Journal of the Operational Research Society

, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp 325–342

Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse

General Paper

DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.jors.2601518

Cite this article as:
Ulrich, W. J Oper Res Soc (2003) 54: 325. doi:10.1057/palgrave.jors.2601518


Professional competence in applied disciplines such as OR/MS requires both technical expertise and critically reflective skills. Yet, a widespread misconception has taken hold of the OR/MS community: ‘critical’ and ‘emancipatory’ systems methodologies are opposed to ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ ones as if they were sensible alternatives. Accordingly, adequate ‘methodology choice’ is now widely considered a key condition of reflective professional practice; critical systems thinking (CST) is understood to deal mainly with this issue. The present paper argues that this conception of CST is neither theoretically sound nor conducive to reflective practice. An examination of the two major current strands of CST suggests some basic requirements of an alternative conception: (1) Reflective practice depends more on a framework of critical argumentation and discourse than on a framework of methodology choice. (2) A well-conceived discursive systems approach will give a proper place to the public sphere. (3) The much-discussed emancipatory orientation of CST inheres in the methodological requirements of discourse rather than in an arbitrary ‘commitment’ on the part of the systems practitioner. (4) Systemic boundary critique—the methodological core concept of critical systems heuristics (CSH)—allows us to translate these requirements into practical methodology. (5) Contrary to present conceptions of methodological pluralism or ‘complementarism’, boundary critique must not be subordinated to methodology choice, for it is constitutive of all critical inquiry and practice. These considerations lead to a reconstitution of CST, and to a new view of reflective professional practice in general, as critically systemic discourse.


boundary critiquecritical systems thinkingmethodology choicephilosophy of ORpractice of ORprofessionalism

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of FribourgSwitzerland