Critical Systems Heuristics

  • Werner Ulrich
  • Martin Reynolds


Critical systems heuristics (CSH) is a framework for reflective professional practice organised around the central tool of boundary critique. This paper, written jointly by the original developer, Werner Ulrich, and Martin Reynolds, an experienced practitioner of CSH, offers a systematic introduction to the idea and use of boundary critique. Its core concepts are explained in detail and their use is illustrated by means of two case studies from the domain of environmental planning and management. A particular focus is on working constructively with tensions between opposing perspectives as they arise in many situations of professional intervention. These include tensions such as ‘situation’ versus ‘system’, ‘is’ versus ‘ought’ judgements, concerns of ‘those involved’ versus ‘those affected but not involved’, stakeholders’ ‘stakes’ versus ‘stakeholding issues’, and others. Accordingly, boundary critique is presented as a participatory process of unfolding and questioning boundary judgements rather than as an expert-driven process of boundary setting. The paper concludes with a discussion of some essential skills and considerations regarding the practice of boundary critique.


Geographic Information System Reference System Boundary Category Reflective Practice Participatory Rural Appraisal 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Achterkamp, M.C., & Vos, J.F J. (2007). Critically identifying stakeholders: evaluating boundary critique as a vehicle for stakeholder identification. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 24(1), 3-14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ackoff, R.L. (1981). Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or Be Planned For. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  3. Berardi, A., Bernard, C., Buckingham-Shum, S., Ganapathy, S., Mistry, J., Reynolds, M., Ulrich, W. (2006). The ECOSENSUS project: co-evolving tools, practices and open content for participatory natural resource management. 2nd International Conference on e-Social Science, 28-30 June, Manchester, UK. Presentation and full paper available in the website of the National Centre for e-Social Science (NCeSS) of the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), Also available in the Open University’s Open Research Online site,
  4. Carr, S. & Oreszczyn, S. (2003). Critical systems heuristics: a tool for the inclusion of ethics and values in complex policy decisions. In Ethics as a Dimension of Agrifood Policy, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics, Toulouse, France, 20-22 March 2003. Paper available in the website of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (EurSafe),
  5. Chambers, R. (1994a). The origin and practice of participatory rural appraisal. World Development, 22(7), 953-969.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chambers, R. (1994b). Participatory rural appraisal: challenges, potentials and paradigm. World Development 22(10), 1437-1454.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chambers, R. (1997). Whose Reality Counts? Putting the Last First. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.Google Scholar
  8. Checkland, P.B. (1981). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Chichester, UK, Wiley.Google Scholar
  9. Churchman, C.W. (1968). The Systems Approach. New York: Delta/Dell Publishing.Google Scholar
  10. Churchman, C.W. (1971). The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  11. Churchman, C.W. (1979). The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  12. Conklin, J. (2005). Dialogue Mapping. Chichester, UK: Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Dewey, J. (1925). The development of American pragmatism. Studies in the History of Ideas 2(Supplement), 353-377.Google Scholar
  14. Fals-Borda, O. (1996). Power/knowledge and emancipation. Systems Practice 9(2), 177-181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York and London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  16. Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  17. Habermas, J. (1984/87). The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 Volumes, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  18. James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kant, I. (1787). Critique of Pure Reason (2nd ed). Transl. by N.K. Smith, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965 (orig. Macmillan, New York, 1929).Google Scholar
  20. Korzybski, A. (1933). A Non-Aristotelian System and its necessity for rigour in mathematics and physics. In A. Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Lakeville, CT: International Non-Aristotelian Library, pp. 747-761.Google Scholar
  21. Peirce, C.S (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly 12(January), 386-302.Google Scholar
  22. Reynolds, M. (1998). ‘Unfolding’ natural resource-use information systems: fieldwork in Botswana. Systemic Practice and Action Research 11(2), 127-152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Reynolds, M. (2004). Churchman and Maturana: enriching the notion of self-organisation for social design. Systemic Practice and Action Research 17(6), 539-556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Reynolds, M. (2007). Evaluation based on critical systems heuristics. In B. Williams and I. Imam (eds.), Systems Concepts in Evaluation: An Expert Anthology, Point Reyes, CA: Edge Press, pp. 101-122.Google Scholar
  25. Reynolds, M. (2008a). Getting a grip: a critical systems framework for corporate responsibility. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 25(3), 383-395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Reynolds, M. (2008b). Reframing expert support for development management. Journal of International Development 20(6), 768-782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Reynolds, M., Berardi, A., Bernard, C., Bachler, M., Buckingham-Shum, S., Mistry, J., Ulrich, W. (2007). ECOSENSUS: developing collaborative learning systems for stakeholding development in environmental planning. Curriculum, Teaching & Student Support Conference, The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1-2 May 2007. Paper available in the Open University’s Open Research Online site, Also available through the site of the Knowledge Media Institute,
  28. Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Bern, Switzerland, and Stuttgart, Germany: Haupt. Paperback reprint version, Chichester, UK: Wiley, 1994 (same pagination).Google Scholar
  29. Ulrich, W. (1987). Critical heuristics of social systems design. European Journal of Operational Research 31(3), 276-283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ulrich, W. (1988a). Systems thinking, systems practice, and practical philosophy: a programme of research. Systems Practice 1(2), 137-163.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ulrich, W. (1988b). Churchman’s ‘process of unfolding’ - its significance for policy analysis and evaluation. Systems Practice 1(4), 415-428.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ulrich, W. (1993). Some difficulties of ecological thinking, considered from a critical systems perspective: a plea for critical holism. Systems Practice 6(6), 583-611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ulrich, W. (1996). A Primer to Critical Systems Heuristics for Action Researchers. Hull, UK: University of Hull, Centre for Systems Studies.Google Scholar
  34. Ulrich, W. (2000). Reflective practice in the civil society: the contribution of critically systemic thinking. Reflective Practice 1(2), 247-268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ulrich, W. (2001). The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 18(1), 3-28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ulrich, W. (2002). Boundary critique. In H.G. Daellenbach and R.L. Flood (eds.), The Informed Student Guide to Management Science, London: Thomson Learning, pp. 41-42.Google Scholar
  37. Ulrich, W. (2003). Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse. Journal of the Operational Research Society 54(4), 325-342.MathSciNetzbMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ulrich, W. (2004). C. West Churchman, 1913-2004 (obituary). Journal of the Operational Research Society,55(11), 1123-1129.zbMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Ulrich, W. (2005). A brief introduction to critical systems heuristics (CSH). Paper available in the Open University’s ECOSENSUS project web site,, or in the CSH section of Werner Ulrich’s Home Page,
  40. Ulrich, W. (2006). Critical pragmatism: a new approach to professional and business ethics. In L. Zsolnai (ed.), Interdisciplinary Yearbook of Business Ethics, Vol. 1, Oxford, UK, and Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, pp. 53-85.Google Scholar
  41. Ulrich, W. (2007a). Philosophy for professionals: towards critical pragmatism. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 58(8), 1109-1113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ulrich, W. (2007b). The greening of pragmatism (three reflections on the past, present, and future of critical pragmatism). Ulrich’s Bimonthly, March-April, May-June, and September-October 2007,
  43. Ulrich, W. (2008). The mainstream concept of reflective practice and its blind spot. Ulrich’s Bimonthly, March-April 2008,
  44. Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Open UniversityMilton KeynesUnited Kingdom

Personalised recommendations