Heraclitus is sometimes seen as the ‘father’ of process philosophy, the statement above emphasising that change is a fundamental part of reality, and that this reality is one drive by process; it puts the flow of change at the centre of how we can understand the world. As Rescher (1996: 28) states,
‘Becoming and change – the origination, flourishing, and passing of the old and the innovative emergence of ever-new existence – constitute the central themes of process metaphysics.’
As we inhabit ever more complex societies, there can be a tendency to attempt to reduce that complexity to make reality more easily understandable. In research, this complexity reduction takes a number of forms. The calculation of ‘effect sizes’ in large scale experiments, the capture of a ‘case study’, the results from a survey. All are attempts to capture an instance in time, a stable moment or relationship. If Rescher’s notion of reality above, one marked by flow, change and emergence is correct, however, then perhaps we need to rethink the fundamental approach we take to research.
Process philosophy is based on the centrality of process and time (change) in allowing us to understand our world. This presents a serious set of issues and problems which we need to consider if research is to help us understand and act positively in and on our environments. To capture and uncover the complexity of processes and how they lead to the patterns, artefacts and events/situations we wish to understand is difficult. In many social situations such as human experience in cities, student learning in classrooms, or political perspectives in communities, patterns emerge due to the processes at play and lead to resultant behaviours which are not merely random (as the processes involved are in some way causal). But neither are they simple and linear. Some of the processes involved may remain hidden, or may change in magnitude and form over time. And yet many of the research tools and approaches we rely on do nothing more than capture these complex flows at a point in time. Or perhaps at points in time – from which we extrapolate and then build relationships. Sometimes we might do this accurately (do we ever really know?), on other occasions we might only begin to uncover a small part of the processes responsible (again, how do we know?). On other occasions we trick ourselves into believing we have uncovered stable classifications which tell us something foundational about the world – such as leadership typologies!
Given the complexity involved in social processes and in social contexts, when we analyse the ‘things’ they produce, how do we begin to make sense of these networks of activity and creation? In a world of process is there a methodological approach which can allow us to get close to uncovering the ‘reality’ of the social, the cultural, the economic and the environmental? As we create an ever more complex world we will increasingly lose our ability to understand it unless we can begin to take seriously the need to develop research approaches which help us engage with process as the driver of change.