Paradox may be the ground zero for disciplined speculation that forces individuals, organizations and societies to challenge normality and existing mental frames. Paradox can be a threat, and paradox can be a source for new insight. This paper examines how a paradox can emerge and develop in organizations. I will argue that the organization can be seen as a complex social system, and that the paradox rises as the system faces increased complexity in its environment, while equipped with an information processing architecture that reduces the complexity in an inadequate way. Following a review of classes of paradoxes: rhetorical, logical and social, the paper describes an organization as a complex social system with cognitive operations. The cognitive operations include drawing of distinctions, forming of categories, individuation of the system and the boundaries to the environment, and adaptability as a second order reorganization. The paper then discusses the dynamics and micro-foundation of how a paradox is formed based on this model. Three categories of social paradoxes: paradox of belonging, paradox of learning, and paradox of organizing, are analyzed and described as dynamic behavior in a system. The paper intends to inform a trans-disciplinary approach to describe phenomenon in organizations seen as complex social systems, and to contribute with conceptual understanding to be applied in empirical studies of paradoxical situations in organizations.
We argue the case that human social systems and social organizations in particular are concrete, non-metaphorical, cognitive agents operating in their own self-constructed environments. Our point of departure is Luhmann’s theory of social systems as self-organizing systems of communications. Integrating the Luhmannian theory with the enactive theory of cognition and Simondon’s theory of individuation, results in a novel view of social systems as complex, individuating sequences of communicative interactions that together constitute distributed yet distinct cognitive agencies. The relations of such agencies with their respective environments (involving other agencies of the same construction) is further clarified by discussing both the Hayek-Hebb and the perturbation-compensation perspectives on systems adaptiveness as each reveals different and complementary facets of the operation of social systems as loci of cognitive activity. The major theoretical points of the argument are followed and demonstrated by an analysis of NASA’s communications showing how a social organization undergoes a process of individuation from which it emerges as an autonomous cognitive agent with a distinct and adaptive identity. With this example we hope to invite a debate on how the presented approach could inform a transdisciplinary method of cognitive modeling applied to human social systems.