Transcending realism and idealism

One more way for understanding Churchman’s systems approach

The first six categories of Churchman’s categorical scheme are rather evident: client, purpose, measures of performance, decision-maker, components and environment. I must add that what many may not realize is that Churchman included these and six others (planner, implementation, guarantor, systems philosopher, enemies of the systems approach and significance) in his framework, not only because he considers them crucial for understanding any human activity system (policy, enterprise, project, life, historical event), but also because he considered their understanding and description surprisingly difficult, yet essential. Churchman also found out that there are a large number of relationships between the categories that made him conceive his categorical scheme as a system in which the categories ought to be in concordance with each other. In chapter 14 of Challenge to Reason (Churchman, 1968) he describes not only how this concordance can be understood, but also what is the importance of the second set of six categories of his framework. I will attempt to summarize the chapter below.

Realism and idealism      Normally realism and idealism are considered ideas that exclude each other, yet both are used to address problems in politics, international relations, diplomacy etc. Realism could be defined as dealing practically with situations as they really are, whereas idealism is something like considering things in their ideal form rather than as they really are. Churchman uses the systems idea to define idealism as considering situations as wholes, while realists rather deal with parts or segments. On many an occasion he uses the term ‘nonseparability’ to explain why situations ought to be treated as wholes: the parts simply interact with each other, so changing one part will affect one or more other parts. This phenomenon turns situations into the complex messes they often are, otherwise known as ‘wicked problems’. Even fairly simple problems can turn out to be pretty wicked. Realists are only justified in dealing with parts if these parts can be considered separately, i.e. when they are separable. Because they often consider different parts in succession they are called pluralists. Idealists, in contrast, are monists, because they look at parts interacting in ‘wholes’.

Realistic problems       As explained in the previous post, realists (i.e. most ordinary decision-makers) may use tools such as the allocation model to maximize profit. The allocation model serves to maximize a set of objective functions that describe an activity (policy, project, business etc.) in mathematical terms subject to a set of constraint equations. A realist will want to specify these equations on realistic data, i.e. data obtained from experience or by observing reality. Such a realistic approach has typically underlying assumptions that lie well within factual boundaries. It ignores the possibility of alternative approaches. It also tends to favour the ‘measurable’ as opposed to the ‘human’, which means it loses an important aspect of ‘human activity systems’ out of sight. What really needs to be measured is how the activity adds value to the client or beneficiary. Also, it tends to look at the parts as separable, i.e. without looking at them in relation to each other or to the whole of which they are part. The realist also tends to look at himself or herself as absolutely objective, whereas the entire approach is based on a predilection for short-term practicality that favours the reality of action. Such a preference is not very rational, because it ignores alternatives that may be more profitable, even without considering them.  It is also anything but objective because it overlooks that fact that he represents a coalition of many people (stockholders, governemnt, consumers, labour, public) and is himself a very complicated system of conflicting psychological beings, of ego and id, of persona and archetype. Taken together, more than enough reason to look at the realist as ‘ridiculously old-fashioned’.

Idealistic problems          Fortunately the idealist has his or her share of problems too. Two fundamental problems were already mentioned in the previous chapter (and therefore in the previous post): (1) the concept of wholes begs the question of boundaries and overlap since it is impossible to consider everything; this in turn leads us to the question of relevance: what should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’; (2) the problem of comprehensiveness is perhaps worse: since we cannot know everything, there is the possibility of the total darkness of ignorance as well as not yet evident evil;  Churchman compares it with the box of Pandora. Hence the need for a guarantor – one of the categories – to take care of all these unknowns and evils. The problem is that there is no proof of such a guarantor, but it is often assumed and must be brought to light in order to be discussed: religious people think of God, realists discard this as speculation, but reify their models, Marxists sought a guarantor in history, etc. A third problem with idealism is that it tends to prefer the plan over the implementation – also one of the categories. They often assume it is the task of others. It is the problem of nonseparability in another guise: implementation should be part of the plan (see also previous post). In a sense the idealist becomes the planner, a key role category in Churchman’s framework.

Transcendence        Both idealists and realists have a lot going for them, but both also face a lot of very serious difficulties. The systems approach is nothing else but a way for creating a dialectical process in which the best of each are combined and the worst of each are cancelled out. On the realist side, this means that it is necessary to look at the facts and bring to light the underlying assumptions, on the idealist side the emphasis is on ideas and ‘whole systems’. A summary description of the process can be found elsewhere in this blog. For more details I refer to the work of Werner Ulrich or to our own workbook Wicked Solutions, which provides an easy introduction (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016; available from Amazon and as a PDF).

Inter-relationships, perspectives, boundaries      There are many ways of explaining Churchman´s systems approach. One of them is ´Wicked solutions´. It proposes 3 key systems concepts and 4 main actions to get to a systemic intervention. The 3 systems concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. These concepts can be found in the above concept map and its explanation. Inter-relationships give systems their unity, while perspectives provide contrasting or conflicting views on them, which leads to contested system boundaries, the critique of which may result in illumination (incidentally the foundation of progress, aspiration, innovation and democracy). When we talk about systems we could also call them human problem situations. The 4 main actions are (in the purple circles): (1) to map the inter-relationships and perspectives (e.g. in a so-called rich picture; this is also called ‘sweeping in’, since it expands the scope of the situation); (2) to frame stakes (stakes are closely linked to people’s perspectives; they are what makes it difficult to find a common solution; framing stakes here means that stakes are framed in a such a broad way that hindrances to their resolution can be overcome; this happens in the next steps); (3) critique (i.e. debate critically) the system boundaries by taking into account the various perspectives; this results in a large number of possible boundary choices; and (4) design a systemic intervention by making the best possible combination of boundary choices.

Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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