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Designing Research AutopoieticallyAntoinette Oberg & Philip Montgomery
ABSTRACT: In this paper, I describe autopoiesis and then use it to theorize the way I engage graduate students in designing research. Then Philip Montgomery, a graduate student, describes his process of autopoietic research designing.
KEYWORDS: autopoiesis, research designing, teaching research designing
Auto—self, poiesis—making. Auto—self, mobile—moving. These two terms, autopoiesis and automobile, are structurally similar but semantically different. Comparing them illuminates the meaning of autopoiesis.An automobile requires a driver, who starts it and determines its direction of movement. A car cannot do what it was designed to do without a driver. The process of autopoiesis, however, is more akin to what happens with active bumper cars. Once the bumper car system is turned on, each car is self-propelled and its direction depends on how it interacts with other cars and with the surrounding bumper wall. That interaction is determined primarily by the structure of the car. Its thick rubber bumpers and solid sides make it rebound rather than collapse when it collides with another car or with the wall. The “driver” of a bumper car is actually a passenger who, like a backseat driver of an automobile, affects but does not determine the movement of the car. The bumper car is thus self-directed as well as self-propelled.Insofar as they are self-propelled and self-directed, bumper cars in motion are like an autopoietic system. There are two additional features of autopoiesis, however, which the bumper car analogy does not encompass. First, an autopoietic system does not require an operator to turn it on. Rather, an autopoietic system comes to life out of life itself. Second, the structure of an autopoietic system changes as it interacts with elements of its environment. Thus, the bumper car would be truly autopoietic only if a collision changed the structure of a car such that it responded differently to the next collision, and so on in a continuous process of remaking itself in responding to elements in its environment. Autopoietic systems are thus self-making as well as self-propelling and self-directing.
All living systems are autopoietic (Maturana & Varela, 1992). Therefore, it follows that human beings are autopoietic. However, human beings differ from most other living beings in their capacities for self-consciousness and language proficiency. The significance of these capacities is that they enable human beings to become aware of and to make meaning of their patterns of responding to elements in the environment. The capacity for self-conscious reflection enables human beings to reconsider and to change their autopoietic response patterns in ways that might not otherwise occur. In these ways human beings intentionally (re)make themselves. For example, in the account of his autopoietic research designing process given below, Philip describes how changing his response to emotional discomfort from avoidance to confrontation relieved his suffering and allowed for growth and transformation.