Advancing the Social Science Paradigm Shift: Boulding’s Typology, TPO Theory and the Triple Action RoundTable

Susan Farr Gabriele


Paradigm shifts are slow to achieve. Even a paradigm shift in the hard science of astronomy, from geocentrism to heliocentrism, took centuries and great controversy for scientists to prove, and for society to accept.  The new understanding, that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, turned astronomy on its head, resulting in the need for reconceptualization and recalculation at all levels of theory and practice.

Evolution in the soft sciences, management and education theory, is even slower and more complex. Centuries ago, patriarchs had unlimited power over people under their care. Bureaucracy, an improvement over patriarchy, gave workers power over their personal lives.  However, bureaucracy still assumed supervisors had the knowledge that had to be installed in the supervised.  New paradigms such as participatory management and cooperative learning see workers and students as active participants in their workplaces and classrooms. This paradigm shift is still uncertain. The pendulum may swing too far, or there may be erroneous traces of the old paradigm. Corresponding examples are: 1)Teachers praise all students (workers too). This can result in equal treatment of mediocre and excellent work and lowered standards. 2)Cooperative students are obedient students (workers too).  Cooperative is typically taken to mean obedient, an old-paradigm virtue. The true meaning of cooperative is working together, as observed in the prefix and word root—co and operative.

The dilemma in social system theory is ancient too.  Plutarch in the first century said “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Twenty centuries later, Boulding’s typology and TPO Theory advance the paradigm shift in the soft sciences of management and education significantly. They resolve the either-or conflict, provide the new unifying question and then answer it.  In other words, the old/new paradigm dilemma “Which is right, top-down directive or bottom-up participatory policy?” (cf. directive: controlling the supervised who are empty vessels to fill; or participatory: flexibility for the supervised who are fires to be kindled).  The answer is “both.” The new question clarified by Boulding’s Typology is: “Which parts of a social system need to be controlled, and which parts left flexible?” Condensing Boulding’s nine system types into three, TPO Theory answers that “THINGS need to be controlled and PEOPLE need flexibility for best OUTCOMES.” Good indicators for effective social systems become adjustment capacities, hence a thermostat metaphor.  We are still trudging, stumbling, and evolving toward a new systems paradigm, which incorporates both old and new paradigm traits. The new understanding, that both directive and participatory methods are needed, that things can be controlled but people behave according to interiorly prescribed criteria, results in the need for reconceptualization at all levels of theory and practice. 

Science is interested in behavioral laws and causes.  Whether cause relates to gravity or human agency, both paradigm shifts here are proposed as hard science--a result of extensive empirical observation, rather than speculation.

This systems paradigm underpins the “Triple Action RoundTable,” a proposed super tool for systemic school/workplace renewal. The tool’s three prongs are: 1)RoundTable—a whole group activity with equal-turn democratic communication; 2)TPO Thermostat Guide—a thermostat metaphor for leaders to view and manage three modes of their organizations: OFF (planning); ON-Manual (agenda/resource delivery), and ON-Auto (maintaining the optimal work environment--metaphorically around 68 degrees—for participant self-regulation); and 3)Triple Bottom Line (3BL). 3BL corporations have financial, social, and environmental bottom lines, thus accountable for their impact on the whole society.  Similarly, 3BL educators consider the whole learner: his/her cognitive, affective and psychomotor development. Respectively, these three prongs are: 1)bottom-up; 2)top-down; and 3)in-out-in (i.e., current goals-3BL ideals/goals/intended outcomes-observed outcomes).


social systems design, paradigm shift, human systems theory

Full Text: