Getting to know the B-ball: Being

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(Activity 2.28 based on Chapter 5, Ison (2010))

The B-ball is for Being.  Ison (2010, 58) says it

“symbolises the attributes of Being a practitioner with a particular tradition of understanding”.

To me it entails touching base with the relationship I (the practitioner) have with my framework of ideas.  Those ideas are grounded in my experiences to date – experiences that have come from my history.

The B-ball chapter starts by offering brief explanations of:

  • the nature of explanations
  • the role and place of emotions
  • embodied knowing



I have a desire to find explanations satisfying.  I will react to explanations in a positive or negative way – in other words explanations will trigger emotional responses.  This is a feature of being human.  My emotional state and the emotional reaction I have to an explanation will affect whether or not I ‘take it on board’.

I think Ison is being challenging here – he notes that his explanations in this chapter are not ‘mainstream’ thinking and will therefore feel at odds with the reader’s common-sense.  True to form, my first emotional response was confusion but on re-reading the chapter I have warmed to the explanations and find them satisfying – partly because I can connect them to existing understandings.


I am in one form of emotional state or another at all times – although we most often ‘label’ the extreme emotions, so there is a tendency to ignore the more neutral ones – like calm or satisfied.  My emotions are very much part of our process of understanding and sense-making and acting – my ‘body’ and its physiological state can help or hinder my systems thinking and practice.  It is therefore important that I am in touch with my emotions as I practice.

Embodied person:

I think the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Embodied Cognition gives a good ‘feel’ of this concept.

My understandings – the way I ‘see’ the world, make distinctions within it, theorise about it, act within it and so on – have been shaped by my physical body and I can only demonstrate my knowing through my actions.

This issue of ‘knowing’ coming from the whole body, reminded me once again of an article by Cook and Brown (1999) which I have mentioned in a post before.  This paragraph helps encapsulate it for me:

We act within the social and physical world, and since knowing is an aspect of action, it is about interaction with that world.  When we act, we either give shape to the physical world or we affect the social world or both.  Thus, ‘knowing’ does not focus on what we possess in our heads: it focuses on our interactions with the things of the social and physical world (page 80)


Ison then draws on the evidence base for these three explanations to address four aspects of being a systems practitioner:

  • being aware of the constraints and possibilities of the observer
  • understanding understanding and knowing knowing
  • learning (concerned with “the processes leading to effective action in a particular domain” (page 102))
  • being ethical – see below

In doing so he covers a number of key concepts relating to the B-ball.  I outline my developing understanding of these concepts below:

Living in language:

I have studied D843 Discourse Analysis, so I am familiar with the explanations and evidence underpinning Ison’s use of this phrase.  Social scientists from a variety of different disciplines such as linguistics, psychology, sociology, social policy have all converged on the use of discourse as a form of data for studying social life.  This is because, in a time of postmodernism, language is no longer seen as a ‘neutral medium’ for conveying information – the use of talk and text are social actions in themselves and our societies are mediated through language.  Use of language is a form of social action in its own right.

What is interesting to me, however, is that although I possess knowledge about this issue but I am not sure how frequently or effectively I use it to inform my action (praxis).  I want to use another couple of quotes from Cook and Brown (1999) to remind me of the need to do this:

“knowing as an aspect of action can make use of knowledge (in any of its forms) as tools” (page 81)

“knowing is to interact with and honor the world using knowledge as a tool” (page 81)

As part of my practice in juggling the B-ball, I want to become more aware of my awareness about living in language.

Technology as mediator:

I need to pause a bit and head to web definitions to start with.  Technology has become so synonymous with computers and computer chips it is hard to think of it as anything else.  Wikipedia’s Technology entry starts with

Technology is the usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or create an artistic perspective. The word technology comes from the Greek technología (τεχνολογία) — téchnē (τέχνη), an “art”, “skill” or “craft” and -logía (-λογία), the study of something, or the branch of knowledge of a discipline.

The usage of tools to live out our lives is very much part of our Being.  As Ison says:

Technologies mediate who we are and what we do by shifting the constraints and possibilities for what we can do and since we know according to how we do, they also change our conception of the world. (page 107)

We are used to thinking about physical objects as technologies – tools to help us….chairs, microwaves, cars, laptops, mobile phones etc etc.

Social technology:

We are less used to thinking about technologies that are an embedded part of social life.  As Cook and Brown’s quote above indicates knowledge is a tool.  Language is also a tool for social action.  Routines and ‘the way things are done around here’ are tools that form part of social life.  Ison refers to these as social technologies.

The difficulty with social technologies is as they become embedded in social life, they embed the history of assumptions about how the world works and how to act in it – the technologies often live on even when the assumptions they are built on are no longer relevant or helpful.

It reminds me of the anecdote – can’t remember where I read it or first heard it and have no idea if it is true – of the American general who watched a group of British soldiers go through the routine of loading and firing a canon.  At the end, he said “that was all very good, but what does that man do”.  He pointed at a soldier who had stood in the same spot throughout the routine.  The British were confused so they went back through the documentation about army practices and finally they found it – he was the man who held the horse!


I have recently posted about my understandings of the concept of institution as developed through my previous studies so I won’t re-state any of that here.  I am specifically going to reflect on the new insights I have had from Chapter 5.

Ison (2010, 111) notes that he uses the phrase ‘social technology’ in a way that is very similiar to the concept of institution.  I am glad that he makes that explicit because I was busy trying to make a distinction between the familiar concept (institution) and the new one (social technology)!

So the term ‘institution’ obviously hides some key issues that are important for Ison.  He claims that there are “useful insights to be gained from understanding institutions through the lens of history and through the philosophy of technology studies” (page 112).

Ison draws attention to the way in which institutions/social technologies are ‘tools’.  Ison’s preferential use of the term social technologies is to draw attention to the way in which we use institutions as tools.  And, of course, this means we can choose the way in which we use them or not use them at all.  I agree that in my considerations of the concept institution so far I have overlooked seeing them as a tool – I have tended to think of them as an inevitable part of the context in which I am practicing.  It feels quite liberating to understand institutions as tools.

Ison draws attention to his own argument that we have failed to institutionalise systems thinking and practice.  This was the particular focus of my previous post.  To date, the process of institutionalisation has led to an almost mindless acceptance of a technology and the history and assumptions built into it and Ison comments that this “subvert[s] the social nature of being human” (p112).  At the core of systems thinking and practice however is the continuing questioning of what we take for granted – potentially creating more freedoms.

I want to bring this all back to my understanding of the term Practice – and the relational dynamic we have looked at so far between Practictioner (P), their Framework of ideas (F), the Method (M) and the Situation (S).  In discussing practice in the context of technology this is re-framed to practice being an emergent property of a relational dynamic between a practitioner, tool(s) and a situation.  In the course so far, I have understood the tool to be the method or approach chosen.  I have now realised that

1) our framework of ideas (F) is also a tool and

2) that both Methods (M) and Framework of ideas (F) are stuffed full of history and assumptions about the way the world works and how to act in it.

Being ethical:

Being ethical happens at the moment of action – it is not something you talk about in abstract.

As I act, I create conditions for both desirable and undesirable consequences.  I have to take responsibility for those consequences.  Following Von Foerster, I should aim to act in a way that increases the freedoms of others – or the number of options available.  With freedom comes responsibility.

As discourse is a form of social action, you have to be careful that the language you use does not restrict others’ freedoms and to remain aware that what you are discussing has implications for others.


This concept is covered by Ison in Chapter 4 (page 60).  It is defined there as “the dynamic of experiencing the same thing through another means”.  This is the way Ison is using the notion of juggling in his text.  The idea is to experience systems practice by the doing of juggling.


Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Cook S and Brown J (1999) “Bridging Epistemologies: the Generative Dance between Organisational Knowledge and Organisational Knowing” in Little, Quintas and Ray (2002) “Managing Knowledge: an essential reader” The Open University/Sage Publications, Milton Keynes/London. reprinted from Organizational Science, Jul/Aug99, Vol. 10 Issue 4, p381-400

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