The problem with stages

Although I love Ken Wilber‘s integral model in general, there are several sides of him and the integral community I find a bit troublesome. This includes green-bashing (vilifying the ones they see at the green level of development), Wilber’s tendency to misrepresent the views of others (straw man arguments), and the tendency of the integral community to adopt both the good and bad sides of Ken Wilber’s personal approach.

I would also include an over-emphasis on stages, and especially the stages described in Spiral Dynamics. Of course, these models can be useful in some contexts and to some extent, if they are held lightly.

WHY FASCINATION WITH STAGES?

Why is there such an emphasis on stages in the integral world? One reason is obviously that they see the difference between first- and second-tier orientation as important and fascinating. (Very roughly, this is the difference between seeing your own view as right and other views as wrong versus appreciating the validity in each one and being curious about how they fit together in describing the world in a more rich and nuanced way.)

I can’t help wonder if there isn’t more going on.

Stage models offer neat ways of dividing up the world and understanding people. They are generally easy to understand. We can put them on top of just about anything and tell ourselves we understand what’s going on. They give us a jumping-off point for easy analysis.

They can be attractive because they give us a sense of understanding and that we grasp something important about the world, and many want to feel they understand.

Also, they can be used to boost our self-esteem. If we understand and like a model, it’s often because we imagine we are pretty high up on the hierarchy.

THE PROBLEMS WITH STAGES

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind some things about stage models of human development.

Stages are not inherent in reality. They are imagined and put on top of something we observe. These imaginations can fit the data well, and help us orient in the world, and they are still imaginations.

If we have a set of observed data, we can find innumerable imagined overlays that fit this data – more or less well. In the future, we’ll likely come up with models that seem to fit the data, and new data, better, and models we may see as more useful in helping us orient.

What we observe largely depends on what we look for and expect to find. We already operate from assumptions and use those to determine the setting for gathering data, the data we gather, and how we interpret those data. To some extent, we see what we expect to see. It’s easy to imagine alien anthropologists or psychologists coming here, studying us, and highlighting and understanding what they see in a very different way from us, and it may be equally valid and useful as what we are familiar with.

We all operate from different parts of us in different situations and settings. What comes out in one situation may be different from what comes out in another. There is a richness, complexity, and fluidity here that may not be well captured by models.

We are rich and complex, and stages will by necessity only look at one or a few of the aspects of who and what we are. As Ken Wilber says, there are several lines of development. (In reality, there are innumerable since we can divide this up in as many or as few as we want.) Stage models tend to (over?)simplify and overlook the complex ecology of interactions within this organic richness.

We tend to develop stage models of what we value and where we, as culture and individuals, are high up or on top. In another culture, they may see something else as valuable and would develop stage models of that. In these models, they are likely to be closer to the top since they live in a culture where that particular development is valued, encouraged, and supported, and we may be further down. (These could be stage models of being in tune with the natural environment, hunting skills, shamanic development, valuing the interests of the group over self, living from a sense of deep time, and so on.)

In general, stage models can be over-emphasized and held too tightly.

Life is far more complex and rich than any model. Models and thoughts are different in type from what they refer to. Life is always more than and different from our thoughts about it. And our models tend to reflect – and reinforce – our own culture, orientation, and values.

Stage models can still serve as valuable guides for certain things and in certain situations. It’s just helpful to see the bigger picture, be aware of their limitations, and hold them lightly.

Note: I wrote this from what came to me, I am sure others have done a far more thorough and insightful analysis of the limitations of stage theories.

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