Re: Studying the details - levels of analysis paradigm fix

Hilary Farris (
Wed, 14 Dec 94 20:38:25 PST

Let's not get fixed on trees and forests. (My apologies in advance to Paul
and Robert for the use of their informal use of metaphor as a potential
example of "paradigm" problem set).

1. The introduction of metaphor in an inquiry can be a hindrance rather
than an aid when the metaphor is reified as an epitome of the inquiry.

For example, the informal exchange excerpted below addresses the
relative merits of facilitating an inquiry through a process focused
on "details" for emergent properties ("trees" - Paul George) as
opposed to a facilitation focused on "the big picture" ("the forest" -
Robert Polster). Although both "levels of analysis" approaches
present a staged SYSTEMATIC way to proceed in a systems inquiry,
neither represent an epitome of systems inquiry that, in my view,
requires SYSTEMIC inquiry.

A dual-search facilitation heuristic that alternates between
metaphorical searches of trees and forests (note the necessary plural
of forests) may be more fruitful as a systematic approach because the
inquiry works from both "ends" of this levels of analysis approach.
The dual-search may hinder an inquiry functional fixedness
or problem set that is driven by some a priori mis-approximation of "what the
details are" or "what the whole system is." Even so, the dual-search
systematic approach falls short of an "ideal" systemic inquiry
designed to allow even the determinants for the analytic conceptual
perspective or "plane of slice through the system center" to emerge.

2. Given you are still reading this and think it might be useful to have
a metaphor that serves as an approximation for the ideal systems
inquiry, what are some salient metaphors that are qualitatively
different from the levels of analysis (e.g., trees and forests)
approach? Or, if you think levels of analysis is the only way to go -
say why.


-- Your message was: (from "")
> Dr. Robert S. Polster
> But if that is the case, I am not sure that
>focusing on the details is going to lead to high level systems understanding.
>On the other hand, I suppose that if starting out looking at the big picture
>does not work, it might be worthwhile to look at some facet of the system in
>detail for new insights.

The concept may be twofold.

First, people (particularly managers) are often certain they know how things
work and what is going on, regardless of reality. There is a tendancy to ignore

or rationalize individual facts that do not fit. In addition they are
accustomed to 'fight fires' in a reactive manner, dealing with individual
'problems' rather than taking a systems perspective. When they are focused
upon a myriad of details and so cannot attempt to force fit them to their
preconceived 'big picture', they are more likely to discover the reality.

Secondly, large systems or concepts are often a gestalt phenomena where a
certain critical mass of facts or facets is needed for understanding. When th
pattern crystallizes (the 'aha!' phenomena ) the person is capable of
recognizing the 'big picture' and acting upon it as a whole.

There are two kinds of a fool:
One says 'This is old and therefor good'
The other says 'This is new and therefor better'
Paul C. George Email:
Sr. Methods Specialist Phone: (216)585-8675
Elsag Bailey Process Automation,
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Disclaimer: I am neither a ventriloquist nor a dummy