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Action Research: Existential Phenomenology and Natural Science

This is the next installment of my action research project which brings scrutiny to the methods of obtaining outcomes and measurements from people’s lives.

Yippee, An Outcomes Star !
Yippee, An Outcomes Star !

You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Language, Text and the Construction of Meaning’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the research looks back at the theoretical origins of the Outcomes Star metric which is used in multiple support junctions to provide outcomes and measurements to funders.  A key aim of this work is to examine the principles which are suggested to underpin the bureaucracy and ask questions about whether these principles are still relevant in the actual practice.



The way that filling out paperwork has been normalised in our culture is problematic.  There seems to be more and more paperwork in our lives offered to us as esoteric governance – that is governance which is not transparent to those who have it imposed in there lives.  Once filled in, how much of these paperworks are read again ?  If the filled in paperwork is handed to someone who has not been involved in the juncture where it was imposed, does it hold any useful information and purpose ?

With all the time and effort put into engaging with these paperworks, are they helpful to the people who are mediated through these metrics ? There is no doubt that written work offer advantages in means of coordinating collective efforts, so I suppose at the root of the study which I am doing is the question – ‘what qualities distinguish helpful paperwork from self serving bureaucracy ?’.

Some historians suggest that the origin of writing can be traced back to keeping track of goods by scoring bones or marking clay tablets. A merchant would use the affordances of the medium to extend their capacity to maintain and recall running counts of cattle or pots (for example).  There is a limited amount of variable information which we can hold in our conscious mind at a given point, so through the use of writing to extend the capacity of the mind and memory, individuals could more effectively plan larger enterprises.

I think that few people would argue that paperwork has no place in helping to facilitate complex endeavour.  Another example is Samuel Peyps who was an administrator of the navy who famously revolutionised the way it operates by creating accurate records of what was in store.  Centuries later we find ourselves in a country which deconstructed its manufacturing base in favour of a service economy which has wholeheartedly embraced digital technology.

Harold Innes identifies writing as a technology, and for these purposes I want to place both paperwork and digital information together as textually mediated discourse in the same sense which Dorothy E. Smith identifies.  Writing (on paper or computer) mediates a particular rendering of people’s reality; Smith stresses ‘public, textually mediated discourse as a new form of social relation transcending and organising local settings’ (page 167, Smith, ‘The Everyday as Problematic).

In another part of her book ‘The Everyday as Problematic’, Smith further expands on this: “Skills and knowledge embedded in relations among particular persons have been displaced by externalized forms of formal organisation or discourse mediated by texts. The functions of knowledge, judgment, and will are transferred progressively from individuals to the governing processes of capitalist enterprise, to the practices of bureaucratic administration, and to the extended social relations of textually mediated discourse.” (Page 5, Smith, ‘The Everyday as Problematic)

So, whilst acknowledging the advantages which writing (textually mediated discourse) affords us, an important question must be asked: At what critical point(s) does a useful administrative paperwork become a self serving bureaucracy ? Never confuse activity with accomplishment, a friend Joe has told me several times, and I think this speaks to the context of analysing the paperworks which we are tasked with filling in.

The famous sociologist Norbert Elias talks about the continuum of society as sociogenesis; that is that the human world is always in process and we are always in the midst of unfurling process.  He drew on the narrative technique of ‘In medias res’ to articulate this concept – a narrative technique in which an epic story opens in the middle or some critical situation which is part of an interrelated chain of events, and where the situation is a development from previous events and which will develop further later on.

There are no distinct beginnings or endings to the social processes, and whilst the actors might change, the patternings (of figurations) continue.  He uses examples of dances and games to illustrate his point.  A dance lasts over time, and those dancing at the beginning are not dancing at the end; the music changes and different people from those who started continue the pattern of dancing.  People may change however the dance still goes on.

This is a helpful way to analyse the complexity going on as there is neither a fixation on the actor or the process.  People are moved into job roles and leave them at some point, policy statements are published and the day-to-day practice continues as it has been inherited.  Here is a verbatim excerpt from Professor Lesley McAra, Professor of Penology at the University of Edinburgh discussing whether Scottish Prisons are fit for purpose:


“I run a longitudinal study with Susan McVie for 18 years now. We have been following a cohort of 4300 young people, and we are now aged nearly 30; so we have been following them since the age of about 12. What we have found in our study is that no matter what the policy, the overarching policy – the government policy changes from time to time – (we have had 3 different phases of policy over the last thirty years) no matter what that policy is, the decision making practices are the same.

There is a disjuncture between policy, and actually what happens on a day to day level. So what the police and what the sentencers seem to actually do in terms of their decision making is that they focus their attention on the most poor, the most dispossessed, and those who become known to them – the usual suspects.”

Click here for the audio file and annotated transcript


Now whether we look at prisons, education, the third sector or private corporate enterprises, we can find accounts like this which give rise to complexities and unintended consequences which on-the-whole go undocumented.  These patternings and dances are part of the situational forces that determine a host of outcomes for people, and in circumstances where the structure becomes a superstructure (one which extends beyond the awareness of any given individual) we find problems emerge where no individual knows enough to articulate the issue.

In the book ‘Politicians, Bureaucrat, and the Consultant; A Critique of Urban Problem Solving’ by Garry D. Brewer, some interesting case studies are documented to illustrate structural issues which emerge from technological solutions.  Although these studies are from some time back, many of the problems are still the same.  Let us take for example the US Federal Government’s Community Renewal Program (CRP) in the 1960’s which spent large amounts of money investing in technology to model urban decision making…

The analysis of how the decision to implement technology based solutions showed that it was not for the reasons of dealing with urban crisis or decision making but more as a result of salesmanship on the part of consultants, city agencies and officials seeking agency in bureaucratic politics, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lacking clear objectives (and suffering in part from inertia).

The trends which sweep along and bolster the presence of technology can be motivated not so much for reasons of effectiveness but more as a means to validate its own existence by keeping up with trend.  Everyone becomes dependent on a consultant to manage the system which they have used to keep up with trend. Keeping up with trend can often be mistaken for progress, and the idea of progress often gets assumed as the direction of history…


“The implications of the theory are that over time inefficient institutions are weeded out, efficient ones survive, and thus there is a gradual evolution of more efficient forms of economic, political and social organisation” –  Douglass North


Freek Vermeulen, Professor at London Business School, has developed an inheritance theory explaining the diffusion and persistence of detrimental management practice. In it he is challenging the traditional received wisdom that a practice which lowers the life expectancy of adopting firms will vanish over time because it puts those firms at a competitive disadvantage.  He states:

“All organizations have ‘best practices’; habits that they have picked up in the past or mimicked from others. Managers often believe that these must be the best ways of doing things, because otherwise market forces would have eliminated them. The theory in the paper explains why this belief may be wrong. Some enduring practices may be harmful, without managers realizing it, because it is not necessarily the most optimal practices that survive”

(Vermeulen, FA basic theory of inheritance: How bad practice prevailsStrat Mgmt J2018391603– 1629


Below is a video where he introduces his work suggesting that bad management practices can thrive as corporate viruses suggesting the necessary conditions as:

  1. An association with success (e.g. short term benefits)
  2. Their harm occurs in the long term – causal ambiguity
  3. “It spreads quicker than it kills”



Much practice is inherited in legacy and holds the attributes of ritual. A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place and according to set sequence. We can discuss bureaucracy as related to the realm of ritual and ritualisation in our culture.

Catherine Bell loosely categorizes variety of common activities which are “ritualized” to greater or lesser degrees each focusing on an attribute of “ritual-like” action, such as formalism. She suggests the categories of formalism, traditionalism, disciplined invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance are, neither exclusive nor definitive and that ritual-like activities evoke more than one of these features spanning various continuums of action. (Page 138, Bell, C. M., & Aslan, R. (2009). Ritual: Perspectives and dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press).

Analysing how people’s lives and organisations can become appropriated through ritualisation is a helpful lens on the bureaucratic data age.  To make an anthropological approach to the earlier mentioned Dorothy E. Smith perspective on the effects of textually mediated discourse the following is a passage from Catherine Bell’s book ‘Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice’ examining ritualisation processes during the T’ang Dynasty:

T'ang Dynasty
T’ang Dynasty

“In an analysis of the codification of Chinese ritual during the T’ang dynasty (618—906 C.E.), David McMullen shows how central rites were simplified for use in local communities with important ramifications…. Intrinsic to this systemization of ritual in the T’ang, McMullen points out, was the way in which rites echoed other rites, implying them, assuming them, extending them

The effects were many: first, in their differences and similarities, ritual activities simultaneously differentiated and integrated the social world; second, replicated and resonating in this way, the logic of these ritual activities would appear to be the very logic organizing the social body and the rhythms of nature; and third, ritual activities and relationships that did not conform to the basic principles echoed throughout the system would immediately stand out as problematic…

One such strategy is securing official recognition by the state, which involves the cooptation of the cult by a formal hierarchy of deities, rites, and temples… Yet this cooptation can be wonderfully muted in practice: villagers worship the goddess as they always have, but her official title promotes her cult elsewhere.

The official bureaucracy itself has long used the appropriation of local cults into the formal pantheon as a major strategy for extending the control of the central government over outlying areas. At the same time the newly titled local deities legitimated the national pantheon in the eyes of village communities. This ‘reciprocal authentication of state and local cults,’ as Sangren describes it, illustrates the role of ritual in constructing center and periphery”.

(Page 129, Bell, C. M. (2010). Ritual theory, ritual practice. New York: Oxford University Press)


How many parallels can we draw with modern managerial practice ?  How many of these ritual bureaucratic purposes serve the logistical purposes of subsidiarity ? How many bureaucracies represent the sociological phenomena they purport to be representing ? How many paperworks are facilitating rather than hindering frontline workers ?…

The action part of the action research in this context has mainly been about turning confusion at malfunctioning, opaque, non-representative, administrative systems into curiosity about questions worth asking.  Understanding different perspectives on what is happening may not change what is happening, but does have inherent existential value in and of itself.  Is there more I can hope for ???

Best wishes,

Alex Dunedin


Existential Phenomenology and Natural Science

The Outcomes Star Literature cites Existential Phenomenology as the other main influence in the make up of the bureaucracies. It was developed as a way of humanizing the practice of psychology in the face of the natural sciences and valuing the first hand accounts as a source of insight. In Existential Phenomenology, De Castro indicates that the process should be iterative involving sharing, listening, refining and sharing again to hone understandings.

When we talk about science, we generally associate it with objective truths and rigid laboratory methods. This is also the case in social sciences such as psychology which have borrowed the natural sciences method so as to apply it to the field of human experience [63].

As a consequence, instead of comprehending the meaning of human experience, the discipline of psychology, for example, has adjusted human experiences to the quantitative and abstract methods foregoing the human juncture with ‘the thing itself’ – it tacitly ascribes experience as untrustworthy [63].

The researcher has been divorced from the subject under study in the name of objectivity. The outcome of this is that the researcher is barred from approaching and understanding the meaning of the experience and consequently from being able to relate an encounter with a phenomenon to a transcendent scheme of things [63].

The psychologist therefore cannot approach and understand the meaning of the experience for the person who is living that experience. Von Eckartsberg reminds us Giorgi and Strasser have suggested that if psychology really wants to understand human beings, it should put aside the natural science model:

“…the effort to reject the notion that humans are merely biological objects whose every thought, feeling, and action can be said to be determined by a complex network of causes. This conception of human nature, borrowed from the natural sciences and ultimately from those philosophers who first extended the notion of causality to human beings, is the implicit assumption of much traditional psychology.

These natural science psychologies have been unable to account for human freedom and the meaningfulness of human experience. Instead, they resort to quantitative, mechanistic, and computer models of human nature that, at best, record various regularities of behaviour and make predictions and, at worst, do violence to our forms of self-understanding. Existential-phenomenological psychology attempts to account for the fullness of human life by reconceiving psychology on properly human grounds [55]”.

This is an important point in appraising the value and role of experience in the formulation of thought and whatever practice which follows from this. The idea of choosing between camps seems to ignore the option of a multivalent perspective that accepts subjective experience as a type of knowledge which is related to, and can be understood to be a part of the information which comes from objective natural science models. What one approach can capture escapes the other [63].

Unless we conclude that these worlds of knowledge are parallel universes we must accept that these are routes to sense making and the development of language sets which we can use to understand the world which we operate within and are an inherent part of. Indeed, in the reality of lived application it only makes a difference in linguistic and communicative terms [63].


References and Bibliography

[63] Introduction to Giorgi’s Existential Phenomenological Research Method; Alberto De Castro; Psicologia desde el Caribe Universidad del Norte; volume 11; Pages 45 – 56

[55] Von Eckartsberg, R, 1998, Existential Phenomenological Research; Page 4, Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions, edited by Ron Valle, ISBN: 0306455439

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