Back to Vlad's Homepage

OUTLINE OF VIRTUAL SEMIOTIC METHODOLOGY
FOR UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL COMPLEXITY


Vladimir Dimitrov


      Introduction

      Virtuality of Meaning

      Virtual Logic and Semiosis

      Virtual Semiotic Methodology

      Dealing with Self-Organization

      Conclusion

      References
 
 

Introduction

Soft System Methodology (SSM) is a systematic inquiring process developed by Peter Checkland for analysis of poorly defined systems with a strongly imbedded 'human element'. According to Checkland, "models in SSM are constructs which represent, from some explicit pure point of view, purposeful human activity."[1].

SSM inquiry is structured around a comparison between a real-world problem situation and conceptual models of relevant systems of purposeful activity and includes the following three major stages:

Stage 1. Finding out about the problem situation

Stage 2. Use of systems thinking to build conceptual models of the situation

Stage 3. Taking actions to improve the situation.

The above three stages incorporate also Vicker's appreciative system approach [2] in a series of participatory action research cycles repeated until satisfactory (from points of view of the participants concerned with the problem situation) improvements are reached.

SSM is useful for studying problem areas where human expertise is of a vital importance. This makes SSM effective in the development of problem-driven expert systems. Fuzzy logic has been successfully used in various practical applications of these systems [3].

In complex and chaotic dynamics of to-day's society, where economical, political, ecological, cultural, etc. phenomena, events and processes emerge in unpredictable way out of a tangled web of ever-changing interactions of huge number of interwoven factors, SSM constructs of 'purposeful human activity' lose their efficiency. Well-defined problems simply do not exist in such an environment, and poorly or ill definitions often bring inquiry processes to blind alleys.

Nonlinear dynamic world of spontaneous emergence and bifurcations, chaotic attractors and fractals, autopoiesis and self-organization call for new methodologies free from fixed periodicity of action learning cycles, from fragmentarity of experts' knowledge, from adopted standards of optimal ('good', 'right', 'ethical', etc.) value judgements, from the burden of time linearity and related to it cause-and-effect explanations, from the entire ideology of purposeful improvements which permeate most of the approaches under the umbrella of SSM.

Any pre-selected purpose, goal, objective, value standard, milestone and plan inevitably stumble over the chaotic dynamics of social complexity. Even the term improvement does not make much sense when dealing with ever-emerging turbulence in the flow of life. How can we improve the whirlpool in the flow of a river? Improvements always imply purposive interventions, that is, interventions guided by preliminary defined purposes. Such purposes turn to be misleading when dealing with sparkling spontaneity of self-organizing processes of reality. And it is this sparkling spontaneity which propels the best of our capabilities as humans - to create, discover and discriminate between truth and illusions.

A purposive rational inference or intervention, be it individual or participatory, hard or soft, precise or fuzzy, linear or cyclic, theoretical or experiential, ontological or epistemic, ethical or aesthetical, action-research or action-learning based, cannot help but limiting serendipity of those who navigate through the labyrinth of chaos and complexity. Serendipity is a virtual faculty - it could be evoked, explored, nourished and energized, but never purposed or imposed, inserted or transferred from one place to another, prescribed or ordered, directed or controlled. It needs freedom in order to self-realize and blossom. It needs a different type of logic - a logic that underlies processes in their becoming and thus helps to 'sense' the meaning of what is going to emerge.

The logic underlying processes in their becoming is virtual. The meaning of what is going to emerge is a virtual meaning.

Virtual Semiotic Methodology applies virtual logic and operates with virtual meanings when exploring the whirling dynamics of social complexity.

Go to the top of the page

 

Virtuality of Meaning

Both verbal and non-verbal human expressions have a unique temporal property: the meaning of an expression simultaneously reflects past, present and future of individual and group experience.

Past relates to the probabilistic characteristic of an expression: the expression appears as the most probable response under the experience and knowledge accumulated in the past. Present refers to the actual circumstances facilitating both the formation and interpretation of the expression. Future evokes possibilities for new comprehension of the expression and thus provides a virtual space for evolution of its meaning.

In continuity of human experience, meaning always espouses virtuality. This was perfectly understood by Peirce - the co-founder (together with Saussure) of semiotics, who wrote in 1905: "No present actual thought has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies, not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual" [4].
 
 

Go to the top of the page


Virtual Logic and Semiosis

According to Kauffman [5], virtual logic is "that which energizes reason": "Virtual logic is not logic, nor is it the actual subject matter of the mathematics, physics or cybernetics in which it may appear to be embedded... It is the pivot that allows us to move from one world of ideas to another."

Kauffman is convinced that what empowers us 'to move from one world of ideas to another' is not necessarily itself purposive, reasonable or logical. "There are many ways in which we encounter this sort of virtuality. One way is to proceed from within an apparently logical system and push its boundaries, find its limits. Another is to arrive from without in a leap, a bound, a jump into something new."

The way we have adopted is the way of semiosis - a process of using, consciously or unconsciously, various signs and signs structures when making sense of a complex dynamic pattern as a whole.

The wholeness is a virtual entity - its numerous dynamic aspects have unlimited potential for becoming, that is, expanding or withdrawing, sustaining or destroying, transforming or transcending themselves. The process of making meaning about the wholeness, that is, the process of semiosis, is impregnated by this virtuality.

Peirce put it directly: semiosis is inherently virtual - it inevitably includes appearance (emergence, discovery, creation) of connections (relations) between signs (things, events, phenomena, processes), a priori seen as not interacting with each other. Because of its virtuality, semiosis provides a basis for exploring holistic nature of complex reality, where 'everything relates to everything', and for eliciting distinguishable dynamic patterns emerging out of the tangled web of interdependent relationships.

The roots of semiosis are in the fertile soil of direct living experience, 'ploughed' by the human vigor to understand its emergent enigmas and paradoxes.

Example 1

Let us use virtual logic to elicit the relations between the constituents of the following three dynamic complexes:

´ body, mind, and nature

´ perception, representation, and consciousness

´ time, space, and existence.

Each complex has a triadic 'fractal' structure. Mandelbrot's concept of fractals [6] is used in chaos theory to explain the nested structures of chaotic (strange) attractors. Fractals reveal both the integrity (wholeness) and diversity of complex formations and provide a key for understanding their intricate dynamic behaviour.

In the first nested complex, 'body' has the potential to virtually affect the functioning of 'mind', and 'mind' can be empowered (energized, inspired) to affect, again virtually, the functioning of 'body', while they both inseparably exist in the wholeness of 'nature'. Nature manifests through them, keeps their integrity, and nourishes their functioning. And vice versa, the level of development of body and mind abilities determines the ways an individual perceives nature.

The virtual interplay between the 'fractals' of the second complex: perception, representation and consciousness are described by Kristeva [7]. For Kristeva semiosis is a complex process of signification emerging out of the interaction of a large number of activities aimed at widening the virtual meaning of signs. She characterizes these processes as "waves of attack against stases": both perception and representation demonstrate human potential to prevent unchanging signs from 'entering' consciousness. The waves of attack reveal continuity of co-evolving dynamics of perception and representation in the complex process of signification: at the level of representation, it becomes possible for the images of repeated stimuli to be continuously constructed, against which perception matches the incoming signs. The effect is a virtual defense of consciousness against penetration of repetitive stimuli.

In the third complex, existence unfolds in a spatio-temporal continuum. Animated and non-animated existential forms need space to expose their virtual properties. Through their spatial changes, it becomes possible for time to express itself. Thus time also needs space for its virtual manifestation. And vice versa, every point in space needs time to exhibit potentiality for self-organization of the existential forms located at this point. Through the cyclic triad of creation, preservation and destruction (transformation), time and space demonstrate continuity and the wholeness of existence.

Go to the top of the page

 

Virtual Semiotic Methodology

As far as semiosis is a process common to all existential forms, it can be used as a source for developing a methodology for studying dynamics of these forms. We refer to it as Virtual Semiotic Methodology.

Virtual Semiotic Methodology (VSM) aims at discovery or creation of virtual connections between events, phenomena and processes considered in their unfolding dynamics.

When approaching social complexity, VSM can use signs and sign structures of various forms (words, images, music, verbal and non-verbal expressions, narratives, Internet, multimedia) to explore and navigate through the ocean of human experience at different levels of its manifestation.
 

Working with VSM: Practical Considerations

1. Unchanging environment communicates nothing, therefore it does not represent
a field for application of VSM

According to Allot [8], in order to be able to perceive change, the perceiver must have retained the pattern of what constitutes an expected flow of events (situations, phenomena), that is, a flow of events considered as a 'normally expected'. Allot underlines that complexity of our brains must be structured in terms of some kind of 'expected' environment and "perception is the result of interaction, or matching between the expected environment and the current environment by which change is detected". If no change is detected, Kristeva's 'waves of attack against stasis', mentioned in Example 1, will prevent the emergence of meaning for the perceiver.

Example 2

The bearers of the most meaningful signs for the survival of any firm are the markets, because of their rapid and unpredictable changes driven by competition, shifts in technology, and permanent interplay of various economical, political and cultural factors. With the highest chance for survival are those firms that are able quickly to adjust their rhythm (characterized by two vital signs: pace of introducting new products and 'choreography' of transitions from one activity to another) with the dynamics of markets' characteristics.

In the presence of high-velocity markets the way for dealing with future is not through scenario planning or building predictive models but by promoting individual and organizational capacity for change.

The viability of an organization is not judged by the presence of signs revealing its sustainability (persistence through stability) but depends on the dynamics of signs demonstrating its fitness for change, ability to 'embrace' the unknown and to co-evolve with it.

2. Signs group in dynamic sign structures with different degrees of complexity

For example, the expression "war in Kosovo" represented a complex sign structure simultaneously pointing to:

The narratives about the war in Kosovo shared by people are examples of sign structures with complex semiotic (meaning-related) dynamics. The meaning of these structures changes when 'moving' from one group of people to another: the narratives shared by Albanian refugees differ from the narratives of ordinary Serbian people, which are entirely different from the narratives of the official political propaganda in Belgrade. The narratives shared by people living in the neighbor countries differ from the narratives of those who live in the countries participating in NATO military operations. The narratives of those who express their sympathy and solidarity with Albanian refugees are different from the narratives of those who support the policy of Yugoslavian government.

Simultaneous consideration of the available narratives helps to create an integral multidimensional meaning of the war in Kosovo as a ruthless social expression of the worst characteristics of human nature at the end of this bloody second millennium: intolerance to others' ways of thinking, thirst for power, and lack of unconditional virtues.

With VSM we constantly try to capture as full as possible the meanings of all available parallel sign structures in their dynamics and diversity, and thus to facilitate the emergence (or creation) of a coherent virtual meaning of the reality expressed through each of these structures.

3. Static sign structures are incompatible with VSM

Static sign structures bear pre-imposed, fixed meanings. Every military command is an example of such a structure. Dictators, bureaucrats and 'experts' all around the world prefer to deal with this kind of structure. Powerful economic, political and religious oligarchies conduct phenomenal brainwashing in to-day's world aimed at inserting static sign structures into human perception, interpretation and consciousness. The media (particularly, commercial TV channels) constantly impose fixed patterns of economic behaviour in service to a society based entirely on consumption, and thus stupefy billions of people, trying persistently to transform them into frantic competitive money-making robots. It is clear, that such transformation serves mostly to those who already possess a tremendous financial power in society.

VSM hardly tolerates meanings fixed once for ever. The whole idea of VSM is to liberate the meaning out of the prison of any pre-imposed interpretation and hence to extend its virtual space. Once the meaning is liberated, it would be difficult to push it again into a box with a fixed label.

4. Any knowledge 'for sure' may have fatal consequence on VSM application

The meanings related to such kind of definite knowledge tend to substitute for the meanings extracted from direct human experience.

This is a psychological paradox, which is extremely difficult to be dealt with. Once the meaning of living experience is substituted by a meaning fixed by a doctrine (dogma, prejudice, standard, stereotype, habit), VSM loses its creative potential, as its roots lay in direct experience of reality, that can never be fixed nor standardized.

Example 3

(1) Most of us know 'for sure' that everyday relaxed walking (or some kind of individually tailored physical exercises) is good for health, and yet we hardly find time for this. So often the meaning of this sign structure has been repeated, discussed and emphasized that it has become a bearer of a fixed meaning. Once the knowledge is fixed, the paradox of using this knowledge as a substitute for the genuine experience starts to operate. As a result, we hardly find time for walking or exercising; we prefer to be involved in activities the outcomes of which are uncertain: their meanings appear 'virtual' for us. Virtuality of meaning acts as an attractor in the dynamic continuum of our experience.

(2) Usually the addicts know 'for sure' that the addiction (alcohol, smoking, gambling, gluttony, etc.) can be fatal for their life; moreover, they are even convinced that they are able to change their addictive behaviour in any moment. This definite knowledge becomes an impassable psychological barrier for practically dealing with the addiction. That is why the first thing an alcoholic anonymous (AA) does is to declare genuinely his/her ignorance both about the nature of the addiction and about any prescribed way to stop its urge. Through surrendering to a force that is unknown and greater that personal 'determinacy' to fight the fatal addiction, AA succeeds in dealing with it.

Paradoxically enough, the more liberated (unfixed and flexible) our knowledge related to a specific sign structure, the easier we move into virtual space of meanings beyond this structure, and hence the higher our capacity to apply VSM.

It appears that a kind of 'disestablishment' of the meaning carried by a certain sign structure is necessary for its further virtual development; acceptance of 'disorder' (breaking certainty) at one scale is often consonant with 'order' (emergent of a coherent meaning) at another scale.

5. Fractality contributes in understanding virtuality

Fractals represent similar patterns appearing at different levels (scales) of a complex structure. Each pattern is an image of the whole structure.

The patterns that appear at different levels of a complex sign structure are bearers of meaning - they also exhibit similarity, as each of them relates to the same sign structure. Even tiny changes in the meaning at one level can immediately affect the meanings related to the other levels, and thus the meaning of the sign structure as a whole, that is, its virtual meaning. This kind of ïbutterfly effectÍ is of enormous significance for the practical application of VSM. It makes possible to radically change virtual meaning of a complex sign structure by consciously generated small changes in the meaning related to a level that is relatively easy to observe and study.
 

Example 4

Human health can be considered as a complex dynamic sign structure with three typical levels of manifestation: physical, emotional and mental. Although each level has its own set of signs indicating the state of individual health, there is similarity between the levels. For example, the signs of tension (or stress) observed in an individual indicate high degree of similarity through all the levels. This similarity makes tension and stress easily recognizable, no matter what level it reveals itself at. Semiotic dynamics of the signs (indicators) of tension reflect both the current degrees of vulnerability of each level and the intensity of the source of tension. If an intensive source of tension is activated at mental level (in the mental 'fractal' of health), one can expect virtual decrease in individual's ability to concentrate and think productively. If, despite of intensity of this source, the individual succeeds in keeping the efficiency of his/her thinking capacity high enough, tension will inevitably 'explode' either at emotional or at physical level, depending on which level is more vulnerable at the moment.

"Mens sana in corpore sano" (Healthy mind in a healthy body) says the famous Latin phrase. Translated into the language of fractal, this means that by actions, stimulating positive changes captured by the signs of health at physical level, we affect positively also our health at emotional and mental levels. As a result, changes occur in the whole virtual space of the dynamic sign structure related to the overall state of our health. The reverse Latin phrase: "Corpore sano in mens sana" (Healthy body in a healthy mind") also makes sense in the semiosis of fractals and virtuality. Positive emotions, combined with mental patterns in which we see ourselves healthy and capable to deal successfully with occurring health problems, bring forth favorable changes in our physical health (demonstrated through its dynamic sign structure), and thus affect the virtual space of the sign structure related to our health as a whole.

Go to the top of the page

 

Dealing with Self-Organization

By providing a limitless virtual space for meaning to emerge, VSM simultaneously creates free space for self-organizing capacity of complex dynamics to reveal the characteristic signs of its nature. VSM does not try to push the dynamics of signs into Procrustean beds of various 'hard' and 'soft' theoretical models. On the contrary, its exploratory tools adapt to and co-evolve together with self-organizing dynamics of the signs.

The approach used by VSM for understanding and working with self-organization includes:

Example 5

(1) At individual level, 'nudging' from within means experimenting with various experiential options in order to capture the signs of 'resonance' for some options with the inner personal drive for evolution and growth. The 'voice' of the inner drive is often very silent and requires high level of attention, observation and vigilance. Once heard, the voice of individual self-organization can be amplified and provided with virtual space for realization. Education and self-education intend to offer such a space.

(2) Self-organizing capacity of an organization is revealed through a joint activity of its members. The more complementary and coherent this activity, and the lower the degree of using a power-based hierarchy, the stronger the collective self-organizing ability of the organization. A great deal of to-day's research in complexity is devoted to explore practical ways of stimulating self-organizing capacity of organization [9].

Go to the top of the page

 

Conclusion

Society is becoming more complex and dynamic, and the manifestation of spontaneous social self-organization (including self-organizing criticality) is more evident. Social researchers need to keep pace with this process by bringing new dimensions to their understanding of and dealing with the social dynamics.

Virtual Semiotic Methodology (VSM) tries to extend systemic inquiring process beyond the scope of Soft System Methodology, and thus to make it applicable to self-organizing dynamics of social complexity.

At the core of VSM is the process of virtual semiosis: use of various signs and signs structures while making sense of a complex dynamic structure as a whole.

Examples eliciting various social applications of VSM reveal it as a form of evocative exploration, the future development of which will require elaboration and refinement of semiotic tools to stimulate both the self-organizing capacity and the evolutionary drive of the individuals and society.
 
 
 

Go to the top of the page

 

References

1. Checkland P. 1981 Systems Thinking, Systems practice, John Willey

2. Checkland P. and A. Casar, 1986 Vickers' Conept of an Appreciative System: a Systematic Account, Journal of Applied System Analysis, 13, pp.3-17

3. Reznik L., V.Dimitrov and J. Kacprzyk (eds.), 1998 Fuzzy Systems Design: Social and Engineering Applications, Heidelberg: Physica Verlag

4. Peirce C., 1982-93 Writings of C. Peirce: A Chronological Edition in Five Volumes, Manuscript 291, Eds. C. Kloestel et al., Bloomington: Indiana University Press

5. Kauffman L., 1997 Virtual Logic - Fixed Points and Paradoxes, Cybernetics and Human Knowing,4, p.65

6. Mandelbrot B., 1982 The Fractal Geometry of Nature, NY: Freeman and Co.

7. Kristeva J., 1984 Revolution in Poetic Language, NY: Colubia University Press

8. Allott, R. 1997 Language and the Origin of Semiosis, Internet publication

9. Lissak, M. and Gunz, H. (eds.) 1999 Managing Complexity in Organizations : A View in Many Directions, Quorum Books.
 
 

Go to the top of the page
© V. Dimitrov, 2000