W. Ulrich’s Home Page: A Mini-Primer of Critical Systems Heuristics

Key readings – https://wulrich.com/readings.html

Another overview – https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/plan/approach/critical_system_heuristics

A brief introduction by Werner Ulrich (pdf) http://projects.kmi.open.ac.uk/ecosensus/publications/ulrich_csh_intro.pdf

Other overviews:

  • https://i2s.anu.edu.au/resources/critical-systems-heuristics

Source: CSH | W. Ulrich | Ulrich’s Home Page: A Mini-Primer of Critical Systems Heuristics


Abstract “Critical Systems Heuristics,” also just called “Critical Heuristics” or “CSH,” is a framework for reflective practice based on practical philosophy and systems thinking. The basic idea of CSH is to support boundary critique – a systematic effort of handling boundary judgments critically. Boundary judgments determine which empirical observations and value considerations count as relevant and which others are left out or are considered less important. Because they condition both “facts” and “values,” boundary judgments play an essential role when it comes to assessing the meaning and merits of a claim. Their systematic discussion can help bridge differences of perspectives across disciplines and between experts and non-experts. They also lend themselves to a specific critical employment, calledemancipatory boundary critique, against claims that do not uncover their underlying boundary assumptions. CSH can thus serve as a tool for coproducing knowledge as well as for critical and emancipatory purposes on the part of people concerned by, but not necessarily involved in, the definition of relevant facts and values.

Critical systems heuristics (Ulrich 1983) represents the first systematic attempt at providing both a philosophical foundation and a practical framework for critical systems thinking. The Greek verb heurisk-ein means to find or to discover; heuristics is the art (or practice) of discovery. In management science and other applied disciplines, heuristic procedures serve to identify and explore relevant problem aspects, questions, or solution strategies, in distinction to deductive (algorithmic) procedures, which serve to solve problems that are logically and mathematically well defined. Professional practice cannot do without heuristics, as it usually starts from ‘soft’ (ill-defined, qualitative) issues such as what is the problem to be solved and what kind of change would represent an improvement.

critical approach is required since there is no single right way to decide such issues; answers will depend on personal interests and views, value assumptions, and so on. A critical approach does not yield any single right answers either; but it can support processes of reflection and debate about alternative assumptions. Sound professional practice is critical practice.

CSH aims to support reflective professional practice through a critical employment of the systems idea. The methodological core idea is that all problem definitions, proposals for improvement, and evaluations of outcomes depend on prior judgments about the relevant whole system to be looked at. Improvement, for instance, is an eminently systemic concept, for unless it is defined with reference to the entire relevant system, suboptimization will occur. CSH calls these underpinning judgments boundary judgments, as they define the boundaries of the reference system (the situation or context considered relevant) to which a proposition refers and for which it is valid.

Accordingly, the methodological core idea of CSH is to support systematic processes of boundary critique. To this end, CSH offers (among other concepts) a table of boundary categories (Figure 1) that translates into a checklist of twelve critical boundary questions (Ulrich 1987, 1996, 2000). These can be used:

  1. To identify boundary judgments systematically;
  2. To analyze alternative reference systems for defining a problem or assessing a solution proposal; and
  3. To challenge in a compelling way any claims to knowledge, rationality, or ‘improvement’ that rely on hidden boundary judgments or take them for granted.

The first two applications are basic for dealing with multiple perspectives in basically cooperative settings. They can help people understand why in respect to one and the same situation, their considerations of “fact” and “value” differ. They can thus help to bridge such differences or at least, to promote mutual understanding and cooperation in handling them. The third application, by contrast, leads to an emancipatory employment of systems thinking called emancipatory boundary critique. It offers both those involved in and those affected by professional practice an opportunity to develop a new kind of critical competence, a competence that will not depend on any special theoretical knowledge or expertise with respect to the problem or situation in question that would reach beyond what is available to ordinary citizens.

In short, CSH can be defined as a critical methodology for identifying and debating boundary judgements.

Continues in source: CSH | W. Ulrich | Ulrich’s Home Page: A Mini-Primer of Critical Systems Heuristics