Thoughts on Living Dialectics


Marian Naidoo

January 2004



As part of the process of developing my own theory/thesis of my life/learning, I have been focusing on the development of my own living dialectic in relation to the account of dialectics and complex responsive processes described in Ralph Stacey's latest book, Complexity and Group Processes: A Radically Social Understanding of Individuals. Ralph D. Stacey. London. 2003



Ralph Stacey is a member of the Institute of Group Analysis in London and works as a group therapist in the NHS.  He is also Professor of Management and Director of the Complexity and Management Centre at the Business School of the University of Hertfordshire.  He is co-editor, along with Douglas Griffin and Patricia Shaw, of the Routledge series Complexity Emergence in Organisations and author of Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations:  Learning and Knowledge Creation.  The Department at Hertfordshire is recognised as being at the forefront of the relationship between complexity science and human organisations and it has been important for me and the work and research I am involved in to develop and maintain an understanding of their thinking. I approached the reading of this book with great excitement and anticipation about the possibility of learning from the work Stacey has been involved in in the development of a theory of complex responsive process.


In this work Stacey presents his fullest account to date of his theory of complex processes of relating.  He describes this as a human-centred, complexity inspired perspective on life in groups and organisations.  In the forward to this book he identifies the key questions it is addressing as:



I found this list of questions were very similar to the paradigm I am using and developing in my thesis – A living theory of responsive practice, as shown below:-

The questions “who am I” and “How have I come to be who I am?” are represented in my diagram by the box “Identity”. In the work I have been engaged in these questions have been addressed by myself about myself through a process of developing an understanding of my embodied values and in what way I am able to live these values in my practice.  As I have been looking at my own learning in order to improve my practice these values have been able to influence the standards by which I am able to judge my practice. This process has been informed by encouraging the individuals I have been working with to engage in a similar process.  This process has been enabled by the use of a methodology rooted in Theatre for Development as together we engage in a relationship focusing on the sense-making of life in healthcare organisations.  The relational nature of this process for me is crucial.  Stacey has placed emphasis on the importance of relating in his second question “How have we become to be who we are?” He addresses this question through his theory of complex responsive processes.  Stacey places the development of complex responsive process for the reader in the historical perspective of two contrasting streams of Western thought, these are:-


 Firstly that of Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Freud and modern psychoanalysis all of whom claim that the mind is inside a person and the social system is outside.

Secondly and in contrast, Mead, Hegel and Elias who hold the view that both mind and society are essentially identical patterning activities of humans - two aspects of the same process.


Stacey’s theory of complex responsive processes has been developed from his insight into the resonance between the second school of thought and of complexity science.  He argues that the separation of the mind from society forms the basis of the systems theory developed by Kant which then became the foundation of systems thinking. With all systems theory there remains an element of control and predictability.  Complexity science on the other hand has developed from the study of more complex systems that have chaos and unpredictability in common. 


The work on complexity science began in the Santa Fe Institute in America and is now widespread. Examples of complex adaptive systems are often given as the immune system, a colony of termites or the weather.  What these systems have in common is that they are comprised of a large number of individual agents who interact locally.  They also have the ability to be both chaotic and stable at the same time and can demonstrate novelty and emergence.  The science of complex adaptive systems is now being used widely as an analogy for understanding complex organisations – like the health service.  I have found the analogies from the complexity sciences useful in my work and my learning but have also been very aware that these analogies have their limitations.  For Stacey the usefulness is in the understanding that agents can interact and that this interaction can pattern itself without intervention or control.  He also, in his introduction, makes a plea for practitioners to describe their practice.  “If we are not doing what we are writing, the scope for confusion is immense.  I suggest that we need to write about what we are doing” (Stacey. p14. 2003).

This is what I did not find in this book, Stacey does not write about what he is doing.  What he does do in the book is to theorise and to demonstrate the thinking behind the development of the theory of complex responsive processes which has been influenced by the thinking of Elias and Mead.

“The theory of complex responsive processes draws together Elias’ process sociology and Mead’s symbolic interactionism as ways of translating analogies from the complexity sciences into a theory of human action.” (Stacey. p.17. 2003)


I have also found Stacey’s insights into the work of Mead very useful and have found Meads work to have many similarities with the work I have been engaged in when focusing on “relationship”.  Mead is well known for his work which focused on demonstrating how mind and society have evolved together.  Much of this is explained by what he calls gesture-response, here meaning is not communicated from one individual to another but it is in the interaction that meaning happens. 


“Here meaning is emerging in the action of the living present in which the immediate future (response) acts back on the past (gesture) to change its meaning. Meaning is not simply located in the past (gesture) or the future (response) but in the circular interaction between the two in the living present.” (Stacey p.61. 2003)


This can be explored further with improvisation.  I have found improvisation to be a crucial part of developing an understanding of “I” and “I” in relation to/with “you”.  It is also through the process of facilitating this exploration that I have also been able to learn and develop my own practice.  If you consider a very simple improvisation that I have used which involves 4 people.  The room is arranged to resemble a sitting room, using whatever is available.  The four people are asked to enter the space and the brief is that 3 are always to exclude 1.  What happens in this exercise is very interesting as each individual will enter the space already forming their own agenda, trying to direct the conversation in order to not be the person to be excluded by the others.  The participants will very quickly experience how unpredictable their relationships are and how they are meaning making in the action of the living present.  Knowledge, I believe, is created in this way, through our conversation, interacting with each other.  This creates a constant moving forward of ideas, of understanding, creating knowledge in relationship with each other in a truly emergent and authentic way.  In this example in the unfolding scenario of the improvisation but also just as importantly in the improvisational nature of the facilitator, in this case me, bringing forth my embodied knowledge which I respond with, which in turn is being created in the moment.  This I believe to be a living dialect, living in the sense that the theory of my practice is continually emerging in the pedagogical and paradoxical relationships I/we form are forming in this joint action of improving practice.


So in what way does this differ from the dialectic offered in this book?  Stacey describes how the dialectic of Kant differs from that of Hegel in that Kant calls for a synthesis of opposites while Hegel’s dialectic is one of paradox.


“For Kant the dialectic is the hypothesizing of the autonomous individual about an object…….Hegel’s dialectic, in purely technical terms, is a way of thinking, a particular kind of logic to do with the paradoxical movement of thought. It is a logic in which there is the unity of opposites in their dissolution and transition, that is, Aufhebung means negating opposites and preserving them, so raising or transforming them, all at the same time.  In this paradoxical movement a unity of thought emerges.  The new unity of thought not only preserves the opposites but also abolishes them because while they are preserved, their original meanings are modified and the distinctions between them are negated.” (Stacey. P212. 2003)


Stacey is also clear that he is a follower of the dialectics of Hegel.  For me as a reader I cannot find within the chapters of this book the evidence to support this in his practice.  Although he does give some examples of group sessions they give the reader no insight into his learning and in what way the people he is working with in groups where he uses complex responsive processes of relating are influencing his practice.  This is where I believe the difference lies between my own thesis in that I am demonstrating, by showing my practice how my practice is influenced by those I am working with in a

facilitator role in a continuous spiral of emerging knowledge/practice.