An Integral Approach

Integral Theory

What kind of theory could bring together the wisdom from the East and West; from science, cultural studies, and psychology? What framework could truly unite sense and soul?

But, perhaps more to the point, why would we want to do this, as we address the myriad global issues today?

We see that global issues are complex and are not getting any less so in the coming generations. And to really address the many facets of such issues has brought us to seek this integration of perspectives that is provided by Integral Theory.

Here, we explain in brief some of the main contours of Integral Theory as presented by Ken Wilber, although in search of a more integral approach to developmet, we also draw upon other holistic and integral frameworks such as Gebser, Aurobindo and Morin. See also Integral Translated and Integral Applied to learn more about how this framework lands in practice, as well as more detailed, advanced resources on an integral approach in international deveopment under Resources.

Integrating Self, Culture, and Systems

We have found that as we work with addressing any of the current issues today, it becomes important to include self, culture and systems. The systems such as economic systems, political systems, judicial systems, or ecosystems; culture in terms of worldviews, shared norms, and traditions; and the self in terms of values, beliefs and consciousness. These three domains have been noted as important by Plato's the Good, the True and the Beautiful, and by Wilber's I, We, and Its.

This is often best explored through an example. Take any issue, such as carbon emissions reduction or recycling or ecological conservation.  As you think about the issue, consider how the individual self with values, worldviews, and consciousness influence that issue. Consider the cultural meanings, interpretations, and shared values that will also influence that issue. Finally, consider how the interlocking systems that relate to that issue--social, economic, political, ecological. Integral Theory makes room for all three of those domains and perspectives in a single theoretical framework.

 The Big Three: I, We, It

In Integral Theory the Big Three are explicated with more detail as the four quadrants. Each quadrant discloses a different domain of reality, with specific perspectives and validity claims. Below is a flip-chart done in a workshop with Amazon Conservation Association in Peru, exploring the many factors that contribute to conservation of the rainforest. Sorting complex issues in this way helps to orient subsequent action and thus assists in planning, implementation of projects and evaluation. 

Quadrants used in Peru with ACCA

Developing Sustainability, Developing the Self

In this work, we are in the business, as it were, of change. While we often seek changes in the system or behaviors, this also includes changes in values, worldviews and culture. We have studied the research and change models from various fields to examine closely how change occurs in systems, behaviour, culture, and awareness. Systems theory, social theory, and cultural studies give us some hints as to how social discourse develops and thus shapes how a society organizes its systems. Developmental research on human psychology gives us other insights for how people grow and how awareness changes through life. This tends to be the lesser known body of research in social change work, and yet we see that it is crucial. Check out our resources page for more on these original sources.

worldviews and self-developmentIf you consider your own personal growth process--from birth, through adolescence, to adulthood and old age--what pattern do you see? How did your own awareness change? Much of the developmental research has found a pattern: that is, the self develops through an ego-centric, to socio-centric, to world-centric stage. At an ego-centric stage, the self focuses on its own needs and interests; at a socio-centric stage, awareness extends to the social group, be it family, tribe, or nation; at a world-centric stage, awareness extends further to a global sense of all beings. Each stage seems to support the health and emergence of the next, and the research suggests that stages cannot be skipped. Nor can one person grow another. Rather, these are stages that we grow through across a lifetime.

Why would we care about this? Well, if we look to any of the world's historical or current leaders of social change today, we see that the broadest, deepest awareness seems to support greater care and concern for the planet. Examples like Gandhi and Martin Luther King come to mind. They were simply not ego-centrically motivated. So, we want to orient our work for social change to provide "emergent ground" for this world-centric motivation, care, and action. At the same time, knowing how difficult self-development is, how much time it can take, and how much can go wrong along the way, it is highly unlikely we'll live to see a planet with a global population at a world-centric stage. So, we've also been looking closely at how we can more effectively work with all stages of awareness--to honour, include, and engage everyone exactly where they are at. This leads to more effective communication, a more honoring way of including all perspectives, and an ethical way forward for all.

"The word integral means comprehensive, inclusive, non-marginalizing, embracing. Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that: to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms,” or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching"

 ~ Ken Wilber