Printer Friendly

The tension between holism and pluralism: comment on 'creative holism'.


Systems movement results in systems thinking or systems schools about management. British scholar Peter Checkland calls the systems thinking for 'problem-solving' 'applied systems thinking', and sub-divides contemporary applied systems thinking into hard/soft systems thinking, which pioneers the research school of applied systems thinking (Checkland, 1981).

It can be said that applied systems thinking began about the time of the Second World War for coping with the complexity of military systems, and then gained rapid development both theoretically and practically with a batch of systems methodologies or methods with various specialities and strengths emerged such as operational research, systems engineering, systems analysis, system dynamics, organizational cybernetics, interactive management and planning, social systems design, soft systems methodology, soft operational research, critical systems heuristics etc. (Jackson, 2000: pp. 96-99). Since the problems those methodologies deal with are with different complexity, different systems methodologies tend to have different goal orientation, imply different theoretical assumption, form different approaches and even use different languages. In short, they form different methodology paradigms (Kuhn, 1970). Therefore, some scholars such as Flood and Jackson (1991a, b), Mingers and Brocklesby (1996), Zhu (1999a, b) and so on have pointed out that in order to understand and handle management complexity, human beings have created a new complex issue: how to understand and make good use of these different methodologies?

In the past decade, a group of British scholars have been exploring the issue and presented a variety of theories, among whom Professor Michael C. Jackson in Hull University has put forth in recent years creative holism, trying to construct a metamethodology of pluralism that 'seeks to be multi-paradigm, multi-methodology and multi-method in orientation' (Jackson, 2006: p. 648) to integrate various systems methodology paradigms, and to provide an internal consistent approach in support of methodology and theory in systems thinking, thus being creative and holistic. The framework provides us with a program of a new research perspective, constructing a distinctive theory and offering more effective practical guidance for managers. However, the ideas of creative holism have aroused heated discussions among the academia.


Contemporary systems movement can be viewed as a loose joint movement among researchers in various disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, engineering and other fields (Yan et al., 2006: p. 25). The research fields can be divided into the following three systems movement: study of systems thinking in various disciplines, study of systems science itself and study of systems thinking for 'problem-solving' (Jackson, 2000: p. 92). Systems methodology is important in all these three fields, but manifests different research types.

According to Checkland and Holwell (1998) on the research elements, any research can be divided into three types. Gibbons et al. call the first two types Mode 1 whose main interest and goal are to develop and improve the ideas and theories of a particular subject, while the third type is called Mode 2 which is characterized by the following three points: (1) it is in favour of a particular interest in application rather than in theory, which is, to solve practical problems, rather than theoretical perfection; (2) it bases its methodology on interdisciplinary theories, or, theories supporting its methodologies are not undertaken by a single subject; (3) it focuses on methodology, and methodology is seen as a kind of transferable problem-solving capability (Jackson, 2000: p. 14).

On the basis of the above division, the study of systems methodologies can also be divided into the above two research patterns. In systems thinking in various disciplines and systems science itself, the study of systems methodologies are mainly theoretical, or to say it belongs to Mode 1. Especially the study of systems science itself focuses more on the generality and purity of theories. While the systems methodologies in applied systems thinking belong to Mode 2, which put special emphasis on problem-solving and put client and user objectives first. In Mode 2, systems methodologies have special status and strengths. On the one hand, systems methodology embodies abstract and generalized systems thinking, theories and concepts, just like a transformer or bridge to connect systems thinking to real-world problems. On the other hand, due to its directly facing problem-solving, real-world complexity has become the direct driving force to stimulate the continuous development and improvement of systems methodology. Therefore, applied systems thinking should be employed to understand and deal with various systems methodologies and their relationship in management, while at the same time to seek interdisciplinary theoretical support for methodologies.

Creative holism is just the one that employs applied systems thinking, facing real-world problems and focusing on methodologies without losing theoretical supports. Based on this research approach, it further emphasizes that the theories underpin systems methodologies can only come from sociological theories, because systems thinking is strong on practice, but is relatively weak on theory (Jackson, 2000: p. 16). In order to better understand and improve systems methodologies, social theories are required to be taken as the theoretical support, namely, the theoretical framework of systems methodologies is sociological theoretical paradigms. The research approach of creative holism has its unique features manifesting two potential strengths.

First, it is possible for systems methodologies to avoid becoming a 'pure toolkit' with no or needing no theoretical basis or explanation when in problem-solving practice, or falling into Feyerabend's 'anything goes' and in fact becoming methodological contradictions of 'against method'.

Second, creative holism takes sociological theories to underpin systems methodologies so that sociological theories, systems methodologies and management are linked to combine and promote each other, for example, resulting in critical systems thinking and so on, which can be said to be pioneering in the study of applied systems thinking. By doing so, not only the cross-disciplinary research tradition of systems science is inherited, but also an appropriate theory coalition of social theories has been found.

However, it should be pointed out that further work needs to be done for creative holism to manifest its features and strengths. In building theoretical framework for systems methodologies, it is necessary to connect to social theories. However, creative holism depends too much on a particular theory in sociology, for example, Morgan's theory; at the same time, it underestimates systems science to theoretically underpin systems methodologies, believing systems thinking is weak on theory and cannot provide much resource for theoretical construction. The result is, when providing theoretical illustration for systems methodologies, creative holism sometimes seems a bit far-fetched and lack of internal logic. For example, the four key sociological paradigms adopted mainly comes from Burrell and Morgan's 'ideal-type' grid and analysis of sociological paradigms and organization (Burrell and Morgan, 1979), and later added postmodernism as a supplement (Alvesson and Deetz, 1996), thus formed four key paradigms in social theories: functionalist, interpretive, emancipatory and postmodern. However, what is the reason of the four paradigms to be improved and underpin systems methodologies? Can they theoretically illustrate and support existing or possible systems methodologies? Those questions remain unanswered. Therefore, sociological theories are really good resources in seeking for and constructing theoretical framework for systems methodologies, but it is not sufficient to depend merely on sociological theories or even a specific theory. The thinking of systems science and philosophy of systems science will be important theoretical resources such as the thinking of systemic holism.


Pluralism has become a widely accepted but contentious view in the study of systems thinking and systems methodologies. The emergence of pluralism on the one hand is the requirement of the complexity of problem contexts with uncertainty and diversity, while on the other hand, is response to various methodologies and methods in applied systems thinking. At the same time, it is also affected by the dispute about paradigm incommensurability and the profound impact of post-modern thought (Zhu, 2006: pp. 757-770) in social sciences and organization studies. Many scholars, for example, Gregory (1996), Mingers (1997), Midgley (2000), Jackson (2000) and so on, have presented pluralism with various forms. Their common position is the recognition and acceptance of various systems methodology paradigms, and to seek to protect this diversity. In understanding and dealing with a variety of methodology paradigms, pluralism has become a basic position.

The pluralism programme creative holism provides to understand and make use of a variety of systems methodology paradigms is coherent pluralism, whose position is mainly embodied in the two creative ideas or theories. One is an 'ideal-type' grid of problem contexts and the system of systems methodologies (SOSM), the other is the metamethodology of critical systems practice (CSP).

We have all realized that managers are facing increase in complexity, change and diversity, and the problem contexts are becoming uncertain. So the origin of problem complexity needs to be analysed. Jackson and Keys argued the 'idealtype' grid early in 1984 (Jackson and Keys, 1984: pp. 437-486), and further improved it later (Jackson, 2003: p. 18). It provides us with a new framework of thinking. Figure 1 helps us to understand it. The so-called ideal-type is the sociologist Max Weber's terminology, which refers to an abstract theoretical model. To what extent the real world is suited to its premise, will the real world fit its conclusion to that extent.

As is shown in Figure 1, one dimension defines the degree of systems complexity, and the other the relationship between participants in systems problems. The dichotomy to the degree of complexity and the trisection to relationship of participants yield six different 'ideal-type' forms of problem contexts. Different systems methodologies fit different problem contexts, thus a system of systems methodologies (SOSM) has formed (see Figure 2).

From various assumptions of the essence of problem contexts, the six 'ideal-type' grid of problem contexts and SOSM provide a theoretical framework and basis for the pluralism of systems methodologies, manifesting its basic position of pluralism, and being helpful for managers to better understand and grasp the goal orientation and scope of application of various systems methodology paradigms and the relationship between systems methodologies. It is the first important landmark on the way to advocate and implement pluralism in critical systems thinking (Jackson, 2000: p. 380). On this basis, SOSM further corresponds and combines with metaphor and the four sociological paradigms, forming the methodology creative holism claims to be creative. It can be seen that SOSM is not only the primary embodiment of creative holism, but also the logical basis and characteristics of its theoretical framework.

However, strengths sometimes become weaknesses. First, in order to describe more clearly the problem context and the corresponding methodology and sociological paradigm, SOSM emphasizes too much on the one-one correspondence between them, namely, it prominently labels each systems methodology, belonging to certain problem context is belonging to certain sociological paradigm. But the question is: are these labels appropriate? Do people who construct and make use of the systems methodology agree with the label? For example, is soft systems methodology only adapted to problem contexts of simple-pluralist and complex-pluralist? Is it not adapted to that of complex-coercive? Does it belong to interpretive or emancipatory paradigm, or both (see also Zhang, 2010 on this issue)? What kind of methodology would the newly formed approaches in systems science such as computer simulation and genetic algorithm belong to? Do they only belong to the functionalist paradigm? Second, it may not be perfect to divide problem contexts according to two dimensions. Whether the dimension of managers should be added as a complement and thus form three dimensions? Because a complex management system should be seen as a constructive unity of agents and objects, not a pure object system without agents. Those issues should all be illustrated or improved in creative holism.

The metamethodology proposed by creative holism, Critical Systems Practice (CSP), is a 'problem-solving' programme to cope with the diversity of theories and paradigms, whose key points or main characteristics are as follows.

First, it advocates coherent pluralism, which is different from the so-called unreflective pluralism, pluralism as postmodernism and pluralism as a new paradigm (Jackson, 2000: pp. 384-385). Coherent pluralism believes (1) it needs to accept paradigm incommensurability or incompatibility. A metamethodology must accept that paradigms are based upon incompatible philosophical assumptions and it is, therefore, untenable to believe that paradigm incommensurability can be resolved by reference to a metatheory; (2) metamethodology is to protect paradigm diversity and handle the relationships between divergent paradigms instead of controlling paradigms from above them; (3) metamethodology does not aspire to metaparadigmatic status, and prefers to critically use various paradigms and encourage critiques between paradigms. Paradigms must confront one another on the basis of 'reflective conversation'. No paradigm is allowed to escape from the confrontation because it is continually confronted by alternative rationales offered by other paradigms (Jackson, 2000: p. 387).

Second, metamethodology is not metaparadigm.

It has to manage the paradigms, not by aspiring to metaparadigmatic status and allocating them to their respective tasks, but by mediating between the paradigms (Jackson, 2000: p. 387).

... to take maximum advantage of the benefits to be gained from using methodologies premised upon alternative paradigms together, and also encourages the combined use of diverse methods, models, tools and techniques, in a theoretically and methodologically informed way, to ensure maximum flexibility in an intervention (Jackson, 2000: p. 387).

Metamethodology implements its position of pluralism through the four steps of the implementation process as well as the four generic systems methodologies, making integration and application at the three levels of methods, methodologies and paradigms, thus ensuring maximum flexibility and diversity. However, in order to insist on pluralism, creative holism discards metatheory underpinning metamethodology, presenting only three philosophical commitments of metamethodology to be the theoretical supports for CST, which are 'critical awareness', 'pluralism' and 'improvement'. Discarding metatheory not only fails to properly highlight the characteristics of applied systems thinking, but also is absolutely unnecessary. Analysis will be made in the next part.


Creative holism insists on pluralism, clearly and definitely rejecting isolationism, imperialism and pragmatism (Jackson, 2003: p. 295), and it repeatedly states that CSP or creative holism is a metamethodology rather than a metaparadigm (Jackson, 2000: p. 387). That is to say, in the theoretical construction of creative holism, pluralism seems to be incompatible or even conflict with metatheory and metaparadigm. Some scholars have proposed their views or even queries about that, to which Jackson has made responses in some of his works and papers (Jackson, 1997).

As mentioned above, creative holism accepts coherent pluralism, to which we can make analysis as follows.

First, since the premise of the pluralism of creative holism is to accept complete paradigm incommensurability or incompatibility between a variety of systems methodologies, what do metamethodologies base on to use those completely incommensurable paradigms in combination? In fact Kuhn has suffered critiques from all sides after putting forward paradigm incommensurability. He even earned himself bad reputations of 'irrationalist' and 'relativist'. Later, Kuhn has continuously amended his ideas to clarify the understanding of incommensurability on the one hand, and on the other hand to seek a common platform to make rational comparison between incommensurable paradigms. Thus, Kuhn pointed out in the latter part of his study that rather than completely incommensurable, paradigms are locally incommensurable or locally untranslatable (Kuhn, 2000: p. 35). Only part of the terminologies and phrases in different paradigms are completely untranslatable. There are platforms for paradigms to communicate and compare with each other, and the development of paradigms shows certain continuity. According to Kuhn's later year's philosophy, it is not 'complete incommensurability' but 'partial incommensurability between paradigms' that should be accepted when dealing with and using different systems methodologies. For example, the system language used in various systems methodologies, the thinking of systemic holism followed by various systems methodologies and the focus on real-world problem-solving are all common factors between them. Only in this way, can the diversity of systems methodology paradigms be recognized and protected, and the platform for rational comparison between systems methodology paradigms be found to better underpin the use of different systems methodology paradigms in combination.

Then what is the platform for rational comparison between systems methodology paradigms? According to creative holism, the four generic systems methodologies seem to be the common framework for reorganizing or choosing various systems methodology paradigms as well as the standard to assess whether the intervention is successful. For example, the functionalist paradigm seeks for efficiency and efficacy, the interpretive paradigm prioritises effectiveness and elegance, the emancipatory paradigm prioritises empowerment and emancipation and postmodern paradigm values for exception and emotion (Jackson, 2003: pp. 321-322). It can be said that creative holism has made beneficial attempt and the four generic systems methodologies are absolutely important in choosing and assessing various systems methodologies. However, those standards in practice are difficult to make rational judgments, and sometimes even contradict each other. Moreover, the four generic systems methodologies are derived from sociological paradigms, which lack internal inheritance and logic with systems methodologies (the author has pointed it out in part one). Therefore, in order to avoid relativism and irrationalism, it seems to require further demonstration and enhancement for the four generic systems methodologies as well as their standard to be the rational platform and standard of reorganizing various systems methodologies.

Second, creative holism emphasizes itself or CSP as a metamethodology rather than metaparadigm. It believes metamethodology is to provide theoretical principles and directions for the use of different systems methodology paradigms in combination. 'It is untenable to believe that paradigm incommensurability can be resolved by reference to a metatheory' (Jackson, 2003: p. 304). It, therefore, commits to pluralism theoretically (Jackson, 2003: p. 323). However, some of the concepts need further clarification. First, 'meta' in metamethodology must refer to a level higher than methodology, which makes discussions about the property, theoretical assumptions and use of methodologies from a higher level. CSP, therefore, as the metamethodology, is to guide (or even control) or manage the use of various systems methodologies from above the level of various systems methodologies. In other words, the relationship between CSP and various systems methodologies is meta-language to object-language. Meta-language (second order language) 'talks about' object-language (first order language). They are at different levels (according to Russell's paradox and the liar paradox). Second, creative holism metamethodology must have some theory to underpin it, which is the feature of applied systems thinking (as was stated in some part of the paper). Creative holism used to take Habermas's theory of human interests as its metatheory, but gave it up later on. However, it abandons the needs of metatheory at the same time when giving up Habermas's theory, which is like to 'throw the baby out with the bath water'. Metatheory lies at the same level of metamethodology. If methodology is some kind of theory, metatheory is 'talking about' this theory. Therefore, any theory underpinning metamethodology must be 'metatheory' unless it is not called metamethodology or it needs no theory to talk about methodologies. Third, as a theoretical whole (monism) supporting multimethodology, metatheory is compatible with pluralism. It can be a theory about pluralism or other theories. A theoretical whole is the unity of the tension between monism and pluralism unless it is postmodernism of Feyerabend and so on that advocates complete pluralism, which means no methods exist. Finally, any whole formed by metatheory and metamethodology is a kind of metaparadigms. Different metatheories and metamethodologies constitute different metaparadigms. Creative holism can just be taken as a kind of metaparadigms to deal with and make use of various systems methodology paradigms. Similarly, metaparadigm does not lay at the same level as various systems methodology paradigms, and it belongs to a higher-order language. Metaparadigm, therefore, is not contradictory to the pluralism of systems methodology paradigms. The unity of metatheory and metamethodology is a new holistic paradigm, the integral unity and plurality of which are not in opposition or exclusion. There is a necessary tension between holism and pluralism.

According to the above analysis, the paper believes it is not necessary for creative holism to evade metatheory, nor does it deny itself being metaparadigm. The metaparadigm of creative holism does not mean hegemonism, because it is compatible with and upholding pluralism; nor would it be only 'toolkit' pragmatism, because metatheory provides theoretical basis for flexibly choosing and using various methodologies and approaches. Moreover, metaparadigm may also include factors of pragmatism, because realworld problem-solving has always been the fundamental purpose of creative holism and an empirical basis for paradigm choosing. There fore, in order to become more holistic, creative holism needs to rationally build the metatheory as well as its relationship with metamethodology, which is to become a kind of metaparadigm compatible with and beyond pluralism. Only in this way can creative holism better reflect its characteristics with theoretical and practical value.

DOI: 10.1002/sres.1025


The paper is supported by the Major Project of Guangdong Academic Humanities and Social Sciences Key Research Base: 'Philosophical Ideas and Methodology of Complex Systems Management' (08JDXM72002), and the Chinese National Fund for Social Sciences: 'Research on the Thought and Methodology of Complex System Holism' (08BZX018).

Received 1 June 2009

Accepted 31 December 2009


Alvesson M, Deetz S. 1996. Critical theory and postmodernist approaches to organizational studies. In Handbook of Organization Studies, Clegg SR, Hardy C, Nord WR (eds). Sage: London; 191-217.

Burrell G, Morgan G. 1979. Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis. Heinemann: London.

Checkland PB. 1981. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Wiley: Chichester.

Checkland PB, Holwell S. 1998. Information, Systems and Information Systems. Wiley: Chichester.

Flood RL, Jackson MC. 1991a. Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention. Wiley: Chichester.

Flood RL, Jackson MC. 1991b. Critical Systems Thinking. Wiley: Chichester.

Gregory WJ. 1996. Discordant pluralism: a new strategy for critical systems thinking? Systems Practice 9: 605-625.

Kuhn T. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Kuhn T. 2000. The Road since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, with an Autobiographical Interview. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Jackson MC, Keys P. 1984. Towards a system of systems methodologies. Journal of the Operational Research Society 35: 473-486.

Jackson MC. 1997. Pluralism in systems thinking and practice. In Multimethodology: The Theory and Practice of Combining Management Science Methodologies, Mingers J, Gill A (eds). Wiley: Chichester.

Jackson MC. 2000. Systems Approaches to Management. Kluwer: New York.

Jackson MC. 2003. Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. Wiley: Chichester.

Jackson MC. 2006. Creative holism: a critical systems approach to complex problem situations. Systems Research and Behavioural Science 23: 647-657.

Mingers J, Brocklesby J. 1996. Multimethodology: towards a framework for critical pluralism. Systemist 18/3: 101-132.

Mingers J. 1997. Towards critical pluralism. In Multimethodology: The Theory and Practice of Combining Management Science Methodologies, Mingers J, Gill A (eds). Wiley: Chichester; 407-440.

Midgley G. 2000. Systems Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology and Practice. Kluwer/Plenum: New York.

Yan ZX, Fan DP, Zhang HX. 2006. An Introduction to Systems Science. People's Press: Beijing; (In Chinese).

Zhang HX. 2010. Soft Systems Methodology and 'soft' philosophy of science. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27: 156-170.

Zhu Z. 1999a. An international project: Systems East & West. Systems Research and Behavioural Sciences 16: 293-294.

Zhu Z. 1999b. The practice of multi-modal approaches, the challenge of cross-cultural communication, and the search for responses. Human Relations 52: 579-607.

Zhu Z. 2006. Complementarism vs. pluralism: are they different and does it matter? Systems Research and Behavioural Science 51: 757-770.

Fan Dongping (1,2) *

(1) School of Public Administration, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, China

(2) Research Centre for Systems Science and Systems Management, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, China

* Correspondence to: Dongping Fan, School of Public Administration, South China Normal University, Guangzhou 510006, China. E-mail:
Figure 1 The six 'ideal-type' grid of problem contexts


SIMPLE    Simple-Unitary    Simple-Pluralist     Simple-Coercive

COMPLEX   Complex-Unitary   Complex-Pluralist   Complex-Coercive

Figure 2 Systems approaches related to problem contexts in
the system of systems methodologies (SOSM)


          HARD                   SOFT      EMANCIPATORY

          SYSTEMS DYNAMICS                 POSTMODERN
          ORGANIZATIONAL                   SYSTEMS
COPYRIGHT 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Research Paper
Author:Dongping, Fan
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Previous Article:Challenge from the philosophy of scientific practice and new empiricism.
Next Article:Theorizing systems methodologies across cultures.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters