Complex as well as Commodified Knowledge:

EKM diagram 2009-08-05 (rw)
Here is a diagram of the key issues, which is: How can we integrate the way knowledge is created, shared and managed, across both formalised and emergent (or positivist and complex) forms of knowledge? Both are part of, and linked to, strategic knowledge.


And this is a brief discussion of the diagram, from an article that has been submitted to EKM ....

We have already analysed the transition from ante-formal knowledge into formalised knowledge. We now need to do the same for complex knowledge, or knowledge of complex adaptive systems, in which the variables are ‘variables with attitude’ i.e. they are self-organising, self-reproducing, and have their own identities which they seek to maintain (and adapt) for their survival in their own particular ecological niche (see the central column of the diagram above).

Complex adaptive systems do not yield the predictability and control of commodified knowledge (Cilliers 2005, Snowden & Boone 2007). They yield, instead, models and simulations of the way Complex Adaptive Systems and Networks behave. They do yield coherence, but it is retrospective coherence, rather than prospective coherence; i.e. emergent trends and properties rather than predictability.

So complex systems and predictable/ command-and-control systems are fundamentally different: different epistemologies, different kinds of variables, and different outcomes. But both are components of strategic knowledge, and both are ‘sciences’, in the sense that they both aim to model empirical phenomena in ways that can be understood by a wide range of other people. They both often resort to sophisticated mathematical models to achieve this.

However, as Cilliers points out, “we cannot ‘calculate’ the performance of, for example, complex social systems in their complexity, we have to reduce that complexity, we have to make choices … [therefore] there will always be some form of creativity involved when dealing with complexity … [i.e.] a careful and responsible … imagining [of] the future” (2005:264). Cilliers says that complexity helps us to “acknowledge the limitations of our understanding … [so] the failure to acknowledge the complexity of a certain situation is not merely a technical error, it is an ethical one” (p256).

A crucial difference between knowledge of complexity as opposed to commodified knowledge is that within complexity you have to take identities and ecological context into account. This means that when you apply the knowledge of complexity, you participate in and engage with social and biological ecologies, which results in emerging properties and undetermined outcomes, which have to accommodate and incorporate the changing biological and social identities and strategies of the live ‘variables’ (including yourself) that you are dealing with. An interesting example of the shift along just these lines is the way in which the changes in the management of quality assurance in higher education research have been described, in Bibliometrics (Corbyn, 2007: 18):

"The Times Higher
understands that, after next year's RAE, funding chiefs will measure the number of citations for each published paper in large science subjects as part of the new system to determine the allocation of more than £1 billion a year in research funding … But the report, by consultants Evidence Ltd, also highlights a series of potential threats to the credibility of a citations system, including likely changes in researchers' behaviour to maximise their performance.

‘It is facile to pretend that all behavioural effects can be anticipated and modeled,’ the report says. ‘The metrics system will be assaulted, from the day it is promulgated, by 50,000 intelligent and motivated individuals deeply suspicious of its outcomes (+). There will be consequences.’ "


2009-08-05: This is an earlier paper, which is now being rewritten for submission for 2010.

Complex as well as Commodified Knowledge:

beyond the post/modernist divide

Roy Williams
Final Draft 2008-04-09
[The draft paper can be read here ....

This is from the final draft of the paper, the conclusion has been changed quite a bit, the abstract is much the same. ...

There has been a long-standing battle, between the ‘positivist’ and the ‘interpretivist’ schools of research which have fallen across the divides between modernism and post-modernism, quantitative and qualitative research, and natural and social sciences, respectively. The problem is that everyone claims that they are talking about the same thing: that there is a single ‘subject matter’ for research, and therefore there can only be one ‘right’ approach, or methodology, and only one ‘winner’. The development of the physical, biological and social ‘sciences’, however, points us to a far more ‘practical epistemology’. This ‘practical epistemology’ is far less ideological, and is based on a more nuanced model of how ‘formal knowledge’ is created, as complex and commodified knowledge, which can both be applied, in appropriate contexts, to biological and social subject matter.

We now have a much richer framework for understanding Strategic Knowledge in the Knowledge Process Cycle (#2). Strategic Knowledge now involves not only the best fit between formal procedures and contextual analysis (both within metasemiotics), it also has to take complexity into account, which opens up the model far more explicitly, to encompass and integrate complex as well as commodified knowledge. This provides a more comprehensive model than the basic Knowledge Process Cycle (KPC #1).

Complex knowledge and commodified knowledge are different ways of engaging with the world. They can both be employed to engage with some of the same phenomena; elements of the biological and social worlds can be treated as if they are objects, and in fact can be ‘made’ to do so, up to a point.

Beyond that point, the consequences can be disastrous: ecologically and politically. The reason is simply that biological and social variables do, precisely, have ‘attitude’ – i.e. their own ‘ideas’ about what they are, contained in their molecular and social genes and memes; they have self-replicating identities, albeit identities that are dynamic, and that evolve and devolve in response to their environment.

What this calls for is an approach to the physical, biological and social worlds that is essentially a practical epistemology, i.e. an approach which recognises:

  1. The impressive value, limitations, and feral tendencies of social systems based on metasemiotics and commodified information.
  2. Biological and social systems are inherently complex adaptive networks, and that social systems are increasingly immersed in virtual adaptive networks.
  3. The relationship between complex and commodified knowledge is not exclusive: when we model complex systems, we (must) also use commodified knowledge, to inform us of the behaviour and properties of the physical elements within our models: i.e. complex as well as commodified knowledge.
  4. The nature of many social, financial, educational and dissident systems has shifted into micro-global ‘light’ structures, with substantial virtual gearing.
  5. It can be useful, up to a point, to subject some social and biological phenomena to an approach based on metasemiotics: the codicil is that long error bars must be recognised as indicators that these domains are inherently complex systems, and that in complex adaptive systems, coherence is retrospective.
  6. Consequently, engagement with the biological and social worlds has to be, precisely, engagement within, rather than control of those worlds, as complex worlds: i.e. a practical epistemology.