Policy argumentation

Mitroff’s operationalization of Churchman’s systems approach, part 2

I ended my previous post on Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST, based on Mason’s and Mitroff’s ‘Challenging strategic planning assumptions’)  with a paragraph on policy argumentation in which I explained that “claims are the supporting foundation of any policy, plan, or strategy. Every assumption that underlies a policy is a claim. Once a policy claim is articulated it is proper, even mandatory, to call it into question, which in turn calls for an argument, resulting in argument chains. These are anchored at the bottom by two things: facts and judgments. Policy argumentation is a conceptual framework for dealing with claims, facts and judgments in a dynamic, innovative policy-making environment, thus bringing order out of the chaos.” I promised that I would explain this in more detail in the next post, i.e. this one.

SAST    The SAST methodology and the Toulmin argumentation scheme adapted by Mason and Mitroff are linked. Any policy statement is based on a series of assumptions made about stakeholders. One implicit warrant in any major policy argument is that all the stakeholders are properly identified and their assumptions properly specified. The backing for this warrant is the theory of teleological systems (the systems approach) and that the SAST method has been properly conducted. The systems approach (i.e. the theory of teleological systems) has been dealt with extensively elsewhere in this blog (e.g. see here).

Relevance     The implication of the fact that Churchman’s (dialectical) systems approach is a key part of the warrant in any major policy argument is that it must somehow be incorporated in or combined with any policy argumentation scheme. That’s quite a strong statement. Yet, all considered – particularly Churchman’s philosophical inquiry of the policy problem as well as his long and profound experience as a management scientist and operations researcher, see also my summary of ‘The Systems Approach’ – I am inclined to agree. But then I am probably biased, because I have struggled with the systems approach for about 5 years. And anybody who devotes 5 years to a topic has a non-negligible bias, not to say a kind of craziness. I am OK with that qualification as long as people recognize that it must have something in common with Churchman’s motivation and insight that generated such a strong interest among Berkeley’s students and Nobel prize winners alike. Time has come to rekindle that interest. I suggest that Mason and Mitroff – both students of Churchman – are part of that rekindling effort. If Wicked Solutions is such an effort, then SAST and policy argumentation are excellent candidates to beef up the methodology, especially towards its final design phase.

Claims     Let’s start off with the concept of the ‘claim’. Many real-life issues in government policy and business strategy emerge from the complexity that results from the systems that we organized in our attempts to improve our lives. This organized complexity produces a cloudy policy decision situation that is in dear need of clarification. Claims are the conceptual tools we use to infuse some certainty into complex, problematic situations. Claims are intended to support the policies, plans and strategies that we formulate to address the complex issues that emerge from the organized complexity (note that ‘organized’ here is not used in the sense of ‘ordered’). Claims are policy- or strategy-related assumptions. As such they are controversial and can provide the necessary dialectical power for carrying out a fair policy argumentation process that allows the strongest claim to win. This brings us to the concept of …

Argument        An argument is a well-stated set of reasons. A well-chosen collection of arguments provides us with a better understanding of the organized complexity we intend to transform into a better organized complexity. Arguments are often based on data, which often take the form of a mix of argued claims and factual statements. These data (the ‘given’ part of the argument) need to be interpreted in a way that is justified by one or more warrants (the ‘because’ part of the argument). Then there is the ‘backing’ to legitimize the warrant. Backing systems include generally accepted statistical principles, laws and so on. Finally there us the rebuttal, which is the expression of doubt in the process. This doubt may apply to the backing, the warrant, the interpretation and the data. The rebuttal is the “unless” clause in the argument. To accept a claim we want the rebuttal to be weak and the other parts to be strong and believable.

Classification     Mason and Mitroff distinguish three broad categories of arguments: substantive (based on logic, reason), authoritative (based on trustworthiness of the source, aka ethical arguments) and motivational (based on feelings, e.g. of pity, sorrow, compassion, or sympathy, sometimes referred to as pathetic arguments). Examples of substantive arguments include generalization, classification, cause and effect, arguments from sign or symptom, parallel case, analogy (e.g. Senge’s approach). Authoritative arguments can be based on expertise, method, consensus, tradition or basic belief. In motivational arguments the warrant appeals to social values including justice, liberty, equality, beauty, courage, love, prudence, or temperance.

Plausibility      Mason and Mitroff describe a quantitative form of plausibility analysis that’s really interesting, but not much suited for treatment in a blog post. It uses a small group of participants to rate the strength and relative trustworthiness of each argument. Plausibility analysis can itself raise new critical questions thus contributing to the dialectics of systemic intervention design and inquiry.

Toulmin      As a belated addition to this post I feel I must write something about Stephen Toulmin (1920-2009).  It has become clear to me that Toulmin was very much opposed to the absolutization of formal logic, which he thought took place in Western society after Descartes and which in most accounts was the start of the Western project of Modernity as we know it. Toulmin spent a large part of his long career by arguing in favour of refounding modernity on tolerant and skeptical (and therefore less absolute) humanism of the sixteenth century as embodied by Montaigne and Erasmus. This suggests (to me at least) that Toulmin was engaged in a similar project as Churchman, whose systems approach equally diverted from the more mechanistic, quantitative approaches to human reality as exemplified by the methods used in operations research. He often invokes the ‘humanist’ for one of the alternative perspectives in his systems approach. Moreover, it is also tempting to suggest that  Toulmin’s argumentation scheme has much in common with Peirce’s abduction (i.e. abductive reasoning). That would be interesting, because Peirce was a Pragmatist and so was Churchman. For a short overview of Toulmin’s project, click here.

P.S. I have written about Toulmin before in my post on Thrasymachos’ theory of justice.


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