Monday, January 01, 2007

Root Cause

In some versions of systems thinking, we are urged to see "the big picture" and look for "the root cause". Consultants and other practitioners often describe themselves and their practices as "holistic".

Other versions of systems thinking open our eyes to the possibility that there may be many different big pictures, many different root causes. Given this possibility, we may be wary of the "holistic" label, because it is sometimes attached to a fixed way of constructing big pictures and finding root causes, rather than an open-minded appreciative system.

In my previous post on Bullying, I contrasted two possible interventions
  • dealing with a single manifestation of bullying
  • dealing with the "root cause" of bullying
Using ID cards to prevent (some instances of) bullying is hardly dealing with the root cause of bullying. (Unless you believe that it is the lack of ID cards that somehow causes bullying in the first place.) In terms of Donella Meadow's 12-point framework for system intervention, the ID card introduces an additional information flow (leverage point 6) that enables an additional control or constraint (leverage point 5).

There are two problems with the "root cause" approach to solving complex problems. Firstly an epistemological one - it encourages us to imagine that there might be a single identifiable thing called "the root cause". And secondly a moral one - understanding causes is sometimes interpreted as providing excuses for the perpetrators.

If we wish to understand bullying, we may observe that many bullies have a history of being bullied themselves, and so we may come to feel some sympathy for the bullies as well as for the victims. If we see bullying as a chronic problem, we may wish to look for systemic long-term solutions rather than merely quick fixes, and this may include providing some healing for the historic pain suffered by those who are currently inflicting their pain on other people.

If we imagine there is a single root cause, and it is a Good Thing to tackle root causes, then healing may come to take precedence over punishment and retribution. We live in a society where the criminal sometimes seems to get more care and attention than the victim.

Some people go to the opposite extreme. The purpose of toughness is to send a clear message - bullying will not be tolerated. Anything that smacks of sympathy for the perpetrator may dilute this message, and may therefore encourage bullying.

But if we see bullying as a many-headed monster, with no single root cause, it may make more sense to institute a diverse cultural anti-bullying programme with a tough combination of preventative and remedial (redemptive) action.

Some people (from both ends of the political spectrum) are convinced they know what is morally right, and therefore have no need for practical knowledge of what really works.

But in my view, the moral problem and the epistemological problem and the practical problem are inextricably linked. How many causes, how many effects? If we pay proper attention to the causes of bullying, what effect does this actually have? What is the real purpose of toughness?

Wikipedia: 12 leverage points appreciative system root cause
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Robin Wilton said...

I think there's something pernicious going on here, too, around the implication that anonymity is a key factor in bad behaviour.

Yes, obviously it's true that if all potential criminals were identifiable all the time, they would be inhibited from committing crimes - but the flip-side is not very attractive: if no-one has any anonymity, everyone will be law-abiding.

There are two points here: first, under most circumstances we are rightly suspicious of 'panopticality'. Quis custodiet, and all that, quite apart from privacy rights...

Second, as many security experts have pointed out, the objectives of "keeping dishonest people honest" and "keeping honest people honest" *should* give rise to very different policies... and yet too often they do not.

Dave Walker said...

Both the main article and Robin's comment make the implicit assumption that bullies and criminals are rational. This is not necessarily the case.

As a former victim of bullying, my own eventually-effective solution to the problem was to cause the bullies to believe that, if they started on me, they would come off worse - either at that point or in the future - by cultivating an air of Hannibal Lecter-style psychosis when in their presence (this being before Harris wrote the Lecter novels...) and engaging in some ultimately low-risk activities designed to frighten the living daylights out of them.

In a panoptical world, I would have myself been called to task - however, I think the difference between the bullies and me is that I would have been able to give a rational explanation for my behaviour.