Social Field Resonance: How to Research Deep Structures of the Social System

Otto Scharmer
Oct 29 · 13 min read

Otto Scharmer and Eva Pomeroy

The Social Field Research Summer School — Berlin, 2019

In June 2019, 55 researchers, graduate students, artists, practitioners and academics gathered at the FORUM Factory in Berlin for an unconventional research event: the launch of the inaugural Social Field Research Summer School. They came from 23 different countries across five continents with the intention to advance the research that helps illuminate the deeper structures (and often hidden dimensions) of the social field.

The multi-stakeholder nature of the gathering was reflected in the diversity of organizations represented, some of which include the World Health Organization, Impact Hub, Ministry of Social Development (New Zealand), Centre for Human Ecology (Glasgow), Stockholm School of Economics, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State, Forum for the Future, Centre for Social Impact (University of Western Australia), Scottish Government, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the universities of Edinburgh, Vienna, Rennes, Antwerp, Cambridge, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Stavanger among many others.

A striking feature of the summer school was that once in the room, it was impossible to tell which participants were students, practitioners or faculty. What was clear, however, was the level of whole-hearted and whole-spirited engagement.

Responding to our current moment

The summer school emerges in response to the crisis of our times, where our current approaches to solving the challenges we face have hit a wall. The main problem of our time is not one of not knowing what to do — we have more information available to us than ever before. The problem is a knowing-doing gap, a disconnect between what we know and what we do. At the root of some of the most important change efforts currently in motion –transforming capitalism, advancing democracy, and reimagining education — lies something deeper and more fundamental that the academic community hasn’t addressed sufficiently as of yet: the transformation of science itself.

Science and technology are at the very core of all our accomplishments as a civilization. They are likewise also at the root of our profound crisis, in which our current civilization is basically hitting the wall. To address this crisis, which means addressing the social, the ecological, and the spiritual divides of our time, we need a new science that integrates knowing in all its forms with doing. Leaders confronted with the crises of today face new challenges. The challenge is to develop the capacity for deep cognition, the ability to sense and actualize emerging potentials. Traditional science cannot help meet this challenge because, first, it relies almost exclusively on one form of knowing — that of the mind and, second, its methodologies are designed to examine what is and not what is becoming. What is needed is a knowing that holds both what is and what wants to be born. Cultivating this knowing requires methodologies that integrate traditional research tools with knowing-in-action and aesthetic pattern languages that help to make visible changes in deep structures of social fields.

So we co-initiated a journey, guided by a 10-year vision to foster a global network of researchers who will co-develop the concepts, methods and tools needed to advance awareness-based systems change and, in doing so, bring the field of social field research fully into being.

Our stepping-off point was a set of inquiry questions to help us begin this work:

  • How can we better understand and articulate the phenomenon of the social field?

This is the territory we sought to explore through active laboratory experimentation, sharing methodology and dialogue.

Social Fields

So why are social fields the focus of our inquiry? Social fields are social systems — but seen also from within. Most work about social systems conceives of the system from the outside — as an observer looking in. The social field perspective adds to this outside-in view the complementing view from within, and aims to shed light onto the usually invisible dimension of collective experience.

What is the invisible dimension? The source conditions that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing, and organizing, which in turn produce practical results.

Figure 1: Social Fields: Source conditions →relational patterns →practical results

In the image above, one dynamic we see is the simple Theory U idea that the quality of results is a function of the interior condition from which we operate. If we apply that style of thinking to the social field, we can say the following: that the inner conditions of individuals and the quality of the soil — the source conditions — co-shape the quality of relating that produces the results we see in the world. So, if we change something at the bottom of the image, what is that actual impact up at the top? What happens in between? How can we develop methods that reliably help us see and sense the system as a condition for shifting, evolving, or transforming it?

Having grown up on a farm, I (Otto) like to view the social field from the viewpoint of the farmer. Like the field of the farmer, the social field is actually composed of two different domains: a) what’s visible to the eye above ground and b) the soil. And the thing with the soil is that if you just observed and do nothing you cannot understand it. In order to investigate the quality of the soil, we have to move into the territory ourselves in order to unearth and bring to the surface what lies below. So, we ask, how do we investigate and inquire into these deeper soil conditions, not of the agricultural but of the social soil?

Research for Awareness-Based Systems Change: Integrating 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd- Person Inquiry

The matrix below shared at the summer school frames our current research effort. On the horizontal access, we have the perspective we take when we investigate phenomena: 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd- person view. Third person is what we see from observation, basically what we can capture from a video camera. First person uses reflection and introspection as an access point to understanding experience, not necessarily just about ourselves but also uses our own experience as a gateway into whatever we are inquiring into. Journaling is a method often used here. Second-person research is really where the holding space and deep listening comes in — the spaces we create together to surface deeper levels of meaning, understanding and resonance. So, the horizontal axis in the matrix is about the primary research perspective.

The vertical axis outlines the different levels of attention we use to investigate that data. This goes back to the work of Francesco Varela who claimed that the blind spot of Western science has to do with experience and the fact that we don’t have a method for accessing experience. In classic science there is a long tradition of stepping back to observe phenomena, but what we also need is to step into it.

‘Stepping in’ requires action, essential because it is through action that we unearth the knowledge embedded in context, and it is contextual knowledge — not arms-length, compartmentalized knowledge — that shapes our individual and collective thinking and doing. To surface and make visible contextual knowledge, we need to access the social field because context is co-created.

This requires of us vertical literacy — an awareness of our awareness and the capacity to access the knowing that comes from the deeper levels of consciousness. Varela’s main finding guides us to do this. He found the gateways into investigating the deeper parts of our experience to be the three following gestures of awareness: suspension, redirection, letting go.

When we suspend our habits of judgement, the first level of data that we see is the ‘what’ or more tangible kind of reality. In the u-process that’s what we call seeing. Varela talked about redirection as the gateway to experience in terms of moving from the object (what) to the process (how) and some of the deeper sources that gives rise to this phenomenon. This is what happens on the left-hand side of the U in the movement from seeing to sensing. So, in the u-process sensing means we activate the heart and the feelings as an organ of perception.

Figure 2: Research Matrix for Awareness-Based Systems Change

So far, this is nothing new. But what we believe is that there is yet in social science, yet in the social field, a deeper level. If the ‘what’ is explicit knowing and the ‘how’ is tacit-embodied knowing, ‘source’ is the move from tacit embodied knowing to yet a deeper, not-yet-embodied source from which, to use Buber’s term, an emerging future possibility “is in need of us.” That’s where we want to pay attention. The gateway to move into this deeper knowing is letting go. Stillness. In the stillness, we can let go of all the previous words and images we have taken in and instead connect with their deeper significance. More than anywhere else, this is where we need to develop a stronger methodological grounding and backbone and this is where we focused our experimentation at the summer school.

Social Field Resonance

One process we experimented with is called social field resonance. It’s a blended process that uses social art practices as a gateway for exploring the deeper dynamics of social fields. During the summer school we experimented with the Social Field Resonance process in conjunction with two social art practices. The first one was Social Presencing Theater, and the second Generative Scribing (Bird 2018). The latter one is described below as a practical example for inquiring into collective resonances.

Resonance itself is an interesting phenomenon because the resonance with have with our experience in the world is not entirely objective and neither is it entirely subjective. Resonance mediates between the subjective and objective and we can understand that as a gateway into our deeper levels of knowing, a gateway to source.

To explore this kind of knowing we need to step into an experience and then use our inner being as a blank canvas to allow this deeper dimension of knowing — the interior resonance — to well up and become visible. The knowing that arises from this process, from stepping in and letting go, has a different quality than traditional cognitive knowing. It resides in our senses and in our felt knowing. Working with resonance helps us hone our ability to discern the different textures of feeling knowing and to develop qualitative terms to capture the nature of aesthetic experience, such as rhythm, pace, use of space, and sense of time.

Visual Scribing

On the final morning of the summer school, we turned our attention to the images that had accompanied us through the previous three days. The traditional form of visual scribing is graphic recording and it is basically focused on capturing the ‘what’ and mirroring that back in an accurate way. Kelvy Bird has deepened and evolved visual scribing further. Inspired by the four levels of Theory U, she identifies four levels of scribing starting with what is more conventionally done and then adds deeper levels that can only be accessed by redirecting and tuning in with the heart to what’s happening in the field.

Figure 3: Levels of Scribing

During the summer school Kelvy Bird and Olaf Baldini both scribed, each directing their attention to different levels of the social field. Kelvy attended to the core ideas from a level 1–3 perspective, the concrete particulars of the field; while Olaf attended to the whole from a level 4 perspective, the felt and not-yet-embodied qualities of the social field.

We then followed a guided process, using the scribing as gateways for collective contemplation and sensing into the deeper resonances of the social field.

The Practice

Figure 4: Social Field Resonance Practice

The Social Field Resonance Practice is structured in four steps. The first two steps are grounded in focused attention (in this case: attending to the visual scribing image). The last two steps are grounded in open awareness, i.e., in letting-go of all concrete particulars while attending to the deeper resonances that the image may have evoked.

The four steps facilitate a cognition journey from seeing to sensing to stillness or source and from there to emergence. It is a journey that moves the inquiry from What (individual seeing) to How (collective seeing) to Source (stillness) and finally to Emergence (sharing).

Step 1: Individual seeing. Allow the particulars of the image to sink into your mind.

Step 2: Collective seeing: Share what you have been noticing while using the sentence structure ‘I see…’, ‘I sense…’, or ‘I feel…’.

Kelvy Bird’s Scribing: Focus on level 1–3

‘I see cracks and fractures…’
‘I sense archaeology and going deep gently to preserve what we don’t know’
‘I feel the empty space on the field’

Step 3: Stillness: Move into stillness, letting go of all the images and the particulars. Allow your awareness to open up, attend to the resonance you feel and let the deeper level of our experience to well up.

Step 4: Share what came up for your neighbor in paired conversation: What resonated most with you? How does it relate to the current moment of your individual and collective journey? Then, after 7 or so minutes, share what came up through the resonance with the whole group.

Having completed the first cycle of this resonance process focusing on the level 1–3 scribing, we repeated the process for the Level 4 scribing image.

Olaf Baldini’s Scribing: Focus on level 4

Having completed step 1 (individual seeing) we moved to step 2 (collective seeing):

‘I see pain right next to whole being’
‘I feel the need to attend to the collective pain in order to open to the future’
‘I feel the call to be more courageous’

Then, we moved into stillness and letting go of the particulars, shifting the attention from focused to open awareness, allowing the deeper resonances to surface and manifest. Journaling was followed by sharing.

‘What came to me is that the urgency here is just in your face’

‘I had the image of standing at the bottom of a gorge and being able to see the layers of the earth, the ancient layers, and I also saw how much pain that held. And, to me, I also heard the call of the future held in the layers of the past…’

‘On the right side, that feels like a space where we are able to embrace that things are going wrong whatever we do and if we embrace that and can sit together and work from there, that might help us actually to understand…’

‘I’m looking at this side and I’m seeing geological layers as a wish or intention to uncover deeper layers and a question arises in me about how this process within this group and beyond our boundaries, how to ensure that this process does not become like mining for a resource’

What sort of data surfaces in collective resonance practice? In this case, examples include: a sense of urgency to act in our current moment, a call to ensure deep ethical practice as we co-evolve new methodologies moving forward and an understanding of the need to integrate our collective historical knowing into the co-creation of the future through collective healing. While the content of these findings may or may not be new — many of them can be found in the existing research literature — what is different is the quality of knowing them. By connecting with this data a) collectively and b) through our deeply felt sense of them, we co-create a knowing that is collectively experienced rather than learned. The importance of this knowing is twofold: first, it is knowing that won’t be forgotten easily and, second, it creates a kind of call to action that traditional research doesn’t necessarily do, because it connects knowing to doing through the intelligence of the heart.

Summer school as prototype

The inaugural Social Field Summer School was a prototype. We convened a remarkable group of changemakers and explored new territories. We got feedback and learned. We learned that we need to think with greater foresight about research ethics as they relate to awareness-based systems change methods and tools. We learned that the appetite for co-creation is strong and to meet it we need to strike a balance between cutting-edge collective experimentation and creating spaces to share and harness collective intelligence. We learned that there is a longing for places of nourishment, inspiration and connection amongst those of us engaged in awareness-based systems change. And, most important of all, we learned that the blended methodology for making the deep structures of social fields visible is very much work in progress. Many promising elements are already there. Some others are still missing — and the overall integration into a comprehensive framework and research methodology is yet to be done.

The summer school was alive with ideas and connection. Since that time, we see the seeds of impact starting to emerge:

· Individuals continue to meet, often across countries and continents through zoom calls, etc.

· Working groups continue to meet, sometimes focusing on a region (Europe) and sometimes on a topic (capacity-building for systems change, youth engagement)

· One project group is moving forward with a prototype for a new on-line, open source journal on awareness-based systems change

What is clear throughout is that there is an engaged community aligned around the intention to make this a 10-year effort and we will support the evolution of this community and its work with an annual event that convenes, connects and pushes the boundaries of science with new experimentation.

The new university

The bigger picture — what we are really trying to do here at the beginning of the century — is to reimagine and reshape the 21st century university in a way that integrates science, social art practices, consciousness and profound societal transformation.

We know that the seeds of the new university already exist in manifold new learning environments and hot spots of societal transformation. We also know that we will only be able to grow the new university to its fullest potential if we succeed in developing a research methodology that amplifies all the good work being done by making it visible, scalable, and researchable.

This requires a collective effort. None of us can do that alone. That has been the impulse for the 2019 Social Field Research Summer School and continues to be the invitation for the years to come.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

Otto Scharmer

Written by

Senior Lecturer, MIT. Co-founder, Presencing Institute. www.ottoscharmer.com

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

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