Photograph of Prof. John Raven

Much of Prof. Raven’s research has pointed to the need for paradigm shifts in each of the areas listed below.

But the most important of these paradigm shifts has emerged at the very end of this programme of work and, to some degree, points to a need to re-formulate the insights gained in the other areas.

The most fundamental of these insights – the significance of which most readers will find hard to grasp – is that behaviour is not mainly determined by the values, talents, and priorities of individuals but by the social systems within which they live and work.

Put like that, the claim may seem obvious, insignificant, or absurd. But the transformation it points to is as great as the transformation which occurred in physics when the behaviour of moving objects ceased to be explained in terms of the (animated) properties of the objects and the activities of the Gods and came to be attributed largely to a network of invisible external forces which acted upon the objects but could nevertheless be measured, mapped and harnessed. The behaviour of everything from the movement of sailing boats to that of the planets came to attributed to these networks of forces – as distinct from the gods and other mysterious processes.

Key to all this was the conceptualisation and measurement of “force”.

To jump forward several steps. If we are to gain control of our destinies as a species, if we are to harness the network of social forces which have the destiny of mankind and the planet in their grip, it will be necessary to understand, map, and find ways of intervening in, this network of forces.

The observation applies at organisational as well as societal levels … and, indeed, at the individual level too.

There is an important corollary.

Two things have been blindingly obvious to very many people over the centuries.

First, that the centralised, hierarchical, societal management arrangements which depend for their legitimation and operation on the creation of the endless senseless work (such as the manufacture and distribution of junk toys, junk cars, junk foods, and junk defence systems) that is currently destroying our habitat at an exponentially increasing rate would be best replaced by more “organic” arrangements – that is, by arrangements having multiple, non-hierarchical, feedback loops - as occurs in the internal management of bodily processes.

Yet, over several millennia, all demonstrations of the viability of alternatives based on this observation have been over-ridden by the systems processes which promote division, hierarchy, and destruction.

The second oft-repeated observation is that current forms of “democracy” and bureaucracy simply do not work – and in most cases deliver the opposite of what was intended. Although it is almost a truism among those familiar with certain variants of what has come to be termed “systems thinking” that common-sense based interventions in poorly understood systems tend to have counter- intuitive, and usually counter-productive, outcomes, the observed consequences of well intentioned social action regularly induce despair among very many people. (The corruption of Smith’s principles of public management via the market place into their opposite is perhaps one of the most striking examples.)

For these reasons, Prof. Raven’s current research is primarily directed toward understanding and mapping what may be termed the socio-cybernetic processes involved. (Cybernetics is the study of guidance, control, and feedback systems in animals and machines, so sociocybernetics refers to the study of the, largely invisible, social forces and feedback systems which control the operation of society.)

All this now having been said, we may now summarise some of the results of some of Prof. Raven’s earlier research under four headings. In each case, a more detailed summary will be found in a special entry in the “research” section.

  1. The nature of competence.

One of Raven’s conclusions is that all high-level competencies are grounded in value-laden motivational predispositions. Further, personal effectiveness depends on the environment engaging with the individual’s motives and triggering relevant behaviour. That done, the effectiveness of the behaviour depends on the individual bringing to bear as many as possible of a series of relatively independent, but cumulative and substitutable, cognitive, affective, and conative components of competence. Examples include turning one's emotions into the task, anticipation of obstacles and invention of ways of overcoming them, persuading other people to help, and persistance despite punishment. These components of competence can, however, only be developed, observed, and assessed when people are engaged in activities they are intrinsically strongly motivated to undertake. People’s ability to engage in them cannot be assessed generically, independently of the motives - across motives as it were. It follows that it does not make sense to try to assess such things as "ability to think", "creativity", or "self-confidence" in the way in which psychologists have attempted to do so in the past.

This way of thinking points to the need for a descriptive framework, analogous to those found in chemistry and biology, to think about individual differences. One has to identify which activities the individual is strongly motivated to undertake, whether the “environment” engages with those motives, and which components of competence the individual then brings to bear to undertake those tasks.

Such a descriptive framework is at loggerheads with quest for a series of “variables” – such as “intelligence”, “initiative”, or “introversion” – profiles of scores on which are expected to adequately describe, and account for, individual differences.

It follows from what has just been said that such things as “Creativity” cannot be measured independently of the activity in the course of which the individual is being expected to display it - and whether or not he or she will display that creativity depends on whether the activity engages his motives. Beyond that, success at the activity depends on the individual concerned bringing to bear a number of relatively independent cognitive, affective, and conative components of competence. To make the point another way, it can, with a little exaggeration, be asserted that everyone is creative whilst doing something or other. The question is “Whilst undertaking what kinds of activity will they display their creativity?”

Yet this is not the end of the matter because the competencies an individual can develop and display, can even be said to possess, depend on what other people around him or her are doing.

Raven’s conclusion is, therefore, that the conceptualisation and assessment of competence demands a paradigm shift in the way psychologists think about, and seek to assess, individual differences. Besides pointing to the need for this basic revision of widely accepted conceptual and measurement theory in the area, Raven has contributed important studies of particular competencies. Examples include parental, teacher, and managerial competence. An unexpected observation arising from this work is that political competence seems to be the most important neglected competence in modern society. The development and assessment of high-level competencies poses serious ethical dilemmas which are perhaps most obvious in relation to the assessment of political competence. Nevertheless, the relative dearth of such qualities in society presents enormous problems for our society and the organisations of which it is composed. To anticipate something which will be mentioned in the next section, political competence depends on the exercise of high level systems thinking in connection with the pursuit of certain values … whether those be personal advancement, the advancement of the individual’s firm or organisation, or the survival of our species and the planet.

Seminal publications include:

Competence in Modern Society.

Competence, Education, Professional Development, Psychology, and Socio-Cybernetics

Fuller summaries of Raven’s work on the nature, development, and assessment of competence will be found in The Conceptualisation and Assessment of Competence sub section of The Measurement Development Programme and also main entry in Research programme. The former includes summaries of Raven’s research into the nature and assessment of developmental environments in homes and schools and climates of innovation in workplaces and society.

  1. The nature, development and correlates of the ability to perceive and form orderly judgments.

Raven finds that this ability, as measured by the Raven Progressive Matrices (See Raven & Raven, 2008), has been increasing at an amazing rate over the generations. 50% of our grandparents would be certifiable as in need of special education if assessed against today's norms. Yet, strikingly, both the average scores and the range of scores are remarkably similar in most countries at any point in time. The increase in scores over time indicates that "intelligence" is a great deal more malleable than most people had thought. The similarities and differences across countries which have very different educational, economic, and other systems shows that variation in these conditions does not have the effect commonly thought and thus cannot explain the increase over time. The attempt to identify what is important has shown that the relevant variables are as elusive as those which are responsible for the world-wide increase in height over generations.

Raven claims that the common assumption that most researchers “know what they are talking about” when they discuss “intelligence” and “cognitive ability” is more than dubious.

Raven finds that children’s Progressive Matrices scores predict two thirds of social mobility, both upward and downward, within societies. Furthermore, these scores strongly predict the level of systems thinking people will engage in when thinking about personal and social problems. Their values predict whether they will think primarily about such things as accumulating personal wealth and power or such things as the survival of our species and the planet.

From the point of view of collective as distinct from individual intelligence this is disconcerting because, as noted in Limits to Growth, while many people are anxious to do something about the state of their societies, the planet, and the predicament of homo sapiens, most resort to low-level, relatively ineffective, prescriptions (like tinkering with the tax system). As is obvious from participation in variants of the protest/degrowth movement, very few seem capable of engaging with the problems at the requisite paradigmatic level.

Raven claims that, despite the fact that individual levels of “intelligence” are at the highest level ever, our collective intelligence is perhaps at its lowest level ever. In fact, Raven argues, “Intelligence” is to be understood, not as an individual characteristic, but as a collective characteristic which is dependent on very many people contributing in diverse, but largely invisible, ways to what may be referred to as a climate of intelligence.

Despite the striking and seemingly positive nature of many of the findings mentioned above, a major shadow hangs over this work. As Spearman, the very scientist responsible for the discovery of g noted, preoccupation with, a “single factor” notion of “ability” renders invisible the huge variety of talents people possess and which enable them to contribute in diverse but indispensible ways to the development of their organisations and societies. Further, this preoccupation contributes immeasurably to the legitimation and cementation of the hierarchical arrangements that are destroying our habitat at an exponentially increasing rate. It seems to follow that, while the research results summarised above are hugely important, most practical uses of the Raven Progressive Matrices are highly unethical.

Seminal publications include:

Uses and Abuses of Intelligence: Studies Advancing Spearman and Raven's Quest for Non-Arbitrary Metrics

  1. The barriers to effective education and the management of the educational system.

Raven, like Spearman a century earlier, first draws attention to the fact that the word “education” comes from the Latin root “educere” which means “to draw out”. The word thus implies a process designed to draw out the diversity of students’ talents; not “to put in”. He then shows that the vast majority of parents, pupils, teachers and employers agree. Besides emphasising the importance of nurturing and recognising each student’s particular talents, they emphasise the need to foster the development of generic, high level, qualities like initiative and the ability to understand and influence organisations. Studies of the qualities required in workplaces and society confirm these opinions. However, the system does more or less the exact opposite: it inculcates temporary knowledge of a smattering of out of date information assessed by tests that lack virtually all construct and predictive validity.

As a further step in this Orwellian process, scores on these invalid tests are then used to allocate position and status in a hierarchical society which, through the very differentials it constructs, compels people to participate in the largely senseless work (manufacturing and distributing junk toys, junk cars, junk defence systems, junk insurance schemes, etc.) of which it is so largely composed. This despite the facts, first, that these material things do little to enhance quality of life, and, second, that their production, distribution, and disposal has a hugely destructive impact on human habitat and thus on the potential of the species to survive.

There are many reasons for this disparity between precept and practice: There are no good measures of the diverse talents students (or others) possess - so students cannot get credit for possessing them and teachers cannot get credit for having nurtured them. There is little understanding of the developmental processes required to nurture them. And the difficulties involved in handling the diversity of value systems involved is enormous.

But the most important discovery Raven and his colleagues made at this point in their research was that these factors do not operate independently but form a mutually supporting, self-perpetuating, self-extending, network or system of forces.

When the interactions between the components in the network of forces controlling what the educational system does are diagrammed in what may be termed a systemogram, it emerges that two sub-systems play an unexpectedly crucial role.

The first of these sub-system has to do with the hierarchical governance arrangements that are deployed in an effort to manage the overall system.

To move forward, what is needed is widespread experimentation with alternative educational programmes aimed at different goals, comprehensive evaluation of the consequences of each (comprehensive evaluation involves assessment of all the desired and desirable, short and long term, personal and social, consequences of each), and opportunities for parents and pupils to make informed choices between them. In short, what is needed is a system which promotes pervasive experimentation, innovation, evaluation, and evolution. This requires the creation within the system of the time, the expectations, and the competencies which are required for innovation. And it requires a new interface with the public - new forms of bureaucracy and democracy.

Such a system would be radically different from the governance system we have at the present time. Currently, we have a situation in which unease about what is going on is fed, largely through a hierarchical bureaucratic system, to small groups of over-worked elected “representatives” who then impose ideologically-based single-factor “solutions” enforced by armies of bureaucrats and “evaluated” (if at all) using the narrow and invalid tests mentioned earlier … but, in any case, driven by heavy handedly enforced “performance requirements” on those tests.

A literature search for alternative models of governance not having proved very fruitful, Raven and his colleagues developed one of their own. This is outlined in Managing Education for Effective Schooling.

The second sub-system which was highlighted in the previously mentioned systemogram had to do with the network of sociological forces which so much determine what the so-called “educational” system does.

It took more time for Raven and his colleagues to recognise the full significance of this sub-system than it did for them to attend to the governance system.

When they did so they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

In a nutshell, what this sub-system does is require the overall “educational” system to contribute to the establishment of, and legitimise the perpetuation and elaboration of, a hierarchical society which relies on the creation of huge differentials in “wealth” to compel almost everyone to contribute to the senseless and destructive work of which it is so largely composed.

When Raven and his colleagues came to set about mapping the network of social forces which constitute, perpetuate, and elaborate this system (with a view to identifying nodes at which it might be possible to intervene to influence its operation [otherwise it eliminates all common sense based interventions]) they eventually came across the very disturbing work of Murray Bookchin (The Ecology of Freedom: The Rise and Dissolution of Hierarchy)

Bookchin showed that this trend toward hierarchy – which eliminates all moves toward the more organic management operations described above had been proceeding inexorably over endless millennia. In the process it had over-ridden numerous protests from endless thoughtful people and eliminated thousands of demonstrations of the viability of alternatives.

Yet it is this inexorable quest to create senseless work to constitute, legitimise, and compel participation in, hierarchy that is heading us toward extinction. The social forces which promote it hold the very future of mankind and the planet in their grip.

The study of this network of social forces … which may be called a socio-cybernetic system … has preoccupied Prof. Raven ever since he made this observation.

Seminal publications include:

Managing Education for Effective Schooling.

Competence, Education, Professional Development, Psychology, and Socio-Cybernetics

Toward Professionalism in Psychology and Education

See also The Educational System and research into the nature, development, and assessment of competence.

  1. The Societal Learning and Management Arrangements Required for Sustainability.

Adam Smith noted that any proposal for public management which was based on the assumption that it would be managed by "wise men" was doomed because it is impossible for individuals – however “wise” - to know what the outcome of activities initiated by one set of people on the basis of one set of (necessarily incomplete) information will be once they engage with the effects of actions initiated by others. His market proposal was for a system which would experiment and learn without anyone within it having to know anything very much.

Having shown that neither market management nor current forms of “democracy” and bureaucracy actually operate in the long-term public interest, Prof. Raven brought to bear the results of his work on the management of the educational system with a view to identifying the developments needed to move forward.

Initially, this focussed on the developments in democracy and bureaucracy that are required to move forward. The results of this work are summarised in The New Wealth of Nations.

However, as mentioned above, it gradually became clear that there was a much more fundamental problem, namely the network (or sub-system) of invisible social forces which have, over endless millennia, eliminated all attempts to introduce more organic societal and organisational management arrangements. These depend for their legitimation and operation on the creation of endless senseless work. This senseless work comprises most production and distribution of materialistic goods and services. It is senseless because, as Raven shows in his literature review in The New Wealth of Nations. (and has been repeatedly demonstrated since), it does little to enhance quality of life. Although often justified on the grounds that “those who do not labour do not eat” it actually has little to do with the production of food or the networks of mutual support on which quality of life … indeed life at all .. depends. Despite, in reality, contributing little, it inflicts endless destruction on human habitat and the network of support systems required to sustain life on earth.

In this connection we can reiterate the earlier point that the problem is to find ways of translating widely held, and correct, public opinion into reality. Recall that some 80% of the population endorse high-level educational goals (such as the nurturance of diverse talents and generic characteristics such as initiative) and about one third experience their education as thoroughly destructive, the system does the opposite. The figures in relation to sustainability are not quite so striking … but they are striking enough. Some 50% of the population recognise that, if we are to survive as a species, we have to get rid of our cars, our centralised manufacturing and distribution systems, our chemical and energy intensive agriculture, our so-called “defense” system, and our inane banking system. And, as can be inferred from the widespread reports of “stress” … and the sales of tranquilisers … at least one third must experience their lives as pretty unbearable. Yet the system moves in the opposite direction.

With the aid of colleagues from a research committee (“Socio-cybernetics”) of the International Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Systems thinking and Cybernetics in Organisations (SCiO) … and especially Luciano Gallon … Raven has devoted much of the past several years to seeking to advance understanding of the network of forces responsible for this discrepancy.

As mentioned earlier, a dramatic incentive to devote more energy to this work came from the (re) publication of Bookchin’s Ecology of Freedom: The Rise and Dissolution of Hierarchy

The enormity and feasibility of the task to be undertaken can be illustrated by reference to Jay Forrester’s work (cited in Raven, 2011) documenting the linkages between the processes constituting the ecological and economic system which lies behind human activity. (It can also be appreciated by reflecting on the work of Newton on conceptualising, measuring, and finding ways of harnessing the invisible networks of physical forces which control the movements of everything from sailing boats to the planets.)

The significance of these observations is this: If redesigning our forms of public management – our socio-cybernetic system for managing our affairs – is difficult, it pales into insignificance compared with the difficulty of mapping the network of social forces which have the future of mankind and the planet in their grip.

The resources required are enormous by the standards of social research funding.

But perhaps of even greater significance is the difficulty of finding someone(s) of similar standing to Newton who can both get his or her mind round the task and get on with the work.

Seminal reading:

The New Wealth of Nations.

The Emergence of Hierachy, Domination and Centralisation: Reflections on the work of Murray Bookchin.

Conceptualisation, Mapping and Measuring Social Forces

See also the entries on the conceptualisation and measurement of socio-cybernetic forces which appear both in the measurement development and research sections.

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