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

An Erratum to this article was published on 31 July 2017

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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.

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    An erratum to this article has been published.

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Correspondence to Steven E. Wallis.

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This paper is based on a presentation titled “Existing and Emerging Methods for Integrating Theories Within and Between Disciplines” at the 56th annual meeting of the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS). July 15–22, 2012, at San Jose State University, California.

I appreciate the excellent insights of three anonymous reviewers whose suggestions have led to an improved paper. All remaining mistakes I claim as my own.

An erratum to this article is available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-017-9537-8.

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Wallis, S.E. Abstraction and Insight: Building Better Conceptual Systems to Support More Effective Social Change. Found Sci 20, 189–198 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-014-9359-x

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Keywords

  • Conceptual systems
  • Theory building
  • Abstraction
  • Metatheory
  • Theory of Theory