Predictability and Organisations

Yesterday, I was struck by an article in the Business Section of the Sunday Times with this heading: Directors told to predict future under new code. That I should be struck by such a heading is, of course, hardly surprising since I have been publishing books and papers for the last 24 years arguing that it is impossible to predict the outcomes of the actions  people undertake in organisations. Indeed, the paradox of predictable unpredictability of human actions is central to the theory of complex responsive processes. The fundamental reason for this paradox is that that we are interdependent individuals, not autonomous individuals. This means that every choice any one of us makes, any intention any one of us forms and every action any one of us undertakes cannot produce some direct outcome all on its own because everyone around us, indeed many at some distance from us, are also choosing, intending and acting so that what happens is the consequence of the interplay of all our choices, intentions and actions. The models of the complexity sciences also display the unpredictability of outcomes because nonlinear relationship can escalate tiny changes to produce completely unpredictable long term outcomes. Indeed, some of the models, for example, those of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, lead to the conclusion that the universe is fundamentally unpredictable. And, in fact, our own experience confirms these conclusions about unpredictability.

 

In view of all of this it is amazing how prominent leaders in the organisational world carry any giving out predictions which, of course, are never realised. Take for example the Governor of the Bank of England. A year ago now, Mark Carney took up his post as Governor of the Bank of England after some years as Governor of the Bank of Canada. The first really headline-grabbing action he took was to provide what he called ‘forward guidance’ to the financial markets. He would only raise interest rates if the unemployment rate fell below 7% and he said that this would not happen before 2016. The market did not believe him and began to price in an interest rate increase in 2015. Only a few months later it became clear that unemployment was falling much faster than expected and would probably reach that target by the end of 2013. So the Governor hastily abandoned this target and proposed to use a number of indicators of economic ‘slack’. Just as well because the unemployment rate in May this year fell to 6.6%. What is interesting is how, after it became crystal clear that neither he nor anyone else could predict any economic indicator, he rushed from one failed prediction to others just as likely to fail. He does not seem to have reached the sensible conclusion, which is to abandon all of these useless attempts to predict. Then in his most recent speech he let slip that the interest rate rise could well come in a few months’ time. Why do senior people keep making claims for the future which experience would tell them are futile?

 

Now back to the newspaper article which tells a similar story. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) commissioned the Liberal Democrat peer and former chairman of the insurer Aviva, Lord Sharman, to lead an expert panel to revamp the going concern test for organisations since the current test had failed to pick up the vulnerability of the banks in 2008. After months of deliberation and a number of rounds of consultation they produced their recommendation of a new corporate governance code for one last round of consultation. They will recommend that Directors be required to tell investors how long they think their company will remain viable: they must declare that their companies are viable for the foreseeable future and the foreseeable future has to exceed 12 months. So a group of eminent people spend months, and no doubt a lot of money, to come up with a recommendation which simplistically assumes that the future is predictable when in our experience it clearly is not. Even more interesting is the response of investors and trade bodies. For example, John Moulton, the veteran venture capitalist who runs Better Capital, said: ‘It is madness. No company will be able to come up with the right answer’. The panel says they will consider this point. So the great and the good continue to formulate policies on the basis of some very dodgy assumptions, which they never reflect upon, while those they are trying to protect make clear their knowledge that such protection is impossible. It looks like some who make a great deal of money do not operate on outdated assumptions.

 

Why are we so caught in a way of thinking that denies our experience? I think it is because the great and the good constitute a ‘thought collective’ in the terms of Ludwik Flek. In a previous blog I talked about Flek’s conclusion that we all belong to some thought collective and each of these collectives is characterised by a thought style. To question such a thought style is to risk exclusion from the thought collective. And it is not just policy makers and leaders of large organisations who are trapped in a ‘thought collective’. Some of the most effectively policed thought collectives are to found in academia where journals control what can be published and business schools continue to teach students all kinds of misleading ideas about predictability and the use of tools and techniques.

Reflexive OD

Previous blogs have outlined key features of the theory of complex responsive processes of relating between members of organisations as a way of making more sense of what we actually do in our everyday lives in those organisations. This theory makes a number of claims.

The first is that change across whole organisations is not caused by grand designs rolled down a hierarchy. Rather changes in the patterns of relationship between a whole population of people, which is what an organisation is, emerge across that population in the interplay of many, many local interactions.

A further claim is that all local interactions in all organisations and economies in all countries reflect the same fundamental processes. First, local interactions are always conversational in nature – societies and organizations are ongoing conversation which is always reflecting the generalized other, the habitus, the game, the social background, the culture. Organisational change then means change in the patterning of conversation arising in local interaction. Secondly this social activity of gesture and response always reflects power figuration which, together with ideologies, are the basis of the inevitable dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. In other words, organisational life is processes of ordinary everyday politics in which we are always making ideologically based choices and decisions. Taking all of these processes together we can see how organisational life is both competitive and cooperative, both conflictual and consensual. The inevitable conflict will always be a reflection of the fact that as agents in organisational life we are always different to each other and at the same time we are the same as each other.

No matter what our role in an organisations is, whether leader, manager or staff member, we are all participating in all the process described above.  This must also apply to the role of OD consultant. As OD consultants we enter into the conversational life of an organisation and we take up power positions which may well threaten the pattern of power relations for some, or we may find ourselves reinforcing current power relations, leading us to sustain stability while proclaiming that we are change agents. We inevitably find ourselves included in some groupings and excluded from others and our ways of participating are inevitably reflections of the particular ideologies we believe in. The invitation from the theory of complex responsive processes to OD practitioners is to refocus attention from an exclusive concern with tools and techniques to a focus which pays much more attention to the actual processes that people, including OD practitioners, are engaged in.

Since the theory of complex responsive processes is offering an explanation of what we are already doing it is not prescriptive and so does not yield much in the way of tools and techniques of OD practice. It does not deal with what we should be doing as OD practitioners but offers instead a refocusing of attention in reflecting upon and thinking about what we are actually doing together now rather than focusing attention on idealised futures and so called tools and techniques, the success of which is assumed rather than supported by evidence.  Instead, I am assuming, also without anything like scientific evidence, that this refocusing of attention will yield greater understanding of what is going on and that this greater understanding will be expressed in changes of practice. Such changes cannot be predicted in advance nor is there any guarantee that the changes will yield any improvement. I believe, however, that on the whole it must be better to approach organisational life in a more rather than a less thoughtful way. So the ‘prescription’ that emerges from the theory of complex responsive processes is the invitation to take a more reflexive position in thinking about what we are doing and the practical judgment we must rely on in conditions of uncertainty.

By reflexivity I mean processes that amount to more than reflection. We may think of this reflexivity-in-action as the principle ‘technique’ for developing practical judgement.

To reflect means to think deeply about a subject and some synonyms are to ponder, ruminate, contemplate, or speculate. Reflection is the intellectual and emotional exercise of the mind to reason, give careful consideration to something, make inferences, decisions, and find solutions. Reflection can be directed at one’s own experience, as in introspection, which is the activity of reflecting on one’s own thoughts and feelings and forming beliefs about one’s own mental states. What, then, does it mean to practice reflexivity? A reflexive pronoun is the object in a sentence indicating that the object is the same as the subject in that sentence. The subject and the object are then not separate but are simultaneously present. For example I might say that ‘I was washing myself’ so that the reflexive pronoun ‘myself’ bends back to the ‘I’. This reflexivity should not be understood as introspection since reflexivity involves much more than introspection and the form of reflexivity that I want to point to in this chapter needs to be distinguished from both reflection and from introspection. Reflexivity points to the impossibility of standing outside of our experience and observing it, simply because it is we who are participating in and creating the experience, always with others. Reflexivity is the activity of noticing and thinking about the nature of our involvement in our participation with each other as we do something together. So, I am using a notion of reflexivity which can only be social. Since we are interdependent individuals, reflexivity must involve thinking about how we and others involved with us are interacting and this will involve noticing and thinking about our history together and more widely about the history of the wider communities we are part of.

The ability to take a reflexive stance is the basis of practical judgment, which is an understanding of group interaction – the expert manager is one who has developed the ability to notice more aspects of group dynamics than others do and a greater ability to make sense of those aspects. What is called for, then, is the practice of narrative forms of inquiry because it is in the detail of the narrative that we find ourselves participating in that we can express the themes emerging in our experience, as well as the details of context, that enable us to form judgments on what is going on and what we might do as the next step. The ‘technique’ of narrative inquiry involves leaders, managers and members of an organization exploring together the history of the situation they find themselves in, trying to identify how they have together created this situation.  Here ‘technique’ requires self-discipline on the part of all in engaging in a mode of inquiry that cannot be ‘controlled’. The ‘technique’ involves scrapping the bullet points and turning instead to narratives that provoke further reflection. What I am proposing, therefore, is that the capacity for practical judgment in organisations can be sustained and developed by the ‘technique’ of reflexive inquiry into the narrative of what we are doing together in ambiguous and uncertain situations. For leaders and managers, in practical terms, this means consciously creating opportunities for groups of colleagues and others to engage in the kind of inquiry that I have been describing. I would call this reflexive OD practice.

An OD practitioner who is an expert at working in reflexive ways may assist clients to greater awareness of their roles in the organization. Consultants who work in a reflexive way with groups of leaders and managers may help to widen and deepen communication in a group and so produce greater meaning. This activity cannot be reduced to rules and procedures. The work in the development of more fluid and complex conversation involves curbing the widespread pattern in organizations where leaders and managers focus on the future and move immediately to planning and solving problems.  This can be done by exploring narratives of what those in the group have done in the past in order to develop some insight into what they have been doing and why they have been doing it in a particular way. Such conversation grounds group members in the present as they make sense of the past in the present and opens up more varied and grounded ways of taking account of the future in the present. A reflexive form focuses on narrative. It is very helpful for leaders and managers to write short narratives of troubling events they are currently experiencing and then inquire into these narratives in the group. Such activities develop thinking and lead to greater insight into what is going on.

 

 

 

Leadership and the ‘vision thing’

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play in the European Champions League, for which his team has now qualified. Meanwhile political pundits, and sometimes members of his own party, are critical of the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Ed Miliband, doesn’t have a sufficiently clear vision. In contrast, President George Bush (père) once said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thang’.

If you search on the terms ‘leadership vision’ in any search engine it will turn up thousands of hits, consultancies, business schools, books, which claim that having leadership vision is probably the most important quality a leader can have. There are any number of proprietary tools, techniques, grids and frameworks for generating such a vision. The idea is now virtually unchallengeable.

How would I square the idea that vision is something an individual leader ‘has’ with some previous posts where I argued that leadership is an improvisational and ensemble performance? If vision really is the exceptional and innate characteristic of an individual leader, then maybe the leaders of banks and corporations really do deserve the fantastic salaries that they command. Is it really the case that some are born with visions, and the rest of us are born to be led by them. Continue reading

Now booking! Complexity and Management Conference June 6-8th 2014

Can leaders change organisational culture? – alternatives from a complexity perspectiveImage

What do we mean when we talk about the ‘need to change organisational culture’? This is a way of speaking about culture which is now taken for granted, whether in relation to banking, the UK’s National Health Service or sometimes whole societies. What is organisational culture anyway, and to what extent can even the most powerful leaders and managers (or politicians) change it in ways that they decide? And if we were to conclude that it’s not possible to change culture, at least not in predictable ways, then why has this way of speaking and thinking become so widespread? What else might be going on, and what purpose does the culture-change narrative serve?

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will follow on from last year’s discussion of leadership and will encourage the exploration of a term which is widely used but poorly understood. Participants will be encouraged to share their own experiences of organisational change, particularly when it is framed in terms of changes in culture. We will explore together the implications of the discourse of culture change for leaders and managers.

The key note speaker this year is Prof Ralph Staceyco-founder of the Doctor of Management programme at UH and a groundbreaking scholar with his work on the complexity sciences and their relevance to leading and managing organisations.

The conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. The conference fee will include all accommodation and food. The conference will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK: http://www.roffeypark.com as usual.

The booking page can be found here. There is a discount for early-bird bookings before May 1st 2014. A more detailed agenda will follow but the conference begins with a drinks reception @7pm on Friday 6th June and ends after lunch Sunday 8th June.

Participants wishing to set up a particular themed discussion in a working group during the conference should contact Chris Mowles: c.mowles@herts.ac.uk

Complexity and Management Conference: June 6th-8th, 2014

Can leaders change organisational culture?alternatives from a complexity perspective.

Whenever there is an organisational crisis, conventionally we come to explain what is unfolding in terms of failing leadership and/or inadequate organisational culture. This is a way of speaking about culture as a thing a discrete organisation ‘has’. It is assumed that culture exists within organizational boundaries and is a thing identifiable, manipulable and improvable by leaders and senior managers, sometimes even by politicians; it can be commanded, shaped and optimised, often at a distance. There are all manner of diagnostic tools and techniques available in management and organisational literature for analysing a deficient organizational culture which can then be remedied by taking a number of steps towards prereflected ends. There may even be metrics for measuring whether the culture change has successfully taken place in the transition between the current imperfect reality, and the often idealized prediction of what it ‘should’ be. During culture change initiatives there is often a grand appeal to values and the symbolic imagination.

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will complement last year’s treatment of leadership by enquiring into the theme of organisational culture. We will discuss the extent to which the concept, in migrating from the discipline of anthropology, has been instrumentalised and trivialised. To what degree does the attempt to rationalise social life bring about organisational irrationality: the exact opposite of what is intended? If another way of thinking about culture is as the habitus, to what extent can this be manipulated and improved by anybody?

The keynote speaker in June next year will be Professor Ralph Stacey. Ralph is well known to many regular attendees at the CMC, but for those unfamiliar with his background he has worked in the construction industry, as an investment strategist in the finance industry, as a management consultant, a group therapist in the NHS and for the last 25 years as an academic. He has published many books and papers including Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations and The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity. Ralph will explore culture from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating between people who enact and re-enact culture in the present, interpreting the past and in anticipation of the future.

Next year’s conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. More details will follow in the New Year: the conference fee, when we agree it, will include all accommodation and food. It will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK: http://www.roffeypark.com .

On organisational culture change

There is a great deal of discussion in contemporary organisational life of the need to ‘change the culture’ in organisations. This is a way of talking that assumes that organizations do have discrete cultures and that they are manipulable, although the discourse can have it both ways with the term: on the one hand culture is known to be symbolic, intangible and abstract, on the other it can be the object of conscious and rational redesign and reframing. A good example of this way of talking about organisational culture can be found in the 4th edition of the eminent management scholar Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership[1].

Usually a prime role is assumed for leaders or senior managers in making the changes to organizational culture because they are considered to have the necessary abilities and skills to diagnose what is wrong with the current culture and to design a better one: one which fits better with the environment. Schein states this very explicitly in his book: ‘In this sense culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved and ultimately manipulated by leaders’ (2010: 3).  As a result of their leaders’ efforts, employees will be obliged to commit to a fresh set of values, or reaffirm an existing set which are thought to have become moribund, as well as demonstrating a suite of required ‘behaviours’ or new procedures. The new values and procedures are then set ‘at the heart of everything we do’, are vigorously communicated and disseminated and form the basis of widespread training programmes for staff, and are then subject to regimes of inspection and performance management. Such change programmes can consume weeks and months of organizational time and resources.

The whole process is a good demonstration of the systemic assumptions behind organizational realignment: values, behaviour, systems, procedures, training, communication and quality regimes are all supposed to line up and fit over each other and form a coherent whole. The emphasis is on integration, stability and alignment. It is a huge reduction of the complexity of what is at stake when attempting organisational change.

A book recently published calling for radical change in the NHS is a refreshing attempt to explain why ‘culture change’ in organisations is likely to be highly problematic. [2] Instead of assuming that whatever we might mean by the term culture is contained within one organisation, even one as big as the NHS, Ballatt and Campling, an ex-senior manager and psychotherapist within the NHS, explain why the institution reflects much wider conflictual social processes, as well as provoking profound questions about what it means to be human. That is, they try to bring together society-wide trends in social patterning in the UK and beyond in terms of their impact on changes in the NHS, and they wrestle with the profound human difficulties and dilemmas involved in professionalising the often spontaneous and improvisational human response of caring towards another human being in need. Though written specifically about the NHS, I think the book also raises important questions for anyone thinking about what is involved in processes of organisational change and echoes some of the themes from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. There are some key differences, however, which I will also explore below. Continue reading

Acting into organizational complexity: comparing and contrasting relational leadership and complex responsive processes of relating

At the Complexity and Management Conference 2013 our guest speaker, Ann Cunliffe, described her ideas about what she terms relational leadership, which are also set out in an article in Human Relations here. In her conference presentation and in her article Ann Cunliffe responds to what she understands as a crisis in leadership education and practice. In the news we are presented with example after example of failures of leadership which also point to an impoverished moral understanding on the part of leaders about their responsibilities, she argues. Cunliffe sets out her alternative by drawing on Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Shotter whom she adduces to develop her argument that leadership work is to be found in the everyday conversational activity of people trying to achieve things together. Her ideas turn on the idea of inter-subjectivity, that we are formed by others just as we form them, which she argues has implications for the way we think about our relationships. We should, she says, develop better anticipatory awareness about what matters in those relationships and the moral consequences of our responsiveness, or lack of it, to others. Responsibility arises, Cunliffe argues after Ricoeur, by recognising oneself as another.[1] Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 7-9th June 2013 – Exploring the Cult of Leadership

‘Leadership is leadership, and talent is talent’. So said a Minister from the UK Home Office when called upon to respond to criticisms of recent government proposals to open up some of the middle management positions in the police force to applicants from business and the community. In expressing himself thus, he gave a very good example of the way in which the cult of leadership has taken hold in current discourse about the management of organisations, and is taken for granted. By implication we all know what leadership is and  can feel confident that certain individuals, particularly from a business background, are good leaders whatever the context. Leadership has become a foundational concept.

In this year’s Complexity and Management Conference we will be calling into question this blind faith ubiquitously expressed in the notion of leaders and leadership. Some of the topics we may find ourselves discussing are whether the  assumption that leadership is distinct for management really holds; whether the necessary exercise of authority in organisations can always be understood in terms of what leaders are doing; whether the concept of leadership has been so widely stretched and differentiated (servant leadership, distributed leadership, self-leadership, leadership and followership, even upwards leadership) that it has become meaningless and unhelpful. Because it is so widely spoken about, yet so little understood,  it becomes a very important topic for critical reflection.

From the perspective of complex responsive processes, and from the insights offered by our guest speaker, Professor Ann Cunliffe of Leeds University, we will be trying to understand leadership as a highly social phenomenon co-created by people as they negotiate how to go on together.

The conference attracts a wide diversity of participants every year: academics from other institutions, consultants and managers, as well as graduates and current students from the Doctor of Management programme.

If you would like to book for the conference the payment page at the University of Hertfordshire site is now open and can be accessed here: http://tinyurl.com/crm734w

As usual, there is a discount of £50 for early-bird bookers up till April 26th.

We look forward to seeing you there.

 

 

Trust in Organisations

A search of Google Scholar indicates that books and journal papers to do with trust, organisations and leadership numbered a few hundred per annum during the 1960s, jumping to the low thousands during the 1970s, and approaching 10,000 per annum in the 1990s. During the early years of this century the number of publications has numbered around an average of 40,000 per year. These numbers indicate a major increase in, and concern about, the presence and role of trust in organisational life, including the exercise of leadership. In this note I want to give a brief indication of how this issue is approached in the management literature and how it is approached in the sociology literature. To aid in the comparing and contrasting I will draw on Hosmer’s[i] classification of four different approaches to understanding trust:

  • Trust as an optimistic individual expectation, focusing on expectations that others will perform in competent and morally correct ways.
  • Trust as an interpersonal relation, focusing on the dependence of the trustors on the trustees to respect the trustors’ interests. The relationship is one of vulnerability for the trustor.
  • Trust as a rational decision to  do with protecting one’s interests made after risk analysis or a calculation in terms of economic transactions costs (which I will not cover in this note).
  • Trust and social structure. Continue reading

Repetitive Patterns of Communication: Thought Collectives and Thought Styles

There seems to me to be an interesting pattern in the comments on many of the blogs on this site, a pattern that I frequently encounter in many other discussions in organizations too. The pattern takes the following form.

On this site, and in most of our work encounters, colleagues and I are seeking to present a way of thinking about organizational life which departs radically from the mainstream or dominant discourse. We want to do this because we take the view that dominant ways of understanding organizations have failed to account for the glaringly obvious inability of leaders and managers to determine their futures, which the dominant discourse argues is what they are there for. The alternative way of thinking we are trying to articulate involves moving completely away from thinking of human interaction as constituting, or as if constituting, a system of any kind which it is then the role of leaders and managers to control. Any/every form of systems thinking is conducted in terms of spatial metaphors with parts forming wholes within boundaries. We argue against this way of thinking about human interaction / organizations because the spatial metaphor of systems abstracts from direct experience by positing an entity outside our relationships with each which is then easily reified and anthropomorphised. Systemic ways of thinking lead to separation in thought of individual and group and locates them at different levels, another spatial metaphor. We are articulating an alternative way of thinking which avoids abstracting completely from our experience and focuses our attention on the temporal responsive processes of our in interacting with each other as we deal with uncertainty and our inability to control. We argue that this complex responsive processes way of thinking is incompatible with systems thinking because in the former we are seeking to understand our experience from within our participation in that experience and in the latter people are seeking to observe and manipulate something outside of themselves. Moving from one of these ways of thinking to the other has important implications for what we do and how we think about what we do to deal with not knowing and it is this that we are seeking to inquire into.

One common response to the position we take is for a commenter to welcome what we are saying but then they go on to agree that some forms of systems thinking exhibit the drawbacks we identify (for example, first order systems) but that there are other forms (for example, second order  systems) that do not display these drawbacks. While agreeing then, the commenters present their own brand of system thinking as an exception, usually without explaining why it is an exception. The commenter may then proceed to talk about people drawing boundaries around their experience. In other words the commenter simply proceeds to rearticulate the dominant discourse without acknowledging any of our arguments against it.

Another commenter may then return to the message of the blog and point out that defining the boundaries of an organization involves us thinking of an organization as some kind of system that exists outside of us and that when we do this we are moving more and from our own actual experience of what is happening around us in the conversations we are engaged in. In other words the second commenter repeats the argument being presented in the blog.

The first commenter may then reply that the ability to see multiple, non-contradictory boundaries, or containers, is essential to making meaning and taking action; useful boundaries can be created and transcended at will. Here then, we are into the second repetition of a reply which simply repeats once again the basic tenets of the dominant discourse without engaging the argument.

And so the ‘ping pong’ goes on. The pattern is one of a commenter presenting the argument of the responsive processes view which elicits a rearticulating of the dominant discourse of systems thinking which calls forth another comment now simply repeating the responsive processes position which evokes a comment simply repeating the systems position. We are together co-creating repetitive patterns which are rather stuck and which block inquiring into the argument. This is a pattern which I frequently encounter in other forums too and I notice that leaders and managers in organizations  also often get stuck in repetitive patterns of this kind. So how are we to make sense of this kind of pattern that we so often co-create in which we each make claims about reality and the facts but do not really argue them through? I think a very useful way of understanding what we are getting into together is provided by an important book called Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck which was published in 1935.

In the years leading up to the publication of his book, Fleck, a bacteriologist approaching the age of 40, had acquired a considerable reputation as a scientist for his research in the areas of the serology of typhus, syphilis and a variety of pathogenic microorganisms. Fleck starts his book with a question: What is a fact? In answering this question, he goes on to say:

A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. … Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable … [this] is inherently naïve … [as a consequence] we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality”.[i]

He is arguing that in taking the common sense view of what a fact is we lose sight of our own role, collectively and historically, in constructing a fact and developing a fact and this leads us to regarding a fact as simply something we have no alternative but to accept: it cannot be questioned. The purpose of Fleck’s book is to take a particular medical fact, namely syphilis, and explore how such an empirical fact originated, how it has evolved and what it consists of. He shows how before the end of the 15th century syphilis was not differentiated from other skin diseases such as scabies. It was not an independent fact. Around the end of the 15th century syphilis was identified as a new disease, labelled ‘carnal scourge’, which had arisen because of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter under the sign of Scorpio which rules the genitals. Added to the astrological explanation was the religious one that the disease was god’s punishment of sinful lust. Syphilis was now the fact of carnal scourge. Fleck argues that any explanation of a phenomenon, including this one, can only survive and develop if it is ‘stylized in conformity with the prevailing thought style’[ii] and that it took centuries before developments in other sciences led to different ways of thinking about the disease. He concludes that:

Such entrenchment of thought proves that it was not the so-called empirical observations that led to the construction and fixation of the idea. Instead, special factors of deep psychological and traditional significance greatly contributed to it.[iii]

Continue reading