Author’s original graphic, 2020
5 September 2022

Explaining What a ‘Paradigm’ is… And How to Apply the Concept Toward Designing Novel Strategies, Plans and Security Activities

by :

Original post can be found here:

Modern militaries all use nearly the same reductionist-based, mechanistic and systematic process (analytic optimization) in their decision-making and problem-solving methodologies. I cover this in several other Medium posts, articles, TEDx talks, and lectures in detail. While it is useful to have a basic understanding of why militaries, agencies and most all security-related organizations do this, it is not essential to this article’s focus. We are going to talk about social paradigms and how to frame a defense organization’s paradigm as well as other alternatives the organization likely rejects or is unwitting or unwilling to consider. For a primer on military decision-making processes (the nuts and bolts within linking thought to action), see:

Whether called the Joint Planning Process, NATO-Operational Planning Process, the Military Decision-Making Process, the Marine Corps Planning Process, the Adaptive Campaigning Approach, or any other variation, they all share very similar language, concepts, and an objectivist (largely ‘positivist’: that warfare problems can be isolated, reduced, tested for core principles, re-assembled and run forward or backward at scale/scope) logic for contemplating action in reality. We treat war like a science, including the claim that ‘war is evolutionary’ and historical rules, laws and principles ‘are scientifically tested and proven’ when, in fact, this is useful fiction as well as an assimilation of natural sciences during the professionalization period of militaries over the last three centuries. We see this when militaries reverse-engineer their model moving from an imagined single future system or ‘end-state’ back to the present where the ‘problem’ is defined as that which is a barrier from reaching this single future.[1] This is framed with an ‘ends-ways-means’ modeling upon which the decision-making methods organize and align. This fixation on ‘ends-ways-means’ is also explored here:

After determining what future singular state they desire (the goal, objective, end-state, or other similar projected future construct frozen in time and space), militaries project the future in some measurable span of time away from the present state in order to frame precisely how they seek to control as well as predict the flow of the system from now into the future. Next, the desired future state is analyzed with military set processes that orient on optimization and system solutions that are expressed in the language of natural sciences. Military doctrine employs ‘centers of gravity’, lines of effort, objectives tied to linear-causal effects, with decision points associated with acting upon decisive points oriented towards enemy COG critical vulnerabilities and/or the defense of one’s own COG vulnerabilities.[2] As ‘lines of effort’ are established in time and space, they are organized in sequential phases or operations that cumulatively build upon previous actions in order to synchronize organizational activities to gain further control of the system, increase prediction, and reduce enemy options until the future desired end-state is reached. Note the heavy scientific language that is Newtonian, nested in ideas that developed in natural science disciplines over the same corresponding centuries where scientific fields modernized, and militaries shifted away from earlier Feudal Age forms. Many rituals and beliefs remained, but they became entangled with scientific metaphors, language and a hybrid sort of reasoning that is not quite scientific, and not entirely the earlier Feudal Age reasoning for war either. Complex warfare is expected to yield to clear, measured and scientifically organized military logic. The enemy can be destroyed if the organization understands themselves, the mission, the adversary and the environment in these clear, rationalized and ultimately what illustrates one of several social paradigmatic frames to house all reasoning, terminology, theories, methodologies and belief systems therein.

However, complex adaptive systems do not behave in ways that support this logic, nor do they tend to play out in useful ways due to nonlinearity, emergence, and system complexity.[3] Simple systems do behave this way, meaning that militaries tend to desire simplicity in warfare to extend beyond simple systems into what constitute the broader, larger complex systems to offer the promise of system control, the ability to synchronize (a form of hierarchical control and freezing a system for analysis), and the desire to predict the effects of future actions before they are done so that risk can be objectively framed and rationalized for decision-making. This frustrates military organizations. Designer Horst Rittel observed: “Means and ends…they compose a mutual relationship only definable with respect to a certain problem formulation. The longer the range of task, the more abstractly the problem must be formulated; the longer the chain of means, the more general and abstract the ends.” [4] This means that relatively simplistic goals and objectives that are narrowly framed in a sliver of time and space indeed can be conceptualized in this manner, but very little beyond these things ever can be reasoned the same.Yet militaries duplicate nearly all concepts established at the tactical level of war all the way up to strategic levels, demonstrating an institutional expectation that ‘war is but a duel on a grand scale.’ When two soldiers battle in the trenches with fixed bayonets, this becomes metaphoric of what also occurs at vast scales where armies clash across many fields of battle across campaigns and time and space.

Rittel explains that the longer the chain of means, the more general and abstract the ‘ends’ becomes- implying that quickly the system vastly exceeds any human comprehension, no matter how diligent the staff conducts greater analysis. This is paradoxical to what military analytic optimization is based upon (such as MDMP, JPP, and even most strategic constructs). Militaries demand a clear and definable goal that is both desired and predicted. We expect a stable reality where laws, rules and principles (once established) continue to work at any time or place. Just as gravity is constant as a law anywhere on the planet, we expect principles of war (or centers of gravity, lines of effort, measures of performance) once defined and validated as “war rules” to also work in any military conflict at any time in any place…with some flexibility of “you need to apply those principles correctly to win”. We believe that war itself is evolutionary, and borrow the theory from biology while insisting that the scientific concepts that address genetic traits, DNA mutation, natural selection, genetic variation of population drifts, and reproduction success of organisms in complex biological environments equate to warfare. While biological life is independent of any particular species including the Homo sapiens reasoning about it (the dinosaurs were wiped out which likely upset them but did not matter for the broader activities of biologically diverse life where evolution occurs), war is a purely human socially constructed concept that exercises in physical reality. If humans are wiped out, evolution continues… but war will not. We confuse this and assume a human construct can equate to a natural science theory without question. We eliminate emergence, which is foundational to complexity theory but is entirely ignored in modern military doctrine, education, training and methods. I cover emergence in these two Medium articles:

Militaries tend to oversimplify reality and reject complexity…due to the belief systems and preferred social paradigm!

Rittel provided additional challenges to how the military traditionally seeks to consider war and complexity, in that complex problems do not have stopping rules.[5] They continue on, emerging and changing. Security problems are but one of many complex ‘problems’ that humans encounter in reality- but they arguably are the most difficult due to the level of danger, violence, emotion, ideas and intentions of those committing to some security affair. Yet there is never any ‘problem solution’ occurring within a complex system that exists outside of the simple ones nested within the broader complexity. We just get on and off them due to time, money and patience (which are entirely contextual and irrelevant to the complexity of the problem!). Nothing can be optimized in a complex dynamic system. There are unlimited possible solutions, and there is no testing that can be done to determine which are better than others. Everything is a tailored “one shot chance” that transforms the system upon action. This removes analysis as well as linear cause-effect, no matter how much we demand that it occur. Complex adaptive systems are entirely unique. One cannot learn for the next time…one cannot run simulations or develop ground rules. Any success is isolated to that one instance, and attempting the same action again results in an entirely different outcome every time. Warfare, defense, security and more occur not in isolated, simplistic sub-systems but across these complex adaptive systems where there are no such things that comprise the reasoning of modern military paradigms. These perspectives on complexity essentially dismantle or disrupt nearly all traditional military decision-making and problem-solving methodologies.

Original graphic by author, 2020

A military force must be aware of it’s own paradigm, the limits of those concepts and why one artificially prevents itself cognitively from considering complexity and humanity beyond the barriers it establishes before it begins to act. The scope and limits of a single mind or even a group of minds is always limited- one cannot snap one’s fingers and consider everything nor can a person or organization do everything. All individuals and groups of individuals walk in this world with a frame, often a collectively shared one that is maintained with shared language, the metaphors behind that language and shared concepts. There are shared logics, and at deeper philosophical levels within collective paradigms, core beliefs on what reality is (ontology) as well as how one knows reality functions (epistemology) so that people can construct and share knowledge productively.

For a quick primer in ‘epistemology’, check out this Medium article here:

On using the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’, they are essential philosophical patterns for designers to identify and appreciate, so we will devote time to explore them. Ontology (what we see as real; what is not real, and why) and epistemology (how humans know something, and know they know in knowledge construction) are highly conceptual, abstract, and implicit (unseen and unquestioned) processes within a chosen discipline. All paradigms incorporate various ontological and epistemological choices that generate methodologies nested within that paradigm.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

Readers must recognize that paradigms are conceptual processes and sociological in origin- like war, they first exist in our heads and we exercise the effects of that conceptualization upon reality through a shared framework of understanding. Or, using post-modern architect Bernard Tschumi’s explanation, “the concept of [a] dog does not bark.” When we see an image of a dog barking, we imagine it doing so. The image does not bark, yet that information is frequently added by our paradigm processes…including what sort of bark it should be. This is where modern military professionals impose ideas such as evolution, gravity, spectrums, levers, balancing and things like ‘stable’ to reality where war is occurring and insist that indeed, the concept of the dog is actually barking outside of their minds.

Epistemology refers to the study of how knowledge is constructed, applied, and understood across a discipline, field or organization through what is termed that group’s paradigm. Beyond the reducible mechanics of aiming and maneuvering with a weapon while conducting a room clearing, military professionals also must consider how and why they are conducting the raid itself. Using only the physics-based knowledge of ballistics and human muscle activities cannot substitute for the practical knowledge military professionals develop in understanding the application of conducting raids as a military concept that produces consequences. It is in this distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that” where epistemological concerns promote deeper self-awareness and critical reflection.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

All epistemological distinctions occur framed within one’s chosen paradigm for interpreting reality. For another example, consider flowers in someone’s front yard. They will weed and groom the flower boxes to pull out everything growing except the particular flowers we as humans appreciate as ‘pretty’. There might be weeds with flowers blooming along side, but those will be pulled out. Yet bees and insects do not make such distinctions! The aesthetic of ‘pretty’ is entirely in our social construction of reality where our paradigms are at play, often undetected or seriously investigated. For another example where I deconstruct the military fixation on ‘red-amber-green’ metrics that adapt a ‘stoplight’ metaphor in clear epistemological choices, see:

Why do designers even care about paradigms? How should we even be concerned with methods, other than we can choose one over another? Here is where a designer aware of their methodologies as well as overarching ontological and epistemological choices (of the preferred paradigm) can realize why an organization uses one design method (or tools within that method), why they have issues with a planning method, and how a complex adaptive system may require multiple paradigms and mixed design methods in order to gain deeper appreciation. Without this awareness, we continue to imagine the bark of the image of a dog without thinking about what we are socially constructing, and how others in a system might imagine entirely different social constructions off of that very same image. Not everyone hears the same bark! And most importantly, complex reality often features multiple ‘barks’ available for different social paradigms to offer diverse populations quite different understandings of the same reality that are in paradox yet all exist simultaneously. We may insist our paradigm is ‘more right than all others’… but this often is how we go about racing toward strategic failure, confident that our paradigm is superior or even able to monopolize the ‘real truth’ of complex reality. This forms the basis for why designers of all stripes (military, commercial, academic) should study social paradigms and incorporate the concepts into how and why they design. These ontological and epistemological choices underpin all subsequent methodological constructs that we use, whether we are militaries using some decision-making process, or we consider companies developing strategies and product launches while competing with others in an open market.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

Of the ever-changing, multi-path movement of humanity’s increasingly sophisticated engagement with the tangible and intangible, the tacit and the explicit, and the physical and the socially constructed, the flow of ideas and the manipulation of objects to humanity’s advantage has been expressed in various design disciplines. Industrial design commenced with the Industrial Revolution and the collision of skilled artisans with mass manufacturing, while human-centric design later emerged from the paradox of creating highly effective designs that failed to account for deeply contextual, subjective and social aspects of an increasingly complex reality. In the last generation of perpetual military conflict across the globe, militaries have gradually and often independently developed their own methodology of military design that seeks to enable divergent thinking, critical reflection, and set conditions for innovation within decidedly military contexts. Meanwhile, the very term ‘design’ has now become a confusing blur of vastly different meanings, associations, tribes and affiliations. Recognizing the philosophical origins of an organization’s preferred methodologies is a critical part of the military design inquiry.

Introducing Burrell & Morgan’s Social Paradigm Theory for Design Applications:

Recent management and organizational theory have found inspiration in the sociological work in the 1960–70s on scientific paradigms by Thomas Kuhn as well as subsequent work in the following decade by social paradigm theorists such as Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan. While Kuhn’s position on paradigms implied a ‘winner take all’ process of eventual replacement by superior paradigms framed within the development of natural sciences (Newtonian physics would be eclipsed by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), sociological theory on paradigms as used by groups and societies fosters more paradigm interplay instead of elimination. Burrell and Morgan’s collective work on paradigms (from a sociological perspective) and the efforts of current paradigm (discipline) theorists work off of variations of Burrell and Morgan’s original ‘four paradigm’ model uses objectivity, subjectivity, stability, and radical transformation for framing.

This illustration below presents the dichotomy of these four concepts that create the quadrants for each discipline to reside. These tensions also illustrate ontological and epistemological choices that are made at highly conceptual levels within each discipline. Here, if one decides to understand reality with objectivity and stability, one will subsequently make sense of things quite differently than if one selects another paradigm with dissimilar ontological and epistemological choices. Burrell and Morgan’s quadrants also establish the framework for designers to apply a trans-disciplinary design approach for complex situations.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

The above graphic also demonstrates the first dichotomy between objectivism (universal world removed from observers where testable theories become reliable laws) and subjectivism (fluid, context specific reality where observers are part of the dynamic reality). Of course, complex reality features a rich, deeply intertwined combination of both- yet when a social paradigm prefers aiming toward one or the other, the people using that paradigm frame reality differently. We often do not even realize this, as our social paradigms are designed to run like a background program, outside of prying eyes.

Image source:,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg

Consider the example of the famous painting, “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo DaVinci and why it is considered the most famous painting in the world. On the objective end of the paradigm tension, observers will quickly grasp the statistics and facts available on the painting such as how much it weighs, the dimensions, the color pallet, or mathematical measurements of the smiling beauty. One can leap into how the painting historically was the first to use a particular portrait positioning, or consider the unique composition an background perspective as compared to previous works of art available to society at that time. Or, objectivists might drown in the details of how much it costs to protect the painting, the security systems, the thickness of glass protecting it, or the metrics on light exposure and preventing damage to the fragile painting. The painting has also been scanned with all sorts of technological wizardry to reveal hidden details under the layers of earlier errors, changes and the brush techniques of the master DaVinci.

However, when asked why the painting is considered the most famous of all paintings regardless of what culture the observers are from, people that are at ease with objectivity concerning the same painting struggle with an answer that requires a departure from objective orientation. It is the most famous painting “because it is,” is the common answer, regardless if the observer is from the United States, Brazil, Germany, the Philippines, or Nigeria. Why this painting is considered the most famous painting in the world requires subjective construct, associated with values, symbolism, and cross-cultural meaning that cannot be isolated, measured, or repeated beyond the situated context. We cannot answer the why question through objectivity alone- in fact, it misleads us and may take us far astray from what can be illuminated outside of objective inquiry alone.

‘Situatedness’ or being within a particular situation is an important element of subjectivity. To be situated is highly contextual, in that the time and space of the complexity is unique and not to be repeated again. For the above graphic, this tension between highly objective contexts (where analysis and prediction works magnificently) and highly subjective contexts (where each moment is unique and solutions are specific just to that particular one) create a severe divide for military professionals. All military doctrine and most strategy as well as operational planning aims for objectivity in war, with the implication that subjectivity is best avoided or marginalized with renewed emphasis upon technology, scientific analysis, and linear problem-solving. Yet war is never kind enough to move into a single ontological position for the military profession, and instead spans across both sides of what the above illustration depicts. This is where trans-disciplinary design thinking enables the military professional. We need to consider our own paradigm, and realize alternative ones that may be used by others. Even if adversaries might be using our same shared paradigm, a trans-disciplinary design gaze offers us opportunities to innovate if we can consider beyond what our adversaries might contemplate in war.

The second dichotomy in the above illustration highlights another tension between stability and radical transformation. While the difference between objectivity and subjectivity is more readily apparent, the distinction between stability and radical transformation requires a bit more explanation. The notion of ‘stability’ is not to be treated in any natural science setting, such as how the planets will orbit the sun tomorrow, or that atomic structures do not suddenly change on a whim. ‘Stability’ in a social paradigmatic framing is about how humans expect an orderly reality to extend the same socially constructed ideas and beliefs that worked yesterday into tomorrow without any change. For example, people share a collective ‘stability expectation’ that money will continue to work tomorrow much as yesterday, with agreed currency fluctuation and such worked into how we understand money to function. Unstable events such as the economic collapse for the United States in 1929 with the Stock Market, or the housing bubble burst in 2008, as well as recent economic upheaval in Sri Lanka in 2022 are all deviations from what is expected to be a stable, enduring ‘norm’ for humans to plan and act within.

A ‘radical transformation’ is the opposite end of stability in social constructions and social paradigms. Consider again the notion of money- it can be seen as a stable, enduring construct or it can also be re-conceptualized as a changing, dynamic construct. In Feudal periods and the antiquities, money was usually tied to land as well as enduring power dynamics (a King or royalty empowered through divine decree, chosen to control and direct the ownership of land that extended into earlier forms of money and value). In some societies, money took on highly ritualized purposes, often associated with deity constructs, health and survival as well as weather. Modern ‘money’ developed in European society that would lead to a shift from land-based to a more flexible, dynamic form of wealth. The rise of a middle class, merchant group that did not require nobility or blood lines to gain power (as well as armies and the ability to wage war) on par with earlier lords and kings. Today, money is again in a radical shift (potentially) where digital, crypto-currency operates quite differently from Westphalian nation-state controlled coinage. Blockchains grow, organize and function well outside the earlier analog currency constructs. Thus ‘money’ can be framed in ‘stability’ or ‘radical transformative’ constructs depending on what social paradigm one employs.

To go further into the radical change position, readers might consider the philosophical work of Michel Foucault. In ‘Discipline and Punish’, Foucault explores the gradual and even seemingly invisible transformation of societies over time on the notion of institutional punishment and criminal status. Earlier societies had a strong relationship between ideological positions and using the state as a direct authority to provide justice and punishment upon citizens in public and frequently literal manners. Towns featured stockades and highly visible treatment of criminals, to include how they were punished and the physical manner in which punishment was applied. Executions had strong rituals, with fire and other violent death acts framed as the will of an Ideology or the manifestation of divine justice. Yet over time, Foucault offers that societies changed.

In modern societies, the division of state and religion as well as the development of social movements and judicial reforms has transformed many institutions. Criminals are rehabilitated, with an emphasis on the state’s responsibility to reform and repair them to return them to society. Executions are becoming increasingly rare, and when done they are hardly the town spectacle of earlier societies; any state-sanctioned death is done in the most humane manner and only after exhaustive judicial processes are complete. Foucault offers a strong example of where societies have radically changed over time how discipline and punishment manifest within entire societies, to include their language, symbolism, values and meaning.

These tensions are challenging, and readers may have difficulty deciding which of them they most align with, depending on what example or context they consider. Is war constant, or does war change over time? Are the things that matter most in war measurable, or impossible to remove from their unique context in space and time? When very different cultures clash in complex conflict zones, will they differ on not only the intangible aspects but even the tangible ones? Or, might different organizations and groups be employing distinct paradigms that make sense of reality in decidedly different manners? These are important questions for defense designers to consider, as well as how and why they create their own frames that subscribe to their own paradigms and cultural norms.

This next illustration modifies Burrell and Morgan’s original quadrant chart by using color-associated arrows from the last slide to help readers visualize the ontological and epistemological forces afoot in each discipline. It is this transition into a quadrant model that affords designers greater opportunity for the interplay of these tensions in multiple ways.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

Inthe above graphic, there are the four paradigms termed functionalism, interpretivism, radical structuralism, and radical humanism. Of the four, nearly all Westernized societies operate under the functionalist paradigm, although largely implicitly. Many people take their paradigm for granted as “the way the world must be” and do not give it a second thought. This is not to be considered derogatory, rather a survival element for societies in general. Comprehensive shared knowledge, or the social construction of reality for groups and societies are valuable for how civilizations prosper. By creating rules and shortcuts, humans need not deliberate on deep philosophical questions every time they act. Were this to occur, people would not be able to get out of bed and tie their shoes in the morning without being lost in deep thought. Paradigms help us think quickly and strike a balance between analytical and intuitive thinking so that we can make decisions and navigate through life in a manner that supports our shared belief systems. When we encounter surprise, frustration, confusion or errors, our paradigms again shift us to subordinate methodologies that still try to give us ways to ‘solve the problem’ without rising up into paradigm critical inquiry. The paradigm is, to paraphrase the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, behind the green curtain instructing us to pay it no mind and continue to listen to the large projected illusion instead. All paradigms do this, but they have vastly different things going on behind their curtains.

Social paradigms have advantages as well as disadvantages, however all paradigms share certain overarching patterns that essentially justify the very existence of all paradigms. A paradigm provides cognitive certainty so that humans can act without thinking (introspectively or philosophically… we rarely ponder whether the conceptualization of a dog makes a barking sound in our heads or not!), or focus their thinking upon methodological and immediate things that require attention as well as mental energy. To put this another way, many people can drive their cars to work and ‘space out’ at various points because the human brain can do many complicated actions such as drive the car and listen to the radio while also daydreaming about where one might vacation next summer. Only when a car swerves into one’s lane or a horn blares unexpectedly does the brain ‘snap out of it’ and focus on what it had previously been using rules and shortcuts to rely upon.

Paradigms do this too, in that humans can ignore the deep philosophical issues until “someone blares their horn” and causes them to consider why they might do what they do concerning theory, meaning, and process. For the defense designer, thinking about thinking and theorizing about theory, method, belief systems and how they are modeled within our social paradigm is part of the essential design process; one becomes attuned to what the paradigm has explicitly informed participants to not bother thinking about!

First of Four Social Paradigms: Functionalism

Of these four paradigms, functionalism is the dominant paradigmatic force for many societies, built upon the very ontological and epistemological choices that create the analytical and hierarchical structures most recognized by the west. Functionalism denotes a single discipline that interprets reality where the world is systematic, reducible through scientific approaches, measurements, and repeatable linear processes. Centralized hierarchies function with clear command structures, and the managerial models focus decision-making and problem-solving upon the goals of greater control, improved information over time, and the perpetual progress of incremental achievements in scientific as well as pseudo-scientific (military) applications.

There is a strong desire in functionalist approaches in war for greater technological as well as information-based analysis with the implication that eventually a desired end-state can be achieved through precision and military focus of resources and effort. Metaphors such as ‘cutting the head off the snake’ and ‘checkmate in five moves’ help illustrate this centralized and hierarchical frame imposed upon war within the functionalist perspective. Functionalists seek order and stability in reality, and for warfare, functionalists will seek to declare ‘a nature of war’, with a ‘changing character therein’, as well as impose concepts such as ‘the evolution of warfare’ or ‘energy in the system that all war possesses’. Some even argue ‘war is systemic like a flow system… everything is a flow system and therefore all we require to understand for all war contexts is a grounding in flow theory.’ These rationalizations demonstrate a functionalist paradigm in operation.

Yet predicting and controlling even the most traditional of enemies within a conflict environment is frequently something rather hard to do in a dynamic environment using traditional analytic tradecraft methodologies. Rarely do things work out just as we planned them, and the cunning human adversaries in most any conflict will seek to learn, adapt and improvise away from whatever happened yesterday on the battlefield where things did not go in their favor.

Thus, military applications cannot enjoy the luxury of closed system experiments that produce predictable outputs like clockwork. The discussion centers less of the characterization of the issue and more on the empirical academic/philosophical domain used during the process. Functionalists are perpetually seeking principles and laws to govern reality through analysis, experimentation, and measurement. There must be a ‘nature of war’ so that one can subsequently offer ‘war is evolutionary’ or that ‘centers of gravity exist in warfare’ as well as ‘these principles of warfare underpin all conflicts in some combination that we must use reasoning and experience to determine.’ Even the metaphoric devices of ‘fog and friction’ indicate a functionalist framing, where if one could just reduce or marginalize some of that fog, one could see clearer. If one could lubricate the friction of warfare, the wheels could turn faster for us while our unwitting opponents remain mired in the slower gears of their own war machine… we can observe, orient, decide and act faster than our adversaries while still framing reality in our functionalist worldview.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

In the functionalist worldview, once a “law” is verified it becomes universal and timeless; the characteristics of a bullet’s trajectory remain constant anywhere in the world now and ten centuries from today. Only subsequent new laws that replace and repeal earlier and erroneous laws can break laws. Jomini’s principles of war are one such example here, where a military leader can win any battle provided he or she applies the principles of war that matter in that conflict. To apply them and lose means that the leader did not apply the correct principles; thus the laws remain a core element of modern military practice and doctrine despite repeated failure of application in countless battles and campaigns. The practitioners within functionalism can error, while established principles and rules are universal and timeless. This creates the rationalized loophole of ‘the enemy has a vote’- where we must follow the established rules of warfare but chance and chaos permits the enemy to still defeat us even if we did everything perfectly correctly.

Author’s original graphic, 2020. I usually show a scene from ‘Apollo 13’ where the NASA engineers need to construct a new filter adaptation device using only the gear available to the astronauts as an example of functionalism.

Similar functionalist loops occur for ‘centers of gravity’ and the epistemological position that all military action is reducible to ‘ends-ways-means’. There must be an enemy strategic center of gravity in every American military campaign plan, because whether the enemy is witting or unwitting, that center of gravity must exist. Planners might pick the wrong one, but despite their errors, one surely must always exist for eventual discovery (frequently by historians after the fact). There is a historical, revisionist rationalization that occurs here after the fact for functionalists. If we selected the wrong COG, we later can identify the proper one… thus individual operators can and do fail in a functionalist paradigm, but the overarching structure cannot be challenged. There is a COG for every conflict and whether or not we or our enemies determine the correct one, it always will be there whether we find it or not. Hence there is order, stability, and a natural framework of reality that permits the functionalist paradigm to operate and articulate the world to functionalist users.

In the application of the functionalist way of framing war and reality, the methodology can be adjusted but the ontology is beyond reproach. COGs must and do exist in all conflicts, however a military might in the fog and friction of war be unable to realize the principle until later, or perhaps pick the wrong one. In functionalist-based organizations, military failure of a concept or principle results in the replacement of that leader with a successor charged with the task to ‘succeed where your predecessor failed, but using the same tools’. The concepts themselves are not usually questioned. Despite functionalism’s status as the dominant paradigm for many Western organizations (including all western militaries), there are others for designers to consider. However, the functionalist paradigm is by far the dominant one- in the thousands of military practitioners I have done design with, functionalism is on the minds of most all of them. Indeed, many of us go our entire lives running a social paradigm without question, never rising to the philosophical level because it never seems necessary. Only a retooling of methodologies, or swapping out operators is required. This indeed is how our entire PME program, national training centers and how we construct our military doctrine exists and functions. They all serve the functionalist paradigm, whether witting or not.

Radical Humanism:

In the Burrell and Morgan model, each of the four paradigms has neighboring paradigms that at least share one ontological similarity. However, each paradigm also has a diametric opposite in the model that essentially shares nothing in common. For functionalism, the opposing paradigm is radical humanism. In social paradigm theory, this tension creates a challenge for researchers that recognize their own parent paradigm as the one in opposition to the other they wish to study.

For military professionals that likely call functionalism their parent paradigm, there is perhaps no greater challenge in paradigm interplay than interpreting and considering radical humanism. Of disciplines most ignored or belittled by dominant and traditional military professionals, those of postmodernism as largely aligned with radical humanism provide strong examples. In part, this is potentially why Dr. Shimon Naveh (founder of the military design discipline in Israel in the mid-1990s) faced such resistance from traditionalists in the military profession. Naveh’s admitted inspiration from postmodern architectural and philosophical sources for SOD created novel military frames as well as a strong negative reaction from formal military functionalists seeking to defend classical and modern military decision-making models.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

Radical humanism seeks to free societies from overarching, dominant social structures and through critical reflection, help profoundly transform societies into novel, emergent forms. Societies are fluid, in a constant state of transformation that does not correlate to any pre-planned or ultimate (teleological) progress or evolution. Again, it matters not whether a reader agrees with this or not; different social paradigms articulate entirely distinct ways to interpret the same complex reality that no single paradigm can encompass. Some may work better than others in particular instances; none reign supreme. The stranger and more offensive a different paradigm seems to you, the more likely you can deduce what your preferred paradigm is within the Burrell and Morgan quadrant.

Examples of radical humanist approaches occur in postmodern philosophy as well as activist positions that apply tailored narratives to fluid, subjective environments. Although there are few current U.S. military applications of radical humanism, there are several efforts within small groups of military theorists. Additionally, some Chinese as well as Russian military theory and application present aspects of non-functionalist and possibly radical humanist tendencies, although the West typically reinterprets them in the dominant functionalist perspective. The radical humanist paradigm is diametrically opposed in both tensions on the quad chart to the functionalist paradigm and is thus located in the upper right. This means that the functionalist and the radical humanist paradigms share little, and are most prone to paradigm blindness or denial of the other.

For military designers, a potential rival using the radical humanist paradigm in a complex system is dangerous because a designer relying upon the Functionalist paradigm is more prone to misinterpretation and a total lack of comprehension of that rival. Those using the radical humanist paradigm understand reality as highly fluid, with change occurring in emergent and unpredictable ways.

Original graphic by author, 2020. I usually show a clip from ‘Fight Club’ to provide one example of a radical humanist interpretation of reality.

The only thing constant is change, and the Humanist views efforts to gain control or prediction of a transforming system are merely applying illusions to retain power for legacy institutions. Humanists are disruptive, and frequently associated with some postmodern movements as well as disruptive organizations seeking a radical transformation of power, culture, or meaning. Radical humanists reinterpret in iterative manners, meaning that they are difficult to provide clear examples of in military contexts.

As paradigms are abstract concepts, numerous actors and groups may manifest elements of a humanist paradigm, particularly when a defense designer encounters something that seems incomprehensible within the functional paradigm. The French term ‘déjà vu’ means “we have seen this before and know it” and generally can be applied to both the functional and structural paradigms where objectivity manifests. The opposite of ‘déjà vu’ is ‘jamais vu’ and means “that which we have not seen before and is unknown.” ‘Jamais vu’ is appropriate for how radical humanists as well as interpretivists frequently experience and interpret reality as it transforms.

Radical Structuralism:

The other two disciplines within the Burrell and Morgan construct are interpretivism and radical structuralism. Both are paradigm neighbors to Functionalism, indicating that unlike radical humanism and its opposing position to everything functionalism frames reality within, there are some areas of agreement for functionalists to discuss with those that utilize one of these two paradigms within a conflict context. In a dynamic system filled with a multitude of actors and networks, there may be groups that utilize either of these alternative paradigms to sense and act within war. Designers using the trans-disciplinary approach to design may gain greater appreciation of the conflict by seeking out and considering these paradigms.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

Radical structuralism relates to radical humanism in the shared dynamic and nonlinear emergence for social change (on the subjective side of ontological choice in the earlier quadrant illustration), yet relates to functionalism in that radical structuralism takes a similar ontological position of objectivity. Socialist movements and revolutions are often associated with radical structuralism, in that Marx and others associate radical transformation with universal and overarching political and economic forces.

For Radical structuralists, reality has a transformational quality for humanity whether it be ideological, political, or some other basis. While Marxists forecasted a final climatic battle of mankind where the workers of the world would unite and defeat capitalists, their prophesied utopia requires the radical change within their frame for reality. Outlined by Rapoport in his controversial introduction to Clausewitz’s On War, the Marxists in a variety of political forms had an eschatological perspective upon how the world would end with a final victory against the capitalist system of oppression. These Marxists are not alone in the radical structuralist pool of likely actors.

Rapoport modifies his frame of eschatological or ‘final battle for mankind’ groups to not just include the political groups. He offers that a ‘divine messianic eschatological’ frame would cover those religious groups that prophesize an Armageddon scenario where the adversaries would perish and their chosen people (of that ideology) would inherit a paradise. Rapoport included the ‘messianic’ when ideological groups infer that those that can bring about this Armageddon are already present on the planet and in the process of bringing this final battle to fruition. When defense designers consider the current threat of ‘Radical Islam’ or other appropriate Armageddon-fixated actors that seek to fulfill prophesied final battles for supremacy of the world, the radical structuralist paradigm has enough flexibility to include them with the Marxists. Additionally, any radical ideology including mainstream Judeo-Christian variants that promote some eschatological ‘final battle’ and posit that organized violence at some point should be conducted to realize this event would exhibit radical structuralism tendencies. Again, social paradigms are how groups of humans interpret complex reality. There is no right or wrong, or better or worse in terms of paradigm comparison- there are just ways that different humans agree or disagree upon what is unfolding in reality, how it is unfolding, and why this is as so and not something else.

Author’s illustration, 2020. I use a couple of video clips to illustrate radical structuralist constructs, especially the Earth Liberation Front movie trailer, “If a Tree Falls” available here:

Additionally, radical structuralism might include other non-ideological and non-political yet still eschatological frames where humanity requires a final solution. Extreme environmental terrorist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and other related groups might work within the radical structuralist paradigm. The ELF essentially view modern society from an environmentally aggressive, neo-Luddite position that humanity is destroying the planet. Humans need to return to an earlier low-tech, environmentally compatible (even hunter-gatherer) existence, and organized violence is entirely acceptable to achieve those ends. For those seeking a radical change where humanity abandons technology and returns to a prehistoric and low-tech lifestyle in order to preserve the planet (such as the ELF dictate as their aim), radical structuralism encompasses this worldview. Despite Marxists, religious extremists and environmental terrorists all hailing from seemingly dissimilar positions on conflict and goals, these disparate groups may become more appreciated through designers considering an alternative paradigm such as radical structuralism.


The fourth paradigm offered in the Burrell and Morgan construct is Interpretivism. Interpretivism takes a dichotomizing stance against radical structuralism, seeing a fluid and subjective reality that also harbors stability and long-term meaningful social structuring. This indicates that the strange bedfellows of Marxists, radical Ideological groups and Eco-Terrorists under the radical structuralist paradigm might have deep misunderstandings of groups that use the interpretivist paradigm. While most designers consider Functionalism their parent paradigm and therefore need to remain aware of extensive bias against radical humanism in this model, those designers need to also consider the opposite tension. Radical structuralists likely have the same difficulty in recognizing and appreciating interpretivist ideas and actions in the same complex environment. As designers need to assume a trans-disciplinary design approach, this requires consideration of the many actors and networks of different paradigm utilization in a complex system as well as other inter-paradigm tensions that likely influence misunderstanding, confusion, and conflict.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

For interpretivists, people socially construct realities that can be explored through narratives, descriptions, and explanations that do not hold to analytical, linear or scientific models. Patterns persist, but they remain wedded to the unique context of the moment and deny any efforts of prediction or universal application. One “cannot step in the same river twice” in Interpretivism, as every moment the river is uniquely different from all others. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz provides a strong example of the interpretivist paradigm with his renowned study of native Balinese peoples and their culturally significant sport of illegal cockfighting.

Geertz explains the story of how he and his partner had attempted to study the village yet were shut out and ignored until they accidently became involved in a Police sting of a local cockfight. As the villagers ran to escape the law enforcement, the two non-native anthropologists decided to run with the villagers and hide in a nearby house. The occupants of the house quickly began serving tea as the police arrived, and the anthropologists played along and provided a false story to prevent those natives from being arrested or charged. Afterwards, the entire village accepted the outsiders and gave them previously denied access for their work.

The Geertz example is an interpretivist one because the anthropologists realized that within the context of that particular cockfight, a unique and singular (or situated) opportunity arose where they gained access to the group they were trying to study. Other anthropologists that might follow them and attempt to gain the trust of that village or other Balinese cannot use this method again. It was a one-shot solution within a wicked problem that worked, but can only be appreciated within the particular context of that instance. One cannot step in the same river twice, and anthropologists cannot copy the Geertz cockfight scenario in a manufactured or checklist approach to performing anthropology.

Other noted sociologists that offer an interpretivist perspective include Donald Schon and Karl Weick. Designers can use the interpretivist paradigm when considering a host of actors and networks, such as ‘Doctors without Borders’ and other humanitarian groups that disregard aspects of national sovereignty in the greater pursuit of globalism or humanity-associated ontological choices. Eastern military philosophy also appears to have deep aspects of Interpretivism that might be studied for looking at Asian nations, actors, and networks. There is a fantastic movie clip from the movie “Kung Fu Panda” where Master Sheefu runs up to the cherry blossom tree to warn Master Oogway of pending danger. The clip is here on YouTube and the discussion between the two characters provides a remarkable parallel of how interpretivism differs ontologically and epistemologically from functionalism. Oogway holds the interpretivist view of reality while Sheefu professes a functionalist one.

“There is no good or bad news, only news” versus “there is good news, that I know is good” is significant in this clip, as well as the notion of purpose, control and the illusion of both (depending on your social paradigm!). The discussion on how a tree grows from a seed is particularly useful here as well. “There are no accidents” versus “everything can be predicted, and things that occur as unpredicted are anomalies we can eliminate as accidental.” “Let go of the illusion of control” versus “I can plant this seed and grow this tree and pick the fruit.” “You cannot change the peach tree into anything else. But if you guide that peach, nurture it, you can make the emergence move in the path necessary.”

The interpretivist paradigm shares stability qualities with the functionalist paradigm, yet it orients towards subjectivity that renders analytic processes irrelevant for seeking system explanation. Within the interpretive paradigm, context is key. The participant cannot remove him or herself from the system and conduct sterile experiments such as in a laboratory. Instead, they are integral parts of the system and their perceptions and actions shape and are shaped by the rest of the system.

interpretivists emphasize context over quantified data, such as when anthropologists discuss culture or when sociologists describe a ‘social construction of reality’ that shapes the perceptions and experiences of all within it. This is where maxims such as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and ‘history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme’ resonate. Using the interpretive paradigm, defense designers might frame certain Eastern cultures, groups and nations in order to gain deeper appreciation of their actions and concepts within a conflict.

Author’s original graphic, 2020. The video clip again is the same from Kung Fu Panda above.

By using an abstract framework to approach design regardless of any set methodology (agnostic to whether one uses a human-centered design approach, a military or other one), social paradigm framing is recommended for starting any design work. What is our own frame (the self, as individuals and also as groups of individuals comprising an organization, and extending outward into societal groupings)? Next, what is the potential frame of adversaries and other key actors/groups in the system? Where might there be paradigmatic overlap, difference, and interplay between one or more paradigms?

In the event that during the self-awareness portion the designers do not select the functional paradigm, they can make a determination during this portion on which paradigm is more suitable for explaining their own (or their organization’s) way of making sense of reality. Typically, western industrialized nations favor functionalism, although there are always exceptions and arguably, the interpretivist paradigm gains ground in some non-military, non-security organizations and fields.

In various design methodologies, this portion describes when designers ‘empathize’ with other stakeholders, ‘frame the environment,’ or consider the ‘rationale of the rival.’ It is essential for designers to retain enough abstraction during this process so as to not limit their cognition within a single paradigm, or discounting all other options by grouping every major actor within the same paradigm. This might happen, particularly in conflict between two similar nations or groups, but overall it is less common than expected.

This graphic below illustrates a way in which the military designers acknowledge their own institutional frame, while exploring potential other paradigm perspectives of various stakeholders and rivals in the complex military situation. An appreciation of these multiple paradigms permits the designers to generate novel and comprehensive meaning that enables divergent thinking as well as innovation within the design process.

Author’s original graphic, 2020

Designers can use the model depicted in this lesson to frame their own preferred paradigms as well as what their group or organization tends to use to comprehend reality. Military professionals often orient towards the ‘functionalist’ paradigm illustrated in the lower left quadrant of the paradigm quadrant chart. Social scientists have many terms for framing this worldview, however designers may only need to establish their self-awareness of whether this paradigm resonates with their methodologies, language, concepts and activities in ways that the other methods do not.

In the event that designers suspect they or their organization utilize another paradigm instead of the functional one, they can use this modeling and an investigation of other paradigms to select another, more appropriate design appreciation of the complex context. Advanced designers can explore multi-paradigm approaches in design applications as well. How one moves from paradigm framing then depends on the rest of the design methodology, techniques, models and the wisdom of the designers.

This article addressed how social paradigm theory can enable designers to consider their own way of understanding reality, war and conflict. It also offers a useful framework for considering alternative paradigms that may be in function in any complex security scenario, especially where different cultures, social beliefs, values and geo-political, economic functions express dissimilar perspectives on what might on the surface seem to be the same thing.

[1] Ben Zweibelson, “One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures,” Defence Studies Journal15, no. 15 (December 14, 2015),;Christopher Paparone and George Reed, “The Reflective Military Practitioner: How Military Professionals Think in Action,” Military Review, April 2008, 66–76; Christopher Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013).

[2] Christopher Paparone and William Davis Jr., “Exploring Outside the Tropics of Clausewitz: Our Slavish Anchoring to an Archaic Metaphor,” in Addressing the Fog of the COG: Perspectives on the Center of Gravity in US Military Doctrine, ed. Celestino Perez (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012); Kurt Vandersteen, “Center of Gravity: A Quest for Certainty or Tilting at Windmills,” in Addressing the Fog of the COG: Perspectives on the Center of Gravity in US Military Doctrine, ed. Celestino Perez (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012), 33–64.

[3] Antoine Bousquet and Simon Curtis, “Beyond Models and Metaphors: Complexity Theory, Systems Thinking and International Relations,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 24, no. 1 (2011): 43–62; Paul Cilliers, “Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism,” Theory, Culture & Society 22, no. 5 (2005): 76–94; Jeff Conklin, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity,” in Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems (CogNexus Institute, 2008),

[4] Jean-Pierre Protzen and David Harris, The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (New York: Routledge, 2010), 128.

[5] Protzen and Harris, The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning.

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