Working on the edges

by Philip Boxer
The following set of notes emerged from a conversation with Sandy Henderson about the forensic approach – an approach to understanding and beginning to address ‘systemic bias’.[1]

Implicit in the way a person speaks about what is going on (wigo) is a way of framing meaning. The frame contains wigo for the speaker in the sense of providing a way of giving meaning to their experience of wigo.[2] The wigo being contained needs to be distinguished here from the way wigo is held, which means to limit the granularity and detail of the phenomena that need containing.[3]

  • This way of framing rests on implicit assumptions that govern its reasoning.
  • The assumptions implicit within a frame can be reinforced by a cycle of process-outcome-consequence (a process undertaken to achieve an outcome has consequences that reinforce the frame’s way of containing wigo).
  • Outcomes are about what happens while consequences are about how those outcomes impact on the interests of those invested in the frame’s outcomes.
  • The frame can be disrupted by a consequence that cannot be contained by the frame’s implicit assumptions.
  • This disruptive consequence can ‘flip’ the person out of the frame into an ‘other’ frame resting on different implicit assumptions with its own reinforcing P-O-C cycle that is able to contain the disruptive consequence but in which interests are invested differently.

A dilemma emerges if the ‘other’ frame also encounters disrupting consequences such that the person is ‘flipped’ back to the P-O-C cycle under the previous frame, giving rise potentially to an oscillation between two frames.

  • When this happens, this oscillation takes place around a ‘gap’ representing the aspects of wigo that neither frame is able to contain.
  • Any frame is vulnerable to the possibility of being disrupted by ‘flipping’ outcome-consequences. There are thus always ‘other’ frames possible and different kinds of dilemma, therefore, each revealing gaps representing different kinds of impossibility.
  • The way this ‘gap’ is encountered (and the impossibility that it represents to either frame) will be symptomatic of the way each frame is being held in order to limit the disrupting consequences encountered by each of their P-O-C cycles.

Holding frames in a way that limits disrupting consequences creates a ‘systemic bias’[4] that is manifested in three ways:

  • The first is by a flight to the personal aka scapegoating – an explanation in terms of individuals’ responsibility that leaves the frames themselves unacknowledged.
  • The second is by turning a blind eye to granularity and detail that would make disrupting consequences apparent by insisting on an existing way of holding frames.
  • The third is by the disclusion of the interests of persons identified with consequences that would disrupt existing ways of holding and containing frames. To disclude is to exclude the interests of a person from consideration and dismiss as irrelevant any granularity and detail of wigo relating to those ‘other’ interests that could give rise to disrupting consequences.[5]
  • All of these manifestations of systemic bias provoke hostility and mistrust and create injustice for those affected. An injustice here means that interests are being served at others’ expense that are in some way unnecessary, excessive and/or unjustifiable.

Any challenge that is permitted to existing ways of holding frames could give rise to new frames and new kinds of gap. If a challenge is not permitted (intentionally or otherwise), the resulting injustice can be approached as a (serial) ‘murder’ of innovations – the potential frames whose creation is thereby prevented.[6]

  • Such murders may be ‘investigated’ by treating as ‘crime scenes’ the P-O-C cycles in which the injustices arose and identifying the means, opportunity and motive through which the ‘murders’ took place.
  • Probable cause aka ‘reasonable grounds’ for the systemic bias may be established by identifying the means, opportunity and motive for the scapegoating, turning a blind eye or disclusion.
  • Motive may be established through establishing the particular interests being served by the existing ways of holding frames. The systemic nature of the ‘murders’ may then be identified with those standing to benefit from them who have the means and opportunity.
  • For ‘probable cause’ to be established, however, we need ‘detectives’ – persons whose personal valency leads them to sense the injustices and to have the drive to do the forensic work involved.[7] The intention behind establishing ‘probable cause’ is, of course, a successful ‘prosecution’ that changes the repeated behaviors towards ‘others’.

The exploration of a situation felt to be problematic and/or unjust in some way – and an individual’s valency for recognising it – can be achieved through a way of using the ‘plus-one’ process. This sets out to look beyond the ‘truth’ of an individual’s narrative of a situation in order to uncover the dilemma they are experiencing in the situation, and to explore the nature of the gap between its frames with its underlying impossibility.

  • This plus-one process involves three people with a fourth person in a witness role. The plus-one process itself starts with a narrating of a situation by a speaker (1) to a listener (2) in the presence of a person in the plus-one role (3). The following three stages are repeated three times as the three people rotate around these three roles. The person in the witness role bears witness to the whole process of rotating roles.
    Stage 1 involves, in the first iteration, the articulation of the narrative about the situation experienced as problematic/unjust from the speaker’s perspective. Subsequent stage 1 narratives are in each case of a situation experienced by the speaker that shows the meaning of the metaphor they previously identified from their plus-one role.
    Stage 2 involves clarification of the narrative by the listener.
    Stage 3 is the production of a metaphor by the ‘plus-one’ based on a counter-transferential ‘hunch’ about the narrative framing within which the narrative unfolded as it emerged from the speaking-and-listening.
  • The metaphor represents the plus-one’s sense of the shape of the speaker’s relation to the situation that has emerged. The metaphor derives from the feelings evoked in the plus-one by the speaker’s articulation of the narrative and its subsequent clarification by the listener.

The witness will subsequently use the three metaphors that emerge from the plus-one process to hypothesise an ‘other side’ of the original narrative articulated by the speaker as a first step in formulating the gap between the two frames and the underlying impossibility it represents.

  • Having elaborated this ‘other side’ as an alternative P-O-C cycle narrating of the original situation, it needs to be validated by relating the ‘flipping’ consequences in each frame back to the original narrative and defining the oscillation between them.
  • The witness’s final step is then to hypothesise the nature of the gap between the frames and the underlying impossibility it represents.

Two questions then arise that define the focus of a Lacanese parallel process[8]: (i) what is it about the way this dilemma is being held that sets it up in this way; and (ii) what is the nature of the original speaker’s valency for this way of its being ‘set up’. [9]

[1] ‘systemic bias’ is apparent, for example, in institutional racism. I have written about ‘systemic bias’ in a number of its guises. In its extreme forms it edges over into being ‘white collar crime’. The forensic rule in these kinds of case is ‘to follow the money’:
“Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness.” (2014) Defences Against Anxiety: Explorations in a Paradigm. D. Armstrong and M. Rustin. London, Karnac: 70-87.
“Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation.” (2015) Organisational & Social Dynamics 15(1): 1-19.
“Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (2015) 32nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations. Rome, Italy.
“Caring beyond reason: a question of ethics.” (2016) European Academy of Management Conference. Paris.
“On the betrayal of the other’s trauma: the ethics of questioning unconscious investment in turning a blind eye.” (2016) 33rd ISPSO Annual Symposium. Granada.
“Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge.” (2017) Organizational and Social Dynamics 17(1): 89-110.
[2] ‘Contains’ aka returns meaning, following Bion’s thinking about what transforms beta-elements to alpha-elements. Beta-elements are experienced as bizarre, provoking anxiety. To contain is therefore epistemic in its effects, transforming the bizarre into something that can be given meaning to. Meaning must nevertheless be understood as meaning ‘for me’, i.e. for the individual trying to make meaning.
[3] ‘Holding’ aka limiting the complexity and granularity of the phenomena being faced, following Winnicott. By granularity is meant the scale or scope of detail present in the phenomena. The way the child was held by the family situation protected the child from being exposed to phenomena that could be overwhelming or traumatic, inducing a fear of imminent annihilation.  To hold is therefore ontic in its effects, defining reality itself for the child in which the bizarre might occur. A useful account of the important role of ‘ontological scaffolding’ is to be found in Lane, D. A. and R. R. Maxfield (2005). “Ontological uncertainty and innovation.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 15.
[4] ‘Systemic bias’ aka way of sustaining an identification of interests in the way the frame(s) produce outcomes, the consequences of which are reinforcing of those interests.
[5] To both dismiss and exclude is to disclude…  the exclusion limits the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration, while the dismissal reflects the way of framing.
[6] I use ‘murder’ here because it leads us to the detective genre, which is a valuable metaphor for the thinking about the challenges of working forensically. Typically, the detective is having to be relentless in the pursuit of what happened while at the same time having to battle with forces of authority that want the case closed for other reasons. See also the use of this metaphor in dilemmas as drivers of change.
[7] A brief summary of the detective genre would start from the detective’s code: dedicated to the victim, economical if not thrifty in his or her expenses and personal habits, loyal to his or her profession, cooperative to some degree with the police, concerned with self-survival, and unwilling to be duped by anyone. I have written about forensic work in Boxer, P. J. (2017). “Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge.” Organizational and Social Dynamics 17(1): 89-110.
[8] Not to be confused with the Balint approach to shadow consulting, which corresponds more to the role of the plus-one.  This approach to parallel process is a further development aimed at tackling the ethical challenges inherent in the original situation.
[9] Of course taking up either of these questions implies addressing the other question in some way. This implies an ethic to the extent that it demands that a manager takes responsibility for his or her own valencies. This points towards a kind of Hippocratic oath for managers – to abstain from doing harm. It also links us back to understanding what is constitutive of unintentional errors.

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