Archive for the ‘distributed thinking’ Category

Another Take on the Emerging Paradigm Shift

November 8, 2014

Over the course of human history, people have usually been able to rely on some stable source of authority and control in their lives, be it religion, the king or queen, or the social order itself. However benevolent or malevolent a regime might be, usually there have been clear lines along which blame or credit can be assigned.

So, even though the complexity and scale of success and failure in today’s world provide ample evidence that no one exerts centralized control over events, it is not surprising that many people today still find it comforting to think some individuals or groups must be manipulating others to their own ends. There is, however, an alternative point of view that may provide a more productive path toward effective action.

After all, efforts to date that have focused on the removal and replacement of any given group that appears to be in control have simply resulted in an alteration of the system, and not the institution of a fundamentally new system. Thus, socialist and communist governments have failed in large part because they were unable to manage resources as effectively as capitalist systems do (which is, of course, not all that well). That is, despite the appearance of having put in place a radically different system of priorities, the constraints of socioeconomics themselves did not change in the context of socialist and communist regimes.

The individual incumbents of social and economic positions have nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the socioeconomic system’s likelihoods of success and failure, and if they had not accepted their roles in that system, others would have. Changing the system is much more difficult, both conceptually and practically, than merely assigning blame and replacing an individual or group with another individual or group. To the extent the system remains the same, changing the occupants within it makes little difference.

The idea is much the same as was realized in industry when it shifted from quality control’s “tail-chopping” methods to continuous quality improvement’s “curve-shifting” methods. In the former, a certain ratio of acceptable to malformed parts is dictated by the system’s materials and processes. Quality control simply removes the bad parts from the production line and does nothing to change the system. Since quality is often normally distributed, taking the statistical shape of a bell curve, it is accordingly inevitable that cutting off the bad end of that distribution (tail-chopping) only results in it being filled in again in the next production cycle.

Continuous quality improvement methods, in contrast, focus on changing the system and on reducing the likelihood of producing bad parts. Efforts of these kind move the entire quality distribution up the scale so that no parts fall in the previous distribution’s bad tail at all. Of course, the outcomes of our socioeconomic system’s processes are very different from the manufacturing of machine parts. The point of this simple illustration is only that there is remarkable value in thinking less about removing undesired individuals from a process and in thinking more about changing the process itself.

There is no denying that those who seem to be in control benefit disproportionately from others’ efforts. But even though they have had little or nothing to do with creating the system that confers these benefits on them, they certainly do have a vested interest in maintaining that system. This fact reveals another important aspect of any solution that will prove truly viable: the new system must provide benefits not available under the old one. The shift from old to new cannot be a matter of mere will power or organizational efficiency. It must come about as a result of the attractions offered by the new system, which motivate behavior changes universally with little or no persuasion. Qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system. The central problem of life today is how to provoke this kind of shift and its new integrations.

We can begin to frame this problem in its proper context when we situate it horizontally as an ecological problem and vertically as an evolutionary one. In the same way that ecological niches define the evolutionary opportunities available to species of plants and animals, historical and cultural factors set up varying circumstances to which human societies must adapt. Biological and social adaptations both become increasingly complex over time, systematically exhibiting characteristic patterns in the ways matter, energy, and information are functionally integrated.

The present form of contemporary global society has evolved largely in terms of the Western European principles of modern science, capitalism, and democracy. These principles hinge on the distinction between a concrete, solid, and objective world and an impressionistic, intuitive, and subjective mind. For instance, science and economics focus traditionally on measuring and managing material things and processes, like volts, meters, kilograms, barrels, degrees Celsius, liters, speed, flows, etc. Human, social, and environmental issues are treated statistically, not in terms of standardized metric units, and they are economically regarded as “externalities” excluded from profit and loss calculations.

So, if qualitatively different classes of opportunities and rewards can come about only by integrating into the system features of the environment that were excluded from the previous system, what can we do to integrate the subjective with the objective, and to also then incorporate standardized metric units for the externalities of human, social, and environmental capital into science and economics? The question demands recognition of a) a new system of ecological niches with their own unique configurations of horizontal relationships, and b) the evolution of new species capable of adapting to life in these niches.

The problem is compounded by the complexity of seeing the new system of niches as emerging from the existing system of ecological relationships. Economically speaking, today’s cost centers will be tomorrow’s profit drivers. Scientifically speaking, sources of new repeatable and stable phenomena will have to be identified in what are today assumed to be unrepeatable and unstable phenomena, and will then have to be embodied in instrumental ensembles.

The immediate assumption, which we will have to strive to overcome, is that any such possibilities for new economic and scientific opportunities could hardly be present in the world today and not be widely known and understood. A culturally ingrained presupposition we all share to some extent is that objective facts are immediately accessible and become universally adopted for their advantages as soon as they are recognized. Claims to the contrary can safely be ignored, even if, or perhaps especially if, they represent a truly original potential for system change.

This assumption is an instance of what behavioral economists like Simon and Kahnemann refer to as bounded rationality, which is the idea that language and culture prethink things for us in ways we are usually unaware of. Research has shown that many decisions in daily life are tinged with emotion, such that a certain kind of irrationality takes an irrefutable place in how we think. Examples include choices involving various combinations of favorable and unfavorable odds of profiting from some exchange. Small but sure profits are often ignored in favor of larger and less sure profits, or mistaken calculations are assumed correct, to the disadvantage of the decision maker. There is surely method in the madness, but the pure rationality of an ideal thought process can no longer be accommodated.

Given the phenomenon of bounded rationality, and the complexity of the metasystematic shift that’s needed, how is change to be effected? As Einstein put it, problems of a certain kind cannot be solved from within the same framework that gave rise to them. As long as we continue to think in terms of marshalling resources to apply to the solution of a problem we have failed in conceiving the proper magnitude and scope of the problem we face.

We must instead think in terms of problem-solution units that themselves embody a new evolutionary species functioning within a new system of ecological niches. And these species-niche combinations must be born fully functional and viable, like birds from lizard eggs, caught up in the flow and play of their matter, energy and information streams from the moment of their arrival.

A vitally important aspect of this evolutionary leap is that the new system emerge of its own accord, seemingly with a will of its own. But it will not take shape as a result of individuals or groups deliberately executing a comprehensive design. There will be no grand master architect, though the co-incidence of multiple coordinations and alignments will seem so well planned that many may assume one exists.

It may be, however, that a new spontaneously self-organizing culture might be grown from a few well-placed spores or seeds. The seeds themselves need to be viable in terms of their growth potential and the characteristics of the particular species involved. But equally important are the characteristics of the environment in which the seeds are planted. Bernstein (2004) describes four conditions necessary to the birth of plenty in the modern world:

  1. Property rights: those who might create new forms of value need to own the fruits of their labors.
  2. Scientific rationalism: innovation requires a particular set of conceptual tools and a moral environment in which change agents need not fear retribution.
  3. Capital markets: investors must be able to identify entrepreneurs and provide them with the funds they need to pursue their visions.
  4. Transportation/communications: new products and the information needed to produce and market them must have efficient channels in which to move.

If we take the new emerging culture as unmodern, nonmodern, or amodern, might a new paradigm of plenty similarly take shape as these four conditions are applied not just to manufactured capital, land, and labor, but to human capital (abilities, health, performance), social capital (trust, honesty, dependability, etc.), and natural capital (the environmental services of watersheds, fisheries, estuaries, forests, etc.)? Should not we own legal title to defined shares of each form of capital? Should not science be systematically employed in research on each form of capital? Should not investments in each form of capital be accountable? Should not each form of capital be mobile and fungible within established networks? Should not there be common languages serving as common currencies for the exchange of each form of capital? Instead of assuming the answers to these questions are uniformly “No,” should not we at least entertain them long enough to firmly establish why they cannot be “Yes”?

Professional capital as product of human, social, and decisional capitals

April 18, 2014

Leslie Pendrill gave me a tip on a very interesting book, Professional Capital, by Michael Fullan. The author’s distinction between business capital and professional capital is somewhat akin to my distinction (Fisher, 2011) between dead and living capital. The primary point of contact between Fullan’s sense of capital and mine stems from his inclusion of social and decisional capital as crucial enhancements of human capital.

Of course, defining human capital as talent, as Fullan does, is not going to go very far toward supporting generalized management of it. Efficient markets require that capital be represented in transparent and universally available instruments (common currencies or metrics). Transparent, systematic representation makes it possible to act on capital abstractly, in laboratories, courts, and banks, without having to do anything at all with the physical resource itself. (Contrast this with socialism’s focus on controlling the actual concrete resources, and the resulting empty store shelves, unfulfilled five-year plans, pogroms and purges, and overall failure.) Universally accessible transparent representations make capital additive (amounts can be accrued), divisible (it can be divided into shares), and mobile (it can be moved around in networks accepting the currency/metric). (See references below for more information.)

Fullan cites research by Carrie Leanna at the U of Pittsburgh showing that teachers with high social capital increased their students math scores by 5.7% more than teachers with low social capital. The teachers with the highest skill levels (most human capital) and high social capital did the overall best. Low-ability teachers in schools with high social capital did as well as average teachers.

This is great, but the real cream of Fullan’s argument concerns the importance of what he calls decisional capital. I don’t think this will likely work out to be entirely separate from human capital, but his point is well taken: the capacity to consistently engage with students with competence, good judgment, insight, inspiration, creative improvisation, and openness to feedback in a context of shared responsibility is vital. All of this is quite consistent with recent work on collective intelligence (Fischer, Giaccardi, Eden, et al., 2005; Hutchins, 2010; Magnus, 2007; Nersessian, 2006; Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, et al., 2010; Woolley and Fuchs, 2011).

And, of course, you can see this coming: decisional capital is precisely what better measurement provides. Integrated formative and summative assessment informs decision making at the individual level in ways that are otherwise impossible. When those assessments are expressed in uniformly interpretable and applicable units of measurement, collective intelligence and social capital are boosted in the ways documented by Leanna as enhancing teacher performance and boosting student outcomes.

Anyway, just wanted to share that. It fits right in with the trading zone concept I presented at IOMW (the slides are available on my LinkedIn page).

Fischer, G., Giaccardi, E., Eden, H., Sugimoto, M., & Ye, Y. (2005). Beyond binary choices: Integrating individual and social creativity. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 63, 482-512.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003). Measurement and communities of inquiry. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 17(3), 936-938 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004a, Thursday, January 22). Bringing capital to life via measurement: A contribution to the new economics. In R. Smith (Chair), Session 3.3B. Rasch Models in Economics and Marketing. Second International Conference on Measurement. Perth, Western Australia:  Murdoch University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004b, Friday, July 2). Relational networks and trust in the measurement of social capital. Twelfth International Objective Measurement Workshops. Cairns, Queensland, Australia: James Cook University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005a). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-179.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005b, August 1-3). Data standards for living human, social, and natural capital. In Session G: Concluding Discussion, Future Plans, Policy, etc. Conference on Entrepreneurship and Human Rights. Pope Auditorium, Lowenstein Bldg, Fordham University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008a, 3-5 September). New metrological horizons: Invariant reference standards for instruments measuring human, social, and natural capital. 12th IMEKO TC1-TC7 Joint Symposium on Man, Science, and Measurement. Annecy, France: University of Savoie.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008b, March 28). Rasch, Frisch, two Fishers and the prehistory of the Separability Theorem. In J. William P. Fisher (Ed.), Session 67.056. Reading Rasch Closely: The History and Future of Measurement. American Educational Research Association. New York City [Paper available at SSRN: Rasch Measurement SIG.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009a, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement, 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009b). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: Metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital ( Washington, DC: National Institute for Standards and Technology (11 pages).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a, 22 November). Meaningfulness, measurement, value seeking, and the corporate objective function: An introduction to new possibilities. Sausalito, California: (

Fisher, W. P. J. (2010b). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital (p. Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business: Tulane University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010c). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 238(1),

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In N. Brown, B. Duckor, K. Draney & M. Wilson (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. 2 (pp. 1-27). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b). Measuring genuine progress by scaling economic indicators to think global & act local: An example from the UN Millennium Development Goals project. [Online]. Available: (Accessed 18 January 2011).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2005, Tuesday, April 12). Creating a common market for the liberation of literacy capital. In R. E. Schumacker (Ed.), Rasch Measurement: Philosophical, Biological and Attitudinal Impacts. American Educational Research Association. Montreal, Canada: Rasch Measurement SIG.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011a, January). Metrology for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. Available: (Accessed 12 January 2014).

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011b, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. In Fundamentals of measurement science. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) TC1-TC7-TC13 Joint Symposium. Jena, Germany:

Hutchins, E. (2010). Cognitive ecology. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2, 705-715.

Magnus, P. D. (2007). Distributed cognition and the task of science. Social Studies of Science, 37(2), 297-310.

Nersessian, N. J. (2006, December). Model-based reasoning in distributed cognitive systems. Philosophy of Science, pp. 699-709.

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010, 29 October). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, pp. 686-688.

Woolley, A. W., & Fuchs, E. (2011, September-October). Collective intelligence in the organization of science. Organization Science, pp. 1359-1367.

Revisiting the “Glocal” integration of universals and historical context

April 11, 2014

Integrated considerations of the universal and the local, the pure ideal parameters and the messy concrete observations, seem ever more ubiquitous in my reading lately. For instance, Ricoeur (1992, p. 289) takes up the problem of human rights imperfectly realized as a product of Western Europe’s cultural history that has nonetheless been adopted by nearly every country in the world. Ricoeur raises the notion of “universals in context or of potential or inchoate universals” that embody the paradox in which

“on the one hand, one must maintain the universal claim attached to a few values where the universal and the historical intersect, and on the other hand, one must submit this claim to discussion, not on a formal level, but on the level of the convictions incorporated in concrete forms of life.”

I could hardly come up with a better description of Rasch measurement theory and practice myself. Any given Rasch model data analysis provides many times more individual-level qualitative statistics on the concrete, substantive observations than on the global quantitative measures. The whole point of graphical displays of measurement information in kidmaps (Chien, Wang, Wang, & Lin, 2009; Masters, 1994), Wright maps (Wilson, 2011), construct maps and self-scoring forms (Best, 2008; Linacre, 1997), etc. is precisely to integrate concrete events as they happened with the abstract ideal of a shared measurement dimension.

It is such a shame that there are so few people thinking about these issues aware of the practical value of the state of the art in measurement, and who include all of the various implications of multifaceted, multilevel, and multi-uni-dimensional modeling, fit assessment, equating, construct mapping, standard setting, etc. in their critiques.

The problem falls squarely in the domain of recent work on the coproduction of social, scientific, and economic orders (such as Hutchins 2010, 2012; Nersessian, 2012). Systems of standards, from languages to metric units to dollars, prethink the world for us and simplify a lot of complex work. But then we’re stuck at the level of conceptual, social, economic, and scientific complexity implied by those standards, unless we can create new forms of social organization integrating more domains. Those who don’t know anything about the available tools can’t get any analytic traction, those who know about the tools but don’t connect with the practitioners can’t get any applied traction (see Wilson’s Psychometric Society Presidential Address on this; Wilson, 2013), analysts and practitioners who form alliances but fail to include accountants or administrators may lack financial or organizational traction, etc. etc.

There’s a real need to focus on the formation of alliances across domains of practice, building out the implications of Callon’s (1995, p. 58) observation that “”translation networks weave a socionature.” In other words, standards are translated into the languages of different levels and kinds of practice to the extent that people become so thoroughly habituated to them that they succumb to the illusion that the objects of interest are inherently natural in self-evident ways. (My 2014 IOMW talk took this up, though there wasn’t a lot of time for details.)

Those who are studying these networks have come to important insights that set the stage for better measurement and metrology for human, social, and natural capital. For instance, in a study of universalities in medicine, Berg and Timmermans (2000, pp. 55, 56) note:

“In order for a statistical logistics to enhance precise decision making, it has to incorporate imprecision; in order to be universal, it has to carefully select its locales. The parasite cannot be killed off slowly by gradually increasing the scope of the Order. Rather, an Order can thrive only when it nourishes its parasite—so that it can be nourished by it.”

“Paradoxically, then, the increased stability and reach of this network was not due to more (precise) instructions: the protocol’s logistics could thrive only by parasitically drawing upon its own disorder.”

Though Berg and Timmermans show no awareness at all of probabilistic and additive conjoint measurement theory and practice, their description of how a statistical logistics has to work to enhance precise decision making is right on target. This phenomenon of noise-induced order is a kind of social stochastic resonance (Fisher, 1992, 2011b) that provides another direction in which explanations of Rasch measurement’s potential role in establishing new metrological standards (Fisher, 2009, 2011a) have to be taken.

Berg, M., & Timmermans, S. (2000). Order and their others: On the constitution of universalities in medical work. Configurations, 8(1), 31-61.

Best, W. R. (2008). A construct map that Ben Wright would relish. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 22(3), 1169-70 [].

Callon, M. (1995). Four models for the dynamics of science. In S. Jasanoff, G. E. Markle, J. C. Petersen & T. Pinch (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies (pp. 29-63). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Chien, T.-W., Wang, W.-C., Wang, H.-Y., & Lin, H.-J. (2009). Online assessment of patients’ views on hospital performances using Rasch model’s KIDMAP diagram. BMC Health Services Research, 9, 135 [10.1186/1472-6963-9-135 or

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1992, Spring). Stochastic resonance and Rasch measurement. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 5(4), 186-187 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement, 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. In N. Brown, B. Duckor, K. Draney & M. Wilson (Eds.), Advances in Rasch Measurement, Vol. 2 (pp. 1-27). Maple Grove, MN: JAM Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011b). Stochastic and historical resonances of the unit in physics and psychometrics. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, 9, 46-50.

Hutchins, E. (2010). Cognitive ecology. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2, 705-715.

Hutchins, E. (2012). Concepts in practice as sources of order. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19, 314-323.

Linacre, J. M. (1997). Instantaneous measurement and diagnosis. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation State of the Art Reviews, 11(2), 315-324 [].

Masters, G. N. (1994). KIDMAP – a history. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 8(2), 366 [].

Nersessian, N. J. (2012). Engineering concepts: The interplay between concept formation and modeling practices in bioengineering sciences. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19, 222-239.

Wilson, M. R. (2011). Some notes on the term: “Wright Map.” Rasch Measurement Transactions, 25(3), 1331 [].

Wilson, M. (2013, April). Seeking a balance between the statistical and scientific elements in psychometrics. Psychometrika, 78(2), 211-236.

Convergence, Divergence, and the Continuum of Field-Organizing Activities

March 29, 2014

So what are the possibilities for growing out green shoots from the seeds and roots of an ethical orientation to keeping the dialogue going? What kinds of fruits might be expected from cultivating a common ground for choosing discourse over violence? What are the consequences for practice of planting this seed in this ground?

The same participant in the conversation earlier this week at Convergence XV who spoke of the peace building processes taking place around the world also described a developmental context for these issues of mutual understanding. The work of Theo Dawson and her colleagues (Dawson, 2002a, 2002b, 2004; Dawson, Fischer, and Stein, 2006) is especially pertinent here. Their comparisons of multiple approaches to cognitive and moral development have provided clear and decisive theory, evidence, and instrumentation concerning the conceptual integrations that take place in the evolution of hierarchical complexity.

Conceptual integrations occur when previously tacit, unexamined, and assumed principles informing a sphere of operations are brought into conscious awareness and are transformed into explicit objects of new operations. Developmentally, this is the process of discovery that takes place from the earliest stages of life, in utero. Organisms of all kinds mature in a process of interaction with their environments. Young children at the “terrible two” stage, for instance, are realizing that anything they can detach from, whether by throwing or by denying (“No!”), is not part of them. Only a few months earlier, the same children will have been fascinated with their fingers and toes, realizing these are parts of their own bodies, often by putting them in their mouths.

There are as many opportunities for conceptual integrations between the ages of 21 to 99 as there are between birth and 21. Developmental differences in perspectives can make for riotously comic situations, and can also lead to conflicts, even when the participants agree on more than they disagree on. And so here we arrive at a position from which we can get a grip on how to integrate convergence and divergence in a common framework that follows from the prior post’s brief description of the ontological method’s three moments of reduction, application, and deconstruction.


Woolley and colleagues (Woolley, et al., 2010; Woolley and Fuchs, 2011) describe a continuum of five field-organizing activities categorizing the types of information needed for effective collective intelligence (Figure 1). Four of these five activities (defining, bounding, opening, and bridging) vary in the convergent versus divergent processes they bring to bear in collective thinking. Defining and bounding are convergent processes that inform judgment and decision making. These activities are especially important in the emergence of a new field or organization, when the object of interest and the methods of recognizing and producing it are in contention. Opening and bridging activities, in contrast, diverge from accepted definitions and transgress boundaries in the creative process of pushing into new areas. Undergirding the continuum as a whole is the fifth activity, grounding, which serves as a theory- and evidence-informed connection to meaningful and useful results.

There are instances in which defining and bounding activities have progressed to the point that the explanatory power of theory enables the calibration of test items from knowledge of the component parts included in those items. The efficiencies and cost reductions gained from computer-based item generation and administration are significant. Research in this area takes a variety of approaches; for more information, see Daniel and Embretson (2010), DeBoeck and Wilson (2004), Stenner, et al. (2013), and others.

The value of clear definitions and boundaries in this context stems in large part from the capacity to identify exceptions that prove (test) the rules, and that then also provide opportunities for opening and bridging. Kuhn (1961, p. 180; 1977, p. 205) noted that

To the extent that measurement and quantitative technique play an especially significant role in scientific discovery, they do so precisely because, by displaying significant anomaly, they tell scientists when and where to look for a new qualitative phenomenon.

Rasch (1960, p. 124) similarly understood that “Once a law has been established within a certain field then the law itself may serve as a tool for deciding whether or not added stimuli and/or objects belong to the original group.” Rasch gives the example of mechanical force applied to various masses with resulting accelerations, introducing idea that one of the instruments might exert magnetic as well as mechanical force, with noticeable effects on steel masses, but not on wooden masses. Rasch suggests that exploration of these anomalies may result in the discovery of other similar instruments that vary in the extent to which they also exert the new force, with the possible consequence of discovering a law of magnetic attraction.

There has been an intense interest in the assessment of divergent inconsistencies in measurement research and practice following in the wake of Rasch’s early work in psychological and social measurement (examples from a very large literature in this area include Karabatsos and Ulrich, 2002, and Smith and Plackner, 2009). Andrich, for instance, makes explicit reference to Kuhn (1961), saying, “…the function of a model for measurement…is to disclose anomalies, not merely to describe data” (Andrich, 2002, p. 352; also see Andrich, 1996, 2004, 2011). Typical software for applying Rasch models (Andrich, et al., 2013; Linacre, 2011, 2013; Wu, et al., 2007) thus accordingly provides many more qualitative numbers evaluating potential anomalies than quantitative measuring numbers. These qualitative numbers (digits that do not stand for something substantive that adds up in a constant unit) include uncertainty and confidence indicators that vary with sample size; mean square and standardized model fit statistics; and principal components analysis factor loadings and eigenvalues.

The opportunities for divergent openings onto new qualitative phenomena provided by data consistency evaluations are complemented in Rasch measurement by a variety of bridging activities. Different instruments intended to measure the same or closely related constructs may often be equated or co-calibrated, so they measure in a common unit (among many publications in this area, see Dawson, 2002a, 2004; Fisher, 1997; Fisher, et al., 1995; Massof and Ahmadian, 2007; Smith and Taylor, 2004). Similarly, the same instrument calibrated on different samples from the same population may exhibit consistent properties across those samples, offering further evidence of a potential for defining a common unit (Fisher, 1999).

Other opening and bridging activities include capacities (a) to drop items or questions from a test or survey, or to add them; (b) to adaptively administer subsets of custom-selected items from a large bank; and (c) to adjust measures for the leniency or severity of judges assigning ratings, all of which can be done, within the limits of the relevant definitions and boundaries, without compromising the unit of comparison. For methodological overviews, see Bond and Fox (2007), Wilson (2005), and others.

The various field-organizing activities spanning the range from convergence to divergence are implicated not only in research on collective thinking, but also in the history and philosophy of science. Galison and colleagues (Galison, 1997, 1999; Galison and Stump, 1996) closely examine positivist and antipositivist perspectives on the unity of science, finding their conclusions inconsistent with the evidence of history. A postpositivist perspective (Galison, 1999, p. 138), in contrast, finds “distinct communities and incommensurable beliefs” between and often within the areas of theory, experiment, and instrument-making. But instead of finding these communities “utterly condemned to passing one another without any possibility of significant interaction,” Galison (1999, p. 138) observes that “two groups can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged; they may even disagree on the meaning of the exchange process itself.” In practice, “trading partners can hammer out a local coordination despite vast global differences.”

In accord with Woolley and colleagues’ work on convergent and divergent field-organizing activities, Galison (1999, p. 137) concludes, then, that “science is disunified, and—against our first intuitions—it is precisely the disunification of science that underpins its strength and stability.” Galison (1997, pp. 843-844) concludes with a section entitled “Cables, Bricks, and Metaphysics” in which the postpositivist disunity of science is seen to provide its unexpected coherence from the simultaneously convergent and divergent ways theories, experiments, and instruments interact.

But as Galison recognizes, a metaphor based on the intertwined strands in a cable is too mechanical to support the dynamic processes by which order arises from particular kinds of noise and chaos. Not cited by Galison is a burgeoning literature on the phenomenon of noise-induced order termed stochastic resonance (Andò  and Graziani 2000, Benzi, et al., 1981; Dykman and McClintock, 1998; Fisher, 1992, 2011; Hess and Albano, 1998; Repperger and Farris, 2010). Where the metaphor of a cable’s strands breaks down, stochastic resonance provides multiple ways of illustrating how the disorder of finite and partially independent processes can give rise to an otherwise inaccessible order and structure.

Stochastic resonance involves small noisy signals that can be amplified to have very large effects. The noise has to be of a particular kind, and too much of it will drown out rather than amplify the effect. Examples include the interaction of neuronal ensembles in the brain (Chialvo, Lontin, and Müller-Gerking, 1996), speech recognition (Moskowitz and Dickinson, 2002), and perceptual interpretation (Rianni and Simonotto, 1994). Given that Rasch’s models for measurement are stochastic versions of Guttman’s deterministic models (Andrich, 1985), the question has been raised as to how Rasch’s seemingly weaker assumptions could lead to a measurement model that is stronger than Guttman’s (Duncan, 1984, p. 220). Stochastic resonance may provide an essential clue to this puzzle (Fisher, 1992, 2011).

Another description of what might be a manifestation of stochastic resonance akin to that brought up by Galison arises in Berg and Timmermans’ (2000, p. 56) study of the constitution of universalities in a medical network. They note that, “Paradoxically, then, the increased stability and reach of this network was not due to more (precise) instructions: the protocol’s logistics could thrive only by parasitically drawing upon its own disorder.” Much the same has been said about the behaviors of markets (Mandelbrot, 2004), bringing us back to the topic of the day at Convergence XV earlier this week. I’ll have more to say on this issue of universalities constituted via noise-induced order in due course.


Andò, B., & Graziani, S. (2000). Stochastic resonance theory and applications. New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part III: Reflections on Greider’s “Bold Ideas” in The Nation

September 10, 2011

And so, The Nation’s “Bold Ideas for a New Economy” is disappointing for not doing more to start from the beginning identified by its own writer, William Greider. The soul of capitalism needs to be celebrated and nourished, if we are to make our economy “less destructive and domineering,” and “more focused on what people really need for fulfilling lives.” The only real alternative to celebrating and nourishing the soul of capitalism is to kill it, in the manner of the Soviet Union’s failed experiments in socialism and communism.

The article speaks the truth, though, when it says there is no point in trying to persuade the powers that be to make the needed changes. Republicans see the market as it exists as a one-size-fits-all economic panacea, when all it can accomplish in its current incomplete state is the continuing externalization of anything and everything important about human, social, and environmental decency. For their part, Democrats do indeed “insist that regulation will somehow fix whatever is broken,” in an ever-expanding socialistic micromanagement of every possible exception to the rules that emerges.

To date, the president’s efforts at a nonpartisan third way amount only to vacillations between these opposing poles. The leadership that is needed, however, is something else altogether. Yes, as The Nation article says, capitalism needs to be made to serve the interests of society, and this will require deep structural change, not just new policies. But none of the contributors of the “bold ideas” presented propose deep structural changes of a kind that actually gets at the soul of capitalism. All of the suggestions are ultimately just new policies tweaking superficial aspects of the economy in mechanical, static, and very limited ways.

The article calls for “Democratizing reforms that will compel business and finance to share decision-making and distribute rewards more fairly.” It says the vision has different names but “the essence is a fundamental redistribution of power and money.” But corporate distortions of liability law, the introduction of boardroom watchdogs, and a tax on financial speculation do not by any stretch of the imagination address the root causes of social and environmental irresponsibility in business. They “sound like obscure technical fixes” because that’s what they are. The same thing goes for low-cost lending from public banks, the double or triple bottom lines of Benefit Corporations, new anti-trust laws, calls for “open information” policies, added personal stakes for big-time CEOs, employee ownership plans, the elimination of tax subsidies for, new standards for sound investing, new measures of GDP, and government guarantees of full employment.

All of these proposals sound like what ought to be the effects and outcomes of efforts addressing the root causes of capitalisms’ shortcomings. Instead, they are band aids applied to scratched fingers and arms when multiple by-pass surgery is called for. That is, what we need is to understand how to bring the spirit of capitalism to life in the new domains of human, social, and environmental interests, but what we’re getting are nothing but more of the same piecemeal ways of moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

There is some truth in the assertion that what really needs reinventing is our moral and spiritual imagination. As someone (Einstein or Edison?) is supposed to have put it, originality is simply a matter of having a source for an analogy no one else has considered. Ironically, the best model is often the one most taken for granted and nearest to hand. Such is the case with the two-sided scientific and economic effects of standardized units of measurement. The fundamental moral aspect here is nothing other than the Golden Rule, independently derived and offered in cultures throughout history, globally. Individualized social measurement is nothing if not a matter of determining whether others are being treated in the way you yourself would want to be treated.

And so, yes, to stress the major point of agreement with The Nation, “the new politics does not start in Washington.” Historically, at their best, governments work to keep pace with the social and technical innovations introduced by their peoples. Margaret Mead said it well a long time ago when she asserted that small groups of committed citizens are the only sources of real social change.

Not to be just one of many “advocates with bold imaginations” who wind up marginalized by the constraints of status quo politics, I claim my personal role in imagining a new economic future by tapping as deeply as I can into the positive, pre-existing structures needed for a transition into a new democratic capitalism. We learn through what we already know. Standards are well established as essential to commerce and innovation, but 90% of the capital under management in our economy—the human, social, and natural capital—lacks the standards needed for optimal market efficiency and effectiveness. An intangible assets metric system will be a vitally important way in which we extend what is right and good in the world today into new domains.

To conclude, what sets this proposal apart from those offered by The Nation and its readers hinges on our common agreement that “the most threatening challenge to capitalism is arguably the finite carrying capacity of the natural world.” The bold ideas proposed by The Nation’s readers respond to this challenge in ways that share an important feature in common: people have to understand the message and act on it. That fact dooms all of these ideas from the start. If we have to articulate and communicate a message that people then have to act on, we remain a part of the problem and not part of the solution.

As I argue in my “The Problem is the Problem” blog post of some months ago, this way of defining problems is itself the problem. That is, we can no longer think of ourselves as separate from the challenges we face. If we think we are not all implicated through and through as participants in the construction and maintenance of the problem, then we have not understood it. The bold ideas offered to date are all responses to the state of a broken system that seek to reform one or another element in the system when what we need is a whole new system.

What we need is a system that so fully embodies nature’s own ecological wisdom that the medium becomes the message. When the ground rules for economic success are put in place such that it is impossible to earn a profit without increasing stocks of human, social, and natural capital, there will be no need to spell out the details of a microregulatory structure of controlling new anti-trust laws, “open information” policies, personal stakes for big-time CEOs, employee ownership plans, the elimination of tax subsidies, etc. What we need is precisely what Greider reported from Innovest in his book: reliable, high quality information that makes human, social, and environmental issues matter financially. Situated in a context like that described by Bernstein in his 2004 The Birth of Plenty, with the relevant property rights, rule of law, scientific rationality, capital markets, and communications networks in place, it will be impossible to stop a new economic expansion of historic proportions.

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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part II: Scientific Credibility in Improving Information Quality

September 10, 2011

The previous posting here concluded with two questions provoked by a close consideration of a key passage in William Greider’s 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism. First, how do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Second, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? There are good answers to these questions, answers that point in productive directions in need of wide exploration and analysis.

The short answer to both questions is that better, more scientifically rigorous measurement at the local level needs to be implemented in a context of traceability to universally uniform standards. To think global and act local simultaneously, we need an efficient and transparent way of seeing where we stand in the world relative to everyone else. Having measures expressed in comparable and meaningful units is an important part of how we think global while acting local.

So, for markets to punish and reward businesses in ways able to build human, social, and environmental value, we need to be able to price that value, to track returns on investments in it, and to own shares of it. To do that, we need a new intangible assets metric system that functions in a manner analogous to the existing metric system and other weights and measures standards. In the same way these standards guarantee high quality information on volume, weight, thermal units, and volts in grocery stores and construction sites, we need a new set of standards for human abilities, performances, and health; for social trust, commitment, and loyalty; and for the environment’s air and water processing services, fisheries, gene pools, etc.

Each industry needs an instrumentarium of tools and metrics that mediate relationships universally within its entire sphere of production and/or service. The obvious and immediate reaction to this proposal will likely be that this is impossible, that it would have been done by now if it was possible, and that anyone who proposes something like this is simply unrealistic, perhaps dangerously so. So, here we have another reason to add to those given in the June 8, 2011 issue of The Nation ( as to why bold ideas for a new economy cannot gain any traction in today’s political discourse.

So what basis in scientific authority might be found for this audacious goal of an intangible assets metric system? This blog’s postings offer multiple varieties of evidence and argument in this regard, so I’ll stick to more recent developments, namely, last week’s meeting of the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) in Jena, Germany. Membership in IMEKO is dominated by physicists, engineers, chemists, and clinical laboratorians who work in private industry, academia, and government weights and measures standards institutes.

Several IMEKO members past and present are involved with one or more of the seven or eight major international standards organizations responsible for maintaining and improving the metric system (the Systeme Internationale des Unites). Two initiatives undertaken by IMEKO and these standards organizations take up the matter at issue here concerning the audacious goal of standard units for human, social, and natural capital.

First, the recently released third edition of the International Vocabulary of Measurement (VIM, 2008) expands the range of the concepts and terms included to encompass measurement in the human and social sciences. This first effort was not well informed as to the nature of widely realized state of the art developments in measurement in education, health care, and the social sciences. What is important is that an invitation to further dialogue has been extended from the natural to the social sciences.

That invitation was unintentionally accepted and a second initiative advanced just as the new edition of the VIM was being released, in 2008. Members of three IMEKO technical committees (TC 1-7-13; those on Measurement Science, Metrology Education, and Health Care) cultivate a special interest in ideas on the human and social value of measurement. At their 2008 meeting in Annecy, France, I presented a paper (later published in revised form as Fisher, 2009) illustrating how, over the previous 50 years and more, the theory and practice of measurement in the social sciences had developed in ways capable of supporting convenient and useful universally uniform units for human, social, and natural capital.

The same argument was then advanced by my fellow University of Chicago alum, Nikolaus Bezruczko, at the 2009 IMEKO World Congress in Lisbon. Bezruczko and I both spoke at the 2010 TC 1-7-13 meeting in London, and last week our papers were joined by presentations from six of our colleagues at the 2011 IMEKO TC 1-7-13 meeting in Jena, Germany. Another fellow U Chicagoan, Mark Wilson, a long time professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, gave an invited address contrasting four basic approaches to measurement in psychometrics, and emphasizing the value of methods that integrate substantive meaning with mathematical rigor.

Examples from education, health care, and business were then elucidated at this year’s meeting in Jena by myself, Bezruczko, Stefan Cano (University of Plymouth, England), Carl Granger (SUNY, Buffalo; paper presented by Bezruczko, a co-author), Thomas Salzberger (University of Vienna, Austria), Jack Stenner (MetaMetrics, Inc., Durham, NC, USA), and Gordon Cooper (University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia; paper presented by Fisher, a co-author).

The contrast between these presentations and those made by the existing IMEKO membership hinges on two primary differences in focus. The physicists and engineers take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves traceability to metrological reference standards. Dealing as they are with existing standards and physical or chemical materials that usually possess deterministically structured properties, issues of how to construct linear measures from ordinal observations never come up.

Conversely, the social scientists and psychometricians take it for granted that all instrument calibration involves evaluations of the capacity of ordinal observations to support the construction of linear measures. Dealing as they are with data from tests, surveys, and rating scale assessments, issues of how to relate a given instrument’s unit to a reference standard never come up.

Thus there is significant potential for mutually instructive dialogue between natural and social scientists in this context. Many areas of investigation in the natural sciences have benefited from the introduction of probabilistic concepts in recent decades, but there are perhaps important unexplored opportunities for the application of probabilistic measurement, as opposed to statistical, models. By taking advantage of probabilistic models’ special features, measurement in education and health care has begun to realize the benefit of broad generalizations of comparable units across grades, schools, tests, and curricula.

Though the focus of my interest here is in the capacity of better measurement to improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets, it may turn out that as many or more benefits will accrue in the natural sciences’ side of the conversation as in the social sciences’ side. The important thing for the time being is that the dialogue is started. New and irreversible mutual understandings between natural and social scientists have already been put on the record. It may happen that the introduction of a new supply of improved human, social, and natural capital metrics will help articulate the largely, as yet, unstated but nonetheless urgent demand for them.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement, 42(9), 1278-1287.

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Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part I: Reflections on Greider’s Soul of Capitalism

September 10, 2011

In his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism, William Greider wrote, “If capitalism were someday found to have a soul, it would probably be located in the mystic qualities of capital itself” (p. 94). The recurring theme in the book is that the resolution of capitalism’s deep conflicts must grow out as organic changes from the roots of capitalism itself.

In the book, Greider quotes Innovest’s Michael Kiernan as suggesting that the goal has to be re-engineering the DNA of Wall Street (p. 119). He says the key to doing this is good reliable information that has heretofore been unavailable but which will make social and environmental issues matter financially. The underlying problems of exactly what solid, high quality information looks like, where it comes from, and how it is created are not stated or examined, but the point, as Kiernan says, is that “the markets are pretty good at punishing and rewarding.” The objective is to use “the financial markets as an engine of reform and positive change rather than destruction.”

This objective is, of course, the focus of multiple postings in this blog (see especially this one and this one). From my point of view, capitalism indeed does have a soul and it is actually located in the qualities of capital itself. Think about it: if a soul is a spirit of something that exists independent of its physical manifestation, then the soul of capitalism is the fungibility of capital. Now, this fungibility is complex and ambiguous. It takes its strength and practical value from the way market exchange are represented in terms of currencies, monetary units that, within some limits, provide an objective basis of comparison useful for rewarding those capable of matching supply with demand.

But the fungibility of capital can also be dangerously misconceived when the rich complexity and diversity of human capital is unjustifiably reduced to labor, when the irreplaceable value of natural capital is unjustifiably reduced to land, and when the trust, loyalty, and commitment of social capital is completely ignored in financial accounting and economic models. As I’ve previously said in this blog, the concept of human capital is inherently immoral so far as it reduces real human beings to interchangeable parts in an economic machine.

So how could it ever be possible to justify any reduction of human, social, and natural value to a mere number? Isn’t this the ultimate in the despicable inhumanity of economic logic, corporate decision making, and, ultimately, the justification of greed? Many among us who profess liberal and progressive perspectives seem to have an automatic and reactionary prejudice of this kind. This makes these well-intentioned souls as much a part of the problem as those among us with sometimes just as well-intentioned perspectives that accept such reductionism as the price of entry into the game.

There is another way. Human, social, and natural value can be measured and made manageable in ways that do not necessitate totalizing reduction to a mere number. The problem is not reduction itself, but unjustified, totalizing reduction. Referring to all people as “man” or “men” is an unjustified reduction dangerous in the way it focuses attention only on males. The tendency to think and act in ways privileging males over females that is fostered by this sense of “man” shortchanges us all, and has happily been largely eliminated from discourse.

Making language more inclusive does not, however, mean that words lose the singular specificity they need to be able to refer to things in the world. Any given word represents an infinite population of possible members of a class of things, actions, and forms of life. Any simple sentence combining words into a coherent utterance then multiplies infinities upon infinities. Discourse inherently reduces multiplicities into texts of limited lengths.

Like any tool, reduction has its uses. Also like any tool, problems arise when the tool is allowed to occupy some hidden and unexamined blind spot from which it can dominate and control the way we think about everything. Critical thinking is most difficult in those instances in which the tools of thinking themselves need to be critically evaluated. To reject reduction uncritically as inherently unjustified is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, it is impossible to formulate a statement of the rejection without simultaneously enacting exactly what is supposed to be rejected.

We have numerous ready-to-hand examples of how all reduction has been unjustifiably reduced to one homogenized evil. But one of the results of experiments in communal living in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as of the fall of the Soviet Union, was the realization that the centralized command and control of collectively owned community property cannot compete with the creativity engendered when individuals hold legal title to the fruits of their labors. If individuals cannot own the results of the investments they make, no one makes any investments.

In other words, if everything is owned collectively and is never reduced to individually possessed shares that can be creatively invested for profitable returns, then the system is structured so as to punish innovation and reward doing as little as possible. But there’s another way of thinking about the relation of the collective to the individual. The living soul of capitalism shows itself in the way high quality information makes it possible for markets to efficiently coordinate and align individual producers’ and consumers’ collective behaviors and decisions. What would happen if we could do that for human, social, and natural capital markets? What if “social capitalism” is more than an empty metaphor? What if capital institutions can be configured so that individual profit really does become the driver of socially responsible, sustainable economics?

And here we arrive at the crux of the problem. How do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Well, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? These are the questions taken up and explored in the postings in this blog, and in my scientific research publications and meeting presentations. In the near future, I’ll push my reflection on these questions further, and will explore some other possible answers to the questions offered by Greider and his readers in a recent issue of The Nation.

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The Path to a New Consensus: A Practical Procedure for Resolving the Opposition Between Absolute and Relative Standards

August 26, 2011

The possibility of a new nonpartisan consensus on social and economic issues has been raised from time to time lately. I’ve had some ideas fermenting in this area for a while, and it seems like they might be ready for recording here. What I want to take up concerns one of the more contentious aspects of the cultural and political disputes of recent decades. There are important differences between those who want to impose one or another kind of moral or religious standard on society as a whole and those who contend that, within certain limits, such standards are arbitrary and must be determined by each individual or group according to its own values and sense of what makes a community.The oppositions here might seem to be irreconcilable, but is that actually true?

Resolving deep-seated disagreements on this scale requires that all parties accept some baseline rules of engagement. And herein lies the rub, eh? For even something as seemingly obvious and simple as defining factual truth has proven beyond the abilities of some highly skilled and deeply motivated negotiators. So, of course, those who adhere rigidly to preconceived notions automatically remove themselves from dialogue, and I cannot presume to address them here. But for those willing to entertain possibilities following from ideas and methods with which they may be unfamiliar, I say, read on.

What I want to propose differs in several fundamental respects from what has come before, and it is very similar in one fundamental respect. The similarity stems from the realization that essentially the same thing can be authoritatively stated at different times and place by different people using different words and different languages in relation to different customs and traditions. For instance, the versions of the Golden Rule given in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke are conceptually identical with the sentiment expressed in the Hindu Mahabarata, the Confucian Analects, the Jewish Talmud, the Muslim 13th Hadith, and the Buddhist Unada-Varga (;

So, rather than defining consensus in terms of strict agreement (with no uncertainty) on the absolute value of various propositions, it should be defined in terms of probabilities of consistent agreement (within a range of uncertainty) on the relative value of various propositions. Instead of evaluating isolated and decontextualized value statements one at a time, I propose evaluating value statements hypothesized to cohere with one another within a larger context together, as a unit.Instead of demanding complete data on a single set of propositions, I propose requiring and demonstrating that the same results be obtained across different sets of propositions addressing the same thing. Instead of applying statistical models of group level inter-variable relations to these data, I propose applying measurement models of individual level within-variable relations. Instead of setting policy on the basis of centrally controlled analytic results that vary incommensurably across data sets I propose setting policy on the basis of decentralized, distributed results collectively produced by networks of individuals whose behaviors and decisions are coordinated and aligned by calibrated instruments measuring in common commensurable units. All of these proposals are described in detail in previous posts here, and in the references included in those posts.

What I’m proposing is rooted in and extends existing practical solutions to the definition and implementation of standards. And though research across a number of fields suggests that a new degree of consensus on some basic issues seems quite possible, that consensus will not be universal and it should not be used as a basis for compelling conformity. Rather, the efficiencies that stand to be gained by capitalizing (literally) on existing but unrecognized standards of behavior and performance are of a magnitude that would easily support generous latitude in allowing poets, nonconformists, and political dissenters to opt out of the system at little or no cost to themselves or anyone else.

That is, as has been described and explained at length in previous posts here, should we succeed in establishing an Intangible Assets Metric System and associated genuine progress indicator or happiness index, we would be in the position of harnessing the power of the profit motive as an economic driver of growth in human, social, and natural capital. Instead of taking mere monetary profits as a measure of improved quality of life, we would set up economic systems in which the measurement and the management of quality of life determines monetary profits. The basic idea is that individual ownership of and accountability for what is, more than anything else, our rightful property–our own abilities, motivations, health, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc.–ought to be a significant factor in promoting the conservation and growth of these forms of capital.

In this context, what then might serve as a practical approach to resolving disputes between those who advocate standards and those who reject them, or between those who trust in our capacity to function satisfactorily as a society without standards and those who do not? Such an approach begins by recognizing the multitude of ways in which all of us rely on standards every day. We do not need to concern ourselves with the technical issues of electronics or manufacturing, though standards are essential here. We do not need even to take up the role of standards as guides to grocery or clothing store purchasing decisions or to planning meetings or travel across time zones.

All we need to think about is something as basic as communication. The alphabet, spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical rules, dictionaries, and educational curricula are all forms of standards that must be accepted, recognized and adhered to before the most basic communication can be achieved. The shapes of various letters or symbols, and the sounds associated with them, are all completely arbitrary. They are conventions that arose over centuries of usage that passed long before the rules were noted, codified, and written down. And spoken languages remain alive, changing in ways that break the rules and cause them to be rewritten, as when new words emerge, or previously incorrect constructions become accepted.

But what is the practical value for a new consensus in recognizing our broad acceptance of linguistic standards? Contrary to the expectations of l’Academie Francaise, for instance, we cannot simply make up new rules and expect people to follow them. No, the point of taking language as a key example goes deeper than that. We noted that usage precedes the formulation of rules, and so it must also be in finding our way to a basis for a new consensus. The question is, what are the lawful patterns by which we already structure behavior and decisions, patterns that might be codified in the language of a social science?

These patterns are being documented in research employing probabilistic measurement models. The fascinating thing about these patterns is that they often retain their characteristic features across different samples of people being measured, across time and space, and across different sets of questions on tests, surveys, or assessments designed to measure the same ability, behavior, attitude, or performance. The stability and constancy of these patterns are such that it appears possible to link all of the instruments measuring the same things to common units of measurement, so that everyone everywhere could think and act together in a common language.

And it is here, in linking instruments together in an Intangible Assets Metric System, that we arrive at a practical way of resolving some disputes between absolutists and relativists. Though we should and will take issue with his demand for certainty, Latour (2005, p. 228) asks the right question, saying,

“Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people:
Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? Of course we can! Provided you find a way to hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described, and whose cost can be fully determined. Provided there is also no interruption, no break, no gap, and no uncertainty along any point of the transmission. Indeed, traceability is precisely what the whole of metrology is about!”

Nowhere does Latour show any awareness of what has been accomplished in social research employing probabilistic measurement models, but he nonetheless grasps exactly how the results of that research will not realize its potential unless it is expanded into networks of interconnected instrumentation. He understands that his theory of networked actors coordinated via virtual threads of standardized forms, metrics, vocabularies describes how scientific metrology and standards set the benchmark for universal consensus. Latour stresses that the focus here is on concrete material practices that can be objectively observed and replicated. As he says, when those practices are understood, then you know how to “do the same operation for other less traceable, less materialized circulations” (p. 229).

Latour’s primary concerns are with the constitution of sociology as a science of the social, and with the understanding of the social as networks of actors whose interests are embodied in technical devices that mediate relationships. Throughout his work, he therefore focuses on the description of existing sociotechnical phenomena. Presumably because of his lack of familiarity with social measurement theory and practice, Latour does not speak to ways in which the social sciences could go beyond documenting less traceable and less materialized circulations to creating more traceable and more materialized circulations, ones capable of more closely emulating those found in the natural sciences.

Latour’s results suggest criteria that may show some disputes regarded as unresolvable to have unexplored potentials for negotiation. That potential depends, as Latour says, on calibrating instruments that can be hooked up in a metrological chain in an actual material network with known properties (forms, Internet connections and nodes, a defined unit of measurement with tolerable uncertainty, etc.) and known costs. In the same way that the time cannot be told from a clock disconnected from the chain of connections to the standard time, each individual instrument for measuring abilities, health, quality of life, etc. will also have to be connected to its standard via an unbroken chain.

But however intimidating these problems might be, they are far less imposing than the ignorance that prevents any framing of the relevant issues in the first place. Addressing the need for rigorous measurement in general, Rasch (1980, pp. xx) agreed that “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.” Naturally enough, the needed work will have to be done by those of us calibrating the instruments of education, health care, sociology, etc. Hence my ongoing involvement in IMEKO, the International Measurement Confederation (


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

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New Opportunities for Job Creation and Prosperity

August 17, 2011

What can be done to create jobs and revive the economy? There is no simple, easy answer to this question. Creating busywork is nonsense. We need fulfilling occupations that meet the world’s demand for products and services. It is not easy to see how meaningful work can be systematically created on a broad scale. New energy efficiencies may lead to the cultivation of significant job growth, but it may be unwise to put all of our eggs in this one basket.

So how are we to solve this puzzle? What other areas in the economy might be ripe for the introduction of a new technology capable of supporting a wave of new productivity, like computers did in the 1980s, or the Internet in the 1990s? In trying to answer this question, simplicity and elegance are key factors in keeping things at a practical level.

For instance, we know we accomplish more working together as a team than as disconnected individuals. New jobs, especially new kinds of jobs, will have to be created via innovation. Innovation in science and industry is a team sport. So the first order of business in teaming up for job creation is to know the rules of the game. The economic game is played according to the rules of law embodied in property rights, scientific rationality, capital markets, and transportation/communications networks (see William Bernstein’s 2004 book, The Birth of Plenty). When these conditions are met, as they were in Europe and North America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the stage is set for long term innovation and growth on a broad scale.

The second order of business is to identify areas in the economy that lack one or more of these four conditions, and that could reasonably be expected to benefit from their introduction. Education, health care, social services, and environmental management come immediately to mind. These industries are plagued with seemingly interminable inflationary spirals, which, no doubt, are at least in part caused by the inability of investors to distinguish between high and low performers. Money cannot flow to and reward programs producing superior results in these industries because they lack common product definitions and comparable measures of their results.

The problems these industries are experiencing are not specific to each of them in particular. Rather, the problem is a general one applicable across all industries, not just these. Traditionally, economic thinking focuses on three main forms of capital: land, labor, and manufactured products (including everything from machines, roads, and buildings to food, clothing, and appliances). Cash and credit are often thought of as liquid capital, but their economic value stems entirely from the access they provide to land, labor, and manufactured products.

Economic activity is not really, however, restricted to these three forms of capital. Land is far more than a piece of ground. What are actually at stake are the earth’s regenerative ecosystems, with the resources and services they provide. And labor is far more than a pair of skilled hands; people bring a complex mix of abilities, motivations, and health to bear in their work. Finally, this scheme lacks an essential element: the trust, loyalty, and commitment required for even the smallest economic exchange to take place. Without social capital, all the other forms of capital (human, natural, and manufactured, including property) are worthless. Consistent, sustainable, and socially responsible economic growth requires that all four forms of capital be made accountable in financial spreadsheets and economic models.

The third order of business, then, is to ask if the four conditions laying out the rules for the economic game are met in each of the four capital domains. The table below suggests that all four conditions are fully met only for manufactured products. They are partially met for natural resources, such as minerals, timber, fisheries, etc., but not at all for nature’s air and water purification systems or broader genetic ecosystem services.


Existing Conditions Relevant to Conceiving a New Birth of Plenty, by Capital Domains





Property rights





Scientific rationality





Capital markets





Transportation & communication networks





That is, no provisions exist for individual ownership of shares in the total available stock of air and water, or of forest, watershed, estuary, and other ecosystem service outcomes. Nor do any individuals have free and clear title to their most personal properties, the intangible abilities, motivations, health, and trust most essential to their economic productivity. Aggregate statistics are indeed commonly used to provide a basis for policy and research in human, social, and natural capital markets, but falsifiable models of individually applicable unit quantities are not widely applied. Scientifically rational measures of our individual stocks of intangible asset value will require extensive use of these falsifiable models in calibrating the relevant instrumentation.

Without such measures, we cannot know how many shares of stock in these forms of capital we own, or what they are worth in dollar terms. We lack these measures, even though decades have passed since researchers first established firm theoretical and practical foundations for them. And more importantly, even when scientifically rational individual measures can be obtained, they are never expressed in terms of a unit standardized for use within a given market’s communications network.

So what are the consequences for teams playing the economic game? High performance teams’ individual decisions and behaviors are harmonized in ways that cannot otherwise be achieved only when unit amounts, prices, and costs are universally comparable and publicly available. This is why standard currencies and exchange rates are so important.

And right here we have an insight into what we can do to create jobs. New jobs are likely going to have to be new kinds of jobs resulting from innovations. As has been detailed at length in recent works such as Surowiecki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds, innovation in science and industry depends on standards. Standards are common languages that enable us to multiply our individual cognitive powers into new levels of collective productivity. Weights and measures standards are like monetary currencies; they coordinate the exchange of value in laboratories and businesses in the same way that dollars do in the US economy.

Applying Bernstein’s four conditions for economic growth to intangible assets, we see that a long term program for job creation then requires

  1. legislation establishing human, social, and natural capital property rights, and an Intangible Assets Metrology System;
  2. scientific research into consensus standards for measuring human, social, and natural capital;
  3. venture capital educational and marketing programs; and
  4. distributed information networks and computer applications through which investments in human, social, and natural capital can be tracked and traded in accord with the rule of law governing property rights and in accord with established consensus standards.

Of these four conditions, Bernstein (p. 383) points to property rights as being the most difficult to establish, and the most important for prosperity. Scientific results are widely available in online libraries. Capital can be obtained from investors anywhere. Transportation and communications services are available commercially.

But valid and verifiable means of representing legal title to privately owned property is a problem often not yet solved even for real estate in many Third World and former communist countries (see De Soto’s 2000 book, The Mystery of Capital). Creating systems for knowing the quality and quantity of educational, health care, social, and environmental service outcomes is going to be a very difficult process. It will not be impossible, however, and having the problem identified advances us significantly towards new economic possibilities.

We need leaders able and willing to formulate audacious goals for new economic growth from ideas such as these. We need enlightened visionaries able to see our potentials from a new perspective, and who can reflect our new self-image back at us. When these leaders emerge—and they will, somewhere, somehow—the imaginations of millions of entrepreneurial thinkers and actors will be fired, and new possibilities will unfold.

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Enchantment, Organizations, and Mediating Instruments: Potential for a New Consensus?

August 3, 2011

I just came across something that could be helpful in regaining some forward momentum and expanding the frame of reference for the research on caring in nursing with Jane Sumner (Sumner & Fisher, 2008). We have yet to really work in the failure of Habermas’ hermeneutic objectivism (Kim, 2002; Thompson, 1984) and we haven’t connected what we’ve done with (a) Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990, 1995) sense of narrative as describing the past en route to prescribing the future (prefiguring, configuring, and refiguring the creation of meaning in discourse) and with (b) Wright’s (1999) sense of learning from past data to efficiently and effectively anticipate new data within a stable inferential frame of reference.

Now I’ve found a recent publication that resonates well with this goal, and includes examples from nursing to boot. Boje and Baskin (2010; see especially pp. 12-17 in the manuscript available at cite only secondary literature but do a good job of articulating where the field is at conceptually and in tracing the sources of that articulation.  So they make no mention of Ricoeur on narrative (1984, 1985, 1990) and on play and the heuristic fiction (1981, pp. 185-187), and they make no mention of Gadamer on play as the most important clue to methodological authenticity (1989, pp. 101-134). It follows that they then also do not make any use of the considerable volume of other available and relevant work on the metaphysics of allure, captivation, enthrallment, rapture, beauty, or eros.

This is all very important because these issues are highly salient markers of the distinction between a modern, Cartesian, and mechanical worldview destructive of enchantment and play, and the amodern, nonCartesian, and organic worldview in tune with enchantment and play. As I have stressed repeatedly in these posts, the way we frame problems is now the primary problem, in opposition to those who think identifying and applying resources, techniques, or will power is the problem. It is essential that we learn to frame problems in a way that begins from requirements of subject-object interdependence instead of from assumptions of subject-object independence. Previous posts here explore in greater detail how we are all captivated by the desire for meaning. Any time we choose negotiation or patient waiting over violence, we express faith in the ultimate value of trusting our words. So though Boje and Baskin do not document this larger context, they still effectively show exactly where and how work in the nonCartesian paradigm of enchantment connects up with what’s going on in organizational change management theory.

The paper’s focus on narrative as facilitating enchantment and disenchantment speaks to our fundamental absorption into the play of language. Enchantment is described on page 2 as involving positive connection with existence, of being enthralled with the wonder of being endowed with natural and cultural gifts.  Though not described as such, this hermeneutics of restoration, as Ricoeur (1967) calls it, focuses on the way symbols give rise to thought in an unasked-for assertion of meaningfulness. The structure we see emerge of its own accord across multiple different data sets from tests, surveys, and assessments is an important example of this gift through which previously identified meanings re-assert themselves anew (see my published philosophical work, such as Fisher, 2004). The contrast with disenchantment of course arises as a function of the dead and one-sided modern Cartesian effort aimed at controlling the environment, which effectively eliminates wonder and meaning via a hermeneutics of suspicion.

In accord with the work done to date with Sumner on caring in nursing, the Boje and Baskin paper describes people’s variable willingness to accept disenchantment or demand enchantment (p. 13) in terms that look quite like preconventional and postconventional Kohlbergian stages. A nurse’s need to shift from one dominant narrative form to another is described as very difficult because of the way she had used the one to which she was accustomed to construct her identity as a nurse (p. 15). Bi-directionality between nurses and patients is implied in another example of a narrative shift in a hospital (p. 16). Both identity and bi-directionality are central issues in the research with Sumner.

The paper also touches on the conceptual domain of instrumental realism, as this is developed in the works of Ihde, Latour, Heelan and others (on p. 6; again, without citing them), and emphasizes a nonCartesian subject-object unity and belongingness, which is described at length in Ricoeur’s work. At the bottom of page 7 and top of 8, storytelling is theorized in terms of retrospection, presentness, and a bet on future meaning, which precisely echoes Ricoeur’s (1984, 1985, 1990) sense of narrative refiguration, configuration, and prefiguration. A connection with measurement comes here, in that what we want is to:

“reach beyond the data in hand to what these data might imply about future data, still unmet, but urgent to foresee. The first problem is how to predict values for these future data, which, by the meaning of inference, are necessarily missing. This meaning of missing must include not only the future data to be inferred but also all possible past data that were lost or never collected” (Wright, 1999, p. 76).

Properly understood and implemented (see previous posts in this blog), measurement based in models of individual behavior provides a way to systematically create an atmosphere of emergent enchantment. Having developmentally sound narratives rooted in individual measures on multiple dimensions over time gives us a shared written history that we can all find ourselves in, and that we can then use to project a vision of a shared future that has reasonable expectations for what’s possible.

This mediation of past and future by means of technical instruments is being described in a way (Miller & O’Leary, 2007) that to me (Fisher & Stenner, 2011) denotes a vital distinction not just between the social and natural sciences, but between economically moribund and inflationary industries such as education, health care, and social services, on the one hand, and economically vibrant and deflationary industries such as microprocessors, on the other.

It is here, and I say this out loud for the first time here, even to myself, that I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to see a way that I might find a sense of closure and resolution in the project I took up over 30 years ago. My puzzle has been one of understanding in theory and practice how it is that measurement and mathematical thinking are nothing but refinements of the logic used in everyday conversation. It only occurs to me now that, if we can focus the conversations that we are in ways that balance meaningfulness and precision, that situate each of us as individuals relative to the larger wholes of who we have been and who we might be, that encompasses both the welcoming Socratic midwife and the annoying Socratic gadfly as different facets of the same framework, and that enable us to properly coordinate and align technical projects involving investments in intangible capital, well, then, we’ll be in a position to more productively engage with the challenges of the day.

There won’t be any panacea but there will be a new consensus and a new infrastructure that, however new they may seem, will enact yet again, in a positive way, the truth of the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As I’ve repeatedly argued, the changes we need to implement are nothing but extensions of age-old principles into areas in which they have not yet been applied. We should take some satisfaction from this, as what else could possibly work? The originality of the application does not change the fact that it is rooted in appropriating, via a refiguration, to be sure, a model created for other purposes that works in relation to new purposes.

Another way of putting the question is in terms of that “permanent arbitration between technical universalism and the personality constituted on the ethico-political plane” characteristic of the need to enter into the global technical society while still retaining our roots in our cultural past (Ricoeur, 1974, p. 291). What is needed is the capacity to mediate each individual’s retelling of the grand narrative so that each of us sees ourselves in everyone else, and everyone else in ourselves. Though I am sure the meaning of this is less than completely transparent right now, putting it in writing is enormously satisfying, and I will continue to work on telling the tale as it needs to be told.


Boje, D., & Baskin, K. (2010). Our organizations were never disenchanted: Enchantment by design narratives vs. enchantment by emergence. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(4), 411-426.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011, August 31 to September 2). A technology roadmap for intangible assets metrology. International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO). Jena, Germany.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Second revised edition). New York: Crossroad.

Kim, K.-M. (2002, May). On the failure of Habermas’s hermeneutic objectivism. Cultural Studies <–> Critical Methodologies, 2(2), 270-98.

Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Conclusion: The symbol gives rise to thought. In R. N. Anshen (Ed.), The symbolism of evil (pp. 347-57). Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Political and social essays (D. Stewart & J. Bien, Eds.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation (J. B. Thompson, Ed.) (J. B. Thompson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1984, 1985, 1990). Time and Narrative, Vols. 1-3 (K. McLaughlin (Blamey) & D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1995). Reply to Peter Kemp. In L. E. Hahn (Ed.), The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (pp. 395-398). Chicago, Illinois: Open Court.

Sumner, J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2008). The moral construct of caring in nursing as communicative action: The theory and practice of a caring science. Advances in Nursing Science, 31(4), E19-E36.

Thompson, J. B. (1981). Critical hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104 []). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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