Getting to know the C-ball: Contextualising

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(Activity 2.30 based on Chapter 7, Ison (2010))

The C-ball is for Contextualising. Ison (2010) summarises it as:

symbolises the act of Contextualising a particular approach to a new situation (page 58)

So it includes choosing methods, tools and techniques and adapting the use of them to the situation as part of Practice

Activity 2.30 invites me to explore my understanding of the following concepts.

Aware systems practice

Is it the systems practice that is ‘aware’ or the systems practitioner?  I think it is the latter.  And, Ison talks in terms of the practitioner or ‘you’ when he talks about being aware.

So what do I need to be aware of?

Firstly, the distinction between systemic and systematic thinking – which are concepts I will come back to below.

Secondly, an array of systems concepts and methods.  These will come from my understanding of Systems lineages and reading the work of other systems practitioners as well as by learning established systems approaches.  As I have studied Tu811 Thinking strategically: systems approaches for managing change, I already ‘know’ (in the sense of have knowledge of and some experience of using) some systems approaches, namely Systems Dynamics; Viable System Model; Strategic Options Development and Analysis; Soft Systems Methodology; and, Critical Systems Heuristics.  I have also used a number of systems tools, particularly diagramming.  What I think is interesting here, is the need to stay in touch with Systems academia as well as other systems practitioners beyond the end of formal studies.  It seems like an inquiry into systems practice for managing change is never-ending  – which is what I said in this post from October last year!  I wonder what mechanisms we have to do this – the Systemist journal is more academia oriented than practice.  There are a few on-line fora like SCiO and Systems Place but these are not often used for reflective practice.  Mmm – now that systems practice is moving out of the realm of academia and consultancy – is there something the community needs to do for itself?

The purpose of being ‘aware’ is that it increases the choices I have available to me when approaching a new situation.  This increases the opportunity of being able to manage change systemically.

Systematic thinking tradition and Systemic thinking tradition

Before looking into what Chapter 7 covers, I want to remind myself of earlier material.  Ison (2010, 26) explained that systematic is nested in the systemic.  They make up a ‘whole’.  In other words both systematic and systemic are necessary for a full ‘repertoire’ of systems thinking and practice.

In Chapter 7 (page 158), however, systematic thinking and systemic thinking are compared side-by-side and in a way that makes systemic thinking ‘win’.  In particular, it says that goal oriented behaviour, a characteristic of systematic thinking, has been found to be “unhelpful when dealing with situations understood as messes or ‘wicked'”(page 158).  I note however that Ison has drawn his comparison from Checkland’s work – perhaps Checkland was making the distinction very explicit in order to make the case for ‘soft’ methodologies that enable systemic thinking.

What is important for me and my practice is that I am aware of both types of thinking so that I can use them appropriately according to the situation.  My ‘training’ and ‘institutionalisation’ in a Western culture in the time of New Public Management means that my default setting – the normal groove –  is systematic thinking.  I need to be able to spot when I am defaulting to that ‘groove’ inappropriately.  I guess that is as much a part of juggling the B ball (being) as it is the C ball (contextualising).

I don’t think there is any point here in me repeating the list of characteristics of systematic thinking as compared to systemic thinking. (Table 7.1, page 158).  The important implication that is drawn out is that systemic thinking requires thinking in terms of learning, especially experiential learning.

Patterns of knowing

Ison (page 159/160) offers a heuristic for systemic knowing that moves beyond the “learning from experience” cyclical models I am familiar with.  When I juggle the E-ball (engaging) I make an aware choice about how to frame the situation.  This will influence my experience and actions and make it more likely that I experience something new – this may lead to an expansion of my knowing or even changes in paradigm providing I can avoiding ‘snapping to’ my existing accepted knowledge.

Purposeful and purposive behaviour

Ison provides a distinction between two types of behaviour – purposeful and purposive.  In essence, an observer can ascribe a purpose to a behaviour based on what they see, obviously the purpose ascribed will depend on the perspective of the observer.  The same action or behaviour can be ascribed very different purposes by different observers.

Purposeful behaviour is where the purpose is being ascribed by the actor(s) themselves.  This means the behaviour is willed and stems from the purpose(s) of the actor(s).

Purposive behaviour is where the purpose is being ascribed by an observer – someone not involved in the behaviour.

Exploring purpose

Exploring and attributing purpose can be part of a creative learning process as part of systemic inquiry.  Purposeful behaviour can emerge from the conversations about purpose.

Ison explores a number of ways of exploring purpose which is a way of juggling the C-ball:

– Creative Questioning – what can we learn about the situation if we were to think of it as if it were a system to …..?  (note the phrasing which avoids reification)

– The use of PQR – a system to do what (P) by means of how (Q) in order to why (R)

– More full use of Ulrich’s boundary setting questions that I am familiar with from Critical System Heuristics (CSH).

When I studied Tu811, I had the opportunity to experience the exploration of purpose but did this primarily as a solitary practitioner, rather than in conversations with others.  Whilst that provided me experience of the use of the approaches, I have not had experience of the purposeful behaviour that results from the social learning when a number of actors explore purpose together.

Metaphor analysis

The metaphors people use provide a ‘window’ into their understandings.  So paying attention to the metaphors that get used – and working with people to reflect on them – is a means by which understandings can be explored.  In exploring understandings, we learn.

Revealing and concealing metaphors

Metaphors reveal – or bring into focus – some aspects of the concept being described.  They also conceal some aspects.

As we are working with the juggler metaphor in order to explore systems practice, it is worth touching base with what it reveals and conceals.  I recently contributed the following to a discussion about this on the student forum:

Before I started the course, the four elements – B, E, M and C – were so mushed up that I saw them as one messy activity called PRACTICE.  It was like throwing all four balls up in the air at once, just randomly and hoping I will be able to catch them all.  In dividing up the elements and getting to know them separately through thinking of them as 4 balls that I am juggling, I can actually divide my attention a little more.  Juggling is quite rhythmic, none of the balls ever go away it is just at any one point you are intervening more with one ball than with another.  This feels a little better than the random throwing and hoping you catch

So I do find the metaphor helpful but it does conceal something critical.  Whilst balls are independent entities and do not affect each other’s form, the balls we juggle in practice influence each other and change all the time.

Designing a systemic inquiry

I described my earlier understanding of systemic inquiry in this post.

Designing a systemic inquiry requires making a “connection between a theoretical framework (in this case concerned with systems thinking and practice), a methodological approach and a given situation” (page 169).

Method and methodology

A method is “taken or used as given” (page 165).  It is effectively following a procedure as if it were a set of instructions.

A methodology is adapted by the user to a particular situation.  Therefore a methodology is “both the result of, and the process of, inquiry where neither theory nor practice take precedence” (page 165).  I suppose that means that a methodology is a one-off and non-repeatable because it only occurs in relation to a particular situation.

As it is just New Year and I have enjoyed many TV cookery programmes I’d like to use the distinction between method and methodology to compare two TV cooks.  It seems that Delia Smith is showing you a method.  In fact she is renowned for having very accurate cookery books that you can just follow.  My more recent hero is Nigel Slater – he seems to be encouraging the viewer to use what he is doing to inspire methodologies – for you to adapt what you are doing to the ingredients you have available and the mood you are in.  In fact he seems to sell the notion of just getting in the kitchen with some good ingredients and going with the flow – it is cookery per se, rather than the recipe that matters.


To date, I have understood this concept in relation to research – where a researcher uses more than one methodology (e.g. both quantitative and qualitative) as part of research.  My understanding of methodology above is making me re-think multi-methodology – surely if you have blended a number of methods (or drawn from different research traditions) for a piece of research, then that must be an incident of a methodology.

Whilst Ison does not go into detail, he expresses a concern that in literature about ‘multi-methodology’ there is a tendency to advocate matching an approach to a type of situation. (page 155/6).  I suppose this type of ‘advice’ takes away the practitioners’ responsibility to juggle the E-ball (i.e. make choices about ways to engage with the situation) and to juggle the C-ball (i.e. contextualise methods/tools in a blend that is appropriate to the way you have chosen to engage with the situation).

I see Wikipedia’s entry on multimethodology also has a concern about this expression (even though it provides a slightly different definition of methodology):

A word of caution about the term “multimethodology”. It has become quite common place to use the terms “method” and “methodology” as synonyms (…). However, there are convincing philosophical reasons for distinguishing the two. “Method” connotes a way of doing something — a procedure. “Methodology” connotes a discourse about methods—i.e., a discourse about the adequacy and appropriateness of particular combination of research principles and procedures. The terms methodology and biology share a common suffix “logy.” Just as bio-logy is a discourse about life—all kinds of life; so too, methodo-logy is a discourse about methods—all kinds of methods. It seems unproductive, therefore, to speak of multi-biologies or of multi-methodologies. It is very productive, however, to speak of multiple biological perspectives or of multiple methodological perspectives. [accessed 4 Jan 2011]


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

3 thoughts on “Getting to know the C-ball: Contextualising

  1. Hi Helen,
    First of all a big thank you, I got a bit lost in the purposeful and purposive bit an your succinct description has helped clarify this for me. I also liked your recipe analogy for method and methodology. With regard to multi-methodology I am finding this a little confusing and questioning how it differs to methodology, so found your quandary reassuring.
    In your section of systematic and systemic, I didn’t interpret it as systemic ‘winning’, rather that the systemic was more of an ‘initial preference’, in that it is more able to support a wider exploration and bring forth a much broader perspective of the situation. To that end it is more useful. However, once the boundaries are drawn in and agreed, then systematic or ‘lean’/’hard’ approaches can be used to help model potential solutions. Here, there is also a caveat in that lean systems, can only deal with an issue at only one point, in time and place, as they don’t take account of the dynamic nature of issues. So to me it is more about systemic having a broader use than winning.
    Finally, with regard to your search for using PQR in a group setting. I have used it with CATWOE on two occasions now. Once in a workshop , the second time in a meeting. The first time was to explore purpose with stakeholders who work on the alcohol and /or family agenda. This was really interesting, in that we were looking at it in their present context, and they really struggled. What became evident from this was the disjoint between policy and delivery. Most were policy people and whist they talked about aims and methods, they really struggled to demonstrate how this hit the ground.
    The second time we used it with stakeholders involved in managing the night time economy. The discussions in the meetings were just going round and round in circles and outside of the meetings nothing was really moving forward. So rather than having the usual agenda type meeting I used this approach to look at the purpose of what they were attempting to change to. This was much more productive in terms of pulling together a good definition, from which some actions to move forward to meeting this purpose were identified. However, the proof will be in the pudding, lets see how far they have got at the next meeting.
    Now I know that the first time I used this I was supported by Patrick, but at the time I hadn’t started TU811, so really had no idea about this model and how to apply it. The second time, I just seized the day!


  2. Hi Bridget
    Thanks for taking the time to relate your experiences of doing purpose exploration with groups – it sounds really useful.
    In the light of my reading on the M-ball and your comments, I have developed my understanding of the systematic-systemic and reflected on this in my post on the M-ball.

  3. Pingback: Just Practicing − If not a Project, then what?

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