“You cannot do everything. You cannot see everything. In that sense the idea of ‘holism’ is an impossibility. Setting boundaries, deciding what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’, what’s ‘important’ and what’s ‘unimportant’ involves tough choices, but every endeavour is bounded. While it is perfectly reasonable to acknowledge different perspectives, someone somewhere decides which perspectives prevail“ (Williams & Van’t Hof, 2014, p.42) – emphasis added.
Boundary judgments determine which empirical observations and value considerations count as relevant and which others are left out or are considered less important. Because boundary judgments are informed by both “facts” and “values,” they play a critical role when it comes to assessing the meaning and merits of a claim (Werner, 2005) – and thus its critical relevant to evaluation.
Following on from the two day Systems Thinking Retreat held on 24-25 May 2015, a small group of evaluators reconvened for a one-day workshop on Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH), facilitated by Bob Williams.
CSH (Werner Ulrich, 1996) and later elaborated in collaboration with Martin Reynolds, is an approach used to surface, elaborate, and critically consider boundary judgments, that is, the ways in which people/groups decide what is relevant to the system of interest (any situation of concern).
CSH is a framework of reflective questions based on practical philosophy and systems thinking. The basic idea of CSH is to support boundary critique – a systematic approach to critically handling boundary judgments. CSH is concerned not only with purposive evaluation, where the system or project has a predefined goal and the focus lies in evaluating the means of reaching it, but also more broadly with purposeful evaluation, where both the means and the ends become subjects of inquiry.
There’s a lot to get to grips with in CSH, particularly its application in evaluation. The one day workshop was a good starter but more reading, practical case examples and discussion is necessary to get a more deeper understanding of CSH. Some useful resources and readings include:
- Mini-Primer of Critical Systems Heuristics: A summary of CSH by Werner Ulrich
- Evaluating “natural resource-use appraisal” Projects in Botswana using critical systems heuristics
- The NRUA-Botswana study is a detailed case studies in the use of critical systems heuristics (CSH) for evaluating development practices.
- See also Critical System Heuristics on the Better Evaluation website.
Our thanks to Bob Williams for initiating and facilitating this one day introductory workshop on CSH.