Merrelyn Emery

Photo Credits: Simone Butterfield

Dr. Emery has worked on many aspects of human behaviour as a systemic or ecological phenomenon. These include education and continuing education, the uses and effects of media, the development of organizations and communities and human futures. Since 1970, she has worked to develop both the theory and methods of open systems theory through rigorous action and hard data research. She has researched and taught in several countries and brings a cross cultural as well as historical appreciation to her teaching and research at Concordia. She is a founding director of the Fred Emery Institute and has served on several diverse community and educational organizations.

1. Can you briefly describe your field of research?

I have spent the major part of my life helping to develop a social science which actually works in practice. The conceptual framework within which I operate is called Open Systems Theory (OST) and every part of it has been rigorously tested in practice around the world. OST takes it as axiomatic that all systems have permeable boundaries and are, therefore, open to their environments. People are purposeful systems open to their environments, not just physical but also social. We have a global social environment which consists of all the values, ideals and expectations that people harbour. People and the social environment determine each other and as people influence each other, so they make change in their social environment. We have, therefore, a constantly changing social environment in which we have competing forces for change. When tensions between these competing forces reach breaking point, we get huge waves of social change such as we are witnessing at the moment with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. At the moment the global social environment features relevant uncertainty. That makes it an unpleasant and unhealthy environment. We live in a very sick world, one in which we have a global epidemic of depression and mental illness, and we confront climate change which threatens our very existence. One of the major purposes of OST is to restore this environment to one of stability, one which is adaptive for both people and planet. To this end OST has developed reliable methods, the Search Conference for participative strategic planning, the Participative Design Workshop for organizational design and redesign, and Unique Designs for problem solving, all from a very solid and comprehensive theoretical base. Using these methods, we work with people so that they can develop on the ground solutions that take into account their own unique people and circumstances. By working together with collective responsibility, people can regain control over their own affairs, in their own communities and organizations, by cooperating to meet shared goals rather than competing or peeling off as individuals to do ‘their own thing’. OST, therefore, is a practical, evidence based framework and body of knowledge that proceeds by continuously testing its ideas in practice, with real organizations and communities, to advance the probability that we can return our societies, and the planet, to health.

2. What fascinates you about cybernetics/systems research/system theory?

The world is fascinating. Exploring it is fascinating. Research is basically exploration: it is detective work. You have to follow where the data leads you. As the world consists of open systems, research using the open systems approach always holds the promise of exciting new discoveries and better ways of doing things. Over its 60+ year history, it has been delivering on that promise and that gives a sense of achievement and great satisfaction. But there is much, much more to be done.

3. Where do you see or would like to see the field heading? What changes would you like to see?

Overall, in the whole field of systems, I would like to see the gap closed between systems approaches that used closed and open systems frameworks. That is the subject of my paper at this conference. I regard the gap as quite unnecessary, theoretically and practically. Given the urgency of some of our problems, cooperation between the various specialities within the systems field can only help. We need them all and we need them working together to get on top of our many global problems. This can only happen if we know more about each other’s specialties. I will be talking about what OST has to offer, particularly in mobilizing people to get involved in solving huge problems such as climate change. I will also be learning as much as possible about what others have to offer. Hopefully, we will able to generate more opportunities for cooperative work.

4. What impact does your field of research have on society? What practical application for society does it have? Do you see practical applications in your own life? Can you give examples?

See above. Almost all my work has practical applications and can be used in virtually every aspect of life. It is intended for practical purposes and is tested in real settings to ensure it does work in practice. If more people understood the organizational design principles for example, and knew how to use them, we would have a lot more cooperation, energy and creativity available to put into solving the world’s problems. These design principles can be used to design or redesign every organization from families to political systems, for healthier people and more adaptive results. Have I used them in my own life? Yes, all the time. I have always run a participative democratic family and I use them in all my work.

5. What’s a scholar/writer, whose work inspires you in your own work?

Many people have inspired me from my dad onwards who broke all the rules by, for example, dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was a little kid to see a faint comet that had just appeared in the sky – “We have a visitor from outer space” he said – enough to excite any kid’s imagination. Because I was an isolated kid in the bush, most of my learning about the world came from books which I begged, borrowed and stole. My early heroes were the seafarers and explorers, particularly those who risked everything to learn about extreme environments like the Australian interior and Antarctica. Later, I read about scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and Wegener who also risked everything by standing by their observations in the face of orthodoxy and vested interests. I also read huge amounts of fiction and sci fi and realized that imagination and creativity is our greatest gift, one to be used wisely. Amongst my favourite authors are Xavier Herbert who wrote Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country, devastating portraits of the destruction of Aboriginal culture and Australian culture in general. Perhaps the most influential author was Henry Handel Richardson (who was a woman, Ethel) who wrote the The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, a novel which is actually a picture of the slow deterioration of a person with paranoia. I found it riveting when I first read it but it was only after several years of psychology that I appreciated how acute her perceptions were. That book also made me realize that it is not just academics who search for ‘the truth’: acute observers like artists of all sorts perceive the reality beneath the surface and communicate it in powerful ways. Scientists such Carl Jung and Erich Neumann understood this. The gap between science and art is an artificial one. All healthy people search for meaning. Another major inspiration in my life was living on a remote Aboriginal camp (reserve) as a child where I learnt the language and leant how to look ‘properly’ and thereby learn about the physical environment in which I lived. I could never see the world in the same way again. It has shaped my life ever since. Indigenous peoples are also acute observers and scientists. But I must reserve the greatest inspiration in my life for my mate Fred Emery who never ceased to amaze me with the depth of his insights and his total dedication to his work – his desire to learn about, and to right, the world. He too was a great explorer and an uncompromising defender of the priority of evidence over the entrenched interests of the status quo.

Further Reading:

Detailed background at Concordia University

Emery’s books on Amazon

(Photo Credit: Simone Butterfield)

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