Helping Social Objects Navigate and Assemble for Transformation

by Stefan Morales | Last Updated: January 11, 2024

The world is in the midst of an intensifying polycrisis.

There is no need to list all the ways this is the case, nor argue finer points. Many others have done so extensively. We also see the causes and effects everyday.

This piece is not about exploring that – but it’s important to clearly state what this is for.

This piece is a short precis to a bunch of work in progress – some mindsets and practices for group work in any context, but especially decision-makers.


I am not alone in wanting to support shared effort in navigating intractable and wicked problems, and transforming what we have the capability and power to transform.

I am also not alone in having many questions and uncertainties about how we do this well, together!

If there was one answer, one way of doing this well, then we would surely have seen more accomplished in the past 2-4 decades. But we haven’t.

There always has been multiple answers. Multiple pathways through the “problem space” and “solution space” to be navigated. Multiple unique ways for unique individuals, groups, systems, etc. to grow, transform, adapt, or die, well.

But how can we do this well, together? This question dogs us all. And my hunch about how is summarized in the title above – Helping Social Objects Navigate and Assemble for Transformation – and I will unpack each word for the rest of this piece.


There’s many different postures here. I just chose “helping” for the title because it’s simple and accessible.

But one can facilitate, accompany, lead, organize, etc. The spirit remains the same. The life of our communities, neighbourhoods, businesses, etc. thrives because we volunteer, join, employ, etc. along with others in some way. We do this to take shared action.

Some would argue that helping has been the problem all along, and that we should just step back. Accept what is. I also agree – and find wisdom here as well.

But how can we both help to transform what is, and accept what is? The two seem contradictory.

Brenda Zimmerman’s work on Wicked Questions in her book Edgeware is a helpful aide on this, as is Scott Kelso’s book The Complementary Nature. Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz distill these ideas further in their ‘Wicked Questions’ Liberating Structure, by inviting us to ask ourselves: “What opposing-yet-complementary strategies do we need to pursue simultaneously in order to be successful?”

For example, I can complete the sentence – “How is it that I/we are … and I/we are … simultaneously?” – by inserting the two opposite strategies that are at play here:

“How is it that we aim to orient our life and work to help “solve” the polycrisis, and we step back from action and “solving” – accepting what is, doing nothing – simultaneously?

I believe there is deep wisdom in holding this tension in our work – between doing and not doing – because in many ways the problem is that we are working too hard and fast, on things that don’t matter, at scale. We aren’t playing. We aren’t slowing down. We aren’t acknowledging that we are incapable, in many ways. In short, we are ignoring our capacity gap at our own peril. I believe this is the risk of solely taking action without holding action in tension with its opposite.

And the polycrisis urgently invites us to be in this postural tension between accepting, hospicing, etc. AND joined-up, collaborative, creative, wise action… simultaneously.

Social Objects

So what is this all about?

When we talk about the existence of things like states, cities, communities, networks, organizations, teams, individuals, etc. we are making a big assumption that they actually do exist!

“But of course they exist!”

But do they exist the same way that a mountain, or an animal, or the sun exists?

Hmm. Not really.

“Social objects” are different from “objects” because without our human minds to think and feel them, to co-create them, together with other humans (and even non-humans), they would cease to exist – this is social ontology. Alan Wiesman’s book The World Without Us is a profound exploration of this, through the simple hypothetical question “What would happen if humans disappeared?”

In answering that, what becomes clear is that many social objects we take for granted no longer exist, and whatever systems were maintained, stewarded, etc. by the disappeared humans, fall into disrepair and cause all sorts of disaster. This thought experiment about their absence is the biggest instructor about what social objects are and what they do:


I believe that the metaphor of mapping, navigating and exploring is more suited than strategy, tactics, competition, etc.

Metaphors and practices of strategy prioritize retaining internal consistency in the face of change and uncertainty: a more closed conceptual model of a social object, where its growth, subsistence, resilience, etc. is prioritized within a field of competition and scarcity.

Metaphors and practices of navigation, on the other hand, prioritize a balance between internal and external consistency in the face of change and uncertainty: a more open conceptual model of a social object, where its transformation, reassembly, anti-fragility, etc. is prioritized within a field of connection and possibility.

And so, if we are mapping, navigating and exploring, the following becomes possible in our practices:

What I am up to here: I am building and playtesting these legends, and will continue to do this out-loud here in the blog and on the mailing list, capturing lessons and resources as I go in a self-led course.

And Assemble

Social objects are made up of other social objects, and also characterized by relationships with external social objects. They exist at different scales. They are nested, overlapping, crisscrossed.

Every social object is radically singular. They are a unique expression of the emergent properties of the parts that comprise them, an expression of something greater than the sum of their parts, and an expression of the constraints imposed on them from outside.

Social objects are material. They are as much characterized by this expressive quality, as by the very real material constraints and opportunities that they navigate – internally and externally.

To assemble is to form an assemblage, or a social object, which is not simply a collection of parts. A single example can help sharpen all of the above. A skilled archer riding and battling on horseback is an assemblage of human-bow-horse, whereas an unskilled person trying to fire a bow and arrow while riding on a horse for the first time is a collection of parts. To assemble is to take a collection of disassociated parts, and associate them – in the case of the human-bow-horse, developing skill and mastery over time.

Effort and intention goes into navigating existing social objects through all the complexity and uncertainty, and even more so when we are assembling social objects. Creating new associations, alliances, configurations, networks, etc. from existing social objects is one thing; creating radically new types of social objects is another.

And our historical moment demands transformation in both regards…

For Transformation

The framework for thinking about what social objects are, how they form and are dismantled, how they behave, what they are capable of, what they mean, etc. is as I’ve just said, our social ontology. But we often don’t think or talk about the social ontology we are implying in our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, activities, plans, strategies, tactics, tasks, etc. It is implicit. We assume it (at our own peril), and I believe:

I believe that the unexamined social and political life is not only unlivable, but it is wasteful (missed opportunities, lazy rationalizations), uncreative and boring (we do not see what is possible, we only see what is, what is necessary, what can never be, etc.), and even overcreative, getting “wrong traction” for the wrong reasons (radical innovation, but only in the service of increasing a narrow form of value).

Without developing and using new concepts and practices to interrogate the assumed social ontology beneath our work and play, I believe that we risk not only falling prey to groupthink, biases, ideologies, conspiracies, etc. but we also risk getting caught up in their darker tendencies: how these processes tend to intensify and calcify into rigid systems of belief (us/them, right/wrong, good/evil, etc.). Not only is this boring, but in the worst case, it can foster destructive and violent relationships.

So, for now, I’ll put a stake in the ground, and just call them “shitty ontologies.”

Sadly, there are many shitty social ontologies in this world, some examples include:

There are many more, but you get the picture: social objects are unchanging, simple, and singularly minded.

A non-shitty social ontology would say that social objects aren’t static, forever things. They aren’t transcendent, or holistically complete. And they don’t totalize the multiple identities within them via the overarching identity of the whole.

Rather, social objects are nested like Russian Matroishka dolls. They are open-ended, each an emergent expression of a population of social objects within them, and each impacted by the world around them. And they each have a unique history of formation, and field of possibility before them.

Though social objects may share common characteristics with many others like them, and can be said to be part of a type or category, they are not overdetermined by this. Their type or category provides a helpful set of key features – features that can act like a legend – to consider at a given scale of social reality.

And lastly, what I hope is now obvious: social objects can and should be transformed, especially if they are causing harm and damage.

Wrap up for now and what to expect next

Along with a handful of other practitioners and mentors, I am playtesting and refining participatory structures to help activate this set of concepts, the proposed use of which will be to enable any group of human designers and participants to access insight about their context, and what is possible within and through it.

And I am a commitment to playfulness in this work. Work~play. Because my hope is that this set of structures will help humans – working and playing at any scale – get unstuck from their usual patterns, and begin dancing across the panarchy more: becoming more open to possibility, surprising interlocutors, considered and creative joined-up thought and action (assembly), no matter which scale of social objects being navigated by said humans.

My hope is that the scale-specific legends will also prove helpful as starting points for more advanced practitioners, and that we can continue to refine them and populate their legends with more markers. Perhaps what I like best about this, is that this set of mindsets and practices is very open to many different existing social theories and empirical findings – so long as they are not assuming shitty social ontologies, or if they are, that they are adequately deconstructed and refined before being used as an aide for this sort of group work.

Until next time,