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Critically compare the epistemologies governing the first-and second-order cybernetic approaches in terms of the following:

  1. How is reality seen by each specific approach?
  2. What does the diagnostic systems of each specific approach look like?
  3. How does each specific approach deal with therapy?
  4. What are the specific skills required by each approach?
  5. How is the role and function of the therapist in each specific approach?
  6. What would research look like from the point of view of each specific approach?
  7. What critical ethical concerns could be raised about each specific perspective?
  8. Integrating first-and second-order cybernetic approaches.

Table of Contents

Winnies the Pooh on good enough multiverses

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that’s why he never understands anything.”
(A. A. Milne, The house at Pooh Corner)

Introducing “epistobabble”

General Systems Theory or cybernetics as it was known in Europe, can be divided into two cybernetic models: simple cybernetics or first-order cybernetics and cybernetics of cybernetics or second-order cybernetics.

There is no definitive breakdown of terms in the literature, which has caused some confusion and inconsistencies, as might ordinarily be the case with the emergence of a new paradigm. This “new (cybernetic) epistemology” has, however, “a common foundation in the writings of Gregory Bateson” (Searight & Openlander, 1987, p.52).

Gregory Bateson introduced the interdisciplinary concept of cybernetics to the social sciences and applied it to the realm of systematic family therapy (Becvar & Becvar, 2000). Bateson described cybernetics as “the circular mechanism through which systems regulated themselves by feeding back information to the system” (Vorster, 2003, p.52). He found cybernetics to be an appropriate metaphor to make sense of his lifelong concern with epistemology. Applied to the theory of human communication, Bateson said that: “if you want to understand some phenomenon or appearance, you must consider that phenomenon within the context of all completed circuits which are relevant to it” (1971, p.244).

For the purposes of this essay first-order cybernetics is also known as the systemic model and second-order cybernetics is also known as Ecosystemic epistemology. This writer prefers Keeney’s (1983) term ”Ecosystemic epistemology” instead of model or theory. Epistemology indicates a set of rules not a theory, or a “process of knowing” (Bateson, cited in Vorster, 2003, p.17) how we think and like Hoffmann (1985) the writer prefers this “heart-of-the-matter” (p.383) term that does not embrace Newtonian thought.

  1. How is reality seen by each specific approach?

The new epistemology embraced a paradigm shift as defined by Thomas Kuhn (1962), in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (cited in Castillo, 1997; cited in Cottone, 1989). The focus has moved from focusing on the individual to a systemic model, which has a relational focus – “an epistemological shift to seeing a world of relational wholes, rather than discrete individual pieces” (Hanson, 1995, p.10).

In focusing on relationships rather that the individual the concept of the “black box” (Waltzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967, p.43) was introduced, acknowledging that albeit we do not entirely understand the makings inside, we can focus on the “observable input-output relations, that is to communication” (ibid). Walzlawick et al (1967) stated the simple, but profound truth “one cannot not communicate”. Thus, relationships influence one another reciprocally and are always shrouded in some form of communication.

In systemic thought the focus is on observable behavioural relational patterns in the here-and-now. History and aetiology are not important – there is no room for blame in a wholes approach. However, the context is important and a reciprocal causality is recognised in that the individual is “not an isolated and self-contained entity but rather a social being” (Vorster, 2003, p.4).

“A wholes approach means seeing not just the initial effects but how these effects are reacted to, how the process amplifies and mutates from the original. Within a wholes approach the concepts of feedback, equifinality and multifinality can be used to talk about these patterns in a system.” (Hanson, 1995, p.12, emphasis mine)

These “patterns that connect” (Bateson, cited in Vorster 2003) are part of a context where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This principle, called nonsummativity, calls for a constant reassessment of any insight or observation of a part in terms of how it fills into the whole or context (Hanson, 1995, p.23).

Applied to family therapy: we cannot understand the family simply by understanding the members of the family (Denton, 1990); systems are considered to be more that the sum of their parts (Watzlawick et al, 1967)

Thus, society is perfect as it is. Dell’s (1982) perfect “fit”, that systems “are better described as perfectly structurally coupled and coherent” (cited in Combrinck-Graham, 1987, p.504) gives a context to all behaviours no matter how mad, bad or sad they might be. There is a reason (albeit not always a consciously acknowledged one) driving each seemingly random act. Within their system, a person responds to each situation in the best possible way for them. “Behaviours are embedded in inextricably linked contexts, such that their particular nature may be knowable only within their native context” (Hanson, 1995, p.20). And the behaviour is always fitting. The symptom is in fact necessary to insure the stability of the system (McCourtney, n.d)

“If first-order cybernetics revolutionized the world we observe by introducing the notions of circular causality, feedback, and self-organization, the step to the second-order challenged the very concept of observation.” (von Glasersfeld, 2002)

Here we move beyond the black box and add the observer to the system – acknowledging the part of the observer in that which is observed. One cybernetic system is in the process of observing another cybernetic system. This is a second order perspective and is know as cybernetics of cybernetics. (Vorster, 2003)

Second-order thought is a social constructionist and post-modern one. Social constructionism holds that “knowledge rests heavily of social consensus. Our social experiences and interactions shape what we take to be reality and what we regard as truth” (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1997, p.105).

“Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer” (von Glasersfeld, 2002). In a second-order cybernetic approach there is no objective reality that can be known with certainty (McNamee, 1992). The assumption that reality cannot exist independently of the observer and insomuch is created by the observer is an important one.

Humberto Maturana said “We distinguish in language. What we don't distinguish doesn't happen to us.” (). Gergen (1985) referred to “communal interchange” (p.266). Thus, reality is socially constructed and language is used to achieve this (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1997; Hoffman, 1992; Vorster, 2003). Language is understood “as the means by which people come to understand their world and in their knowing simultaneously to construct it” (Becvar & Becvar, 2000, p. 88, emphasis mine).

According to second-order cybernetics there is not one single way of understanding our reality. Bateson spoke of multiverses to indicate several possible realities (Vorster, 2003). Like Winnie the Pooh he realised that although many, like Rabbit, are clever and good with words, that is not enough to understand other people’s experiences or the meaning making systems they use to make sense of their own worlds.

  1. What does the diagnostic systems of each specific approach look like?

Keeney (1979) posits a Taoistic diagnosing where one does not make the experience happen, but rather becomes receptive to the experience as one comes to know the “ecological relationship system” (p.126) that presents itself in the process of diagnosing. Diagnosis and intervention are seen as one and the same process (Combrink-Graham, 1987, Keeney, 1979).

Minuchin points out that diagnosis is simply a new “way of arranging data” (1974, p.131) as the therapist comes to understand the problematic situation. There is not a focus on labels of diagnosis. Diagnosis is not only unimportant, but is seen to engender pathology in systemic thought in that “psychiatric nomenclature is inseparable from the underlying assumption that an individual is  … the site of pathology” (Keeney, 1979, p.118). Combrinck-Graham notes, “the concept of pathology, that something is malfunctioning and wrong, is inconsistent with Ecosystemic thinking” (1987, p.505). She also points out, as does Keeney (1979), that diagnosis is inextricably intertwined with our own personal epistemology.

An individual’s abnormal behaviour is seen as symptomatic of a problematic system. Symptoms of abnormal behaviour “can be assumed to be a system maintaining or system-maintained device” (Minuchin, 1974, p.110) or as “communicative acts that have a function within an interpersonal network” (Haley, 1967, cited in Denton, 1990) and are thus communicating a non-verbal message (Walzlawick, 1967). Bateson defined a system as “any unit containing feedback structure and therefore competent to process information” (1971, p.243). The system “can only do what it does” (Vorster, 2003, p.71).

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Moving on to a second-order approach we acknowledge the reality of language in aiding and abetting the social construction of reality. The identified patient’s issues only exist in the context of being named – usually in a collaborative context. This includes all those interacting in relation to it – identified patient, therapist and others. It takes two or more to create a tangible linguistic “reality”. This is involuntarily perpetuated by the acknowledgement thereof. This co-constructed reality, the “story of the problem, inadvertently contributes to the problems endurance by narrowing the choice of more effective solutions” (Griffith, Griffith and Slovik, 1990, ...

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