A humble call for a new discipline: The Study of Change

Parmenides held to a view that nothing changes. Everything is permanent and unchangeable. While we have only fragments of his writing, his ideas are prominent in Plato, which in turn gives Parmenides a weight in philosophy that is often not explicitly acknowledged.
Heraclitus, on the other hand, felt everything was in a state of flux and change. He is credited with some variation of the common statement: you can’t step into the same river twice (or, more precisely, you can’t step into the same water twice, even if the river itself remains largely unchanged).
While Parmenides thoughts found some resonance with ancient atomists, and occur in the ongoing quest of physics to find the one base element of all things (currently this has been reduced to such a level that it has become nonsensical to most human beings – note string theory), most people today would likely find Heraclitus’ view of change to be more reflective of reality.
Change is constant. Everything changes. All the time. At times, it would appear that the main task of technology is to disrupt any sense of sameness. Books move to electronic devices (Kindle). Newspapers move online. Then, online newspapers are augmented by citizen journalists. These are then evaluated, “fact-checked”, and held accountable by annotation, comments, and ratings. The main unchanged aspect of my youth is that I still wear clothes (I intend to maintain this habit for the time being). Most everything else has changed. Video, work, information access, libraries, cars, TV, cassette tapes (records)…and so on.
My attention has lately been on the nature of change. What is change itself? To my dismay, I’ve been unable to find many resources of value in this exploration. Change is treated at best as a casual statement: everything changes…or in business literature: the only constant is change.
I have yet to come across a considered, thoughtful body of work on the analysis of change itself. If anyone can offer comments or direction, I would be most appreciative.
It appears to me, that in an era of continual change, what we most need is an understanding of change. What are the characteristics of change? Does a physical system in the process of change – such as an aging body – possess a similar cycle or attributes as social change? Can change be analyzed to a certain level of depth and then be used to broadcast subsequent developments (based on change cycles)? Can change be understood sufficiently to willfully enact it at a social system level?
We all talk about change and live with change. But we don’t really understand it. I suggest we need a body of study and research devoted to change itself. Yes, I know, all fields have this as at least a peripheral element – i.e. medicine continually changes and evolves, therefore doctors are continually adjusting as are hospital systems and government/corporate funding.
Every field has the DNA of change in its veins. And that is the very problem. Change is so prominent, so ever-present, that we don’t see it as a unique field in itself. I think it’s time that it becomes a separate field of study. University’s need departments of “change” in the same sense that we have physics, psychology, and chemistry. After all, isn’t it important to understand an aspect of existence so prominent that we all feel it on a daily basis? It seems odd that the field has to this date remained largely unexplored.

15 Responses to “A humble call for a new discipline: The Study of Change”

  1. dreig says:

    I agree with you. Change could be a cross discipline to study separately, integrating knowledge from Chaos Theories, Systems Science or Evolution theory itself.
    Good idea.

  2. My grandfather, Otto Ronson, pointed out that he was born before airplanes were flown, and was still alive when a man walked on the moon. He would be further amazed at the communication changes in the current era.
    I was born before tv, after movies, before YouTube, after the typewriter, before word processing. I used to get all my quotations from books; I got the one below from the gmail sponsored link:
    Niccolo Machiavelli – “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” Changes comes faster and faster; studying it would be beneficial.

  3. Interesting post, George!
    Studying change is indeed critical if we are to understand what we are seeing in all aspects of society. Your post has me wondering if we are looking at a need to consider change as a discipline–one that spawns research and scholarship in a large cluster of social contexts. For example, Katy Campbell, Rick Kenny and I did some work on instructional designers as agents of change in higher education. Interestingly, we found that much of the meaning that instructional designers found in their work was associated with their roles in influencing change interpersonally, professionally, institutionally and societally. I’m betting that other areas of study are looking at similar phenomena, but all feeling like there isn’t that body of foundational knowledge to guide the work…at least that’s how we felt.
    You’re no doubt already familiar with the work of Michael Fullan from OISE. There’s some good stuff in his work on educational change (http://www.michaelfullan.ca/).

  4. Geoff Cain says:

    This is a great idea. I would suggest that you add Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” to the bibliography as well as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (both of whom represent change as a central feature to existence). Eastern philosophy seems to have a greater concern with accounting for change. Isn’t the “I Ching” the first book?

  5. Rodolpho says:

    Well, you can find extensive amount of work around Change in the “Change Management” area. It has been formally under study for decades now. Just go to wikipedia and do a search on it. It’ll give you links to some good starting points. And even though this is a business discipline, you can find a lot of reference to psychology, sociology, economy and others.
    my 2 cents. ;^)

  6. Erin Murphy says:

    Hi George – great post and all of your work on Connectivism constantly has me thinking as well! I guess I think about life in a similar vein… I’m always looking for the outer wrapper, that one thing that is encompassing everything and I’ve often labeled it culture. But if you think about it, change is constantly driving culture. I haven’t read much about change, except that people tend to have trouble dealing with it at times. Here at our IT department at UPenn, we’ve thought about having some kind of session on the constant changing of technology and how it affects students/professors/etc. You’re right, the DNA of change permeates all professions, but any profession that relies heavily on technology can see and feel those affects on a daily basis.
    How does one keep up with change? If I find any information I’d be glad to pass it along. As dreig mentioned below – studying chaos theory, systems theory, would be a good place to start. Maybe reading the tipping point by malcom gladwell could help too because he talks about factors that cause great social change. Also, Fritjof Capra might offer some good advice in his books; they are heavily physics based and sometimes take a bit of a mystical route but extremely interesting nonetheless.

  7. Thanks George for igniting the flame. I find that often we speak of change as though it is one thing but in fact, there are likely different types of change (such as changes within individuals, between individuals, within organizations, in thoughts and ideas, etc.) and different degrees of change. A new discipline would definitely help to provide some understanding.
    However, does this new discipline study change in the abstract or change within various socio-political contexts? Does the discipline focus on change as it relates to humans or change as it relates to all celestial bodies, both living and non living?

  8. Susan Spero says:

    Great idea. I’ve been grappling with this for some time as I watch the museum world struggle with changing communications channels via the internet. I found a thoughtful book by Howard Gardner: Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and other People’s Minds, (2004) that explores overriding factors that impact how things change. It will be interesting to see where you go with this….

  9. r dewar says:

    Interesting idea, but do you really think the addition of a new discipline is wise when we have so much to do with all the other disciplines we study? Also, isn’t it probably that change is such a slippery devil that a stduy of change in biology is quite different from change in business and change in political theory? Perhaps the best tack would be to have study of change in specific areas rather than as an overall discipline. Example, who wouldn’t find fascination with course like, “Change in Structures” or “Change in Physical Theory” or “Human History as Change”?

  10. willie campbell says:

    I am interested in the concept of change as a gradual and then a dynamic phenomenon. I supsect that gradual is influence by life experiences, psychological develpment and the communication media.
    Dymanic change is possible in my mind the event called “revolution”. We have lots of examples in our human history (and even more in the Star Trek ect world) -the agrarian revolution, where humans became growers of food and didn’t have to hunt and constantly move any more- what changes?- the industrial revolution where artisans and craftpeople were tempted into moving to machine rather than manual producion and so shiftedn from home and individual production to factories (this meant that their childern also needed factories- schools) this cuurent revolution- the information technology revoltuion has just such implications and some of your existinf discussion around coneccting and individualising, recognising and choosing are part of this. Your comments about “Google” are akin to the statements about merchants and factory owners.I watch this and will comment as I feel able to, with much in terest. I find myself (as a “senior”) mightily challenged by the technology, and excited by the possibilities.

  11. Diane McCarthy says:

    Hi George. I have read your blog and our responses with some wry humour. IT and technology fields have a discourse that all things are in a constant state of flux. This view is perpetuated by capitalism which generates more tools and artifacts for us to consume. You and Stephen and others represent this discourse in education.
    To look at the basic needs of people; food, shelter, communication, work, education, and so on, each generation and culture responds differently to these, dependant on what evolves as the dominant paradigm in the complex socio-eco-cultural environment which is now posited as global, but always has been to some extent.
    Poststructuralist theorists such as Foucault philosophize that discourses enable us to both signify and be signified, we make and are made by how we talk and then act.
    researchers, social scientists, dramatists, movie makers, fiction writers, poets, journalists, and teachers are some of us who strive to make meaning and communicate this meaning making through such diverse ways such as books,sculptures, paintings, ethnographic photos, posters,theory making, plays, films, novels, poems, documentaries, articles, and online courses. Part of being human is to wonder how we were, how others are, and what we might become. This is not new, but the ways connecting up to participate with others electronically through ICT are.
    My NZ uncle Bill had a CB radio, and was behind the Japanese lines in the Pacific in WWII, reporting their movements in code. He regularly had a sched. with other CB users from the 1940s to his death in the mid 1990s. This is similar to email, Skype, video-conferencing, and so on: the paradigm has shifted from one-on-one audio to one-to-many digital. My 85 year old mother-in-law Pat, now frail and in hospital, is fascinated by her digital photo-frame, can input the SD cards, and reports that it is a way of having her family with her, now we all take digital shots. She always kept photo albums and regularly asked for our photos. This technology is successful as it fills a human need, and is simple to use. Pat has already noted a limitation: she’d like there to be some way we could digitally put captions on the photos to describe the where and who of each pix: she has memory loss, and gets puzzled about her meaning making, but learned quickly to master the tool.
    So, my main point is that it is not new for humans to make meaning, and to notice and contribute towards change, and find that some ways for us are constraining, and/or to resist and be resilient, and/or be empowered: its just that our ways include digital means in an age of intense consumerism. But within that lies the seeds of another paradigm, still struggling to emerge: sustainability, peace,and being simple and clear,and pursuing social justice.
    Well, back to my educational research on why there are not more women training and working in IT. Interestingly, I am unable to purchase Eileen Trauth’s excellent Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology by downloading the PDFs from Amazon’s web site because I do not have an American address or bank for my credit card. I can purchase a hard copy of the 2 vol set, and pay freight, but not the ease of use digital version.

  12. Jason Priem says:

    A science of change like you describe would certainly have a lot in common with the approaches variously lumped under “systems thinking,” “dynamical systems,” “cybernetics,” and “complex systems” labels. I think this is what dreig was alluding to in the first comment. These labels are all different, but they similarly denote a way of thinking that is concerned with how complex systems change and emerge. Theorists aligned with these schools are interested in ideas like emergence and Autopoiesis (”self-creation”). More relevant to you post, they share an emphasis on how systems are never static, but constantly fluid dynamic feedback loops, often using the ideas of stocks (stuff) and flows (changes in stuff).
    You would probably really enjoy the work of Kurt Fischer and the Dynamic Development Lab at the Harvard ed school. Fischer’s “dynamic skill theory” proposes a complex, holistic model of mental development that centers around these feedback loops. There’s also at least one interdisciplinary journal in the area, “Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems.” The focus isn’t on change per se–but discussion of how connected parts of a system interact does seem to get quite close to your suggestion.
    You should get your science of change started yourself; write a paper examining and synthesizing work on change across a wide variety of disciplines (not all, of course…but get a really varied sample); find and discuss some common threads. A few ideas for such threads come to my mind as I write this, so I’m sure you could get enough to write a coherent and provocative paper. I’d certainly look forward to it.
    Oh, and feel free to email me if you want any more sources…this comment is getting a little long. Thanks for the cool post!

  13. Melanie says:

    Nobody’s written more about the nature of change than Buddhists. Namely, that the one thing that is constant is change. Buddhist writings about the nature of reality (impermanance) is very similar to philosophical phenomenology.

  14. Jay Cross says:

    Change may be too fundamental to yield to meaningful study as a separate discipline. In the abstract, the only place there is no change is death.
    I imaging that studying change out of a context would be akin to fish studying water.

  15. Marie Sontag says:

    George – could you give me some clarification on what you mean when you talk about knowledge being in a state of flux? I read your book, Knowing and Knowledge, and found many points that resonated with me. My main question is, does connectivism leave any place for a Platonic idea of universals, if knowledge is to be viewed with the epistemology of Heraclitus? For example, your blog quote, “most people today would likely find Heraclitus’ view of change to be more reflective of reality”, seems to say that an epistemology that allows for the existence of universals doesn’t reflect reality. So then, does connectivism view knowledge as including the collection of what can be known by men and women at various points and times (and therefore, is always in a state of flux), as well as knowledge of facts or rules that some view as universals?
    I recently discussed this idea with a friend of mine, and he gave me this example. He said an example of this distinction would be the concept of gravity, and a gravitational force. For most of humankind’s existence, we figured that two massive objects generated a force between them, and that force pulled them together. We called this force gravity. Newton even came up with an ingenious model to describe and predict its behavior. He invented calculus simultaneously to help model the math. We then sent men to the moon using those models and ideas. Alas, they were wrong. We didn’t understand the true nature of what was happening in space-time, between two massive objects.
    My friend said that it turns out (but then we could still be wrong) that there is no force at all. There is merely a depression created in space-time that causes two massive objects to “fall together” so to speak. There are rules by which massive objects behave. Those rules have never changed. Our understanding of them has changed and grown, and is becoming ever more complete. However, a Platonic view would hold that what we see is like a shadow of the rule or truth behind what we see – a universal.
    I am not a physicist, but my friend pointed out that physics and physicists almost universally agree that the universe operates by a set of rules. For similar circumstances, in a similar frame of reference, anywhere in the universe, in a similar time frame, the rules work the same; always. We just don’t know what those rules are. We thought we did. But, recent discoveries have shown us how ignorant we are. So, underlying facts/truths do not change. Man’s understanding and application of those rules are constantly changing, as the sum total collection of ‘knowledge’ increases. My underlying question for you is, does connectivism’s view of knowledge concede that some universals do exist, or does its view of knowledge exclude the idea of universals, since everything is held to be in a state of flux?
    Marie Sontag