Working on the edges

by Philip Boxer
The following set of notes emerged from a conversation with Sandy Henderson about the forensic approach – an approach to understanding and beginning to address ‘systemic bias’.[1]

Implicit in the way a person speaks about what is going on (wigo) is a way of framing meaning. The frame contains wigo for the speaker in the sense of providing a way of giving meaning to wigo.[2] The wigo being contained needs to be distinguished here from the way wigo is held, which limits the granularity and complexity of the phenomena that need containing.[3]

  • This way of framing rests on implicit assumptions that govern its reasoning.
  • These assumptions can be reinforced by a cycle of process-outcome-consequence (a process achieves an immediate outcome which has consequences that reinforce the frame).
  • The cycle can also be disrupted by a consequence that creates a situation that cannot be contained by the existing frame. This situation ‘flips’ people out of the existing frame by the way it disrupts its assumptions. In order to contain this new situation, a new frame has to emerge with a different set of governing assumptions (or not, in cases of systemic bias. See below).

A dilemma emerges if disrupting consequences in some ‘other’ frame ‘flip’ people back to an earlier frame, giving rise potentially to an oscillation over time back and forth between two frames.

  • When this happens, this back-and-forth oscillation takes place around a ‘gap’ representing something about the overall situation that is impossible to address directly.
  • Any frame is vulnerable to the possibility of being disrupted by ‘flipping’ outcome-consequences. There are thus always ‘other’ frames possible and different kinds of dilemma, therefore, each revealing gaps representing different kinds of impossibility.
  • Holding an oscillation involves being mindful of this ‘gap’ and of the impossibility it represents to either frame. This is done by limiting the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration by each frame so that the oscillation itself can be managed.

A ‘systemic bias’ arises to the extent that people limit the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration by a frame in order to ignore anything that might disrupt it.[4]

  • There are three ways of preserving a systemic bias: (a) flight to the personal – an explanation in terms of individual responsibility that leaves the frame itself unacknowledged aka scapegoating); (b) turning a blind eye to phenomena that have the possibility of ‘flipping’ it by insisting on a particular way of holding wigo; or (c) disclusion of persons identified with an ‘other’ frame that could confront the existing frame with gaps in how it is dealing with wigo. This disclusion excludes those other persons from consideration and dismisses as irrelevant any consideration of phenomena of concern to those others.[5]
  • A systemic bias provokes hostility and mistrust in those discluded others.
  • The challenging of the implicit limitations imposed by an existing way of holding a dilemma creates the potential for new frames, new gaps and new forms of oscillation.

Injustices can be created by repeatedly turning a blind eye and/or discluding ‘others’ in the preservation of an existing way of holding a frame. Whether or not intentional, where injustices do arise, they can be approached as (serial) ‘murders’ of potential innovations that would have led to a frame being held differently.[6]

  • Such murders are ‘investigated’ by focusing on the situations in which the injustices arise – ‘crime scenes’ in which potential innovations have been murdered that would have disrupted existing ways of holding frames – and identifying the means, opportunity and motive through which the ‘murders’ took place.
  • Establishing reasonable basis for suspecting means, opportunity and motive makes it possible to show ‘probable cause’ for the systemic bias giving rise to the injustice(s) (aka ‘reasonable grounds’), motive being established through establishing the particular interests being served by the existing ways of holding frames.
  • The systemic nature of the ‘murders’ may then be identified with those standing to benefit from them.
  • For ‘probable cause’ to be established, however, we need ‘detectives’ – persons whose personal valency leads them to sense the injustices and to have the drive to do the forensic work involved.[7] The intention behind establishing ‘probable cause’ is, of course, a successful ‘prosecution’ that changes the repeated behaviors towards ‘others’.

The exploration of a situation felt to be problematic and/or unjust in some way – and an individual’s valency for recognising it – can be achieved through a way of using the ‘plus-one’ process. This sets out to look beyond the ‘truth’ of an individual’s narrative of a situation in order to uncover the dilemma they are experiencing in the situation, and to explore the nature of the gap between its frames with its underlying impossibility.

  • This plus-one process involves three people with a fourth person in a witness role. The plus-one process itself starts with a narrating of a situation by a speaker (1) to a listener (2) in the presence of a person in the plus-one role (3). The following three stages are repeated three times as the three people rotate around these three roles. The person in the witness role bears witness to the whole process of rotating roles.
    Stage 1 involves, in the first iteration, the articulation of the narrative about the situation experienced as problematic/unjust from the speaker’s perspective. Subsequent stage 1 narratives are in each case of a situation experienced by the speaker that shows the meaning of the metaphor they previously identified from their plus-one role.
    Stage 2 involves clarification of the narrative by the listener.
    Stage 3 is the production of a metaphor by the ‘plus-one’ based on a countertransferential ‘hunch’ about the nature of the narrative framing within which the narrative unfolds.
  • The metaphor represents the plus-one’s sense of the shape of the speaker’s relation to the situation that has emerged from the narrative clarified with the listener. The metaphor derives from the feelings evoked in the plus-one by the speaker’s articulation of the narrative and its subsequent clarification by the listener.

The witness will subsequently use the three metaphors that emerge from the plus-one process to hypothesise the ‘other side’ of the original narrative articulated by the speaker as a first step in formulating the gap between the two frames and the underlying impossibility it represents.

  • Having elaborated this ‘other side’ as an alternative process-outcome-consequence narrating of the original situation, the ‘flipping’ consequences in each frame need to be identified, defining the back-and-forth oscillation between them.
  • The witness’s final step is then to hypothesise the nature of the gap between the frames and the underlying impossibility it represents.

Two questions then arise that define the focus of a Boxer parallel process[8]: (i) what is it about the way this dilemma is being held that sets it up in this way; and (ii) what is the nature of the original speaker’s valency for this way of its being ‘set up’. [9]

[1] ‘systemic bias’ is apparent, for example, in institutional racism. I have written about ‘systemic bias’ in a number of its guises. In its extreme forms it edges over into being ‘white collar crime’. The forensic rule in these kinds of case is ‘to follow the money’:
“Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness.” (2014) Defences Against Anxiety: Explorations in a Paradigm. D. Armstrong and M. Rustin. London, Karnac: 70-87.
“Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation.” (2015) Organisational & Social Dynamics 15(1): 1-19.
“Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (2015) 32nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations. Rome, Italy.
“Caring beyond reason: a question of ethics.” (2016) European Academy of Management Conference. Paris.
“On the betrayal of the other’s trauma: the ethics of questioning unconscious investment in turning a blind eye.” (2016) 33rd ISPSO Annual Symposium. Granada.
“Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge.” (2017) Organizational and Social Dynamics 17(1): 89-110.
[2] ‘Contains’ aka returns meaning, following Bion’s thinking about what transforms beta-elements to alpha-elements. Beta-elements are experienced as bizarre, provoking anxiety. To contain is therefore epistemic in its effects, transforming the bizarre into something that can be given meaning to.
[3] ‘Holding’ aka limiting the complexity and granularity of the phenomena being faced, following Winnicott. By granularity is meant the scale or level of detail present in the phenomena. The way the child was held by the family situation protected the child from being exposed to phenomena that could be overwhelming or traumatic, inducing a fear of imminent annihilation.  To hold is therefore ontic in its effects, defining reality itself for the child in which the bizarre might occur.
[4] ‘Systemic bias’ aka way of sustaining an identification
[5] To both dismiss and exclude is to disclude…  the exclusion limits the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration, while the dismissal reflects the way of framing.
[6] I use ‘murder’ here because it leads us to the detective genre, which is a valuable metaphor for the challenges of working forensically. See also the use of this metaphor in dilemmas as drivers of change.
[7] A brief summary of the detective genre would start from the detective’s code: dedicated to the victim, economical if not thrifty in his or her expenses and personal habits, loyal to his or her profession, cooperative to some degree with the police, concerned with self-survival, and unwilling to be duped by anyone. See The Detective’s Code. I have written about forensic work in Boxer, P. J. (2017). “Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge.” Organizational and Social Dynamics 17(1): 89-110.
[8] Not to be confused with the Balint approach to shadow consulting, of which this is a further development.
[9] Of course taking up either of these questions implies addressing the other question in some way. This implies an ethic to the extent that it demands that a manager takes responsibility for his or her own valencies. This points towards a kind of hippocratic oath for managers – to abstain from doing harm. It also links us back to understanding what is constitutive of unintentional errors.

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