History/Definition/Theory

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  • "Thus, although Ulrich's (1983) "critical systems heuristics" was an independently developed strand of critical thinking (really emancipatory systems thinking) deriving from Kantian idealism and Churchman's reflections on systems design, when it became known in the United Kingdom it was like the discovery of an element which filled a gap in the periodic table. Critical systems heuristics was arguably capable, where soft systems thinking was not, of providing guidelines for action in certain kinds of coercive situation. It enabled system designs or proposed designs to be carefully interrogated as to their "partiality" and set down criteria for "genuine" debate between stakeholders, which had to include both those involved in systems design and those affected by the designs but not involved," (Jackson 1991, reprinted in Midgeley 2003 v. IV, pg 80).

  • "...critical systems heuristics [was] a reaction to its ["hard" or traditional systems methodologies] innate conservatism," (Jackson 2001, pg 235-236).

  • ""Critical Systems Heuristics" or shorter, "Critical Heuristics," is a framework for reflective practice based on practical philosophy and systems thinking. The basic idea of CSH is to support boundary critique – a systematic effort of handling boundary judgments critically. Boundary judgments determine which empirical observations and value considerations count as relevant and which others are left out or are considered less important. Because they condition both "facts" and "values," boundary judgments play an essential role when it comes to assessing the meaning and merits of a claim," (excerpted from Ulrich 2005, "A Mini-Primer of Critical Systems Heuristics,"see below under links).

  • "Critical Heuristics (or by its full name: Critical Heuristics of Social Systems Design) is a new approach to both systems thinking and practical philosophy, an approach that aims to help the applied scientist in respect to this task... [it] concentrates on providing planners as well as affected citizens with the heuristic support they need to practice practical reason, i.e. to lay open, and reflect upon, the normative implications of systems designs, problem definitions, or evaluations of social programs," (Ulrich 1987, reprinted in Midgeley 2003 v. IV, pg 15).
  • Note: as Ulrich defines it, I have difficulty seeing a substantive difference between Critical Heuristics/Critical Systems Heuristics and Boundary Critique. Indeed, in the abstract to his 2003 paper, listed below, Ulrich calls Boundary Critiquethe "methodological core" of critical systems heuristics. It seems to me that they are two (or three) terms for the same concept.--CL. Ulrich writes that there are three key concepts in Critical Heuristics:
1. Justification Break-Offs As Boundary Judgments (Whole Systems Judgments
  • By justification break-offs Ulrich means that, "...applied science, whenever it really gets applied, tends to affect citizens that have not been involved in the scientific justification of its propositions," (Ulrich 1987, reprinted in Midgeley 2003 v. IV, pg 14).
  • He writes that boundary judgments about what belongs in the "system" and what in the "environment" are twofold:
    • "as whole systems judgments, i.e. the designer's assumptions about what belongs to the sections of the real world to be studied and improved and what falls outside the reach of this effort;
    • as justification break-offs with regard to the demarcation of the context of application that is to be relevant when it comes to justifying the normative implications of a design for those affected by its effects," (Ulrich 1987, reprinted in Midgeley 2003 v. IV, pg 16).
  • He says that "...we cannot understand the meaning of the model (and hence the system in question) if we do not understand the model-environment," (Ulrich 1987, reprinted in Midgeley 2003 v. IV, pg 17).
external image Boundarycategories.jpgexternal image magnify-clip.pngFigure 1: The boundary categories of critical systems heuristics (Source: W. Ulrich, 1983, p. 258; 1996, p. 43; and 2000, p. 256)
2. A Priori Concepts of Practical Reason
  • To systematically examine boundary judgments, there is a list of 12 boundary questions:
  1. "Who ought to be the client (beneficiary) of the system S to be designed or improved?
  2. What ought to the purpose of S i.e. what goal states ought S be able to achieve so as to serve the client?
  3. What ought to be S's measure of success (or improvement)?
  4. Who ought to be the decision taker, that is, have the power to change S’s measure of improvement?
  5. What components (resources and constraints) of S ought to be controlled by the decision taker?
  6. What resources and conditions ought to be a part of S’s environment, i.e. should not be controlled by S’s decision taker?
  7. Who ought to be involved as designer of S?
  8. What kind of expertise ought to flow into the design of S, i.e., who ought to be considered an expert and what should be his role?
  9. Who ought to be the guarantor of S, i.e., where ought the designer seek the guarantee that his design will be implemented and will prove successful, judged by S’s measure of success (or improvement)?
  10. Who ought to belong to the witnesses representing the concerns of the citizens that will or might be affected by the design of S? That is to say, who among the affected ought to get involved?
  11. To what degree and in what way ought the affected be given the chance of emancipation from the premises and promises of the involved?
  12. Upon what world-views of either the involved or the affected ought S’s design be based?" (Ulrich 1987, reprinted in Midgeley 2003 v. IV, pg 18).
3. The Polemical Employment of Boundary Judgments
  • "...the polemical employment of boundary judgments enables ordinary people to expose the dogmatic character of the expert's 'objective necessities' through their own subjective arguments, without even having to pretend to be objective or to be able to establish a true counterposition against the expert," (Ulrich 1987, reprinted in Midgley 2003 v. IV, pg 21).

Related Pages


Relevant Literature

Jackson, M. C. (1991). "The origins and nature of critical systems thinking." Systemic Practice and Action Research 4(2): 131-149. (File)external image Pdf.jpgNotes
Jackson, M. C. 2001. Critical systems thinking and practice. European Journal Of Operational Research 128:233-244. (File)external image Pdf.jpgNotes
Ulrich, W. (1987). Critical heuristics of social systems design. European journal of operational research, 31(3), 276-283. external image Book.jpgNotes
Ulrich, W. 2003. Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse. Journal of the Operational Research Society 54:325-342. (File)external image Pdf.jpgNotes
Ulrich, W. (2005). A Brief Introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics(CSH). Accessed March 21, 2006. www.geocities.com/csh_home/csh.html (File)external image Pdf.jpgNotes

Links