Social Tensegrity
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Social Tensegrity

Social Tensegrity

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

This publication is about the central concepts of a wholistic model of social work practice by differentiating between mechanical and wholistic views of whole systems. Social work in the West, for example, evolved along mechanistic lines that embody principles of:

  1. fragmentation,
  2. focusing on problem-solving with outside forces influencing change,
  3. formulating mathematical models to solve problems,
  4. relying only on analytical predictability of “objective” observation instead of including synergetic wholeness of co-empowerment,
  5. detached observation, wherein a comparison was made between value-neutral practice versus value-directed practice. The former was seen as a tenet of the mechanical approach where study is undertaken merely to validate (prove or disprove or test linear cause-effect relationships) or a hypothesis. Whereas in social work practice, the aim would be to follow through with value guided actions based upon observer-observed interactions,
  6. analytical predictability that stressed the ability to foretell the actions of a whole system by studying its different parts, thereby disregarding various relationships within and outside a system. This differs from the principles of synergetic science that state, “the behavior of the whole can never be predicted completely through the sum of its parts” — a core essential for working wholistically.

Wholistic views

In both, Universe is depicted as a whole. “When each entity is separately connected to the whole Universe”, or Atman = Brahman (the microcosm is inseparable from the macrocosm, the whole).

Wholistic views are closely tied to the works of David Bohm, a theoretical physicist, in his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1983) and Swami Jitatmananda in his book, Holistic Science and the Vedanta (1993). Bohm refers to the increasing support for holism found in 20th century science (Post Newtonian or Post Modern in my view). Jitatmananda links the conclusions about holism found in postmodern science, sometimes called “new” science, to the holistic philosophy of Vedanta formulated in ancient India 3,000–6,000 years ago. In both, Universe is depicted as a whole. “When each entity is separately connected to the whole Universe”, or Atman = Brahman (the microcosm is inseparable from the macrocosm, the whole).

Bohm defined wholeness as “understanding the nature of reality in general and consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete — an unending process of movement and unfoldment (p. 9). His work helps us understand that notions of wholeness are closely tied to human views of reality. For example, a common view is the notion that “one who thinks (the ego) is, at least in principle, separate from and independent of the reality he/she thinks about…” Such a view is firmly embedded in the West and supported by the mechanistic, detached observer-observed worldview of modern (pre-20th century) science. Although, it is said to be rejected or denied in the East, this view of reality still pervades large portions of life and daily practices in the East, as it does in the West.

The tendency to think of our lives as if they are independent realities, contained separately in their own space and time, makes it very difficult to hold the view of wholeness outlined by Bohm. Modern science, which means science up to but not including the science of Einstein and others of this century tried to prove the common view. Reality was said to be made up of independent entities, separately existing in space and time that are brought together by outside forces to form coherent wholes. This is the “building block” reductionist view of Universe. The view is confirmed with the aid of theory-generated predictions/hypotheses that are designed to produce static truths until falsified by evidence of new static truths.

When humans hold the view that the world is made up of separate parts that can be connected and disconnected at will, they develop a fragmentary or “divided wholeness” view of the world. The logical extension of this view is to divide ourselves into distinct categories of people — race, nations, family, religion, profession, class, caste, and so on. When we “see” reality as something separate and independent, we are “naturally” inclined to defend our independent realities against the independent realities of others. We will always think of the divided part first: my nation, my race, my cultural beliefs, my family, my way. Thinking about the undivided whole will not occur because this Is not our worldview.

View of wholeness

This view of wholeness is marked by a continuous process movement and unfolding of a system thereby preventing it from becoming static. This is compared to the concept of ‘divided wholeness’ where in an attempt to approach systems in a wholistic manner

Movement away from the dominance of a modern science view, tied to mechanical rigidity, toward the concept of relativity and deep interconnectedness amongst everything in Universe is only a recent phenomenon, associated with the post-modern science of the 20th century. Consequently, social work practice in the West is now slowly opening up to the idea of ‘coherent’ or undivided wholeness. This view of wholeness is marked by a continuous process movement and unfolding of a system thereby preventing it from becoming static. This is compared to the concept of ‘divided wholeness’ where in an attempt to approach systems in a wholistic manner, we fragment the Universe into independents representations of reality, focusing on the manifestations of these entities and then mistakenly, begin to accept them as independent realities that can be amassed to form a whole.

To test the integration of one’s perceived and applied worldview, one can participate in a simple exercise. Draw an equilateral triangle on paper or in your mind, then reflect/declare whether your approach in social work is based on mechanistic wholeness or coherent wholeness. Then answer the question, “What is the sum of angles of the triangle you have drawn?” Your answer will help demonstrate whether your declared worldview (wholistic or not) matched the way you added the sum of the angles.

Figure 2 — Mechanistic Wholeness Vs. Coherent Wholeness

Most participants, even those who said they held a coherent wholeness worldview, will give 180˚ (60x3) as their answer. The fact is most of us think of wholism this way, and behave accordingly, in terms of inside angles only — “my part” as if it somehow exists independently of my connection to its outside angles. This is how we have been taught from our earliest introductions (in grade school arithmetic) of a worldview of reality. For social workers, or anyone else for that matter, to think wholistically let alone act in a corresponding way, is by and large a foreign exercise. Very few participants in the fun-type test ever spontaneously given 1080˚ (combined inside and outside angles, 360x3) as their answer. We have NOT been taught or encouraged to see the whole in its interconnected entirety before looking at special case manifestations of parts of the whole.

Wholeness as Undivided

A major exclusion from the point of view of social work.

To think of wholeness as an undivided, unbroken flow is more of a challenge than simply declaring that holism addresses the whole person, rather than a few parts in isolation from other parts. The independent reality view has infiltrated all spheres of life, whether we are dealing with emotions, human relationships or social organizations. Modern science (pre-20th century as opposed to post-modern science), for example, has always tended to ignore psychological and social factors in favour of physical explanations. A major exclusion from the point of view of social work.

Post-modern science (largely defined by 20th century, and beyond, developments in science) has discovered the limitations of a divided wholeness worldview. Analyzing the world (breaking wholes into constituent parts to understand the whole) into independently existing parts no long works in the physical sciences. Developments in the theories or relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory have advanced science well beyond the mechanical, clock-like, orderly understanding of our world.

Universe of Newtonian physics

In spite of remarkable advances, most everyone in the Western world is still stuck with the legacy of a mechanistic world view. In the profession of social work, for example, people are still assessed in terms of coping mechanisms. The dominance of the Newtonian worldview continues the search for mathematical equations and theories to increase the power of prediction and control over large aggregates. Prediction and control, to a large extent, is what the pursuit of human knowledge in a Western context is said to be all about. Knowledge generated by formal, logical and mathematical methods is highly ranked. Knowledge generated from intuitive discoveries is generally given low priority as a legitimate source of knowledge; notwithstanding the brilliant scientific breakthrough by Watson, Crick and others (1968) to discover the genetic make-up of living organisms, aided to a significant extent by their intuition, influenced by the work of Buckminster Fuller about the structural (geodesic) shape they were looking for.

The Western science worldview (pre-20th century) continues to praise the merits of dividing art, science, technology and human work into specialties deemed to be separate and distinct from each other. Post-modern (post-19th century) science is showing us the merits of division for practical and management purposes, but the interpretation that these separations are independent realities, from post-modern science discoveries and alignments with Indigenous sciences of cultures past, should now be recognized as an illusion. Humans under the dominant domain of Newtonian, pre-19th century science, have mistakenly allowed their ability to identify explicit parts of reality to be interpreted as reality itself. However, as Bohm points out, a close look at words common to us all suggest a link to undivided wholeness:

Health — an English work from Anglo-Saxon ‘hale’ meaning “whole”, healthy is to be whole.

Shalem — Hebrew and meaning roughly the same.

Holy — English word based on the same root as ‘whole’.

The conceptualization of these words provides evidence of human sensitivity to the meaning of wholeness even though the dominance of modern science in the Western world has most everyone continuing to operate from a fragmentary view of the world. The fragmentary approach to wholeness is deeply embedded in the history of Western societies. Its source can be traced back to the atomic theory of Democritus in Greece, over 2000 years ago. This approach provided the foundation for the ‘building block’ view that all things work together more or less mechanically, and in solidarity. Eventually, as David Bohm pointed out, the whole weight of modern science backed the divided whole worldview and consequent approaches.

As the 20th century came to a close, the dominance of Newtonian science was beginning to shrink allowing the slow emergence and beginnings to recognize that knowledge generated from experiment test theories is not an absolute description of reality, but only part of an ever-changing form of insight that points to a reality which is implicit and never fully describable. Wholism, from a blending of quantum science in the 20th century and ancient Indigenous science/ways of knowing, requires one to start with the largest possible whole — generally thought to be Universe — and recognize that when the whole is divided into manageable parts, these are only representations or models of reality, not reality itself. As Bohm was clear in saying, “the explicate -unfolded wholeness — can never be separate from the implicate — enfolded wholeness.”

Bohm argued that both the East and West have erred in their modern interpretations of wholeness. The Western idea of measurement originated in Greek philosophy as a notion to indicate ‘measure’ — do what was necessary for self and others. Over time, science has changed it to mean comparison of an object with an external standard or unit. It has taken on a mechanical meaning, leading to a belief that the only true knowledge is measured knowledge therefore, only science and technology represent true knowledge. In the East, wholeness was associated with illusion. It was linked to the Sanskrit word ‘maya’ meaning that which cannot be measured. Over time, this idea of measurement has been associated with criticism that the East is over reliant on religion and philosophy, in other words, the unmeasurable. A more contemporary examination of the ancient link between illusion and wholeness reveals an ancient awareness that any attempt to treat parts of the whole as independent realities is illusionary, something that the measurement mentality of Western science has only recently discovered. Wholeness therefore means deep interconnections between everything in Universe. Dividing wholeness into its specific parts for practical purposes is necessary and functional but this reality must not be taken or interpreted as distinct realities, existing in separate space and time.

Modeling special case manifestations of Universe requires a whole to part process and demands that deep inter-connectedness to the implicit whole can never be totally ignored. India’s Shri Ramakrishna provided an Eastern perspective on wholeness and the essence of deep inter-connectedness: “Think of a vast ocean filled with water on all sides. A jar is immersed in it. The water is both inside and outside the jar, but the water does not become one, unless the jar is broken. What is the jar? It is consciousness (ego); when ‘I’ disappears, what is, remains” (Jitatmandanda, 1991, p. 70).

With the discovery of whole system structures in nature, it is possible to construct a wholistic model of the social work profession (probably any discipline) using the tetrahedral principles found in the works of Buckminster Fuller.

Modeling Wholeness with the Tetrahedron

Fuller told us that chemistry scientists observed the regularity and reoccurrences of fourness in organic chemistry long before any notice was given to these observations by the rest of science. When Van Hoft, a leading scientist in the 19th century, predicted the existence of a basic fourness, the geometrically configured tetrahedral (4-sided) structure of the carbon atom, he became the first person to receive a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.

The geometric shape of a tetrahedron is a structural arrangement that looks like a triangle-based pyramid as seen in Figure 3: 4 corners (1–4); 4 faces (A-D) and 6 edges (a-f). It can be visually demonstrated in one of 3 ways: faces, edges, corners. Fuller discovered the tetrahedron to be one of the most common coordinate system structures in Nature. Whole system configurations were found to be triangular in shape and tetrahedral in structure, not rectangular and cubical as traditional mathematics would have us believe.

Figure 3: Triangle-based Tetrahedron

The tetrahedron was discovered to be the minimum whole structure in Nature, also, the molecular structure of carbon (essence of life). In this regard, the general system definition that says it is a set interacting parts can be modified to say that a wholistic system is minimally visualized as a set of four interacting and interconnected parts. Fuller’s explanations of holism had advanced our understanding of the nature of systems beyond what was generally familiar to social workers (and other helping professions) from general system and eco-system perspectives. We can now describe the systems view of human experience in the following way:

  1. A system is the simplest experience we can have.
  2. Systems are always polyhedral — many sided; it is a complete whole with boundary depicted insideness, outsideness, free-standing betweenness.

3. The minimum polyhedral experience (insideness, outsideness, free-standing betweenness) is tetrahedral: 4 corners, 4 faces, 6 interconnections.

4. A tetrahedral configuration, physically or metaphysically manifested, represents a minimum whole system.

5. A minimum whole system structure always divides Universe into 3 parts: system itself, all otherness outside; all otherness inside. This awareness guarantees that any system representation or manifestation of reality can never be viewed separately from the undivided wholeness of Universe.

6. The behavior of a whole system can never be predicted by knowledge of the behavior of any one or all of its parts. This knowledge lends support to the popularly used phrase, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Fuller called this synergetics.

7. A minimum whole system can unfold into infinite complexity and detail with no loss or distortion of its simple tetrahedral structure. There is no duality in simplicity and complexity. Complex systems are inherently simple; simple systems contain enfolded complexity. They are natural manifestations of each other.

Figure 4 shows the unfolding nature of a finite (border-bound) system toward infinite levels of complex patterns. Figure 4a displays the minimum stable shape in triangular form. Figure 4b shows the edge/line representation of a minimum whole system. Figure 4c shows the unfolded face representation of a whole system. Figure 4d is a variation of 4c to show the interconnected nature of the faces, edges and corners of a whole system. Figure 4e shows the unfolding (using a simple mid-point edge connection formula) of a minimum whole system into ever increasing patterns of complexity.

Figure 4: Unfolding System in Ever Increasing Complexity

4a 4b 4c 4d 4e

minimum minimum unfolded inter-connected unfolding

stable shape whole system whole system whole complex

whole system

Evolution of Social Work and Systems Models of Integrated Practice

Social work in many sectors of the world evolved over the past 200–300 years out of practical activities, generally associated with citizen, religion or state involvement in some form of charitable, community development or social reform actions. The transformation of these activities into an organized profession is generally traced to origins in the UK, USA and western parts of Northern Europe (i.e. Germany and Holland). In North America, and to a similar extent in India, early forms of professional social work were primarily developed as specialized client-centred methods and problem-focused fields of practice. Social casework emerged as the dominant method of professional help, eventually anchored to a psychodynamic body of knowledge resting on the mechanical ‘truths’ and procedural method requirements of the scientific method in modern science.

These early method and field specialization approaches led social work to develop a dual-purpose approach to its work. One approach was highly identified with methods of macro level change; the other with methods of micro level change. This duality-based view of reality divided the profession into separated and often opposing camps of dedicated adherents to their chosen specialization: macro vs micro specialists; direct vs indirect; person vs environment change, and more recently generalist vs specialists.

By the mid-1950s in North America, social workers were beginning to articulate the folly of fragmenting the discipline into isolated specializations. This recognition coupled with the advancement of general systems theories, and eco-systems theories led to several efforts to develop generic models organized around concepts common to aspects of the profession.

Harriet Bartlett (1970), an American pioneer in the development of a systems view of social work, provided early leadership to this venture. She conceptualized a ‘common base’ of social work organized around three core components: 1. Domain, 2. Broad Orientation, 3. Repertoire of Methods. She had a fourth component, personal Domain of the social worker, but didn’t articulate it as a core component.

Wholistic Model of Social Work

Development of the wholistic model is rooted in the introduction of systems theories to social work in the 1960s, and the early works of Bartlett (1970) and Pincus and Minahan (1973). From my (Ramsay) classroom and practice experiences of using both Bartlett’s common base conception of social work and the systems model and method of Pincus and Minahan, a sense of unease emerged about the incompleteness of their respective systems perspectives. Formalizing the reason for this feeling was made possible only when I became acquainted with the geometric thinking models of Buckminster Fuller (1968, 1975, 1979) in the mid 1970s, and his discovery of the tetrahedron as Nature’s way of structuring a minimum whole system.

Beginning with the tetrahedral structure (a 3-D triangle-based pyramid) as a visual representation of a wholistic framework, I was introduced to several aspects that suggested Fuller’s view of systems was an advancement over the general systems and ecosystems perspectives, commonly referenced in social work literature at the time. The physical model itself provided a coherent whole representation of wholism that the other systems models could only describe, but not visually illustrate. Working from a whole-to-part perspective became more than a figure of speech; it was a practical possibility. The configuration of the elements and interrelationships of a minimum whole actually modeled the general definition of a system: a complex set of elements directly or indirectly related, in a more or less stable way, at a particular period of time. The systems perspective of Fuller requires a whole-to-part conceptualization, grounded to the undivided wholeness worldview found in ancient Indian philosophy (Jitatmananda, 1993) and more recently in the discoveries of 20th century science (Bohm, 1983). Fuller’s recognition that a system structure cannot be independently separated from its insideness and outsideness represents a clear departure from the divided wholeness world view of modern science (pre-20th century) that mechanically separates the parts of a system into independent entities in space and time. This view of divided wholeness corresponds to the ‘building block’ approach of modern scientific methods that still dominate as we approached the end of the 20th century. Building on complexity science discoveries early in the 20th century and similar to Ramakrishna’s ‘jar’ explanation of undivided oneness (see above), a minimum whole system can be described in a similar way to demonstrate the same phenomena.

Think of a vast Universe containing a pattern of infinite interconnections within a finite boundary. A system structure is unfolded in it. There are interconnections, both inside and outside the system, but these interconnections do not become one until the system enfolds into the whole. What is the system structure? It is the minimum system model of reality that divides Universe into 3 parts: 1) the system itself, 2) everything inside it, and 3) everything outside it. When the dividing instrument disappears, what is undivided wholeness, remains.

The principle of always dividing or manifesting enfolded oneness into three makes it easy to quickly go from the conceptually obtuse to a wholistic representation of a special case system, in this case, the profession of social work. In addition, it helps the social worker work from the known components of a wholistic model (i.e. a minimum of four conceptual parts interconnected by six relationships) to the specific known and unknowns of a special case system. Finally, the whole system framework provides a practical illustration of how the profession can endorse or embrace a global conception of core components common to social workers anywhere in the world, which in turn can be implemented in different regions of the world with indigenous variations in knowledge content, practice applications and theoretical explanations.

Drawing on the work of Bartlett, her three core components of a wholistic model can be identified: domain, broad-based orientation and repertoire of methods. Domain is defined as the area which depicts the boundary where social workers do their work. Broad orientation defines the nature of the profession in terms of how it is organized to do its work. Repertoire of methods defines the multiple methods that a social worker can be knowledgeable of or can use to implement generalist and/or specialist approaches in social work practice.

Support for the core components of domain and method comes from the minimum requirements of any activity to be recognized as a science (Wilbur, 1985). Any pursuit can qualify as a science, providing it has a clearly articulated domain that can be used to differentiate it from the domains of other disciplines. Also, it qualifies if it has a method(s) of doing its work which subjects its theoretical explanations and discovered ‘truths’ (outcomes) to verification testing and possible refutation. The broad orientation component can be defended in the context of Thomas Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm as it applies to a community of people working in or serving the same domain and adhering to its basic tenets. A paradigm refers to the ‘entire constellation of belief, values, techniques, and so on, shared by members of a given community” (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn’s definition recognizes the professional nature of a scientific activity through the type of values and codes of conduct adopted by the group.

Since Bartlett did not work from a conceptual whole representing the minimum components of a wholistic common base, the absence of a fourth component was not likely to have been a matter of concern. She had followed a part-to-whole process of assuming the whole is present once the developer is satisfied that sufficient facts are known which can be put together to form a coherent whole. Although not identified as an explicit component in Bartlett’s common base of the profession, she made implicit references to the presence of a fourth core component. Discovery of this component comes from the knowledge that four interconnected parts are necessary for a minimum wholistic model, and from the historically recognized importance social work has given to self-awareness and the professional use of self. The domain of a social worker’s own social systems background and experiences is offered as a necessary core component of a wholistic model.

The four components of the wholistic model are thus classified as 1) Domain of Practice, 2) Paradigm of the Profession, 3) Domain of the Practitioner, and 4) Methods of Practice. These four components are visually depicted as an unfolded 2-D tetrahedron, shown in Figure 5:

The components of a wholistic structure can be unfolded into depictions of increasing complexity by dividing each of the triangular faces at the mid points of each edge and connect them. Each component has its own four-part minimum system structure as shown in Figure 5a (see below). Also, the core components shown in Figure 5, can be visually arranged to depict them in a systemic (pattern of interconnected contextual parts) and systematic (procedural phases and tasks of a methodology) relationship to each other. If you like, a C3M1 mode.

1. Domain of Practice (PIE domain) — Social Work’s domain exists at a human society level as opposed to biological or physical levels. Society is defined as a “system made up of human beings in specific relations that environments that are both social and natural” (Laszlo, 1987: 88–99). The domain of practice deals with the person-interaction-environment (PIE) nature of social systems and its elements are described in the psychosocial context of self and otherness. The practice of otherness in relation to the self is assumed to be necessary for any living organism to be alive. It can manifest as a conditions, thing or person part of one’s environment. Without otherness (in a contextual environment) there can be no awareness; without awareness neither life nor thought can exist. Self is the person or human society face of social work’s domain of practice. Social (and physical) environment is contextual otherness. The purpose of social work, often defined as having a dual-purpose focus on client-centred or environment-centred change. The PIE domain gives social work a single unified purpose. Interaction/relationship-centred (i.e. social tensegrity purpose with a central focus on relationship between person and environment) efforts to change the social (and other) environments of society, and the ways in which individuals achieve their potential for the mutual benefit of both. The primary focus of social work is directed to the interactional social relationships between the individual and society that affects quality of the whole system is a domain of practice focus unique to social work. The social systems depiction of PIE by Pincus and Minahan (1973) equates person with self and describes the environment in the form of three kinds of resources: informal, formal and societal. Informal are the personal, significant other and intimate/close relationships in the life of the person element (individual, family, group, and so on). Formal are membership-based opportunities, services and resources that may be intimate or personal in nature and/or perception. Societal are the institutional opportunities, resources and services generally provided in an impersonal context. The person element in its relationships to environment resources is engaged in efforts to accomplish daily life task, achieve life aspirations and alleviate distress. …. The wholistic model conceptualizes social environment resources into two categories: Personal Otherness (PO) (informal resources, some formal resources) and Resource Otherness (RO) (societal and some formal resources). Person-resources social relationships are not equally reciprocal as inferred or claimed in other systems models. Frequently, they are unequally weighted, resulting in major social justice inequities. Privileged and dominant groups have a disproportional advantage over vulnerable and subjugated sectors. The inequity of these relationships is strongly influenced by ideological and value-based traditions, customs, policies and laws that operate as an integral part of a social systems. In the PIE domain of practice these influences are classified as Validator Otherness (VO) to explicitly represent the inter-related effect they have on the way person-resource units differentially relate to each other. When the four elements are depicted in a whole system configuration, they form a 3-part Environment and 1-part Person pattern linked by a minimum of 6 differentially expressed relationships.



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Stephen Bau

Stephen Bau


Designer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective. We are exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.