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Madness as Usual

Blind Spots

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 9. May 2024

Why Omnivoyance is Impossible 

When practitioners write or talk about blind spots, what they have in mind are the important experiences locked away in people’s unconscious. The allusion to the tradition of Freudian psychoanalysis is obvious. Human beings, so the basic thesis goes, form ‘mechanisms of defence’, such as denial or repression, and these ensure that blind spots remain. The good news for the practitioner is that therapeutic or consulting experts can detect such blind spots, and this allows them to provide important stimuli for the client. 

Sociology based on systems theory and the approaches to consulting inspired by this sociology are, by contrast, not interested in the latent content of human consciousness. Systems theorists cannot and do not want to look inside people’s heads, and they leave the detection of blind spots to medicine, the psychology of perception, or psychoanalysis. The systems theorist’s interest is rather in how social systems can produce blind spots. 

Every social system has its own ‘tricks’ by means of which it maintains itself and renders itself predictable. In the case of a romantic relationship, for example, these are distinct norms of mutual behaviour and behaviour towards other couples, norms that are stabilized through constant repetition. To give another example, friendship groups often have implicit rules that govern how the members should present themselves, who has the right to speak and when, and who plays which role in the group. Organizations have a formal structure and organization-specific cultural expectations (which sometimes run counter to the formal structure) that determine how the members should behave. 

With the help of these – if I may be forgiven this disorderly list – norms, rules, structures, and cultures, the various social systems such as couples, friendship groups, and organizations develop a selective form of vision. They observe many things – most of all, of course, themselves – but many things also escape their observation. They develop a keen sensibility for certain things and a pronounced insensibility for everything else. A German automotive company is not interested in changes to French agricultural regulations (and lacks a routine way of observing them). A digital technology company does not keep track of developments in the labour market for janitorial staff – except, perhaps, if it offers virtual cleaning services. And a company that does not employ staff on a shift-work basis will not make it a habit to stay up to date with the latest research into the stress caused by night shifts. 

This inattention is not a matter of individual shortcoming, and this marks an important difference from the situation in psychoanalysis. Interestingly, when we look at organizations we see that blind spots usually persist over long stretches of time even as the personnel changes. There is truth, then, in the slogan, ‘If Siemens only knew what Siemens knows.’ 

Both anatomy and sociology confirm that blind spots cannot be avoided. The conceptual distinctions with which an observer operates cannot themselves be observed by the observer. They constitute that observer’s blind spot. In Niklas Luhmann’s words, one’s own distinctions are a blind spot that ‘organizes the possibility of making observations in the first place and can only be replaced with another blind spot’. 

The high degree of selectivity in observation is a useful functional feature because it is the only way in which social systems are able to demarcate themselves from their environment. Organizations, and of course also loving couples, friendship groups, social movements, and whole societies, can only exist because of the highly selective form of vision that they create for themselves through their own structures. The blind spots they cultivate are precisely what allow them to seal themselves off from the complexity of the environment. Siemens, for instance, overlooked the development of fax machines and data transmission via the internet because the management had already established successful learning processes in other areas in this field. Siemens experimented early on with the development of fax machines and could easily have put them on the market. But because the company had successfully developed its business using telex technology and had intensified its learning processes in that area, it left the business of fax machines to other firms. One might, in hindsight, lament this fact, and perhaps wish that things had been done differently. But in the final analysis, an organization cannot do without such blind spots. 

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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