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Sunday, July 18, 2004

The Poverty of Communitarianism: Summing Up Act-KM

So where does act-KM fit? Is it a communitarian system? Is political communitarianism its characteristic form of politics. Is epistemological communitarianism its dominant theory of Knowledge Claim Evaluation? I'll summarize the record, and draw some conclusions in this post. But first, let's review some of the basic concepts relevant to our analysis.

Review of Concepts

Epistemological Communitarianism includes a theory of knowledge claim evaluation which makes an appeal to a consensus or community-held view as a basis for justifying knowledge claims as true and certain, or, more recently, as probable, or at least, acceptable. Epistemological communitarianism, doesn't just lead to impoverished results: it leads to holding basic ideas beyond questioning and test. It closes off the possibility of change in these ideas and thus restricts the range of adaptations and co-evolution available to us in the face of environmental change.

The alternative to justificationism is criticalism, the idea that adds to fallibilism the notion that we are rational only to the extent that we hold our knowledge claims open to continuous criticism and testing in order to eliminate the errors in them. Criticalism, like justificationism, represents a general category of theories of evaluation. Just as epistemological communitarianism is a type of justificationism, critical rationalism, comprehensively critical rationalism, critical coherentism, and critical scientific realism are types of criticalism.

Political Communitarianism is a form of political system in which decisions are made according to the perceived consensus of the system's members. It is different from Democracy in that it does not specify majority rule or formal voting as mechanisms for decision making, though it sometimes may make use of these. Instead, a group elite, with the authority to make binding decisions, attempts to make these on the basis of attempts to evaluate what that consensus is on a particular issue. It is a salient characteristic of political communitarianism that the elite views itself as representing the community and as obligated to make any decision about the group on which there is a perceived consensus. That is, the elite recognizes no limits on the community's authority to legitimize its decisions by the means of perceived consensus.

Thus, political communitarianism, like Greek Democracy and Rousseau's popular democracy, is not a constitutional political system. From the viewpoint of adaptation, it restricts membership in the system to those who accept the consensus norms, and thereby, ceteris paribus, it restricts the adaptive range of the community, because it restricts the variety of opinions, ideas, and creative expressions available to it.

Political Communitarianism in Act-KM

Act-KM is wedded to political communitarianism. You can see it in the way many group members as well as group moderators acted when Mark and I vigorously and persistently expressed views they disagreed with.

Members believe that there is nothing inappropriate about writing to moderators to urge action against those expressing views they don't agree with if those views are expressed persistently. Of course, these members claim that they are bothered by such things as style of expression, length of posts, the fact that posts are "boring", and sometimes rudeness of those they disagree with. However, they almost never complain about these characteristics when posts they agree with exhibit them.

In addition, some members feel quite comfortable about sanctioning other members whose views they disagree with by commenting on their posting styles and by rudely asking them to stop posting. During December of 2003, in the period leading up to Incident One, both Sylvia Marshall and Serena Joyner spoke directly to the theory posters trying to "shush" them. On 12/08/03 there were 5 posts, including Sylvia Marshall's expressing discomfort over the strong disagreements and personal tone being expressed in the theory posts. Serena Joyner's "Drowning out the little Voices" post on 12/16/03, described her "feeling a little swamped . . . drowned out by this incessant, highly theoretical, "your camp - our camp" style discussion". She also said:

"I support debate - I dislike long-winded, highly theoretical debate when it is repeated again and again. Make your case and move on! The battle won't be won here."

Joyner's rather rude "little voice" was echoed by a chorus of 12 other "little voices", all posting on 12/16/03 all supporting her call to end the theory exchanges.

Group sanctioning of theory discussions was observed again in April after a period of 20 days in which theory discussions had proceeded without visible acrimony. Then on 04/21/04 Stuart Kay posted "Cat Among the Pigeons" a post whose title seemed to crystallize discomfort with the theory exchanges. Sylvia Marshall attacked the "dramatics" and "grandstanding" of certain posters, and Robert Perey responded to one of my replies to Stuart Kay with the words "frig me". On 04/22/04, perhaps noting that these two posts went unmoderated by Mark Schenk, Stuart Kay delivered the most far reaching series of personal attacks, labels and ad hominem comments since the theory posts started in December. David Hawthorne sent in a rare (for him) post that used labeling. Greg Timbrell followed with a comment on list culture asking Mark and I to change our posting style, and, in particular to back off close examination of the logic of the views presented by other members of the community. In effect, Greg was saying it's not the practice of this group to engage in close logical analysis of posts that are often framed in a casual way by people in their spare time and that will therefore always provide opportunities for criticism. Paul James then followed with a flat request that we take our "discourse and diatribe off-line."

After Paul James's post, the community's reaction tailed off and the theory discussion also began to wind down. Public group sanctioning of theory discussions did not return in May, but there was evidently considerable off-line pressure placed on Mark Schenk to stop further postings on similar issues that began on May 17th and continued through May 26th.

For the most part these exchanges were civil and their frequency was very dense from May 17th to 24th. There were a few conflictful exchanges involving, Dave Snowden, Mark McElroy, Greg Timbrell, and myself. On the 26th, Greg expressed his great dissatisfaction with the course of interaction in the group, in a post entitled: "I Don't Think I Can Take It Anymore". He said that he had joined the group in 02/02, had participated in great discussions, and had been fascinated by the dynamics of the group, he then said:

"But lately, I find myself becoming less interested mainly because I am finding certain contributors too dominating and extremely boring.

He then finished by saying that he would turn off automatic e-mail from the group for 6-12 months and the check to see if anything was different.

Greg's post was immediately supported by Larry Chait, who objected to the length of many posts. He said:

"I believe knowledge is best and most effectively shared when done in transmissions of five sentences or less. And so I am almost done. And now my message is complete."

At that point, Mark Schenk intervened to block posting from Mark and I (to be discussed just below), Stuart Kay immediately responded with a Haiku of appreciation, and Natalie Andrews delivered a perfect expression of communitarian sentiment praising Mark saying:


you are our representative - we ARE self-moderating and self-managing. It is our Will.
BTW ... Love your work .... thank you :)"
(Emphasis added)

In addition, there were 8 other expressions of support for Mark Schenk, not including Greg Timbrell's graceful thank you.

Though May is notable for its relative absence of posts in which some members attempt to moderate others, behind the scenes opposition by members to the posts is reflected in Mark Schenk's posts to Mark and I and to the group at large. Though sanctioning in May was not public, members did not hesitate to use off-line pressure to stop the posts, and in the face of that pressure Greg's decision to lower his level of participation in the group triggered action by the moderator.

In order for it to work, political communitarianism needs both members who believe in it, who sanction other community members, and complain to moderators; and also moderators who are willing to serve those members. Mark Schenk and other act-km moderators seem to view themselves as servants and instruments of the community, as obligated to reflect the consensus of the members, and as dedicated to preserving the community and protecting it against "excessive" conflict caused by too vigorous interchange. This is reflected in Mark Schenk's various posts to the group during the theory exchanges. On 12/10/03 he said:

"We just need to ensure people are not discomfited by the passion descending to a level that attacks rather than analyses and critiques in a constructive manner."

In his post of 12/16/03 he said:

"What Do We Agree On? There are many more points of agreement in the various 'KM camps' than there are of disagreement. Instead of fighting to obtain the 'intellectual high ground', why not a cooperative effort to identify the points of agreement. I think a list of concepts or principles that we agree on is much more valuable than tedious debate over issues that make me wonder if we can't see the wood for the trees."

On 05/27/04 he said:

"Regrettably, we have today taken action to temporarily remove posting privileges for a number of list participants. We hope that we can devise some model or agreement by which all can continue to participate. This action has been taken in response to overwhelming input from members. I consider it a serious step, and one that will undoubtably attract criticism. In the end; however, the decision reflects our belief that a vital community, albeit imperfect, is better than no community at all."

Mark is clearly dedicated to the idea that his role is to moderate conflict, perhaps even foster agreement, and also to respond to "the overwhelming input" from members. He also thought nothing of abandoning a level playing field by restricting the posting rights of the targets of those who asked for moderation. And, evidently, he did so very much on the basis of the number of people who complained and who unsubscribed. And he did this regardless of whether the behavior of those to be censored was civil, or if not entirely so, at least far less uncivil than many of those who were doing the complaining.

His actions also suggest he believes that members of act-km have no basic and inalienable individual rights of self-expression relating to their substantive views that cannot be limited by the community at large if it decides to do so. All "the community" has to do is provide evidence, through behind-the-scenes complaints to the moderator, that it wishes to censor those expressions, and Mark and the committee of act-km moderators will act. Not only did Mark Schenk and his committee bar future postings from Mark and I (most recently for a two month period), and in relation to a particular thread (during December), even Dave Snowden, but before taking such action he and they tolerated uncivil posts from those defending prevailing views. This was done even when the expression of our views was polite, or at least far more polite than the responses of defenders of more popular views.

Relativism and Epistemological Communitarianism in Act-KM

In an earlier blog post, covering the events of 12/03, I said that the record during December indicated that the community eschewed criticalism and practiced some form of justificationism, but I couldn't conclude that epistemological communitarianism was the dominant form of knowledge claim evaluation in act-km.

The exchanges in April and May reinforced the general pattern of opposition to criticalism and knowledge claim evaluation in the group. Criticism was generally approached in a gingerly fashion and it was the practice to end critical exchanges quickly and move on.  Also, the opinion that there were many valid points of view on some issue, many ways of looking at a particular problem, and that no one point of view was better than any other was expressed on a number of occasions. Further, the view that there is no "absolute truth" was expressed in a number of posts.

In addition, throughout December 2003, and April and May of 2004, some members of the group expressed opposition to all lengthy discussions of issues, which, of course, means that they opposed all in-depth exploration of issues in the group. In turn, however, that implies they also oppose the introduction of any close criticism of the logic of ideas, in an effort to eliminate errors in such ideas, and to determine which of our many ideas is false, since this kind of exchange often requires lengthy discussions of them. All of the above suggests that the reigning epistemology for knowledge processing in act-km is not epistemological communitarianism, but relativism (a form of justificationism that denies an objective external reality or criterion for truth, and regards all truth and certainty as personal, local, and ‘relative’ to an individual – i.e., anti-foundationalist, but not anti-justificationist).

Of course, the pattern of interaction between other members of act-km, and Mark and I was different. In exchanges with us, there was a greater focus on the logic of argument during exchanges. And, of course, our posts reflected the belief that some knowledge claims were true and others false and that one of the important purposes of exchange in the group was to decide which ones were false. The pattern of practice in exchanges with us evidently created angst and controversy in the group. It was a pattern the group resisted strongly indicating that its opposition to criticalism and, critical rationalism, the specific version of criticalism that our posts embodied, and its support for relativism is a group attribute that endured from December 2003 through May 2004.

Even though relativism was the dominant ideology of knowledge processing in act-km, it was not the only epistemology characteristic of it. To see this we need to keep in mind the three-tier model I've written about in a previous post on Knowledge Management and Strategy. Focusing on that model for a moment, please note that the epistemology used by act-km members in their knowledge processing may be different from the epistemology they use at the level of Knowledge Management.

At the level of Knowledge Management, act-km members and the moderators seem to hold the idea that the theory of evaluation in knowledge processing should be relativism, and that it is beyond questioning, test, criticism, or even discussion. They all seem to believe that the knowledge claim that there are many competing "truths", all equally good, has been "enacted" and negotiated in their community, and that it is what the community believes and what it should practice. This, of course, is epistemological communitarianism. And it is the basis for the political communitarianism that proved so strong in act-km.

That is, it is because Mark and I tried to transcend relativism in the group by using close logical analysis to criticize the views of members that our posts were eventually blocked. This practice was opposed to the live-and-let-live attitude that others took toward logical analysis. Their attitude is necessary for relativism. The use of logic cannot be allowed to demonstrate that certain views are the product of faulty logic, or contain self-contradictions, or are impossibly vague, because that contradicts the idea that all views are equally valuable, but differing, perspectives on the same problem. That is, close logical analysis, when used to compare competing views, undermines relativism, and questions the basic theory of knowledge claim evaluation accepted by the act-km community. It, and the regulative ideal of seeking the truth, that we advocated along with it, are in direct contradiction with relativism. And the practice necessary to apply critical rationalism is different from the dominant practice in act-km embodying relativism. What is consistent with relativism, is the practice, common in act-km, of presenting alternative views to others, along with sharing information, even critical exchanges in which one side says "I disagree and here is my perspective." And this is the kind of interchange which normally prevails there. But again, what we don't see much of, outside of the context of exchanges with Mark and I, are attempts to say, "here is my alternative view, and I believe there are various problems with your own view, including problems with its logic". Because to say something like this is go against relativism and question the group consensus on it supported by epistemological communitarianism at the KM level.

Finally, will epistemological communitarianism in act-km spread beyond KM to knowledge processing? Will it replace relativism as the dominant theory of evaluation in knowledge processing in the community? I think there is some chance of that happening, but there are also forces maintaining relativism, as well. Relativism is favored by the desire of members of act-km to avoid conflict with one another, and to maintain a rough equality of professional status and recognition. The successful functioning of the community in sharing members' knowledge claims also favors the maintenance of relativism, since sharing in the group doesn't imply that "my knowledge is better than yours." The strong individualist and democratic tradition in Australia also works for relativism because it favors maintaining rough equality in the community.

Working against relativism is the evolution of support for certain positions and the natural desires of members of the group for individual recognition. The standards movement, for example, affords recognition to some, but not to others. It is also a model of epistemological communitarianism, no matter how frequently its supporters explain that their standards are not normative, but only informative.

Further, the more discussions in act-km focus on one or a few conceptual approaches the greater will be the tendency for that approach to be perceived as the consensus approach of the community. When that happens, the community's prior acceptance of the norm of avoiding both criticalism, and close logical analysis of ideas, will begin to favor the consensus-backed ideas. It will do this because even though new ideas can be stated in the group, they will be incapable, in the absence of fair comparison using logical analysis, of contributing to the falsification of the dominant views.

Over a period of time then, a paradigm will develop in the act-km group, and epistemological communitarianism backing that paradigm will set in. The very laxity of knowledge claim evaluation under relativism will become a barrier to change, and to the acceptance, as opposed to the mere stating of new ideas. Eventually however, even stating new ideas will become difficult because members of the group will fear looking silly if they state new ideas in opposition to the old paradigm. At that point, epistemological and political communitarianism will support each other and constitute a stable communitarian system organized around the dominant paradigm of standards and a popular conceptual approach. I'll leave it to the membership of act-km to guess which approach it will be.


I'd like to thank Mark McElroy, my continuing close collaborator and sounding board for contributing to this and the other blog posts in this series on communitarianism. His insights have been of tremendous help in accounting for whatever quality these posts may have. And while he does not bear responsibility for my specific views, he has said that he wishes to associate himself with the general critique of communitarianism in KM list serv groups expressed in this series.

In addition to the books and classes referred to in the margins on this page, you’ll find much more information on the theories and models underlying this post at three web sites:,, and Many papers on The New Knowledge Management are available for downloading there. Our Excerpt from The Open Enterprise  .  .  . may also be purchased there. Our print books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or

11:20:54 PM    comment []

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