A Matrix about Change: The Precarity of Identity

Part 1 of a discussion of my talk "Risk, Vulnerability, and the Precarity of Identity" given at Red Hat Open Shift Commons. This first post discusses the key theory.

A Matrix about Change: The Precarity of Identity


This is the first post discussing a talk I gave in December at Red Hat OpenShift Commons titled "Risk, Vulnerability, and the Precarity of Identity." During the talk, I introduced the matrix found below as a tool for thinking about the hazards faced by an organization, as well as vulnerabilities and responses to them. Since delivering the presentation I have continued to think about the 2x2 matrix, the theory behind it, and how it might be useful. Some other parts of the talk are included in the below but in a much more abbreviated version than in the original linked in the introduction. At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the Cynefin Framework that permeates so much of my thinking.

The version of the matrix I presented during my talk at Red Hat.

The central idea of this matrix can be found across two questions that originate in the work of Humberto Maturana: "How much can  things change and remain the same?" Followed by the inverse, "How much can things change before they no longer remain the same?" (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011). The following sections present the theory underlying this matrix found in the work of Maturana and Di Paolo, Buhrmann, and Barandiaran (2017).

Organization and Structure

At the core of the matrix are a few concepts from the work of Maturana, the Chilean biologist turned philosopher, namely structural determinism, domains of structural determinism, organization, and structure (Maturana, 1983; Maturana, 1988; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). In Maturana's work, with and without Francisco Varela, organization refers to the relationships among a system's components that make it identifiable as a certain class of system referred to as its "class identity." Structure, on the other hand, refers to a system's components and the relationships among them that define the system as an instance of a particular class of system (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). For example, Maturana explains a table can have any number of structures consisting of combinations of metal, wood, glass, plastic, or other materials that are related to each other through varying forms of construction. Organization refers to certain aspects of the construction of the table such as a flat surface and four legs or a central support that give it its "tablehood" and allow it to be identified as such (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011). For another example, Thompson (2007) writes that for something to be identifiable as a car the components have to be arranged in a certain way while the structure can very considerably and even change over time (e.g., replacing parts after an accident).

Structural Determinism

Structural determinism is a key component of Maturana's work that builds off the distinction between organization and structure. Rooted in his experiments around the biology of cognition, structural determinism suggests that external events can only trigger change within systems but not determine what outcome they produce. This is because systems respond to events based upon their structure at the time they happen. To Maturana, all that happens within a system is a product of its own structure and not the triggering event. Structural determinism rules out instructive interactions where something external to a system determines how it acts. If instructive interactions were possible, Maturana writes, we would find ourselves in a King Midas situation where the King could place his hand on an object, change its properties, and turn it into gold (Maturana, 1983). In place of the term instructive interaction and the similar term "input," Maturana uses the word "perturbations" (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011). All that an external force can do is "perturb" a system but not control it. This is the case until a certain threshold is reached and a destructive interaction takes place where an external force destroys a system. Still, it is the system's structure that renders the event a destructive one and not a transformative one, for instance.  

Monocausality & Polycausality

An important consequence of structural determinism is a move from monocausal explanations toward polycausal ones. Monocausal explanations seek to attribute a sole cause to an effect. For example, "COVID-19 hit and it caused our system to enter into an undesirable state." In this case, the sole event, COVID-19, is attributed to the effect of unwanted outcomes throughout an organization. This type of explanation violates structural determinism as it implies external events can determine what happens within a system. Polycausal explanations on the other hand, connect multiple causes to an effect. For example, "COVID-19 hit, we responded in the following ways, and an undesirable system state followed." In this explanation, another event is added that accounts for structural determinism where it is understood that systems are responsible for their behavior and not external events.

Making a Matrix

Using the concepts of organization, structure, and structural determinism, Maturana introduces four domains of structural determinism for describing the state of a system at any moment. They are presented below in the form of matrix, though it should be noted domains of structural determinism do not appear this way in Maturana's work.

Maturana's Domains of Structural Determinism presented in matrix form. 

In the top left is the Domain of Perturbations where all interactions that could lead to a system changing its state can be cataloged. Unfortunately, Maturana does not expand upon this domain beyond the description given above (Maturana, 1983; Maturana & Varela, 1987). Given the other domains, it can be surmised that changes of state are those that occur within a system's components and the relations between them below a certain threshold beyond which they would be constituted as structural changes (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011).

Moving to the top right is the Domain of Structural Changes where all events that can lead to changes in how the organization of the system is realized can be classified. For example, the legs of a wooden table might be replaced with steel ones but it still maintains its "organizationhood" as a table. The question of "How much can things change and remain the same?" belongs to this domain. Brought into consideration is how much a system can change at the level of its components and the relationships among them and still be recognizably the same system by maintaining the same class identity (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011)

All events that can lead to loss of organization, or class identity, belong in the Domain of Disintegrations. As with the other domains, the events trigger but do not determine whether a system will disintegrate and lose its class identity or not. In this domain, the structure of a system changes to the degree that organization is lost. For example, an event first responded to in the Domain of Structural Changes might gain enough force that it triggers the system to move across the thick boundary that separates the two and into the Domain of Disintegrations. The question "How much can things change before they no longer remain the same?" is useful for navigating this domain of structural determinism. Using the table example, Maturana explains that cutting the corner off a table produces a structural change where organization is still maintained. In other words, even though structure was modified its "tablehood" is still preserved. This interaction belongs in the Domain of Structural Changes. However, if the table is cut in half its structure is modified to the extent that its organization is lost and is no longer recognizable as the same system this event belongs in the Domain of Disintegrations (Maturana, 1983; Maturana & Varela, 1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2011)

The last domain is that of Destructive Interactions that will be further developed using some of Maturana's later work in the next section. From the description provided here, all events that can lead to the outright destruction of the system belong in this domain. In building toward integrating Maturana's ideas within the context of organizational adaptive capacity and transformation, the discussion now turns to the subject of identity.


Maturana's domains are already concerned with identity, but what he calls "class identity" in particular that refers to a class of system and not one in particular. Seeking a less coarse understanding of identity, the work of Di Paolo, Buhrmann, and Barandiaran (2017) is useful. In their work, they introduce identity as something that is continually being reproduced (pictured as the cycle in the second image below). Identity is, for this reason, something that is precarious as it is continually being reproduced - it is never finished. Translated into an organizational setting, being an organization is already doing something in that it has to be continually reproduced as the kind of organization it has been decided by its members that it should be (Korsgaard, 2009). Processes of identity reproduction must be ongoing or the identity ceases to exist, just like Korsgaard's (2009) giraffe below. At the same time, identity is something that has been established and invested in, so it might also be said that identity is precarious simply because it already exists and we would rather not lose it. This is touched upon further in the section "The Thickness and Emergence of Identity."  

The reproduction of the giraffe

Adding further precarity  to identity is the needed degree of coherence among the processes of reproduction (Greenberg, & Bertsch, 2021). For an identity to be reproduced, there must be some degree of coherence among the transformative processes. Part of this coherence might include continually improving horizontal and vertical alignment as well as working toward a Lean organization where identity reproduction is pursued with greater and greater efficiency. If coherence is lost, and the intentional patterning toward an identity along with it, identity reproducing processes might be better thought of as resources that could be used to reproduce an identity if they were to become coherent again.  

Identity reproduction 

Adding further precarity is the reliance of the processes of identity production on what Di Paolo et al. (2017) refer to as "enabling constraints." In their work, enabling constraints are identified primarily as the inflow of energy and matter that is used to "fuel" the processes of identity production (pictured as the arrow pointing in to the cycle). Alluded to, but not discussed in their book, is the outflow of energy and matter from the system that also appears as an enabling constraint (pictured as the arrow pointing away from the cycle). Identity production, then, is dependent on matter and energy flowing into the system as well as away from it. Identity reproducing processes can be understood as transformative processes as they continually reproduce identity through transforming inflows to outflows. In an organizational context, organizations require inflows in the form of personnel, information, technologies, and materials, that are then turned into outflows in the form of products and services through transformative technological processes. Interruptions in inflows, breakdowns in transformative processes, or lessening demand for outflows can all trigger changes within an organization. The enterprise is precarious.  

An organization's identity can be understood centrally as function - the process of transforming some inflows into certain outflows. Conceived of as function, identity is an understanding of what an organization exists to do as well as how it does it (e.g., transforming flows through the use of certain technologies). Multiple understandings of function might hang together with varying degrees of alignment and conflict. Conceived of as socio-technical systems, also sticking to ideas of function are varying theories of what the role of technology is internally and externally, what it is capable of, how it should be used, how technology should be related to the social component of the organizations, how jobs should be designed, and how the organization should be managed (Trist, & Bamforth, 1951; Trist, 1993; Trist, Gurth, Murray, & Pollock, 1993). All of these understandings contribute to a sense of identity.

The Thickness and Emergence of Identity

Identity is drawn in the above image as having more than one dimension. Understandings of identity might be thick in that they contain detailed images of the past, present, and future that resources are being expended to conserve (Cilliers, 2005). Thinner understandings of identity, on the other hand, are more open to change as they contain less detail about the way things have been, they way they are, and the they way they should be in the future.

Not yet discussed is where identity comes from. Identity emerges alongside environment. For an identity to exist it a system must have access to flows that can supports its reproduction. With an identity formed, what counts as required inflows is a matter of identity and identity can only be sustained if the flows are available. Discussion about moving between flows and changing identity are discussed at length in the next post.


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