7    Abstraction, and theories


Speaking only for myself ...


I wrote in some previous occasional pieces about the "ladder of abstraction".  In this occasional piece I'll add another dimension and begin to discuss the implications for theory.

To begin with the ladder of abstraction ...  C.  West Churchman has a similar concept (The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization.  New York: Basic Books, 1971).  He talks about a fact net.

Below the fact net, raw observations are to be found.  The fact net at its base has theories closely tied to observations.  Gradually more abstracted and more abstract theories are to be found as one moves up through the fact net.

I would add that at the very top of the fact net, or perhaps above it, one might find theories which are entirely abstract.  Such theories have more the quality of logics.

Here you might find systems theory, which might be regarded as a set of related categories into which many phenomena can be classified.  Here too information theory might be found.  It is a metric which can be applied to any phenomena which can be categorised as consisting of signal and noise.

I would now like to add another dimension: the degree of interconnectedness.  At one end (the left, let us say) you might find theories which depend upon few variables and low interconnectedness.  At the other end (towards the right) would be found the theories which involve many variables which are richly interconnected.

Where would you expect to find most models and theories dealing with the behaviour of people in interaction? In the upper right quadrant.  Here are among other theories those that deal with what Peter Checkland (of soft systems methodology fame) calls "human activity systems".

And now I would make the point which is in a sense the purpose of this occasional piece ...  Different parts of the extended fact net contain different theories.

It seems to me that they require very different methodologies to engage with them.




Copyright Bob Dick 1998-2000.  May be copied if it is not included in any
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This may be cited as:   Bob Dick (1998) Abstraction, and theories.
Occasional pieces in action research methodology, # 7.  Available
online at http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/arm/op007.html

Version 1.2;  Last modified 20000101


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