Foundations of Science

, Volume 19, Issue 4, pp 353–362 | Cite as

Abstraction and Insight: Building Better Conceptual Systems to Support More Effective Social Change

Article

Abstract

When creating theory to understand or implement change at the social and/or organizational level, it is generally accepted that part of the theory building process includes a process of abstraction. While the process of abstraction is well understood, it is not so well understood how abstractions “fit” together to enable the creation of better theory. Starting with a few simple ideas, this paper explores one way we work with abstractions. This exploration challenges the traditionally held importance of abstracting concepts from experience. That traditional focus has been one-sided—pushing science toward the discovery of data without the balancing process that occurs with the integration of the data. Without such balance, the sciences have been pushed toward fragmentation. Instead, in the present paper, new emphasis is placed on the relationship between abstract concepts. Specifically, this paper suggests that a better theory is one that is constructed of concepts that exist on a similar level of abstraction. Suggestions are made for quantifying this claim and using the insights to enable scholars and practitioners to create more effective theory.

Keywords

Conceptual systems Theory building Abstraction Metatheory  Theory of theory 

References

  1. Ackermann, F., & Eden, C. (2004). Using causal mapping: Individual and group, traditional and new Chichester. In M. Pidd (Ed.), Systems modeling: Theory and practice. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  2. Ambrose, D. (1996). Unifying theories of creativity: Metaphorical thought and the unification process. New Ideas in Psychology, 14(3), 257–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Appelbaum, R. P. (1970). Theories of Social Change. Chicago: Markham.Google Scholar
  4. Axelrod, R., & Cohen, M. D. (2000). Harnessing complexity: Organizational implications of a scientific frontier. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  5. Baake, K. (2003). Metaphor and knowledge: The challenges of writing science (studies in scientific and technical communication). New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bernier, L., & Hafsi, T. (2007). The changing nature of public entrepreneurship. Public Administration Review, 67(3), 488–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boudon, R. (1986). Theories of social change (Trans.: J. C. Whitehouse). Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  8. Burrell, G. (1997). Pandemonium: Towards a retro-organizational theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  9. Curseu, P., Schalk, R., & Schruijer, S. (2010). The use of cognitive mapping in eliciting and evaluating group cognitions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(5), 1258–1291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Daneke, G. A. (1999). Systemic choices: Nonlinear dynamics and practical management. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  11. Daneke, G. A. (1997). From metaphor to method: Nonlinear science and practical management. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 5(3), 249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dekkers, R. (2008). Adapting organizations: The instance of business process re-engineering. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25(1), 45–66.Google Scholar
  13. Dubin, R. (1978). Theory building. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  14. Fedigan, L. (1973). Conceptual systems theory and teaching. Educational Leadership, 30(8), 765–968.Google Scholar
  15. Feuer, L. S. (1995). Varieties of scientific experience: Emotive aims in scientific hypotheses. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.Google Scholar
  16. Fodor, J. A. (1998). Concepts: Where cognitive science went wrong (Oxford cognitive science). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Friedman, K. (2003). Theory construction in design research: Criteria: Approaches, and methods. Design Studies, 24(6), 507–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fuller, T., & Moran, P. (2000). Moving beyond metaphor. Emergence, 2(1), 50–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ghoshal, S. (2005). Bad management theories are destroying good management practices. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(1), 75–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Greenhalgh, T., et al. (2005). Storylines of research in diffusion of innovation: A meta-narrative approach to systematic review. Social Science and Medicine, 61, 417–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hammond, D. (2003). The science of synthesis: Exploring the social implications of general systems theory. Boulder, CO: University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hatch, M. J., & Yanow, D. (2008). Methodology by metaphor: Ways of seeing in painting and research. Organization Studies, 29(1), 23–44. doi:10.1177/0170840607086635.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hung, D. W. L. (2002). Metaphorical ideas as mediating artifacts for the social construction of knowledge: Implications from the writings of Dewey and Vygotsky. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29(2), 197.Google Scholar
  24. James, W. (1909). A pluralistic universe (Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy). UK: Manchester.Google Scholar
  25. Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science (Chandler Publications in Anthropology and Sociology). San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  26. Kessler, E. H. (2001). The idols of organizational theory from Francis Bacon to the Dilbert Principle. [Essay]. Journal of Management Inquiry, 10(4), 285–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kuipers, B. (1982). The “map in the head” metaphor. Environment and Behavior, 14(2), 202–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Letiche, H., & van Uden, J. (1998). Answers to a discussion note: On the ‘Metaphor of the Metaphor’. Organization Studies, 19(6), 1029–1033. doi:10.1177/017084069801900606.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. MacIntosh, R., & MacLean, D. (1999). Conditioned emergence: A dissipative structures approach to transformation. Strategic Management Journal, 20(4), 297–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Morgan, G. (1980). Paradigms, metaphors, and puzzle solving in organization theory. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25(4), 605–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Morgeson, F. P., & Hofmann, D. A. (1999). The structure and function of collective constructs: Implications for multilevel research and theory development. Academy of Management Review, 24(2), 249–265.Google Scholar
  33. Ostroff, C., & Bowen, D. E. (2000). Moving HR to a higher level: HR practices and organizational effectiveness. In K. J. Klein & S. W. J. Kozlowski (Eds.), Multilevel theory, research, and methods in organizations: Foundations, extensions, and new directions (pp. 211–266). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  34. Phillips, B., & Johnstone, L. (2007). The invisible crisis of modern sociology: Reconstructing sociology’s fuindamental assumptions. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.Google Scholar
  35. Quine, W. V. O. (1980). From a logical point of view. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Robbins, D. (2000). Vygotsky’s psychology–philosophy: A metaphor for language theory and learning. New York: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  37. Rogers, P. J. (2008). Using programme theory to evaluate complicated and complex aspects of interventions. Evaluation, 14(1), 29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Roller, D., & Roller, D. H. D. (1954). The development of the concept of electric charge: Electricity from the Greeks to Coulomb (Vol. 8, Harvard case histories in experimental science). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Seabury, M. B. (1991). Critical thinking via the abstraction ladder. English Journal, 80(2), 44–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Shotter, J. (2005). Inside the moment of managing: Wittgenstein and the everyday dynamics of our expressive–responsive activities. Organization Studies, 26(1), 113–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Smith, M. E. (2003). Changing an organisation’s culture: Correlates of success and failure. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 24(5), 249–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Speicher, M. (1997). Theory, metatheory, metaphor-introduction. Clinical Social Work Journal, 25(1), 7–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Stacey, R. D. (1996). Complexity and Creativity in Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.Google Scholar
  44. Tetlock, P. E. (1985). Integrative complexity of American and Soviet foreign policy rhetoric: A time-series analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(6), 1565–1585.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Thagard, P., & Stewart, T. C. (2011). The AHA! experience: Creativity through emergent binding in neural networks. Cognitive Science, 35(1), 1–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Uzzi, B., & Spiro, J. (2005). Collaboration and creativity: The small world problem. American Journal of Sociology, 111(2), 447–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wallis, S. E. (2008). Validation of theory: Exploring and reframing Popper’s worlds. Integral Review, 4(2), 71–91.Google Scholar
  48. Wallis, S. E. (2009a). Seeking the robust core of organisational learning theory. International Journal of Collaborative Enterprise, 1(2), 180–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wallis, S. E. (2009b). Seeking the robust core of social entrepreneurship theory. In J. A. Goldstein, J. K. Hazy, & J. Silberstang (Eds.), Social entrepreneurship and complexity. Litchfield Park, AZ: ISCE Publishing.Google Scholar
  50. Wallis, S. E. (2010a). The structure of theory and the structure of scientific revolutions: What constitutes an advance in theory? In S. E. Wallis (Ed.), Cybernetics and systems theory in management: Views, tools, and advancements (pp. 151–174). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.Google Scholar
  51. Wallis, S. E. (2010b). Toward a science of metatheory. Integral Review, 6 (Special Issue: “Emerging Perspectives of Metatheory and Theory”).Google Scholar
  52. Wallis, S. E. (2010c). Towards developing effective ethics for effective behavior. Social Responsibility Journal, 6(4), 536–550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wallis, S. E. (2011). Avoiding policy failure: A workable approach. Litchfield Park, AZ: Emergent Publications.Google Scholar
  54. Wallis, S. E. (2013). How to choose between policy proposals: A simple tool based on systems. E:CO-Emergence: Complexity & Organization, 15(3), 94–120.Google Scholar
  55. Wallis, S. E. (in press: publication anticipated in 2014). A systems approach to understanding theory: Finding the core, identifying opportunities for improvement, and integrating fragmented fields. Systems Research and Behavioral Science.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Foundation for the Advancement of Social TheoryPetalumaUSA
  2. 2. Capella UniversityMinneapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations