Principles and Ground Rules

The Social Theory (ST) of a sustainable, collaborative learning society is built on three principles: one axiom - a basic principle taken for granted - and two injunctions - directives telling what should be done. Of course, it is up to you, as a reader, whether you will accept these principles or not. But even if you do not, we believe there is much to gain to take notice of the implications of the principles to build sustainable societies. It may broaden your worldview, which is by the way a key result of applying one of the principles.

A number of ground rules are derived from the principles that can be seen as consequences of applying these principles.

Readers advice

The principles provide an alternative way for reading this book. Instead of reading it cover to cover, an octopus-like navigation structure is offered to dig deeper in the principles laid out in this chapter. Each principle is further detailed in aspects addressing a particular side of it. Aspects in their turn refer to statements that are made in chapters and sections in this book. Each statement enlightens an aspect to indicate its meaning. Starting from a principle, aspect or statement, a reader can navigate to adjacent principles, aspects or statements. This provides a way to unfold the big picture of the ST and its underlying foundation to suit the reader’s interest.

Axiom: We got to move




Principle: We got to move.

We have no other option but to move. First af all, we, as the social creatures we are, need meaningful interaction to move forward. Second, we have to adapt to changing circumstances.


Principle Description Summary
We got to move We have no other option but to move. First af all, we, as the social creatures we are, need meaningful interaction to move forward. Second, we have to adapt to changing circumstances. We got to move.

Aspect: Reflexive Domain

Description Summary
We need each other, but we act and react in principle on the basis of autonomous decisions. We act and react autonomously.
Statement page Statement
Exploring Change The constant factor in life is movement.
Self-Reference in a Three-Valued System Embrace the paradox, i.e., a difference in what was previously stated and therefore contradicting what was said before. Differences keep setting things in motion. Without differences we cease to exist. Therefore, change is inevitable, in fact, it is a necessity for living.
The Autopoietic Turn Humans and social systems operate autonomously and my react when irritated.


Principle Description Summary
We got to move We have no other option but to move. First af all, we, as the social creatures we are, need meaningful interaction to move forward. Second, we have to adapt to changing circumstances. We got to move.

Aspect: Tradition

Description Summary
We cannot escape tradition. Tradition is overarching.
Statement page Statement
Exploring Change A system has to become what it is not, and yet remain the same.
Some-thing from No-thing The relationship between things, including humans, is what matters. Something or someone cannot stand or be taken on its own.

The overarching principle of the ST is: We got to move. A statement meant as a fact of life - there is no other option but to move because living can be equated with movement - as well as a call to action - we must move due to changing circumstances.

People are social creatures. We cannot function independently from each other. That is, we are in need of and respond to each other. The acts of one person will influence the acts of others and vice versa. Action will mean reaction, resulting in a constant process of (ex)change and movement. Everyone acts according to his own identity, which is partly reflected in the worldview someone holds. A worldview is defined here as the framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it. Also, everyone acts in principle autonomously, although because of power issues at play we might be forced to do something against our will.

Ground rule: co-dependency implies care responsibility.

When we interact a difference can be experienced in what is being stated or in how we act (e.g. worldviews collide and people or actions are no longer in concord with each other). This difference is not something negative, but should be embraced, as it forces us to move one way or another. When no difference is experienced, in a way, we are stuck in the same groove. This might be comfortable and functional for a while but in the end can amount to a standstill. When there is a difference, we try to match what is being said with our worldview. Sometimes the content of a message resonates with our worldview and the worldview is adapted to a certain extent to incorporate the content coherently. Our previous worldview has changed slightly. However, when there is no overlap in worldviews at all, what is being conveyed often is simply rejected. Little or no change has been reached. In rare cases a completely different worldview will be adopted, when what is experienced has opened one's eyes in such a way, that one can no longer accept the old way of looking at things.

Thus by interacting with each other, our worldviews are potentially shaped and reshaped continuously, and this consequently will (re)shape our actions: we are moving. The distinctions people make, and how and with whom they (inter-)act, are strongly determined by their identity: “who am I, what are my believes and thoughts, and what is important to me?”. Identity, in turn, is shaped by the experiences and interactions people have. As people live in a so called reflexive domain, their interactions – which are based on their identity and the distinctions they make – influence the reactions others give back to them, the distinctions these others make and the identity these others have. And vice versa. Because of this mechanism shared meaning arises. In this context, shared meaning can also be called culture: “who are we, what do we do, and what do we value?” Culture, like an undercurrent, might not always be visible or explicated, but is always present and influences the way people act. Also, culture is not carved in stone. It evolves by means of interaction that shape and reshape people’s identities reflected in their worldviews.

This all means that because of people being the social creatures they are, all living in a reflexive domain, they are continuously on the move. We do not have a choice in this matter. Besides having an implicit reason to move, we also have to face often large scale environmental and man-induced disruptions. We have to adapt to them and we have to do this collectively in order to counteract them effectively. By all accounts, we got to move. The question is:
If we continuously got to move and, based on our culture, adjust to changing circumstances, how can we do this in such a way that it will be meaningful and thus worth the effort?

Injunction 1: Create room for change




Principle: Create room for change.

Mutual understanding: recognizing and acknowledging each other's worldview.


Principle Description Summary
Create room for change Mutual understanding: recognizing and acknowledging each other's worldview. Create room for change.

Aspect: Worldview

Description Summary
The framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it. The way one views the world.
Statement page Statement
Model Building - Human Activity Systems The PQR formula (what, how, why) is pivotal for capturing worldviews.
Model Building - Human Activity Systems A worldview (Weltanschauung) captures the beliefs, desires and intentions of a person.
Soft Systems Thinking – Soft Systems Methodology People differ in worldviews, but nevertheless they typically adhere to aspects of multiple worldviews, which provides room for accommodation.


Principle Description Summary
Create room for change Mutual understanding: recognizing and acknowledging each other's worldview. Create room for change.

Aspect: Systems Thinking

Description Summary
Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary field, incorporating ideas from philosophy, mathematics, physics, sociology, biology, and many more, to develop an overarching theory to understand complex phenomena from different perspectives. It is about understanding the whole through its parts. However, the parts cannot be understood without the context of the whole. Systems thinking is the ability to understand and intervene in complex systems.
Statement page Statement
Hard Systems Thinking – System Dynamics A system comprised of a number of interacting feedback loops is a complex system whose behavior can surprise us.
Systems Thinking A system as a whole is comprised of parts. Systems thinking is about understanding the interactions between the parts.


Principle Description Summary
Create room for change Mutual understanding: recognizing and acknowledging each other's worldview. Create room for change.

Aspect: Critical Reflection

Description Summary
Critical reflection is an activity during which we challenge the validity and appropriateness of our assumptions and beliefs within our present context. Critical reflection is a way of ‘critiquing’ our practice systematically and rigorously.
Statement page Statement
Blind Spots You need someone else to point out your blind spots to you.
Determining Boundary Judgements with CSH A constructive dialog can take place on the basis of first and second order boundary judgments.
Self-observation Concentrate on how to look, instead of what to see.

Although there may be good reasons to act in order to deal with problematic situations, this does not necessarily mean that we can indeed act because the room for change might be lacking. People hold diverse worldviews over particular issues that might hamper progress. Frequently, clashing worldviews are caused by limited views on issues. Everyone has blind spots: you do not know what you do not see. Moreover, you are not even aware of your blind spots, otherwise they are not blind spots in the first place.

In case of absence of room for change, people’s worldviews need to be broadened. This is a process of establishing mutual understanding. Mutual understanding in the context of ST means explicating worldviews by postponing judgement. It aims at gaining a wider understanding of the issues at stake and exposing underlying mechanisms that undermine the development of certain individuals or groups. It starts with taking time to explicate the issues, the intricacies between them and the worldviews, i.e., values, beliefs, (perceived) constraints of stakeholders, which might influence the way they interact. Worldviews must be both recognized as well as acknowledged, which requires an open attitude, including postponing judgements. The process of explicating worldviews is in itself already an intervention, resulting in, for instance, eye-openers, which will change initial worldviews of those involved in the process. In this way, room for change is created.

Ground rule: diversity in opinions is a basic and essential right.

Worldviews can be explicated by critically examining the values and beliefs people hold. This requires a shift from first-order observations – the way particular issues are viewed – to second-order observations – the viewpoint that is applied. It is like looking through glasses: the way you interact is filtered through a lens of your own making. Thus a second-order point of view focusses on the lens itself thereby exposing blind spots. You need someone else to do so.

Injunction 2: Determine the right direction




Principle: Determine the right direction.

Shared meaning: steer on what we value.


Principle Description Summary
Determine the right direction Shared meaning: steer on what we value. Determine the right direction.

Aspect: Cultural Identity

Description Summary
Cultural identity is the identity of belonging to a group. It is part of a person's self-conception and self-perception and is related to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, locality or any kind of social group that has its own distinct culture. In this way, cultural identity is both characteristic of the individual but also of the culturally identical group of members sharing the same cultural identity or upbringing. The definition of groups or individuals (by themselves or others) in terms of cultural or subcultural categories (including ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, and gender).
Statement page Statement
Research Philosophy and Process Research approach must be “for you, and with you”, instead of “for you, but not with you”.


Principle Description Summary
Determine the right direction Shared meaning: steer on what we value. Determine the right direction.

Aspect: Right Things

Description Summary
From verification (doing things right) to validation (doing the right things). Doing the right things right.


When people want to move in a way that is meaningful to all of them, they will have to decide upon what they jointly value most. They must take stance. This step is no longer “free of value”. People explicitly make certain values more important than others. This way they move from individual meaning (captured in worldviews) to shared meaning. Shared meaning does not mean that people always fully agree, but that they understand each other’s perspectives well enough to accept them. They agree upon and act according to a set of values that they together have chosen to be shared meaning. These values represent their cultural identity. Just as culture, shared meaning is not static and can change over time. But there is only one way of achieving shared meaning and that is through real conversation with all involved.

In every situation there is an undercurrent present which contains people’s identity, culture and the values that most influence their interactions. However, this undercurrent is not necessarily shared. It often is not visible or explicated, but it always will be present and influences the way people interact. If people want to move into a direction that is meaningful to all of them, they must start to reveal and discuss this undercurrent and make it shared. In practice this means they have to take a look at the worldviews present in a problematic situation at hand and the values that lay underneath it. Despite the differences, they will have to focus on “what binds us within this situation? Which values do we share?” In some cases it turns out there is enough common ground, and thus shared meaning, to move into the desired direction. In other cases, however, differences in opinions, perspectives and values might seem harder to overcome and require more effort from all stakeholders involved to find ways to move forward with perhaps very small steps. If no consent can be reached, we should rely on democratic processes to make hard choices. However, the activities centered around mutual understanding and shared meaning are geared to make a democratic intervention of this kind a last resort.

Moving into a meaningful direction requires an iterative process of different types of dialogues: taking turns between verification “are we doing things in the right way?” and validation “what to us are the right things to do?” This does not always come easy, but, when people know they are moving into a meaningful direction, it should be worth the effort. When they agree upon what they jointly value most and in which direction they want to go, differences in views of how to get there can be overcome and they can continue to move.




















Lees hiervoor: Introduction
Lees hierna: Facilitator Guide