. Scott (1998) makes the

point strongly that large-scale change and improvement does require second-order

abstraction; but he also insists that the state simplification, or abstraction, taken on

its own cannot accomplish change or improvement. The second-order abstraction

must be interpreted in terms of local contingent situations in the everyday, practical

activities of people in local situations if they are to have the potential for beneficial

effect. Many organisations create climates of fear which suppress local interaction.

We have a tendency to become so immersed in the abstractions of models and plans

that we collapse the practical art of local interaction into a stereotypical activity

called ‘implementation’ and, as a result, we lose sight of what is happening until it is

too late. This is the subject of the narrative we set out above concerning the deputy

CEO and his strategy.

A number of thinkers have addressed this theme of over-commitment to secondorder abstractions, the manuals, models and procedures which dominate organisational life in particular. They argue that it has the potential of covering over the

­conditions for both understanding and performing social life when abstractions

make it difficult for people to undertake the necessary improvisation and to fully

recognise themselves and others in social interaction. For example, Gadamer (1993)

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   441

critiques the dominance of technologised understandings of social life in modernity,

where theory has been separated from practice, is manipulated in the abstract, and is

then ‘applied’ back to a social context. The effect, Gadamer argues, is to undermine

people’s practical judgement and to reduce it to a series of technical responses which

leave the practitioner with questions about who they are and what they are doing.

Contemporary organisations often value conformity to procedures and agreement

to be manipulated over a sense of solidarity and the exercise of imagination. Equally

the German sociologist Axel Honneth (2005) tries to revive the concept of reification

from critical theory and to link it to his ideas about recognition. The original members of what became known as the Frankfurt School were very concerned about the

way in which capitalism threatened to instrumentalise human relations. Honneth

finds Lukacs’ (1923/71) original formulation of the idea of reification unconvincing,

but goes on to reformulate it by linking it to his idea of mutual recognition. For him,

reification has serious implications for social life when it causes two things to happen.

The first is when we pursue our goals formed as abstractions so ­one-dimensionally

and uncritically that the original and perhaps more important purpose or experience

from which the goals have been set is lost – the narrative of the deputy CEO talking

to his managers about strategy but missing the importance of the live response from

his audience is a good example of this. Honneth’s second concern is that we become

so taken over by particular cognitive schemata that our understanding of social reality becomes highly selective and prejudiced – this has the potential for our ceasing to

regard others as human beings.

It is not difficult to see the strength of these points in modern corporations. For

example, major banks do have systems of regulation and control which should

prevent rogue traders taking financial positions which jeopardise the whole organisation. However, these regulations can easily be re-interpreted, ignored or circumvented as we see repeatedly. To think that it is enough to set up an abstract system is

to be in constant danger of unpleasant surprises. Equally, in the UK there have been

a number of high profile public-sector scandals where highly regulated organisations

such as hospitals or social services departments have become adept at hitting their

centrally controlled targets, but have missed the point of what they were set up to

do in the first place: care for patients and for vulnerable members of society. What

is called for, then, is a renewed attention to everyday forms of experience and how

particular first- and second-order abstractions are being taken up in ways which

might be helpful but also in ways which might be harmful. Shifting the focus to local

interaction will open up the possibility of reflecting on the usefulness or otherwise of

the abstracting activity we now so blindly undertake in completely taken-for-granted


The interaction of immersing and abstracting activities

Although we have been drawing a conceptual distinction between the activities of

immersing and abstracting, in life they can never be separated: they are paradoxically related in that there is no meaning without abstraction and nothing for meaning to be about without immersion. Without second-order abstraction there could

be no modern states, modern organisations or modern science and without immersion and accompanying first-order abstraction there would be no means to perpetually construct societies, organisations and sciences. Second-order abstractions,

442  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

especially those claiming to accord with science, are very powerful rhetorical ploys

in the m

­ odern world and can certainly be used as techniques of domination, but

they do also create greater ‘visibility’ from a distance and so make some forms of

improvement possible. The ability to express and utilise second-order abstractions,

which reflect powerful modern ideologies of control and improvement, is of major

importance in the inclusion–exclusion dynamics of modern organisations. Secondorder abstracting as described above is an activity that people engage in together in

ordinary local interaction: scientists, administrators, managers, policymakers and

analysts are interacting daily in their own local communities to produce standards,

measures, models, forecasts, targets, plans and monitoring reports. Second-order

abstracting is itself one pattern of local interaction, one way of immersing in local

interaction as suggested above. Also, those engaging in the activity of abstracting are

not simply adopting a distanced, analytical attitude – they are also deeply immersed

in their worlds of abstraction. Richard Dawkins, the popularising scientist of evolution, provides a dramatic example in his latest books and documentary films in

which he displays enormous passion for the scientific abstraction of evolutionary

theory and righteous anger at those who contest it. Scientists are immersed in their

science and the ideology of that science. They are also immersed in the politics of

funding their work. In fact abstractions are not only emerging in local interaction

in one group, but they come to have meaning in how they are taken up in the local

interactions of other groups. Abstractions, by their very nature as generalisations

and simplifications, can only be reflected in conduct through the ways in which people are interpreting them in their own contingent, local interactions. They have to be

particularised or functionalised. So, a chief executive who, after the local interaction

of discussion with colleagues, announces a new vision will discover what this means

in how others take it up, or not, in many other local interactions.

16.6 Reasoning, measuring, forecasting and modelling in

strategic management

Previous sections of this chapter have argued that all reasoning requires phenomena

to be simplified into generalised categories and stereotypes. This was described as

first-order abstracting. Second-order abstracting then focuses on measuring and

manipulating these first-order abstractions in the form of modelling and forecasting

as the basis of technically rational decision making. In reviewing how the processes of organising and strategising are thought about in the dominant discourse,

Chapter  7 pointed to the way in which the process of technical rationality was

increasingly problematised. In the early days of theorising about organisations and

strategy, the emphasis was very much on analytical reasoning applied to quantitative data in order to deduce optimal actions. Strategising was thought about primarily in terms of identifying simple cause-and-effect links so as to choose actions

with a high probability of producing optimal performance. The earliest critiques

of technical rationality pointed to how the ideal of analytical, reductionist, linear,

instrumental reasoning was impossible to apply in practice because of the costs

involved and because of the limited capacity of the human brain. It was argued that

the strategy process in practice was a form of bounded rationality. Even this notion

Chapter 16  Different modes of articulating patterns of interaction emerging across organisations   443

of bounded rationality was found to be an idealisation of reason, because in practice

any ­reasoning process is highly conditioned by the interpretive frameworks in terms

of which people have no option but to think about the situations in which they

have to choose actions. As a result of their interpretive frameworks, people would

inevitably ignore some features of the situation and reach biased views about the

situation, often leading them to inertia and drift. Then, psychodynamic perspectives

point to the role of unconscious, irrational processes in determining what people do

and how this can obstruct rationality. The limitations of objective reasoning processes were even further stressed by those who argued that people together enact:

that is, actively select and create their world of experience. Social constructionists

argued that people create the world of their experience in language. Postmodernism

takes this problematising of objective reasoning a step further in arguing that there

are as many views of the world as there are people and therefore there is no grand

narrative, no theory that can claim to be fundamental in any sense. Taken to its

extreme this leads to a view in which there is no reality out there, only our stories,

and one story is as good as another.

The theory of complex responsive processes continues with this critique of the

strategy process as one of technical rationality, but stops short of postmodernism in

arguing for a way of understanding that does, in a sense, offer a grand narrative and

makes fundamental claims about human relating. It argues that all human relating

is fundamentally conversational and that conversation is, and always was, the conversation of gestures. It argues that all human relating is, and always was, power

relating and it argues that the basis of patterns of power relations is ideological. It

argues that all human experience has a narrative structure and that the criteria for

the choices people make within the ongoing narrative of experience are based on the

evaluative criteria of ideology. It argues that primary experience and the first- and

second-order abstractions which we are capable of making from it are in paradoxical relationship and are thus both important in researching and understanding social

life. In making these claims, the theory of complex responsive process remains firmly

within one tradition of modernism. However, unlike the form of modernism that

we have been calling the dominant discourse, the theory of complex responsive processes remains in the minority, or critical stream of modernism, particularly based

on pragmatism, which thinks that there are limits to, and dangers in taking up the

methods and insights of the natural sciences and ‘applying’ them directly to social

life as though the natural world and the social world are one and the same. The

theory of complex responsive processes problematises human reason much as the

debate in the dominant discourse does, even taking this problematisation a step further in emphasising the fundamentally uncertain and perpetually constructed nature

of human futures and in emphasising the fundamental interdependence of human


However, no matter how problematic, the human capacity for reasoning remains

of great importance and has enormous consequences. The previous chapters in this

part have not mentioned reasoning processes much, simply because these chapters

have been concerned with understanding the basic nature of human agency and

human action of which reasoning is only one aspect. In their communicative interaction, their power relating and their ideologically-based choosing, people employ

their capacity to reason and in fact reflect in a reasoned manner on their very processes of reasoning. After all, despite not mentioning reason, all of the previous

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