Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Mark EdwardsMark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory (Routledge, 2009) .
Shortened version posted with permisson of SUNY Press.
This paper has been previously published in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice as
Edwards, MG (2008), 'Where's the Method to Our Integral Madness? An Outline of an Integral Meta-Studies',
Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 165-194.[1]

Full Essay Available at the SUNY Press Ebook Store

Where's the Method
to Our Integral Madness?

An Outline for an
Integral Meta-Studies

Mark Edwards


Integral metatheory does not currently employ any formal research method for developing or evaluating its frameworks, propositions and knowledge claims. As is the case with almost all other metatheory, Ken Wilber's AQAL framework has been developed according to a creative and idiosyncratic mix of personal insight and traditional scholarship. The AQAL conceptual lenses, their relationships and the AQAL metatheoretical system, which they constitute, are the result one man's analysis of extant scientific and cultural knowledge. It may be expert analysis that is based on traditional methods of scholarship, but that informal approach needs to be augmented and evaluated by more rigorous and transparent methods of research. More importantly, those methods need to be developed and applied by communities of researchers, practitioners and scholars who are aware of, and competent in, the methods and techniques of metatheorising. The purpose of this paper is to show why this is an important issue in the future development of integral metatheory and to contextualise the absence of a formal method within a general framework for describing an integral meta-studies. The importance of method is discussed within an integral cycle of learning model that shows why method plays such a crucial role in metatheory building and in scientific disciplines in general. The lack of a theory building method should not be confused with AQAL's meta-methodological partner – Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP). Both metatheory building methods and IMP have their place in a comprehensive approach to, what might be called, integral meta-studies.  An overview of integral meta-studies is presented to contextualise the discussion of method.

Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. ... Yet, it is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down. (Feyerabend 1993, p. 214)


Postmodernism is right to be critical of big pictures and integrative frameworks that are too heavily based on the results of individual scholarship (however visionary that scholarship might be).

This article outlines an argument for scientific method in integral metatheory building. The intent here is to raise awareness about the urgent need for rigorous methods of research to be used in the construction, modification and evaluation of integral metatheories such as AQAL. That being the case, it may seem odd to open with a quote from one of the most ardent critics of scientific method - Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend was not, however, against any method. It was more that he wanted to humanise how science was done; to shake up the view that science is some kind of process line that takes in confusion and ignorance at one end and produces fact and incontrovertible truth at the other. Feyerabend wanted us to recognise the inherent creativity within method. As he put it, “the only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes” (Feyerabend, 1993 p. 14). I take this to mean that humans discover and understand themselves and their world best when they play. The interesting thing, though, is that method is evident even in playful acts - “You count to ten and I'll search”. All creative narrative involves method – “Once upon a time, in a land far, far way ...” Method is a definitive characteristic of life. When we make an argument, learn a song, go hunting, search for our car keys, or bake a cake we do so, at least to some degree, methodically. And our methods can always be improved. As Feyerabend says, “it is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them”.[2] Following a rational method is not the only, let alone, “universal” measure of excellence but it is an essential, minimal requirement for exploring any phenomenon from a scientific orientation.

In the following pages, I do not wish to “nail down” the steps by which we carry out or evaluate our metatheorising (a subsequent paper will have more to say on the specifics of metatheory building method). What I do want to make clear here is that communities of inquiry and practice need to be actively involved in building and evaluating their core metatheories. And they need to do this methodically. Mastering method is a crucial step in becoming a mature scientific discipline and the objective in this paper is to set out arguments for why method might help integral metatheory building become just that. The paper consists of the following sections: i) purpose and scope, ii) the definition of integral metatheorising, method and meta-methodology, iii) some current approaches to building metatheory, iv) the importance of a method strand in the cycle of learning, v) the place of method in an integral meta-studies, and vi) a concluding call for a focus on methods in integral metatheory building.

Purpose, scope and audience

All scientific method is concerned with raising awareness about how we develop our understandings and explanations. In advocating for the adoption of rigorous methods in developing an integral science, I am essentially calling for a more systematic and self-critical approach to that important task. The purpose of this introductory essay is to call for the concerted use of formal research methods in developing and evaluating integral metatheory building. This issue is not distinct from the issue of application. While application takes pre-existing metatheory and directs it towards some domain or issue of interest, it must always involve some sort of evaluation of its metatheoretical base. However, in this essay the focus is not so much on the task of applied evaluation but on the development of metatheory itself. My intent is to draw attention to the lack of formal procedures by which integral metatheory, such as Ken Wilber's AQAL (2001), has been, and is being, developed and evaluated. As this is an introductory paper, there will be no detailed discussion of the specific options available for performing metatheory building or evaluation.[3] The main intent here is to raise consciousness of the issue and to provide a context for its discussion.

The paper is addressed to both affiliated and independent scholars who wish to contribute to the conceptual development and evaluation of integral metatheory. All research programmes evolve and develop over time and their richness and relevance gain through the active involvement of the communities that enact the practices of those programmes. Method in (meta)theory building is crucial to this evolving process. I hope to engage with that aspect in all of us that seeks a rational understanding and evaluative grounding of AQAL and other overarching metatheories. Grappling with the demands of method is an experience that all students, of any topic share, can identify with. Pursuing our interests and passions in the realms of art, science, justice or morals also involves the conscientious development and application of method. Consequently, learning, internalising and applying method is a core requirement in any discipline.

As soon as the issue of method is raised, the associated topic also appears of what validity criteria are used in the evaluative process. What criteria do we use to judge the outcome of employing particular types of methodologies? For example, some of the most important questions that can be asked in an evaluative assessment of a metatheory are: Is it good? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it just? These questions, as Habermas (1995), Wilber (2006) and others have pointed out, relate to the domains of morals and values, science, aesthetics, art and justice. And each validity test will have its own set of methods. In the following pages I want to focus on the rational aspects of method as it applies to the scientific pursuit of evaluating the scientific truth of our metatheory building. Not that this domain of truth is sealed off from the concerns of morality, aesthetics and justice. Irrespective of what genre or period it might come from, for a painting to be beautiful it must also “be true to life” in some way. The decision made in a courtroom must also be grounded in some way on what is evidentially true. Moral judgement is always helped by knowing the “facts”. But while there will always be strong connections between the validity concerns of the different life domains, the methods which we use to test the scientific truth of a proposition will have different interests to those we employ in art or social justice. And the criteria that we use to assess metatheories will also have their own distinctive characteristics.

The pursuit of truth in metatheorising asks such questions as: How do we know that our metatheories are accurate, based on extant theory and internally consistent? How do we know that we have correctly represented the approaches included within the metatheory? Have we have sampled an adequate range of perspectives in building our metatheory? To what extent is our metatheory inclusive of other perspectives? Are all the relevant explanatory lenses present within our metatheoretical system? How do we know if the relationships between those lenses are consistent and logical? How do we evaluate our metatheory according to rational standards of reliability and validity? These questions lie at the heart of a scientific approach to building and applying metatheories such as AQAL.

Method need not always be a mechanical process of simply following the rules. It also has the potential to raise our reflexive awareness in why and how we employ specific procedures and techniques. Because all method includes a critical component, the very act of following method raises the issues of evaluation. Reflexivity, as Bourdieu (2004) notes, aids impartiality and objectivity and is a defence against believing in our metatheories as if they were immutable laws. Bourdieu's reflexivity is also a collective process (Maton 2003) and so, the methods that help us develop overarching models should also reflexively contribute to our collective evaluation of those models (and eventually to their reconstruction into something even more inclusive, more true and, hopefully, more just and beautiful). Our metatheories should guide us in developing methods that reflexively and iteratively reassess their own veracity.

What is integral metatheorising?

Metatheorising is concerned with “the study of theories, theorists, communities of theorists, as well as the larger intellectual and social context of theories and theorists” (Ritzer 1988. p. 188). Metatheory building is a sub-branch of metatheorising in that it focuses on the construction of overarching conceptual frameworks and narratives that find convergences and divergences between more localised theories. Whereas theory is developed from the exploration of empirical events, experiences and “first-order” concepts, metatheory emerges from the direct investigation of other theory, models and “second-order” concepts (Gioia and Pitre 1990). As Overton puts it (2007, p. 154)

Scientific metatheories transcend (i.e., 'meta') theories and methods in the sense that they define the context in which theoretical and methodological concepts are constructed. Theories and methods refer directly to the empirical world, while metatheories refer to the theories and methods themselves.

Metatheorising includes metatheory building as well as other types of metatheoretical research. Metatheorist George Ritzer makes the point that most research begins with some element of metatheorising in that scholars review the theories of other researchers in the development of specific hypotheses or truth claims (Ritzer 1991). Metatheorising is similar to other forms of sense-making in that it attempts to structure and derive meaning from some body of knowledge, information, data or experience. It is different in that the body of information it draws on, its “data”, is other theories (van Gigch and Le Moigne 1989) or “unit theories” as Werner and Berger (1985) call the individual statements of theory that are the focus of study for metatheorists.

Integral metatheorising is integral in that it acknowledges the contributions and insights of a very wide range of theories, research programmes and cultural traditions. Integral metatheorising is characterised by its great scope, its openness to the diversity of scientific theory and socio-cultural knowledge from all parts of the world and by its use of other overarching approaches as metatheoretical resources. With regard to this last point, the first principle of Wilber's Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP) is non-exclusion. This principle acknowledges that sense-making is not the province of any one scientific or cultural approach to knowledge. Scientific, moral and aesthetic insights can come from a plurality of research and inquiry perspectives. Non-exclusion means that a metatheorist takes an appreciative view of the unique insights and contributions of other theories (Edwards 2007). Such a perspective is a common characteristic of metatheory building research as pointed out by Lewis and Kelemen (2002, p. 263) who, in discussing their particular form of metatheoretical research, “multiparadigm research”, say that:

Multiparadigm research seeks to cultivate diverse representations, detailing the images highlighted by varied lenses. Applying the conventions prescribed by alternative paradigms, researchers develop contrasting or multi-sided accounts that may depict the ambiguity and complexity of organizational life.

Non-exclusion enables metatheorising to not only accommodate unit theories and their constitutive explanatory elements within a more expansive context, but also to identify the limits and partialities of those theories and elements. This means that integral metatheory has a powerful capacity for critical analysis and it is this adjudicative capacity (Colomy 1991) that makes it such an important resource for scientific disciplines of all kinds.

Metatheorising is not related to any one particular disciplinary level. It can be done within a single discipline, between two or more disciplines, or independently of disciplinary categories. Disciplinary and multi-, cross-, inter-, trans- and post-disciplinary projects can all be done from a metatheoretical perspective.[4] There are four basic aims for carrying out metatheoretical research (Colomy 1991; Lewis and Kelemen 2002; Ritzer 2006). These are:

  1. Metatheorising for understanding (MU). Here extant theories are reviewed to gain a familiarity and understanding of their core characteristics and those of the research programmes, paradigms and disciplinary contexts in which they might be located.
  2. Metatheorising for preparing new theory (MP): The purpose of MP is to review and analyse theories so that a new theory can be developed within that domain (Turner 1990).
  3. Metatheorising to build overarching theory (MO). MO is metatheory building. Its aim is to review and analyse extant theory in some domain and to build a metatheoretical system that accommodates and integrates those theories (see, for example, David 2007). Hence, MO always involves MU.
  4. Metatheorising for adjudication (MA). MA develops or uses MO for evaluating other theories in a particular field. The capacity to assess and critically analyse other theory is a quality that all metatheoretical frameworks possess (see, for example, Abrams and Hogg 2004).

Wilber's writings have focused on MO (metatheory building) and, as a result, have included phases of MU (metatheorising for understanding). Wilber's “critical integral theory” has also utilised MA (metatheorising for adjudication) and this continues to be an important aspect of his work.

Traditionally, these different forms of metatheorising have been performed by individuals with little more than their intellectual passion to guide their sifting and analysing of theories. Although, as Ritzer (1991), Skinner (1985) and others have pointed out, metatheory building is an extremely common aspect of research, it has never been formally recognised as a central aspect of scientific research. While metatheorising often precedes theory testing studies, it is still largely seen as a process of mechanical review rather than of integration. One reason for this devaluing of metatheoretical research has been the lack of formal metatheory building research methods. But this situation is changing. As scholars are exposed to the immense diversity of conceptual orientations and cultural perspectives emanating from all corners of the globe, it is increasingly important that overarching theorising is grounded on a firm methodological base. Now, more than ever, metatheoretical study needs to adopt systematic methods, relevant and sensitive research designs and rigorous forms of analysis.

Methods and meta-methodologies

Methodology is done, even methodically, but usually not with explicitly articulated or self-conscious method. There is no orthodox metamethodology; the question is simply rarely considered (Fox 1996, p. 110).

A method is a series of behavioural injunctions that we follow when we want to learn or do or discover something. Method is what we do when we don't know what we are doing. When we construct a house, it is not enough that we haphazardly throw together a bunch of building materials. Similarly, when we develop a metatheory it is not good enough to immerse ourselves in a number of arbitrarily chosen theories and aggregate them according to our own creative predilections. Nor is it sufficient to rely solely on the accumulation of ideas and perspectives of others no matter how wise or scholarly they may be. To build a house that will stand the test of time we need a method. And if integral metatheory building aims to be a scientific discipline in the broad sense, it too will need a method.

Standard theory building requires something like the following methodological phases: i) choice of topic, ii) specification of objectives and domain (Wacker, 1998), iii) identification and definition of theoretical concepts or “units” (Dubin 1978), iv) description of research methods including sampling procedures and analytical techniques, v) interpretation of results including specification of relationships between units (Wacker 1998), vi) description of the theoretical system of relationships (Dubin 1978), vii) statement of truth claims (Lewis and Grimes 1999), and viii) evaluation of theoretical system (see, for example, Bacharach 1989). Together, these phases describe something like a general method for theory building (Dubin 1978; Wacker 1998; Edwards 2008) and they can just as easily be applied to the development of metatheory. Without such a method, a specific metatheory building project can be criticised on the reliability, validity, utility and trustworthiness of its findings. It might, for example, have missed some branches of relevant literature and omitted the explanatory lenses used in that literature. Method is not only a guide for organising the behavioural procedures involved in the research process, it also provides a basis for defending its findings in the social domain.

Where method refers to the way we organise activities that are directly involved in the scientific process, metamethodology (also referred to in the literature as “metamethod”) is the study of those research methods (Mingers 2001). While methodology is also used to refer to the study of methods, consistent with other literature on this topic (Zhao 1991; Bondas and Hall 2007), I will use the term metamethodology when referring to the formal study of scientific research methods.

Wilber's Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP) is an example of an integral approach to meta-methodology. While also dealing with epistemological issues, Integral methodological Pluralism (IMP) is an integral framework for accommodating many of the major methodologies used to acquire knowledge. As Wilber says, “[IMP] involves, among other things, at least 8 fundamental and apparently irreducible methodologies, injunctions, or paradigms for gaining reproducible knowledge” (Wilber 2006, p. 33). The meta-methodology of IMP has the same relationship to different unit methodologies as AQAL metatheory has to different unit theories (see Figure 1).

We use methods to disclose the worlds of activity and experience. Formal theories are the public statement of a vision that, in turn, requires a method for disclosing the data required to support or refute that vision. There is, hence, a reflexive nature to the task of metatheory building. Methods and theories both receive and create the “objects” they are designed to disclose and explain. To paraphrase Deetz (1996, p. 192), theories and methods do not merely interpret and uncover pre-existing subjects and objects; they are core to the process of constituting those subjects and objects. Methods and theories are not separate from, in time or space, the mysteries they disclose. They shape and are shaped by the stuff of their focus. Giddens (1984) refers to this as “the double hermeneutic”. Meanings and actions run both ways in the relationship between research programs and social occasions.

So AQAL metatheory has a corresponding metamethodology. However, this metamethodology should not be confused with a method of metatheory building. None of the eight major methodologies described by IMP has been applied in a rigorous and consistent way in the formative construction of AQAL metatheory. AQAL, as an integral metatheory, has its complementary branch of integral meta-methodology in IMP. However, the point being made here is that no systematic research method has been used in its development. AQAL has been developed through the informal process of traditional scholarship.


What's the problem with having no formal method?

In an article called “The significance of method” the authors Smatka and Lovaglia (1996) say that “methods play a role as prominent as that of metatheory in directing social research”. Theory and method are the flint and stone that create the spark for lighting our passion for knowledge. If either of them is wanting in some major way, then the knowledge they produce might shine brightly for a time but it will not light the pathways of a community of inquiry for the long term.

Integral metatheorising currently possesses no rigorous, systematic method for developing and evaluating its frameworks, propositions and knowledge claims. The development of metatheoretical systems such as AQAL is still dependent on traditional methods of scholarship. This is not a satisfactory situation for many reasons. First, the absence of a systematic method limits the ongoing development of integral metatheorising. While an individual can contribute immensely to the birth of a new perspective, the ongoing contribution of scholars through systematic theory building and evaluation is essential for its continued development (Lynham 2002). Method is needed for this to occur. Staats (1999) has pointed to the lack of an “infrastructure for unification” in the definition of psychological concepts and I believe that a similar lack exists on the method side of metatheoretical research. The methodological infrastructure for a healthy and ongoing form of integral metatheory building does not currently exist nor is its urgent need recognised.

Scholars often learn to do research within their particular disciplinary matrix through learning its methods (Szmatka and Lovaglia 1996). Without a method of theory building, which, by definition, includes a phase of self-examination and evaluation, a research program can become atrophied through rote application of its conceptual base. Adherents mechanically impose the metatheoretical edifice on whatever comes their way. They have their hammer and, to them, everything has the appearance of a nail (this is the type of “method” that Feyerabend most deplored). The end result of such a process is a metatheory that, as Szmatka and Lovaglia put it, “resists change”. They describe this process as follows (1996, p. 407-8):

Often, grand theorists are known for their encyclopaedic knowledge. The theory that results is often extremely comprehensive and argued at length in a book or series of books. Later researchers may publish results that support or fail to support parts of the theory. However, the theory itself resists change. Its authority is linked to the stature of the author. An attempt to alter the theory represents an attack on the author. Adherents marshal a defence. Debate continues but theory growth is limited. The relation of theory to data is simple and unidirectional in the case of [grand] theories, limiting theory growth. ... Data informs theory construction, but thereafter the theory is resistant to change in the face of new data.

A second reason for adopting strict methods in metatheory building lies in the need to establish this field as a bona fide form of scientific research. A key reason why overarching theory has always struggled to gain scientific credibility is its lack of a solid methodological basis. The history of metatheorising is, in many ways, a story of glorious failures, missed opportunities, misinterpretations and ignored bodies of work that should have had much greater impact on the educative development of societies. Where metatheory has had a social impact, it has often been taken up with a missionary zeal that has lacked a critical self-evaluation. The sad history of the use and abuse of Marxist metatheory can be viewed in this context. A research method is, by definition, self-evaluating – all methods include phases where the limitations of the study, its domain specifications, its sampling problems and its interpretive limits are discussed and rectified in subsequent studies. To this point, this formal process of self-examination within a scientific community of inquiry has not been evident in the development of metatheory. And this neglect for method has not gone unnoticed within the mainstream. It is not only the rise of postmodernism that has stymied the growth of “metanarratives” and integrative frameworks of understanding. Mainstream science itself has little time for ideas based on nothing but the scholarly review of literature.

There is an interesting anomaly here that modernity, through its instinct for synopsis, abstraction and generalisability is actually innately appreciative towards integrative theorising and yet it also rejects social metatheorising on the grand scale. Modernity in the physical sciences has given birth, for example, to the “Theories of Everything” in 20th and 21st century physics. But even modernists have largely rejected metatheory in the social sciences concentrating instead on the task of developing middle-range theory (Merton 1957). One reason for this is, I believe, the lack of method in social metatheorising. Twentieth century science has been the age of method and for modernists where there is no method there is no science. Consequently, I see the rejection of metatheory in the second half of the twentieth century as due, not only to the postmodernist distaste for grand narratives but also to the modernist concern for scientific method. Even when your aim is to integrate existing scientific knowledge, without method you don't do science. Any branch of scholarship that does not adopt an overtly rigorous method will, quite rightly, never be taken seriously by mainstream science. As the methodologists Elman and Elman put it (2002, p. 232) – “In science, Nike notwithstanding, there is no 'just doing it'”.

A third reason for introducing a formal method into integral metatheorising is that it lays a foundation for the rational justification of its results. Rationality is by no means the whole story here, but rational argument is a gatekeeper for entry into more integrative forms of logic. I agree with Elman and Elman (2002, p. 233-4) when they advocate for “an open and informed debate about the comparative merits of different rationalist and sociological metrics for describing and appraising theoretical developments”. The lack of method opens up metatheory building to many of the charges that are made against postmodernity. Without method, AQAL metatheory can be portrayed as just another personal perspective irrespective of how many insights from other fields of knowledge perspectives it might have embraced. Wilber V can be depicted as precisely that - the fifth version of one person's viewpoint.

If integral metatheory building continues to rely on method-less creativity then it will face a number of problematic options. In leaving the responsibility of integral metatheory building to the output of one man, and simply applying Wilber IV or V or VI as best we can, we will end up as something decidedly less than a community of inquiry. In which case, integral metatheory building will never achieve its true potential as a scientific discipline. Or, we can exist as a series of continuously splintering (meta)theoretical variations that are largely based on personal scholarship. This has been a relatively common outcome for several metatheoretical schools in the past.

Research programs exist as ongoing traditions, disciplines and schools of thought through the sharing of methods as much as anything else. Both methodological practice and conceptual systematisation hold a research community together over the longer term. Method allows for ongoing development while minimising sectarianism. It can do this because it promotes reflexive review and affirms a rational basis for justifying the products of the metatheorising process. Method provides a behavioural platform for the ongoing work of a community of inquiry.

There may be other reasons why method is crucial for the ongoing development of an integral metatheorising but these three – to include reflexive self-criticism, to achieve scientific maturity and to support a (global) community of inquiry – are reasons enough. Without a formal method, metatheory tends towards ideology or even dogma, struggles to be broadly regarded as a scientific enterprise and, most importantly, assumes itself to be a community of adherents rather than of enquirers.

I agree with Wilber that there exists no “single straight forward 'scientific method' ” (1998, p. 131). But Wilber also points out that there is a pattern to doing science and that behavioural procedures form a significant part of that pattern. In the next section, I want to go further into this issue and discuss the role of method within the context of a general model of learning and knowledge acquisition. I will try to show where method fits into development of integral metatheory (and, more generally an integral meta-studies) and how this is relevant to the work of any scholar, researcher or practitioner in the integral studies field.

Research method and the “integral cycle of learning”

Science is, among other things, a practice of discovering, an embodied process of uncovering something that was not seen before. It is a formal system of learning and acquiring knowledge. Learning has been commonly represented as a cyclical process in which conceptual and behavioural knowledge is acquired through a number of iterative phases. Drawing on the epistemological models of many different theories of learning and knowledge acquisition a metatheory of learning is presented. A static representation of the phases of the metatheory of learning is represented in Table 1a and 1b. These tables do not capture the dynamic and processual aspects of the sample of learning theories. For each model, and for the metatheory as a whole, the phases of acting, reflecting, deriving meaning and validating should be regarded as interconnecting and self-mutualising processes.

While the specific number of phases between models varies, there is a strong concordance between the phases that seems well captured by a four-phase model. These phases can be summarised as learning through: i) action (corresponds to Wilber's instrumental strand) – this is the method of doing something, the procedural knowledge of instruction and technique; ii) reflection (corresponds to Wilber's apprehensive strand) - this is the domain of subjective experience and encounter with the data, iii) meaning (Edwards' interpretive strand) - this is the hermeneutics phase of meaning and sense-making, and iv) validating (corresponds to Wilber's validation strand) - this is the testing arena of public debate, social expression, research institutions and public systems of verification (including peer review processes, academic conferences, publishing, etc,).

It needs to be pointed out that the four phases in this metatheory of learning do not correspond to the four quadrants in Wilber's AQAL model. The four-phase model presented here is regarded as operating independently within individuals and social entities. For example, the individual student will learn through the process of behavioural action, cognitive reflection, interpretive meaning-making and social performance. A social entity, such as a group, will also learn through these four iterative phases. Wilber's quadrants[7] refer to the capacities of sentient individual holons and not to collectives. The major point to be drawn out here is that the integral cycle of learning is a dynamic way of seeing how interior and exterior aspects of the learning process can be included within an integral metatheory building process.

The learning cycle is an iterative one where multiple repetitions and imitations flow through the entity in question. Where blockage in any one strand occurs, learning is stymied. This applies to individuals as well as to collectives. As Dixon says in her discussion of organisational learning, “When the steps of the organisational learning cycle are disconnected collective learning is lost” (Dixon, 1999, p. 64). The processual inclusion of each of the strands is particularly important for learning to be successfully internalised and routinsed. Tsai and Lee (2006, p. 65) say that, “The completeness of the learning cycle has a significant influence on knowledge internalization”. Where a phase is missing, learning is disrupted and knowledge development is significantly impeded.

All strands of what I have called, “the integral cycle of learning” (Edwards 2005) are applicable to any social level – individual, dyad, triad, group, or large collective and so this epistemological model can be applied to the social level of, for example, scientific communities of inquiry. An individual learns by personal action, personal experience, personal interpretation and personal evaluation. A group learns by group action, group experience, group meaning-making and group evaluation. And so on with even larger collectives.

Table 1a: A phase-based comparison of theories of learning and knowledge acquisition

Table 1b: A phase-based comparison of learning/knowledge theories (cont.)

This integral cycle of learning is not a representation of the AQAL quadrants. First, the learning phases are not domains of development but are phases in a cyclical model for explaining and understanding change. Second, the learning lens has been developed from the independent analysis of many learning theories and is not the result of an iterative application of AQAL to itself. In other words it is grounded on the “data” of other theories of learning and knowing and is itself, therefore, an example of an evidenced-based method of metatheorising. Third, the integral cycle of learning is independently applicable to individuals, groups and larger collectives. Fourth, as Figure 2 shows, this cycle is associated with the combination of different lenses to those that are used to generate the AQAL model. Where AQAL crosses the interior-exterior and individual-collective lenses, the learning cycle is associated with the combination of different lenses to those that are used to generate the AQAL model. Where AQAL crosses the interior-exterior and individual-collective lenses, the learning cycle is associated with the combination of interior-exterior and the agency-communion lenses.[9] Consequently, this model can be applied to both individuals and collectives. Fifth, the learning cycle does not merely apply Wilber's three knowledge strands model but builds on it and brings it into line with those learning models that have identified an interpretive phase to the learning process. Sixth, the learning cycle lens is independent of stage-based understandings of development. To date, AQAL has not adequately dealt with the issue of how change occurs through human social learning as opposed to human development. This is one reason why the developmental approaches of important learning theorists such as Albert Bandura (Bandura and Walters 1963), Jerome Bruner (1986; Bruner 1990) and Lev Vygotsky (Rieber and Carton 1987) are absent from AQAL-informed discussions. In fact, the integral cycle of learning lens is an entirely new explanatory lens that adds considerable descriptive and analytical power to any integral metatheoretical toolkit (see Edwards, 2005; 2008 for a further discussion of this topic).

Placed within the context of integral metatheory building, the learning lens can be used to explore the process of learning at any social level including the meta-level of scientific studies which is our focus here. It describes a process where knowledge can be regarded as a flowing exchange between the processes of acting (exterior-agency), reflecting (interior-agency), interpreting (interior-communion) and social validation (exterior-communion) (see Figure 2).[10]

The point of describing this integral learning cycle model is to draw out the deep connections between the learning phases (particularly the method phase) and formal, social conventions for the acquisition of meta-level social knowledge. Each one of these phases is vital to the learning process. These connections can be seen as deeply embedded in socio-cultural forms of knowledge acquisition such as scientific inquiry. They can even be seen in the structure of scientific reporting. Most people are familiar with the standard scientific report sections of introduction, method, results and discussion. Table 2 shows the parallels between the standard sections of a scientific report and the corresponding arcs in the integral cycle of learning.

Although this cycle can begin with any phase, traditionally it opens with the social domain of reviewing the current state of theory related to the topic of interest. Ritzer (1991) points out that the introductory section of most scientific papers begins with metatheorising accounts of collective knowledge in a field and this is narrowed down to some hypothesis or research question. The method follows next and is a detailed description of what concrete steps were taken to perform the study. The results of the researcher's encounter with the “data” then follows. Interpretations of these results are subsequently discussed and conclusions are made about the validity of the findings and their wider implications. In moving through these steps, the cycle of learning is completed and, hopefully, some knowledge has been acquired along the way.

In the learning cycle, the method phase is the phase of acting, of behaviourally following the injunctions, procedures and techniques that are associated with a particular cultural mode of learning. If method is absent from a process of knowledge development, then that process will not ultimately result in effective learning. If some method is used, but it is idiosyncratic and not open to a community of inquiry, then it will hamper or distort the development of knowledge in some crucial way. This has direct implications for communities of scholars, researchers and practitioners that aspire to developing new forms of knowledge and practice.

Integral meta-studies

Having called attention to the importance of method for integral metatheorising and described the role of method relative to other learning phases, I want to now systematise these issues within a broad vision of what I call “integral meta-studies”. To do this I will once again rely on a review of extant approaches to describing an overarching schema for meta-studies. Zhao (1991, p. 378) describes a general form of meta-studies as a second-order form of research that “transcends or goes beyond” other forms of study. This general meta-studies includes “metatheory”, “meta-methodology” and “meta-data-analysis”. Drawing on the IMP approach of Wilber (2006), organisational metatheory (Tsoukas and Knudsen 2003), the meta-synthesis framework (Paterson, Thorne et al. 2001), the meta-studies notion of Zhao (1991) and the notion of an integral cycle of learning and knowledge described above (Edwards, 2005; 2002), the relationship between metatheory building methods and meta-methodologies can be situated within the context of an integral meta-studies.

Unwinding the four strands of the integral cycle of learning makes evident the four core components to doing science: theory, method, data[11], and interpretation (see Figure 3). We have then the possibility of recognising and developing not only integral metatheory (such as AQAL) and meta-methodology (such as IMP) but also meta-data-analysis and meta-hermeneutics. And, of course, there can be integral varieties of each of these meta-forms of scientific study. Iterations of the learning cycle apply to the development of any of these branches of integral meta-studies. There is a principle of self-similarity here that involves the use of theorising/validating, method/acting, data/reflecting and interpreting/meaning at each level in the integral meta-studies system (see Abbott 2001 for a detailed discussion of the fractal nature of disciplines and methods).

Together, the meta-disciplines of integral metatheorising, integral metamethodology, integral meta-data-analysis and integral metahermeneutics constitute an integral meta-studies – the art and science of integrating knowledge from the realms of theory, method, data and interpretation. Research in any of these meta-studies activities becomes integral when it: i) is consciously and explicitly performed in a multiparadigm or meta-studies context, ii) when it uses, as conceptual resources, other integral frameworks such as Wilber's AQAL (2006), Bhaskars's meta-reality (2002), Torbert's DAI (1999), Schumacher's system of knowledge (1977), Aurobindo's integral yoga (1993), Nicolescu's transdisciplinary studies (2002) or Galtung and Inayatullah's (1997) macrohistory and iii) when its domain of interest is marked out by its inclusiveness and emancipatory aims.

Researchers can, of course, move across all of these varieties of scientific learning, but usually both individual researchers and their paradigm-based communities of inquiry tend to specialise in one or two domains. Metatheorists are very rarely meta-methodologists (Paul Meehl being a prominent exception to this). Practitioners of meta-hermeneutics (including many postmodern interpretivists) are shy of entering the territory of metatheory. There are also strong barriers between the meta-level and what might be called the unit-level of research, for example between middle-range theorists and metatheorists. And so, when researchers make forays into foreign domains there can often be problems in their claims about the veracity or usefulness of those other branches of knowledge development. We see this when theorists denounce metatheorists for being too abstract (Skocpol 1987), or when meta-interpretivists (postmodernists) assure us that metatheory is impossible or always hegemonic (Lyotard 1984), or when metatheorists makes factual claims about the empirical world (Ritzer 2001).

Integral metatheorising can also encroach on the territory of other branches. For example, integral metatheory building is based on the analysis of extant theory and does not deal with empirical data. Consequently, it cannot validly make conclusions about empirical data based on its metatheorising. If it does so, it is stepping outside its realm of authority. To put this in another way, metatheory is primarily about other theory and not about the prediction or evaluation of first-order empirical data. As Ritzer (2006) has pointed out, it is entirely possible and, in fact, desirable that unit-level theory be developed from metatheory (this is Ritzer's MP). But in doing that, the new unit-level theory will require empirical testing. Metatheory can be used to develop hypotheses and metaconjectures about empirical events but these will then need to be evaluated through the application of unit-level theories (Ritzer 2001). When, for example, empirical statements are made about how many people in some region have their “centre of gravity” at one developmental level or another, AQAL researchers are entering the world of empirical speculation. This is not its domain of expertise. The real home of metatheories like AQAL is in the integration and evaluation of other theory. Likewise the natural territory for IMP is the review, analysis and systemisation of other methodologies and not the methodological adequacy of a particular study.

This type of meta-domain encroachment can also be seen in the other strands. Meta-hermeneutics (meta-interpretive analysis), which is essentially postmodern interpretivism, often strays into the realm of metatheorising and makes claims, based on its own analysis of interpretive frameworks, about the value, or even possibility, of developing metatheory. This particular form of meta-domain encroachment has plagued meta-studies in general, and metatheorising in particular, for several decades now. The model proposed in Figure 3 has the potential to raise awareness of these issues of meta-domain encroachment.

The meta-studies framework in Figure 3 raises another important issue. Integral meta-studies has begun to develop metatheoretical and meta-methodological branches but has not yet ventured into the domains of integral meta-data analysis or meta-interpretive analysis. Integral meta-data-analysis could bring an integral perspective to the large-scale evaluation of empirical literature including both qualitative and quantitative studies. The sophisticated techniques of meta-analysis and meta-synthesis have been instrumental in the opening up of new fields such as evidenced-based medicine and nursing (Thorne, Jensen et al. 2004). An integral meta-data-analysis has the potential to develop evidence-based approaches in many fields including social policy, developmental studies, health and transformation studies. Integral meta-hermeneutics is the science of identifying and connecting systems of interpretation. This is an essentially postmodernist activity, but one which has an integrative and constructive focus rather than a decentering and deconstructive intent. Integral meta-hermeneutics can show how the interpretive turn can also uncover integral pluralisms as well as relative pluralisms.

A final issue to be raised regarding that Figure 3 is that of the reciprocal relationship between the unit-level of theory, method, data, and interpretation and the meta-level of metatheory, metamethodology, etc. For example, metatheory may not only be developed from existing unit-level theories, it can also be used to generate new unit-level theory. There is a close relationships between the construction and testing of both unit-level and meta-level theories. What is apparent with regard to integral meta-studies is the almost completely unexplored opportunity for the development and testing of unit-level theories that derive from integral metatheory. I am aware of only one such study that empirically tests a unit-level theory that is based on AQAL metatheory (see Thomas, Brewer et al. 1993). Given the great scope and conceptual richness of AQAL, it is difficult to understand why the development of middle-range integral theory has been so slow to emerge. Again, I suggest that it has something to do with the lack of research method and the absence of a collegial research community that contributes to the building and evaluation of integral metatheory. The same point may be made for each of the other branches of integral meta-studies.[12]

These four branches of integral meta-studies - metatheory, meta-methodology, meta-data-analysis and meta-hermeneutics – co-create and support one another in the same way that learning emerges through the iterative cycle of doing (method), sensing (data), interpreting (hermeneutics) and communicating (theory). So far, integral studies has concentrated on developing and communicating its metatheory (i.e. AQAL metatheory) and, while some work has been done in the other knowledge domains, it is now timely that a more conscious and deliberate exploration of these other territories of integral data-analysis and integral hermeneutics is undertaken.



The foregoing has focused attention on the lack of research methods in the development and evaluation of integral metatheories such as Wilber's AQAL. In the absence of such methods, research communities run the risk of becoming applicators of a format rather than active contributors and critics of a living system of knowledge and learning. Method is not only central to the process of critical learning, it also enables and enacts the participatory capacities of the members of a community of inquiry.

Formalising how we do something can put unnecessary fetters on our creative spirits. However, where any form of learning or growth in knowledge is concerned, there also needs to be an injunctive method, communicated in words, practices and techniques, that can provide that creativity with a sound launching pad. The integral learning cycle of acting, reflecting, interpreting and validating promotes the acquisition of knowledge only when injunctive methods have been formalised and internalised. Any disciplinary matrix requires a rigorous method - from Bebop to Zen to doing science. Integral metatheory will not take its full place among the mature forms of scientific disciplines until it too has reliable methods for (re)searching the good, the true, the beautiful and the just.

The introduction of systematic research methods into integral metatheory building will not hinder the creative nature of this worthy and urgently needed enterprise. A rigorous method can lay the foundations for a community of inquiry that seeks to master the art and science of doing research. It is only after that mastery has been achieved that creativity can flow spontaneously. Charlie Parker, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, said “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that and just play.” Method is the pathway to mastery. In this postmodern world we move too quickly to the informality of the “just play” part of this formula and we forget about the mastering of technique part.

Method is also about grounding our metatheory building in the data of extant theory. Metatheorising comes out of this mix of method and inspiration – Karma and Creativity. There is a famous passage from Francis Bacon's book the “The New Organum” (Aphorism 9) which I take to refer to this complex task:

Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. … Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

This delightful allegory is usually taken to refer to the relationship between the empirical experiment and rational theorising. I also see it as about the relationship between method and creativity within a social community of inquiry. Bacon, the first great proclaimer of scientific method, is suggesting here that all these elements – method, creativity and social identity - are needed for science (or any critical system of knowledge) to flourish. Integral metatheorists can digest and transform ideas through their own creative powers but they must also be methodical in gathering their “material” from the field. Science is at its best when it practices a balanced mixture of systematic method and creative insight within a supportive and evaluative (bee-like) community. Integral metatheory building at the moment does not possess this balance.

The lack of a metatheory building research method is one of the most crucial issues facing integral studies and particularly for its standing within institutional settings. It is also an issue of some import for integral scholars as a community of inquiry. Postmodernism is right to be critical of big pictures and integrative frameworks that are too heavily based on the results of individual scholarship (however visionary that scholarship might be). The first point of defence against this charge comes not from demonstrating the value of the metatheorising itself, but from showing that the researcher has employed a method that addresses the issues of reliability, validity and trustworthiness. If our methods for building overarching metatheory are idiosyncratic, sloppily defined, poorly developed, uncritical or poorly understood then integral endeavours are left wide open to both modern and postmodern criticisms that it has questionable validity, that it is based on unacknowledged totalising agendas or that it is subject to the vagaries of personal sense-making. No amount of informal creativity overcomes these criticisms. There needs to be some method to our integral madness.


  1. My thanks to Markus Molz, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, Ken Wilber and the two independent reviewers for their very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
  2. Feyerabend has been somewhat misrepresented in English-speaking countries. Markus Molz informs me that: “Feyerabend was not at all against method … He was in favour of creativity in the selection, development and adaptation of adequate methods sensitive to the problems under study ... The title of his book “Against method” in the English translation was quite unfortunate and does not reflect the intentions of Feyerabend. ... The German title said: “Wider den Methodenzwang - Skizze einer anarchistischen Erkenntnistheorie” - a more literal translation would be: “Against constraints in using methods - outline of an anarchistic epistemology” (personal communication).
  3. A following paper will discuss what methods could be used to address this need and associated questions regarding evaluative criteria, qualitative and quantitative methods, validity claims, etc.
  4. For discussions of the relationship between AQAL and matters of disciplinarity see Esbjorn-Hargens (2005).
  5. Sometimes metatheorists also perform empirical research data as part of MP, but this is not MO, or metatheory building. The issue of concern here is the methodical process by which metatheory building is done.
  6. The same might also be said of the fervour with which rational economics has been adopted since the 1980's (the results of which are feeding into many of the global problems we face today).
  7. As distinct from quadrivia (see Wilber, 2006)
  8. Although no formal method section has been indicated, the paper itself is based on the application of a standard method of theory building in that it sets out a domain of interest, defines its key terms, identifies and samples its “data” of learning theories and meta-studies approaches, analyses theses theories using comparative technique of theme analysis, systemises and interprets the findings and draws out their evaluative implications.
  9. The agency-communion lens is regarded here not as a drive but as a conceptual lens that theorists have used in their explanations of social phenomena. See, for example, Wiggins, J. S. (2003). Paradigms of Personality Assessment. New York, Guildford press.
  10. This cycle refers to a single-loop learning model and the crucial role of developmental levels to produce double- and triple-loop forms of learning have not been explored here. See, for example, Akbar, H. (2003). "Knowledge Levels and their Transformation: Towards the Integration of Knowledge Creation and Individual Learning." The Journal of Management Studies 40(8): 1997-2022. and Torbert, W. R. (1999). "The distinctive questions developmental action inquiry asks." Management Learning 30(2): 189-206.
  11. Data means “the data of experience”, as Wilber puts it, and includes objective, subjective and relational data. To gather data is to observe and reflect on one's experience in any of these three realms of existence.
  12. With some notable exceptions, see for example Torbert's (1999) Developmental Action Inquiry and Esbjörn-Hargens (2005) mixed methodologies based on the integral meta-methodology of IMP.
  13. See note 3 above.

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