Systems Thinking and Embodied Realism
Research Design for Sustainability Issues at the Landscape Level of Scale

Name: Joanne Tippett

Course: Qualitative Research Methods - SY6442

Tutor: Dr. Black

Date: May 17, 2001

PhD Supervisors: John Handley, Joe Ravetz, Jeff Hinchcliffe (Mersey Basin Campaign)

Submitted as course work for Masters in Economic and Social Research,
Graduate School of Social Sciences

University of Manchester

School of Planning and Landscape

Introduction. 2

Context 3

Purpose. 4

Axiology. 4

Philosophical Framework. 5

Ontology. 5

Systems thinking and the organisation of the living. 6

Categories and truth. 7

Epistemology. 8

Constructivism – meaning making. 9

Embodied realism – what's biology got to do with it?. 9

Research Design. 10

Dynamic interplay – phases in research methodology. 10

Paradox - Value of research design and need for fluidity. 12

Conclusion. 12

References: 13



“The core of all the troubles we face today is our very ignorance of knowing” (Maturana and Varela 1987, pg. 28) .

This essay will discuss research methodology from a systems theoretical basis, focusing on ontology and epistemology in relationship to the design of the PhD research project entitled 'A Participatory Protocol for Ecologically Informed Design Within River Catchments'.

This research project will be carried out within an ethical framework of attempting to redefine how we live in landscapes and as societies. Trans-disciplinary pedagogy, an approach to synthesis across disciplines, takes a particular problem or topic area that is studied in great depth from a holistic perspective, rather than as a collection of disciplines looking at the topic from within narrow disciplinary boundaries. In a similar vein, I have focused this methodological design on the concept of futures thinking and participatory design within a framework of sustainable development.

The newly enacted European Union Water Directive Framework provides a particular emphasis for this research. This directive requires each Member State to produce an integrated management plan for every river basin falling within its territory. Within nine years, these plans must be formulated with a high degree of community and partnership involvement (EU 2000, pg. 46) . In a context of new legislation and increasing public and policy awareness of the need for integrated sustainability thinking, new approaches to community planning are being developed. This research is inherently action based, testing the DesignWays [1] process in the context of the Mersey Basin Campaign [2] . The first two phases of the research are based on case studies of the research partner, the Mersey Basin Campaign and its River Valley Initiatives [3] .

In determining a possible research design, I have looked at several traditions, which have similar, though not identical, epistemological underpinnings. Approaches considered include:

·        Grounded theory

·        Action research

·        Participatory action research

·        Soft systems modelling

·        Phenomenology

·        Ethnomethodology

·        Case studies

·        Appreciative inquiry


The proposed research design takes into account the philosophical underpinnings of these approaches, and borrows techniques and methods from some of them. Qualitative research should not be seen as a ‘grab bag’ of handy techniques that can be combined at will. However, for this research project, no one methodological tradition is ideal. I have taken the approach of designing the research around the goals and questions to be answered, paying attention to the epistemological and ontological underpinnings of the research methods which have inspired this approach. This is a development from the initial research proposal, which began with a Grounded Theory methodology.

Techniques developed in Grounded Theory will still be used in this methodology, providing tools for theory building and increasing the possibility for theory to emerge from the data. This is an essential process in this research project in order to counteract potential research bias, as the researcher is the creator of the design process under study and will also be facilitating the action based component of the research.

Much of the literature in Ecological Economics, an approach which looks at the interconnections of social, economic and ecological factors and an important theoretical framework in sustainable planning, has called for a ‘methodological pluralism’ (e.g. Funtowicz and Ravetz 1994; Waltner-Toews and Wall 1997; van de Kerkhof and Leroy 2000) . I do not think that there is only one way to conduct research into complex issues. One of the aims of this research design is to increase the possibility of reaching valid research conclusions through methodological triangulation, ensuring that data are collected from several sources and analysed in more than one way. Lakoff and Johnson (1999, pg. 79) discuss the value of convergent evidence from a broad range of research methods, such that “ideally the skewing effects of any one method will be cancelled out by the other methods”. A methodological focus on convergent evidence may help to reduce the limitations that a priori assumptions and unconscious theoretical pre-suppositions place on the researcher's ability to interpret data. There is a question, however, to what extent this convergent design can be attempted in one research project, rather than in the cumulative analysis of several different projects. This is a particularly relevant question in Ph.D. research, as there are constraints imposed by time limitations and the fact that there is only one researcher.

Though there may well be further applications of the retroductive [4] , embodied methodology that is elaborated in this essay, it is outside the scope of this work to explore these. Furthermore, the methodology should be tested before it is recommended for wider use.


While studying for my Chemistry and Biology A Levels, my conception of reality was changed fundamentally by an introduction to Quantum Mechanics and reading The Turning Point by Capra (1982) . The idea of wave particle duality and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle suggested that there was no such thing as absolute certainty in reality, and particular not in the 'reality' I was being taught in scientific text books. I began to apply this concept to my thinking about ‘Green Politics’, and became interested in ecological design [5] as a means of improving quality of life whilst decreasing negative societal effects on the environment. Whilst writing my BA thesis in the School of the Philosophy of the Environment, I investigated different aspects of systems thinking, from chaos theory and fractals to new paradigm biology (e.g. Gaia [6] , symbiogenesis [7] ) as they related to ecological design (Tippett 1994) .

Working in Africa, I developed a design process [8] that attempted to incorporate these ideas and concepts of participatory design (influenced by Holistic Management (Savory, 1999, particularly through the work of the Participatory Land Use Management (PELUM) team from Zimbabwe (see UNESCO 2001) [9] and Participatory Rapid Appraisal techniques (e.g. Pimbert 1994; Kesby 2000) ).


The overall aim of this research is to develop a design process based on ecologically informed principles, which encourages participation in integrated river catchment planning, with a view to developing a tool kit for sustainable development at the landscape scale.


The ethical assumptions at the core of this research project fall broadly under the category of increasing human capacity to engage meaningfully with the environment, in a way that has a tendency to increase ecological integrity and social equity.

A pivotal tenet of this axiology is to seek to increase, rather than diminish, ecological health through human interventions with the environment, agreeing with Leopold (1949, pg. 224 - 225) that an action is right when it tends "to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community”. Interwoven with this ecocentric concept of intrinsic value in natural systems, the concept of sustainability suggests that inter and intra-generational equity is vital to maintaining the integrity of social systems. This concept emphasises the need to reduce or eradicate poverty and unfair trade with poorer regions of the world. Maintaining natural and social capital for future generations will enhance their ability to determine the trajectory of their development.

I concur with Max-Neef’s (1991) contention that development to meet human needs should be endogenous, driven from people’s own concepts and values, not imposed by a development program and structure. Human creativity in creating sustainable futures is a vast untapped resource in this endeavour. Such a concept implies the need for critical theory and an investigation into structural causes of inequality and oppression, as suggested by thinkers such as Foucault (1972) , Freire (1970) and Illich (1971) . Threaded through this methodology is an acceptance of the need for critique of globalisation and unfettered free-market capitalism, with a concomitant awareness of a need to democratise discourse around the concept of futures thinking.

Philosophical Framework


There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet).

Accepting that there is a world that exists does not necessarily negate the concept that the only way we can know about that world is through our interactions with it. Our perception of the world is thus deeply affected by the physical ways in which we interact with the environment.

The nature of reality can be viewed on many levels. An endeavour to understand the concept of sustainability implies a focus not only on ecology, but also on material resources and their transformations and processes, the social world and the nature of individuals within those societies. The nature of the material world, living organisms and social systems, as they relate to this research project, will be briefly discussed in this section.

Reality is not made up of atomistic pieces that can be fragmented and understood in isolation from each other. Instead, each part of reality is embedded in a larger whole, and an understanding based on relationships is essential to a comprehension of the system [10] . This is a fundamentally different view of reality than that espoused by much of modern science, but is increasingly recognized as a more accurate description of the world than that proposed by a mechanistic [11] worldview. In terms of increasing knowledge about causality and possibilities for technology, the 'reductionist endeavour' has had tremendous success, through an intellectual process of fragmenting the world into its smallest indivisible pieces, and attempting to describe and understand the forces interacting on these parts. This has lead to an increased ability to predict events in many circumstances. The aim of much of modern science has been to provide sufficient information and predictive ability to enable humans to control nature.

Recent discoveries of the interconnected and complex dynamic nature of the world have suggested, however, that there is a fundamental limit to knowledge derived in this way. Ecological systems cannot be fully described and understood merely from a description of the interaction of simple particles in a Newtonian field of forces. This was brought to attention by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s, through his attempts to model the weather. In his words, "I realized that any physical system that behaved non-periodically would be unpredictable” (quoted in Capra 1996, pg. 134) . Recent controversies surrounding the concept of global climate change and the nature of trans-national pollution effects and delayed synergistic reactions have further underscored the impossibility of absolute certainty in science. This is recognised in the term 'irreducible uncertainty', a central concept in Post Normal Science (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1994) . This realisation has in part stemmed from, and in part lead to the creation of, several new fields of science, including general systems (e.g. Boulding 1956; Bertalanffy 1968; Rappaport 1976) , chaos theory (Gleick 1987) and Post Normal Science, with its concept of pluralistic scientific methodologies and an expanded peer community (e.g. Funtowicz and Ravetz 1994; Ravetz 1997; Waltner-Toews and Wall 1997; De Marchi, Funtowicz et al. 2000; van de Kerkhof and Leroy 2000) .

This realization is not restricted to the natural sciences. Barnes and Bloor (1982, pg. 46) state, "the rationalist goal of producing pieces of knowledge that are both universal in their credibility and justified in context-independent terms is unattainable”. The 'quantitative revolution' in the 60's in social and geographical sciences has lead to many new fields of knowledge. Stringer (1999) suggests that positivist scientific methodologies are appealing, as they hold out the possibility of control. He suggests that managerial culture revolves around concepts of ‘accountability’ and ‘performance indicators’, and thus concepts of being able to measure social trends precisely and predict behaviours appeal to “people in managerial or political positions whose performance is judged by their ability to control social contexts for which they are held responsible” (pg. 148).  Despite this attraction, the limits of such quantitative positivist modelling to provide accurate and sufficient descriptions of social reality are being felt increasingly both in academia and policy circles (e.g. Senge 1990; Miles and Huberman 1994; Naveh and Lieberman 1994; Savory and Butterfield 1999) .

Systems thinking and the organisation of the living

Emergence is the appearance of characteristics from a relationship of parts, which is not merely an additive property of the characteristics of the lower parts, but is a new, or emerging property of that particular level of organisation (Gibson, Ostrom et al. 2000) . For example, the taste of sugar cannot be explained by the properties of the chemicals that make up its molecules. The concept of emergent properties is related to that of holism [12] , rendering it impossible to understand the whole simply from adding together its parts.

Systems thinking has profound implications for an understanding of social reality. The concept of emergent properties suggests that social systems will have properties inherent in the system at higher levels of complexity. These can only be understood by looking at the system as a whole, as well as the level of scale 'above' that system, in which it is embedded. This level provides the context and illuminates the role of the system. The ‘lower’ levels of complexity provide many of the mechanisms of action and maintenance of the system, but are not its only determining factors. Such a multi-scaled approach is becoming increasingly common in natural science explorations of ecosystem functions (e.g. Freemark 1995; Black, Strand et al. 1998; Gibson, Ostrom et al. 2000; McFarlane 2000) . This focus is similar to Giddens' (1979) concept of structuration, in which social actions both constitute larger scale institutional norms and, in a dialectic process, are deeply influenced by them.

Shifts in living systems biology have arisen in recent decades from attempts to answer the question “what is life”? In the seminal work on the organisation of the living espoused by the Santiago school of cognition, this question points to the concept that life is cognition. The act of living is inherent in the process of knowing and self-reproducing in the world (Maturana and Varela 1987) . This theory of autopoiesis [13] provides a view of life which is characterised by attempting to understand processes and patterns. It leads to questions of emerging properties at different levels of scale, with a debate about whether or not the interactions of the earth's geo-chemical cycles and living organisms in a seeming homeostasis can be considered as a constituting the Earth itself as a living entity (e.g. Sagan 1990; Lovelock 1991) .

Categories and truth

Lakoff and Johnson (1999) have shown how our categorisation of phenomena can have a profound impact on the way in which we can conceive of them. Unlike the Ancient Greeks and the practitioners of ‘disembodied scientific realism’, I concur with their contention that there are no absolute truths in the world (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, pg. 90) . As they suggest:

“Disembodied scientific realism creates an unbridgeable ontological chasm between ‘objects’, which are ‘out there’, and subjectivity, which is ‘in here’. Once the separation is made, there are then only two possible, and equally erroneous, conceptions of objectivity: Objectivity is either given by the ‘things themselves’ (the objects) or by the inter-subjective structures of the consciousness shared by all people (the subjects)" (ibid. 1999, pg. 93).

In embodied reason, it is understood that the categories that we use to describe the world do not posses a truth that transcends our conceptual labelling. Categories are mental constructs; they do not hold a position of truth inherent in the 'objective world'. The relative nature of categories has been highlighted by cross-cultural analyses of language and cultural norms, such as Whorf’s study of language (e.g. Whorf and Carroll 1956) , and realizations in cultural anthropology that cultures can, and perhaps should, be interpreted using endogenous criteria. In such an analysis, practices which do not seem to make 'common sense' to a 'Western' observer may make sense to actors in their context (e.g. Geertz 1973) , and may hold survival and ecological significance to that culture (e.g. Moran 1982; Netting 1986; Milton 1993) .

Kuhn’s concept of the paradigmatic framing of scientific thought has caused philosophers of science to question the concept of objective observation (Blaikie 1993) . Feminist, post-colonial and post-modern positions have contributed to an erosion of the pinnacles of certainty held by positivist science and to the concept of stable realties in social science (Denzin and Lincoln 2000) . This has played an important role in encouraging social scientists to question, or attempt to ‘bracket’ many of their own assumptions. In many cases, this has lead them to look afresh at pre-conceived ideas which have coloured their ability to analyse engrained power structures and discourses  (Vidich and Lyman 2000) . 

The concept of embodied realism suggests that a stark division between ontology, the nature of the world, and epistemology, the nature of how we can know about the world, is in itself problematic. We can only know the world through being in the world, thus any description of ‘reality’ is inherently filtered through, or created by, our physical bodies. Extensions of our ability to directly perceive reality through the senses, through technological instruments and conceptual frameworks, may provide alternative means of comprehending the universe around us. However, all data gathered and sorted in this way still has to be filtered through, and attributed with learning, in the ‘wetware’ of our biological minds.


 “The mind is inherently embodied.

Thought is mostly unconscious.

Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical… philosophy can never be the same again” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, pg. 3) .


Lakoff and Johnson (1999) call for an ‘empirically responsible philosophy’, which they suggest builds on the intellectual traditions of John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty (e.g. Dewey 1925; Dewey 1954; Merleau-Ponty 1974) .

Much debate in social science methodological thinking has focused on whether or not the techniques of natural science can be applied to those of social science (Blaikie 1993) . The emerging field of systems theory, and the critiques of science methodology from the philosophy of science, as well as from scientists themselves (e.g. Lovelock 1991; Feynman 1998) , suggests that this may not be a particularly fruitful question. Perhaps the question should be: ‘Which type of science provides a useful way of researching social systems, and how does an understanding of social systems in turn affect our use of scientific methods?’

Husserl (1970) was concerned with the way in which knowledge is derived from, and underpinned by, experience. “He argued that human consciousness actively constitutes the objects of experience” (Holstein and Gubrium 1994, pg. 263) .  The concepts of phenomenology underpin this action based research, in which experience will be studied from the point of view of participants in the process, as well as the researchers' experience of facilitating the process. This interpretive understanding is based on three basic concepts: human actions are meaningful, an ethical position that evinces respect for life worlds of people and human subjectivity can enhance knowledge, whilst not obliterating a possibility of objective knowledge (Schwandt 2000, pg. 193) .

The research design aims to explore the concept of metaphor and its shaping role in cognition, through the concept of embodied mind, which is an expansion of Maturana and Varela’s work on self-organising, adaptive systems (autopoiesis) and Lakoff and Johnson’s work on embodied phenomenology. This epistemological framework may offer a way out of a seeming impasse between relativism and positivism, and has implications for interpreting meaning in both social and natural science research.

Constructivism – meaning making

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken” (Emma, Jane Austen).

The concept of autopoiesis, central to the DesignWays process, suggests that cognition involves an active relationship between the organism and its environment. In constructivism, the underlying metaphor for the process of learning about the world is making meaning, not finding it. A constructivist position views reality as mentally constructed, so that multiple realities exist in different contexts. Some ecological economists have criticized this paradigm, as it denies the biological arena which provides constraints on social life. Tacconi (1998, pg. 99) suggests the following reformation of the constructivist position: “There exists a physical reality subject to different interpretations by human beings. Thus, there exist multiple socially constructed realties”.

An epistemological dialectic realises that we are both meaning makers in a social context (Coulter 1989) , and biological entities. Such a realisation has parallels in several fields, such as in the work of the educationalist Dewey, "who focused on the whole complex circuit of organism and environment interactions that makes up our experience, and he showed how experience is at once bodily, social, intellectual, and emotional" (Lakoff and Johnson, '99, pg. 97). The "enactive" notion of experience emerging in neuroscience holds two tenants: "First, that cognition depends upon the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with various sensor-motor capacities, and second, that these individual sensori-motor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological, and cultural context" (Varela, 1991, quoted in Lakoff, 1999, pg. 97).

The methodological tradition of constructivism has been linked with autopoiesis, through the concept of structural coupling [14] . It has also been linked with action research, through its emphasis on 'transactional knowledge'. It is seen as a means of bridging practice and theory (Denzin and Lincoln 2000, pg. 158) . Stringer (1999, pg. 113) suggests that a constructivist philosophy is ‘inherent in community-based action research’.  However, constructivism, as it is formulated in the literature, rests on a relativist ontology (Denzin and Lincoln 2000) , and as such does not necessarily incorporate the understanding of biological and physical effects on the process of knowing which is inherent in embodied realism.

Embodied realism – what's biology got to do with it?

Stable aspects of existence that we share in common revolve around two levels of the physical world: the nature of humans as biological creatures, with the history of evolution enfolded in our physical beings and experience of living on the earth. As biological organisms, humans are physically dependent on the ecological services our physical environment provides for continued life. In their concept of embodied realism, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) offer a new way of conceiving of epistemology, illuminating the ways in which humans construct meaning through metaphor, and suggesting that the way in which we are able to reason is fundamentally linked with the way in which our bodies orientate spatially in the world and interact with the environment. How we can know is not just influenced by what we see, but also fundamentally by how we can see and feel. This epistemology suggests that our ways of thinking are structured by the evolutionary adaptation of organisms living in the physical environment, and that metaphorical thought allows us a rich and evocative means of constructing higher level thought and abstraction.

People make meanings in an iterative process, and meanings cannot be seen as objects which are there to be objectively apprehended, divorced from the active interpretation of human actors (Schwandt 2000) . Coulter (1989) suggests that all meaning is constructed through social processes, thus knowledge is not only an active phenomenon, it is an inter-subjective creation. A consideration of the social nature of thought could strengthen Lakoff and Johnson's concept of embodied realism, responding to some critiques that they over emphasise the role of biological bodily experience at the expense of the cultural nature of understanding (e.g. Sinha and Jensen De Lo  Pez 2000) .

Research Design

Dynamic interplay – phases in research methodology

A major aim of this methodological writing is to find a creative meeting point, or juxtaposition, between the rigid certainties of a positivist epistemology and the seeming arbitrariness and shifting grounds of a relativist point of view, at the same time as seeking a dualistic creative point between several seemingly opposing positions. The concepts of emergence (context sensitivity, properties emerging from interactions of parts), generative structures (adapted, self-maintaining structures and patterns which can be replicated), novelty and adaptation (self organising systems which are able to adapt to changing circumstances) and liminality (process of change, betwixt and between, recombination, neither nor) are key to this adaptive, ecological epistemology.

In the DesignWays process, consensus-based heuristic guidelines act as an organising structure for decision making, whilst the participatory process encourages people’s own interpretations and expression of values in design. The generic principles are distinguished and made particular by grounding design ideas in the particular context of a place and group of people. This is encouraged by a process that alternates between clear design steps, which build a generic and transferable framework, and stages of creative brainstorming, which encourage a free flow of ideas and allow concepts to emerge from the interaction of members of the group. This process is complemented by attempts to make visible participants’ Weltanschauung [15] and to assist them to reflect on how this may be affecting their thinking. Deliberate stages of tearing ideas apart and creating new juxtapositions and combinations help to break rigidities in thinking, essential when trying to think of new ideas in the context of futures planning, As Ager (Area Manager for the Environment Agency, North West) (interview 2001) stated, such thinking should be "free from all the constraints about: how do we get there, how much is it going to cost".

In parallel with allowing concepts to emerge from the data, with a high level of attention to the meanings that social actors create, this research project seeks to gain a systems view of the overall processes and structures in a large scale organisation. Retroductive reasoning is a process of creating analogues and models that could account for mechanisms which cause discernible patterns, and requires a ‘disciplined scientific imagination’ (Blaikie 1993, pg. 168) . “The discovery of inaccessible mechanisms requires a combination of reason and imagination and the use of iconic models in which the inaccessible mechanism is represented by a real or imagined thing or process” (Blaikie 1993, pg. 169) .

A balance should be struck between searching for patterns that emerge from the data and modelling relationships based on a conceptual framework. The conceptual framework may overly determine the types of relationships that become apparent in the data, but at the same time can provide useful insights into the data and fruitful avenues of inquiry that would not otherwise become apparent. An important way to help encourage this dynamic interplay is to build stages of reflection into the research design process, deliberately introducing steps which will have a greater tendency either for inductive or abductive thought processes. “Abduction is defined as a method of constructing knowledge from constituencies in the evidence from multiple perspectives’ (Tognetti 1999, pg. 692) . Origins from Latin – abduct – adducere – to lead away (Pearsall 1999) . Blaikie defines it as “the process used to produce social scientific accounts of social life by drawing on the concepts and meaning used by social actors, and the activities in which they engage” (1993, pg. 176).

Based on this understanding, and experience with such interplay between systems modelling and emergent brainstorming, the research methodology to investigate this design tool has been designed with several different phases. These can be seen as a cycle, and will be repeated for each stage of the research (e.g. for the two case studies and the action based research).

The first phase is an inductive, grounded approach, allowing concepts to emerge from empirical data and participants' perceptions. The interpretive analysis of this phase will then feed into the next phase, systems analysis of the overall structure. This second phase will include modelling of concepts and processes, as well as the creation of analogies and metaphors from systems thinking and living systems biology. The third phase involves a liminal process (see Benamou and Caramello 1977; Turner 1985) , in which both the emerging interpretation and the systems modelling are questioned and analysed in juxtaposition to each other. Novel interpretations and concepts will be tested, using several techniques such as 'flip – flopping' and comparative questioning espoused in Grounded Theory (Strauss and Corbin 1994) and in creative thinking techniques, such as those developed by de Bono (e.g. 1992) . The fourth phase involves participatory diagramming and focus group discussions, testing of the interpretation with research participants and allowing for further theory building (for a discussion of the use of participatory diagramming in research, see Kesby 2000) .

Several qualitative researchers have emphasised the importance of paying attention to metaphor in research and analysis (e.g. Miles and Huberman 1994; Janesick 2000; Richardson 2000) . As Postman and Weingartner (1969, pg. 83) state, "All language is metaphor to one degree or another. The only reality that is not metaphorical is 'reality' itself ". In Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal work, Metaphors We Live By, a myriad of ways in which our conceptual systems are constructed through metaphors are demonstrated (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) . In DesignWays, the aim is to reframe a metaphorical understanding of design, thus to be consistent with this aim, it behoves the researcher to pay particular attention to the use of metaphor both in the methodological design and in analysis of data. Examples of attention to metaphor in research methodology can be found in the following educational research: (Black and Halliwell 2000; Darling-Hammond and Snyder 2000) .

Paradox - Value of research design and need for fluidity

Any interpretive research project will need to respond to the ongoing development of questions and concepts, interpretations and goals of participants in participatory research, and to the practical necessities of how to actually get a research project done. However, there are several advantages in having a design for the different stages of research.

Baskerville (1996) suggests that structure and iterative stages are imposed on action research in order to increase rigour in the methodology. A basic research design can help to increase rigour through aiming for convergent methods and attempting to put in place some structure that will help to test the researcher's interpretations. This can help to prevent a circular logic developing, in which the theories being developed are used to determine where to look for the next data that can be used to support the emerging theory (which could be an unconscious process).

Similar to a realisation in architectural design that an increase in public participation in design would necessitate a more transparent process of design (Rowe 1987) , there is a need for a transparent process to encourage effective participation in action research. Stages of research and clear steps to be followed can help to reduce feelings of uncertainly about the process and the way in which people’s participation is to be engaged, especially important in a research project taking a long period of time, when outcomes are not necessarily clear and there is a need for a long term commitment. As described above, there is a great complexity of issues to be addressed. It would be very easy for some of these issues to be forgotten in the ongoing process of research.

Janesick (2000, pg. 390) warns against ‘methodalatry’, or an obsessive sticking to method analogous to idolatry, which leads to “experience [becoming] separated from knowing". Instead, research design, in the creative and context driven sense of design, would suggest that the goals of the research and the particular context are used to determine research methods, and that this is an iterative process, which needs revision as the context changes with increasing knowledge and shifts throughout the research process.


The DesignWays process seeks to explore possible new relationships between individuals, societies and ecological systems. It has been developed in the light of paradigm shifts in several fields (from education to science), which can be seen as a reaction to a mechanistic and reductionist philosophy. It is a development of systems and holistic thinking, following an intellectual tradition which has roots in the philosophy of Aristotle (Tarnas 1991; Capra 1996) .

It seems essential to attempt to construct a research design to study this process which is consistent with its epistemological underpinnings. There is a potential that such an attempt could be open to an accusation of circular logic, such that by attempting to solve puzzles using criteria intrinsic to the process, the project is bound to reach certain conclusions, due to the way the questions are asked. This dichotomy is discussed in Bushe and Coetzer's (1995) study into appreciative inquiry as a team building tool, in which they used positivist objectivist research methods to investigate a participatory tool which has deeply constructionist epistemological underpinnings. There may be some advantages to undertaking such a research project. However, there are several reasons for not using a positivist research tool for this research project, due in part to the nature of the research question and in part to the practicalities arising from the project.

At this stage, the main questions revolve around participants' perceptions. The research aims to investigate whether or not this design tool provides a useful means for encouraging effective participation at the landscape level of scale, and whether or not it proves a useful tool for increasing understanding about, and skills to deal with, the complex issues that are raised by a goal of sustainable development. Such questions are better answered with an interpretive approach, grounded in the perceptions, actions and comments of the participants.

The concept of integrated sustainable design is relatively new, and is only just being tested in different contexts, hence action based research is appropriate to test the latest developments in this field. The relatively recent development of this field also means that there are not sufficient projects to allow for a wide ranging and random sample which could facilitate more hypothetical-deductive and statistical analysis of the topic area.

At the moment, the researcher is the only person who can facilitate the DesignWays process, as it has not yet been developed into a transferable tool kit. This leads to the need for a highly reflexive and interpretive research project to actively attempt to deal with inevitable research bias. 

Over time, longitudinal data for both the social and participatory aspects of the design process and the ecological effects of the process can be gathered. Longer term research should include a greater focus on the substantive ecological changes which arise in areas where the design process is applied.

Future research could take a more broad ranging view of the value of DesignWays. As more participatory projects of this nature are implemented, in particular in response to the European Union Water Directive Framework, there will be further case studies for in-depth comparative analysis. This will provide a broad basis for comparative study. In the meantime, it is envisaged that this trial of the DesignWays process may provide tools and techniques that can be used to help accomplish this comprehensive endeavour.


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[1] SuNstainable DesignWays ™ is a communication and educational tool, developed by the author to apply ecological design principles at multiple levels of scale. During two years of pilot trials in Southern Africa, it evolved into a participatory methodology for applying principles of sustainability. The methodology has since been used as a pedagogic tool in an undergraduate  environmental science course at Dominican University in California.

[2] The Mersey Basin Campaign is a 25 year government initiative, which began in 1985. It is a key factor in the North West region’s objective of a ‘green and pleasant region’, promoting sustainability through local initiatives for long-term enhancement of the environment. Its core objectives are: to improve water quality so that all rivers, streams and canals are clean enough to support fish by 2020; to stimulate the strategic development of attractive, sustainable waterside environments for businesses, housing, tourism, heritage, recreation and wildlife; and to encourage communities in all sectors to value and cherish their watercourse environments. The Campaign was awarded the inaugural International RiverPrize for best practice in Catchment Management in 1999.

[3] The River Valley Initiatives represent the major delivery mechanism of the Mersey Basin Campaign at the local, river catchment, level. There are now 17 Initiatives, covering most of the area of the Mersey Basin.

[4] Retroductive reasoning is a dynamic interplay between creating models and analogies as a means of generating theoretical concepts and analysing data and an inductive approach which allows theoretical concepts to emerge from empirical data. There is an interplay between detailed focus on the concepts emerging from data and the creation of possible explanatory models and analogies Blaikie, N. (1993). Approaches to Social Enquiry. Cambridge (UK), Polity Press. . The prefix retro implies an iterative process, "denoting action that is directed backwards or is reciprocal… from the Latin retro - backwards" Pearsall, J. e. (1999). The Concise Oxford Dictionary - Tenth Edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press. .

[5] Ecological design is a process in which societal forms of production, housing and infrastructure are integrated into the landscape. Spatial arrangements and patterns play a key role in mediating flows of material and energy and in determining the long-term environmental effects of these developments.

[6] The Gaia hypothesis is underpinned by the concept that the Earth acts like a living organism, with self-regulatory mechanisms which maintain suitable conditions for life on Earth operating in a dynamic interplay between the physical environment and living organisms Lovelock, J. (1991). Gaia, The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. UK, Gaia Books Ltd. .

[7] Symbiogenesis is the concept that evolution of organisms may involve a tight coupling of organisms that behave in a synergetic way, with one organism providing benefit to the other. This tight coupling may eventually result in the creation of a new organism altogether. This may be the way that mitochondria became incorporated into eukaryotic cells. The have been hypothesized as free swimming bacteria which were ingested by the larger cells and instead of being digested, survived to become the engine of respiration of the cells Margulis, L. and D. Sagan (1987). Microcosmos. London, Allen and Unwin. . This concept challenges a new-Darwinian view of evolution as proceeding mainly through an eliminative process of competition. parallel to the development of this Darwinism, the concept of mutual aid, or cooperation, has been put forward as a major mechanism of evolution, as exemplified in Kropotkin Kropotkin, P. (1902, 1987). Mutual Aid - A Factor Of Evolution. London, Freedom Press. .

[8] For further discussion of this process, see Tippett, J. (2001). A pattern based approach to participatory ecological design - landscape regeneration in Southern Africa. sumbitted as partial fulfillment for the requirements of Masters in Economic and Social Research at the University of Manchester, unpublished, see .

[9] PELUM,  the Tlholego Development Project and the author collaborated teaching a two-week Permaculture course for the Berea Agricultural Group in Teyateyaneng in Lesotho in July 1995.

[10] In this context, a system is taken to include the environment and ecosystems, social structures, physical infrastructure of the human culture in a place and the set of values and norms that govern human interactions with the physical environment.

[11] A mechanistic worldview sees components of the world (e.g. living organisms) as machines, in which each part functions independent of the whole, contrasted with a holistic worldview, which the world is seen "as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts"Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life. New York, Anchor Books. .

[12] Holism has the central axiom: 'the whole is more than the sum of its parts’. This concept was argued by Aristotle, linked to the idea of organisms fulfilling a purpose, with the purpose as a causal explanation for the organism, but after the success of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, this concept was largely overtaken by a reductionist point of view. The shifts in science since the turn of the 20th Century described above has brought the concept back into common parlance Smuts, J. C. (1926). Holism and Evolution. London, Macmillan.

Bertalanffy, L. V. (1968). General System Theory. New York, Braziller.

Koestler, A. (1969). Beyond atomism and holism - the concept of the holon. Beyond Reductionism:New Perspectives in the Life Sciences. A. Koestler and J. R. Smithies. London, Hutchinson: 192 - 216.

Rappaport, A. (1976). “General Systems Theory, A Bridge Between Two Cultures (3rd Annual Ludwig von Bertalanaffy Memorial Lecture).” Behavioral Science(21): 228 - 239. .

[13] Maturana and Varela coined the term autopoiesis to denote their understanding of the organisation of living beings. It is derived from the root auto, or self,  and the Greek word poiesis, which means making, and shares the same root as the word poetry Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life. New York, Anchor Books. . Thus autopoiesis can be seen as self-making, and living organisms can be characterised by the process of self-reproduction Maturana, H. and F. Varela (1987). The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala. .

[14] "We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems" Ibid. .

[15] Weltanschauung - worldview or paradigm, the constellation of beliefs and cultural norms that colour perception.