Vickers’ Undirected Soc.

Geoffrey Vickers The Undirected Society University of Toronto Press 1959

This work prefigures and pre-dates the development of the notion of appreciative system, with Checkland. It has a good theoretical overview, linked to issues of industrialization. The approach would also apply to globalisation and financialisation.

Vickers associated himself with Polyani, and presumably intended his own writings to be interpreted in a similar fashion. Further, W.R. Ashby, among others, provided some ideas for, and comment on, the book. Vickers’ critique of the notion of adaptability seems key.


… members … needed common concepts … they were likely to be divided by unrecognized differences of basic assumption or, worse, united in common acceptance of assumptions which most needed to be questioned. Clarification of these basic issues was not merely a necessary preliminary … ; it might be its most important achievement.


Men and societies are essentially dynamic systems, maintaining themselves by ceaseless interchange with their environment. Their constancy, not their changefulness, requires explanation; for they are essentially not structures  which may be expected to stay put unless altered by interference or decay, but processes, which would not show enough uniformity to earn a name save for some regulative factor which demands enquiry.

[E]volving lines of organisms and societies of organisms appear today as daring adventures into the improbable, the self-building of a world which, in-organically, seems set to proceed in the opposite direction, distributing its constituents in an ever more probable and hence ever more disorderly way. In brief, life, while it lasts, defies entropy.

Each system … associates its constituents into relations more intimate than those which link it as a “whole” to the systems of which it is part; yet each can claim “wholeness” only to a limited degree and each is more, rather than less, itself by virtue of its membership of larger systems.

The Needs of Men

Vickers notes some problems with contemporary views about development. He notes

  • The need for bettermentexpansion, and balance, with the latter often being lacking.
  • The need to review and modify or abandon old ideas.

“Out task … is to observe and reflect on what is currently happening with eyes as clear and minds as open as we can make them; and thus to realize sooner than we otherwise would the new adaptations and revaluations which the developing situation will next call for, the conditions under which we may hope to control it and the knowledge we shall need to control it aright.”

The Criteria of Well-being

Vickers notes the tendency to think short-term, in terms of means and ends. But:

    “A society is a process which exists in time. From the individuals who compose it, up through all their intermediate and over-lapping groupings to a society as a whole, it is a nexus of dynamic systems, each of which is engaged in adjusting its inner and  its outer balance within its limits set by its nature and the nature of its environment; and in the process both its nature and and the nature of the environment experience continual change within its limits which vary from time to time.”

The more choices  individuals have, the greater the scope for individual personality and social diversity.

“[This yields] the kind of equilibrium which is obtained by a skater while he skates, as distinct from the sort which he attains after he has fallen.”

“Thus we have open to us two forms of rational action … . The latter form is exemplified by the scientist in his laboratory, studying the effects of changes in one variable, where every other is controlled. The former is exemplified by the politician working among variables so numerous and so uncertain that his brilliant insights can never be proved right and his grossest blunders never proved wrong.”

“Where there is choice, one of the dominant criteria which guide it is or should be the need to preserve some scope for initiative in the future … .”

“Independence is good, but so is interdependence; the difficulty of reconciling these two “goods” underlies many of our contemporary problems … .”

Reflection is needed to identify the real problem.

“[C]ategories and the experiences we include in them are not final and that the continual revision of them is both a duty and a rewarding exercise.”

Personal Factors

[M]en need not merely a place in society but a place in several societies … these often achieve a surprising lattice of relationships … . In primitive society …. [t]his guaranteed complex of positions is a source of security both to the society and to the individual. … [I]ndividual choice is free in effect only so long as it does not deviate too far from the mean.

Cultural Factors

[T]ry to define the governing ideas of the culture concerned.

Structural Factors

[T]he centres which decide must be of the same scale as the decisions which they have to make.

The understanding of process is essential to right-choosing.

Is Adaptability Enough?

[T]rends are developing which will present new challenges … our ability to meet them will greatly depend on our ability to identify and understand them in advance.

   The word adaptability is … most often … used with approval of the readiness and skill with which an individual fits his social group. Less is heard of the readiness and skill of the group to accommodate and learn from the deviant individual .

[Concerning control by error.] What we are not [normally] told … is what contribution our past actions have made to the results. Control by error in this sense is much more valuable – and much rarer.

To select a behaviour which one has always selected in the past in what seem similar circumstances is to be controlled by rule. To select a behaviour because it is likely to have a foreseen and desired result is to be controlled by purpose. … [Control by purpose] becomes increasingly weak and misleading where the outcome is remote and is affected by many other variables … .

“What is the best way to preserve the essential values of [the environment]?” … involves the precedent question, “In case of conflict, which value is to be put first?” And this cannot be answered in advance … .

The process of valuation is also seen sharply where an established system experiences disturbances widely different in character or much greater in force than those to which it is accustomed. … The past, though accessible, is impotent to guide but potent to fetter.

In all arguments … the object of the rival disputants … is to alter the tensions felt by others so as to accord with their own. There are two ways of doing this:

  • One is to persuade others to classify the situation according to some type to which a strong attitude is already attached.
  • The other is to change the attitude already attached top the classification. … [This]  involves new and more refined classification.

 [A]daptability]  is not enough … . We must also assume a “nature” which men and societies are striving to realize and which gives force and direction to their adaptation and sets limits to their adaptability.  … The concepts of maximizing satisfaction or minimizing tension, useful at lower levels, need at higher levels to be translated into terms of form-seeking.

[There is] a lack of any adequate means to represent to ourselves the circular relationship whereby our governors are both discovered and modified by the process of decision … . [And also] the difficulty of representing these governors to ourselves as a Gestalt, which grows and changes … by change of relationship.

As the volume of disturbance approaches the limit of the system’s adaptability, the result is a general sense of stress. … The regulative mechanism becomes fully occupied with the short term at the expense of the long term, with the urgent at the expense of the important. … There will follow … severe criticism of those responsible for the regulating mechanism … . [E]xperience does not readily disclose how far a situation is under our control or even how wisely our control has been exercised. … The ultimate result of overload is certain. In the end, the system will fall back to a lower level of organization, discarding or modifying such of its expectations as cannot be realized.

An overloaded system may not break down. …:

  • It may improve its regulative machinery so as to deal with the heavier load.
  • It may learn to control the the rate of change, so as to keep its load within capacity.
  • Or it may lower and change its governing expectations … and thus alter what it is trying to be.

[There are assumptions], still basic to Western culture, that the individual should prize and strive for increasing independence, through the increasing production and exchange of goods and services. [During the dominance of industrialization] insights won over the last two thousand years, virtually the whole of our accumulated knowledge of value, will be either confirmed in a form profoundly changed or lost for some later age painfully to discover.

The Predicament of the … Society

Well-being is an imprecise concept and the effects of industrialization upon it are largely indirect and extended in time; they are many and conflicting; they may be self-correcting or cumulative; and their character may change with their intensity. … [T]he results [of this survey] should … confirm or shake existing hypotheses or suggest new ones about the relation between industrialization and well-being; and in so doing they should deepen our understanding of the two terms. … For a time it was supposed that these conditions, unlike the political conditions of well-being, would spontaneously generate themselves if left unregulated.

[T]he scientific way of knowing may be not merely barren but dangerous for the known.

[I]n all societies some values are withdrawn more or less effectively from debate. … [This] protect[s] the inner coherence of the system at the cost of its outward adaptability … .

… Retrospect

The dollar sign … covers too short a time and omits too many real values.

Freedom…  only gives one of the conditions for our unending search for a course.

[C]ountries have shown themselves adaptive in the past; but the process involves an endless dialectic, in which whole societies, as well as groups and individuals, take part. For such a debate to be fruitful, the participants need to be sufficiently alike to understand each other, yet sufficiently different to learn from each other.



While this is ostensibly about industrialization, it has relevance to a wider range of complex dynamic situations, including other aspects of ‘progress’ such as financialisation and globalisation.


Vickers’ account goes well beyond Benthamite notions of rationality, based on values and probabilities that are consistent with underlying ‘core values’ and fixed conditional probabilities.

Jack Good has a generalized notion of probability, in which the probability of ‘A given B’ depends on a context, C. This is denoted P(A|B:C). The conventional rational case corresponds to the context being absolutely known and certain. In Vickers’ account C is uncertain.

It is sometimes supposed that such uncertainty arises from human nature. In fact, as Vickers explains, homogeneous societies would be very fragile, and social heterogeneity and individual adaptability – as in biological evolution – promote sustainability. Conventional rationality, in contrast, is only reasonable locally and temporarily, and even then is only one viewpoint: it can never be the whole picture.


To be developed.

Dave Marsay

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