The network of social forces

John Raven

I first met John Raven when he spoke to the Aberdeen AMED group about 20 years ago.  His talk made me dizzy as he wove together the education system from policy to classroom, together with banking and the creation and control of money, government, work and the vulnerability of natural, global systems. 


Continuing the work of his father, John Carlyle Raven, author of ‘Raven’s Progressive Matrices’, he has researched and written extensively in education.  I find his position nicely expressed in this extract from his recent paper, ‘Our incompetent society’ (Raven, 2014). 

“I begin in an unlikely place: A study of a mixed age (8-11), mixed ability, class conducted some years ago. The pupils were engaged in what was mostly an out-of-school, environmentally-based, educational process. At the time we studied them, their project involved trying to do something about the pollution in the local river. Some were scientist types trying to measure the levels of pollution. Others took the line that everyone already knew the river was polluted and that the problem was to get something done about it. They set about making poster-sized drawings of the dead fish and plants with a view to evoking emotions and action. Others set about generating captions for the posters – again writing in such a way as to evoke emotions which would generate action rather than to meet teacher – or government-generated criteria of “good writing”. Another got engaged in devious strategies to motivate politicians to put pressure on the local environmental standards officer. Others specialised in soothing the conflicts which developed between the scientist types and artist types. And so on.

Here we have the development of a wide variety of high-level competencies, the “existence” of each of which depends on tapping each individual’s motives and creating situations in which they could develop and display their idiosyncratic talents and patterns of competence.”

From ‘Our Incompetent Society (with a discussion of some of the competencies needed to transform it)

Bucking Bronco, John C. H. Grabill

What a class that must have been – fun, creative, chaotic, impossible to control – a bit like life in society, perhaps.  How differently it might have appeared to different observers!  This story helped me appreciate John’s vision of an alternative education – and society.  

My fellow-editor, Tony Miller compares reading John Raven to riding a bucking bronco.  “You stay with him for a while. 

Then he says something which throws you off and you need to take some time to recover before getting back on.”  My analogy is with surfing.  The following exchanges arose from a couple of good waves. 

Surfing in Witch’s Rock, dog4aday

First wave

John’s correspondence certainly assumes a familiarity with a wide range of concepts which readers (and editors) may not share. So my right hand column, below, is partly translation and partly, me checking my understanding.  You will find some misunderstandings corrected in the ‘second wave’.  

John: There have been a couple of dramatic changes in organisations I worked for.

Two were a direct result of change of director and were swept aside with appointment of new director.

Come to think of it, a couple more, rather dramatic and traumatic, were a result of changes in the wider organisation outside the immediate organisation.

Now then. There is a message!

David: John’s experience aligns with our general premise.  Two examples where the change didn’t survive new leadership and two where the leadership was irrelevant because the drive came from outside. 

He doesn’t comment on whether he liked any of these changes. 

The ‘message’, I’m guessing: ‘leaders should beware of imagining they are in control.’  Tony disagrees: ‘in our organisations there is a hierarchy of leaders, and each level trumps the level below’.

John: If one takes “The Educational System”, there is a wonderful example of continuous change which is ‘plus ca change …’.

It is eminently sustainable and becomes ever more so through continuous change which eliminates all changes introduced by people who see things differently and might have been sustainable in their own right …. were it not for the changing constraints introduced by people in the wider system.

David: The education system is constantly being tinkered with (by managers) but nothing really new is emerging. 

So each new change reinforces existing ways of thinking about education: curricula, exams, success, opportunities for the successful.  

Each new change makes it harder for different ideas to show themselves as viable; e.g. if the league tables major on exam passes, it’s hard to argue for other criteria for success.

John: The same is true of degrowthers ….

Well. No. Come to think of it. As Bookchin has shown, it has been true of all attempts to run more viable and desirable organically organised organisations at small, community, and city levels over many millennia.

Yep. So what has been sustainable? Answer: organisations locked into producing and reinforcing hierarchy (e.g. the “educational” system) and what has proved non-sustainable? All organically organisations … except organisms ….

David: ‘Degrowthers’ would be those of us who question whether the relentless pursuit of infinite, ‘economic growth’ should be the one and only mainspring of society that it seems to be? 

‘Organic’ systems have ways of limiting themselves which our dominant mechanistic systems seem to lack. 

Yet somehow, the mechanistic systems – limited liability companies, adversarial politics, hierarchical organisations – are more powerful than the organic ones … up to a point.  (Bookchin has something to say about this, apparently.)

John: … which are themselves currently under deep threat from the inexorable advance of human hierarchy.

David: There are natural systems on which we depend for our survival.  When we undermine those, our hierarchies will fail.

John: Sorry about that.

David: John doesn’t count himself among the optimists who believe we can learn better ways of organising society before our collapse.

Second wave

I extracted this from correspondence with John and sent him a first draft to review

David: I have improvised a bit with your material (attached).  I’m sure to have misunderstood and over-stretched in places.  So please respond, correct, elaborate and / or veto. We’ll include links to your articles on your ‘Eye on Society’ website. 

I have a number of contributions like this and am rather liking the open-ended, conversational style.  Approximately aligned thinking in different voices. 


It is important to challenge Tony’s comment. Absolutely wrong. The alternative is spelled out by Stafford Beer and Deming. Once you have driven yourself mad by trying to make sense of Beer, you will discover that he is saying that viable organisations require four or five systems, which strangely, all need to be replicated within themselves. The “highest” of these is Deming’s systems designer. But the catch is that none of these recursive systems should be organised hierarchically either within or between systems. This is the reason for sticking with the terms “System 1”, “System 2”, “System 3”, “System 4” and studiously avoiding the term “level 1”, “level 2! etc … which is exactly how all listeners understand them. This reflects Bookchin’s insistence that hierarchy is a human preoccupation which is imposed upon, rather than embedded within, nature to legitimise all sorts of destructive behaviour. Hence all the rubbish about survival of the fittest rather than survival of the fitting … a way of thought which makes it easier to understand Darwin’s bank in which a thousand flowers bloom.

It is clear that Deming’s claim that the manager’s job is to design self-learning systems and not to tell people what to do can also be viewed in this, non-hierarchical, way. 

Degrowth … er … um.  … the movement is a mess, greatly exacerbated by the way in which the most vocal set of participants (academics) are hugely limited in what they can do by the need to find sponsors for their work and produce publications which will be acceptable within the current constraints of academe (produce 12 publications a year and get them past peer reviewers who would decline publication if they challenged their views and positions).

But maybe try this: The Realities and Contradictions of the Growth Economy and Challenges for a Social Ecological Transformation … (Spash, 2016 – a huge, detailed presentation, calling for a radically different economics and society).  

The system can’t understand itself

Problem is that those systems thinkers are those with higher Raven Progressive Matrices scores.  Unfortunately, those systems thinkers also think about how to create privileged positions for themselves.  Hence hierarchy.

Problem is that this “systems thinking”, indeed our very cultural definition of “thinking”, is only in relation to thinking about particular types of thing .. something to do with “economic” issues.

Excludes “thinking” about how to put people at ease … etc., etc. … Probably a very different type of thinking.

So, we have a cyclical feedback system.  The “values” required to create a very different kind of society are probably unthinkable within our society.

How to understand what it is like to live in a “flow” society with no chief, no religion, no language, probably “no” “individuation”?

How do they work?

What would the term “thinking” mean?

David: Thank you, John

My interpretation of the ‘message’ you allude to is even more wrong, I think.  Tony is closer, apart from straying into hierarchical language.  Your ‘wider’ and ‘immediate’ organisations are a System 2 and a System 1, no?  

I find your questions in this second note very interesting, about the limitations of our thinking capacities.  Thanks for persevering with us.  

John: It only gets worse.

Certainly, I have, unintentionally, found myself trying to rectify Spearman and my father’s failure to break out of the “Intelligence” mould. Spearman hit on the problem when he said it could not be done with any of the psychometric procedures in current use. It cannot be done without a radical paradigm shift amounting to the development of a descriptive classificatory framework as in biology or atomic theory. And the appropriate methodology. 

The other is even more radical. Shortly after, first my mother died … and thus, in the event, shortly before he died, my father said he was going to work in the ecology area.  

I have no real idea what he meant but that is exactly what we have done in at least two senses.

You say “so there is a message” and you write about leaders needing to understand that they are not in control …

… but who are these “leaders” anyway?

The real message, as John Seddon puts it most succinctly (but Deming also said) 94% of the variance in behaviour in organisations is determined, not by variance in individual characteristics, but by the system.

Gordon Hall was forever repeating the message that it does little good to shout at teachers, politicians, managers because their behaviour is mainly determined by the system.  He had the enigmatic phrase, “We have to speak to the system, not the people within it”. WTF?

How change comes about by chance

Here we enter a most interesting account of radical change being provoked by “chance” happening.

Gordon, under the banner, “Learning Society Scotland”, organised a meeting in Dundee, where the head of a university department was promoting Seddon’s, “Systems Thinking in the Public Service”.  I said that Seddon’s use of the term “systems thinking” did not accord with my own.  That led us to set up a meeting which was supposed to follow through on that theme but neither of the people from the university or from Vanguard (Seddon’s organisation) were able to get there.

So, the meeting never happened but through some unknown process my critique of Seddon’s book led to a two hour phone call from someone … I still don’t know who it was … that insisted that I join SCIO …. the Society for the Study of Systems Thinking and Socio Cybernetics in Organisations …

And that has taken me into Beer and the Viable Systems Model … I could not understand Beer’s books but as a result of attending endless presentations I am now beginning to understand VSM. 

So “the message” is not that leaders have to understand that their degrees of freedom are much less than they thought but that it is necessary to understand the systems context.

So the educational system persists, not because no one has tried to change it.  They have tried to change it by fixing this or that (all of which need to be fixed) but they have not “spoken to the system”!!!!

And so we come back to ecology in the normal sense of the word.

Forrester (whom I’d never heard of) and Meadows et al mapped for the Club of Rome report the network of interacting physical and economic forces which determine pollution etc.


As a result they call on authorities … politicians etc … to take the necessary actions. BUT THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THEIR OWN SYSTEMS THINKING TELLS THEM WILL NOT WORK.

The implications and use of the term ‘Learning Society’, in Gordon’s sense has become more and more profound over the years … as you will see in those articles. The idea that governance needs to be embedded in, rather than, in some sense, external to society … as it is in organisms … is a more than profound insight.

Yep. So, if you want to draw out the real message to be drawn from the examples I gave, you have a lot of work to do! 

Cowboy fallen off of bucking bronco: Provincial Archives of Alberta 

David: Are we still in the saddle?  

John (on the right) receiving an honorary distinguished professorship from the University of Pecs in Hungary


Raven, J (2016) Harnessing Social Processes for the Common Good.  A paper prepared for an international interdisciplinary conference organised by the Focolari organisation and the Katholic University of Lublin, Poland June 2016. (

Raven, J (2016) Harnessing Social Processes for the Common Good.

Raven, J (2014) Our Incompetent Society (with a discussion of some of the competencies needed to transform it).  (

Spash, Clive L. (2016) The Realities and Contradictions of the Growth Economy and Challenges for a Social Ecological Transformation. Paper presented at a degrowth conference held in Budapest, 2016.  (


Cowboy fallen off of bucking bronco. Provincal Archives of Alberta. (

English: Surfing in Witch’s Rock, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. dog4aday (,

John C. H. Grabill.  “Bucking Bronco.” Ned Coy, a famous Dakota cowboy, starts out for the cattle round-up with his pet “Boy Dick.”  (

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