Annotated Emery and Trist Causal Texture Paper

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Featured Image: FE Emery Ed. Systems Thinking, Vol 1 Penguin, 1981.


Feature Fred Emery Systems Thinking Vol 1 1981


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FE Emery & EL Trist The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments Annotated


I’ve been going back to Fred Emery’s ‘Search Conference’ methodology and my own ‘Search-based’ focus groups recently and thinking about my distant past.

This has brought me republish this classic paper online, as it is fundamental to participative planning. Participation and community engagement may be re-emerging, particularly at the moment in Australian politics.

Many people may not be aware of how participative planning emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and why open-systems thinking was the intellectual base to these activities.

I republished JBS Haldane’s 1929 paper on The Origin of Life in 2015, with some annotations and have been surprised at its reception and ongoing popularity.

Fred Emery & Eric Trist’s classic paper The Causal Texture of  Organizational Environments Human Relations 18:21-32, cited 6356 times (according to Google & others), is longer and slightly more difficult than Haldane’s but also very readable. The annotations should provide a context and perhaps an explanation of some ideas.

I worked alongside Fred & Merrelyn Emery whilst at the Centre for Continuing Education from 1979 and more peripherally in the late 1980s and 1990s. I also followed up on much of Fred’s research and visited Einar Thorsrud in Norway for nearly two months in 1981.

Biographical Notes

Fredrick Edmund Emery (1925-1997) was born in Narrogin in the wheatbelt of WA. He obtained his PhD in social psychology in 1953. During 1951-52 as a UNESCO Research Fellow to the Tavistock Institute in London. He worked with Eric Trist and became aware of the industrial democracy system that Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth had discovered in the Elsecar Collieries, using the Longwall method of coal mining.

In 1957 he returned to the Tavistock Institute where he had a close intellectual relationship with Eric Trist and others further refining the concept of sociotechnical systems, including Einar Thorsrud in Norway, with whom he conducted the large-scale Norwegian industrial democracy experiments. Later, he worked closely with Russell Ackoff at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He probably met Ackoff in the UK in 1961-1962, while Ackoff was based at the University of Birmingham.

Fred returned to Australia in 1969 where he was a senior research fellow first in the Department of Sociology, RSSS and then at the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) at the Australian National University, from 1974 until November 1979.

Although colleagues sought to find another permanent post for him at ANU, it was to no avail (Alastair Crombie, Fred Emery obituary).

For the remainder of his life, Fred worked as an independent scholar primarily from home. He was still the most prolific borrower (seriously) from the ANU library both during his time at CCE and afterwards at home. We all trekked to his home in Cook ACT, from time to time and imbibed his Coolabah cask red over long evenings of discussion.

Fred was initially unhappy with the way he was received by colleagues in psychology and the social sciences, when he returned to Australia in 1969.

I suspect he was probably happiest in the time he spent at the Tavistock, because of the immense satisfaction of his intellectual work and the respect and closeness with his colleagues. He found his Australian colleagues less welcoming (perhaps the classic Australian ‘tall-poppy syndrome’) and less stimulating.

At CCE, Fred was involved in a long-standing and bitter intellectual dispute and ultimately pointless dispute with the Director Chris Duke that began well before I arrived there in 1979.

Despite all this Fred was immensely energetic in Australia, conducting his research and diffusing his Search Conference and participative design methodology, through corporations, organisations and at the community level throughout the country. By way of example, between 300 and 400 ‘Searches’ were conducted in Australia in the 1970s (each lasting two-and-a-half days).

He was also deeply involved in large projects.

To Continue, CLICK HERE.

Posted in Canberra


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