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 Why the world needs unbounded organizing 

Why the World Needs Unbounded Organizing

Written by Howard Richards and Gavin Andersson


A short initial working definition of unbounded organization (UO) could be “Aligning across sectors to serve the common good.”  (See

        However, it might be a better choice of terms to write “general good” instead of “common good.”  The reason is that economists as well as people in other fields are likely to read “common good” as “public goods” as distinct from “private goods” assuming that private goods are supplied by markets; and assuming that if and only if markets fail, a case can be made for the government to intervene to assure an adequate supply of public goods.  

       It is just this sort of a priori assumption that the basic legal and ethical institutions, and the reigning economics, of today´s global economy are set in stone that thinking in terms of unbounded organization seeks to remedy. 

This means keeping an open mind together with cultivating an ethical heart.  It also means that the basic legal and ethical institutions of today´s global economy, or proposed changes, and the prescriptions of orthodox and heterodox economics, are neither condemned nor endorsed a priori.  In the vocabulary of the American philosopher John Dewey (who played an important role in South Africa in 1937)[1]  institutions should be treated as experiments to be evaluated and modified in the light of their performance.

           That said, the nascent school of thought and practice called unbounded organization falls in the general categories of critical social science, as that term came to be used in the Frankfurt School in the 1930s; and transformative action as that term is used today; albeit with a conscious intention to preserve features of the currently dominant modern world system that do work.  A critical social scientist is persuaded that any efforts to construct a desirable, feasible and sustainable future are non-starters if they tacitly or explicitly assume the basic social structures that define the status quo, commonly (but not always perspicuously) known as capitalism.  Karl Popper´s piecemeal social engineering, solving one problem at a time, is “bounded.”  By leaving the basic parameters that define the system, for example the constitutive rules of commodity exchange, unquestioned and unchallenged, whatever good piecemeal social engineering may accomplish will not save us.  It is at best a battle won when it is already certain that the war will be lost. 

         Transformative action closely ties practice to theory and theory to practice.  Theory seeks to articulate what it is that needs transformation and to link best practices, as causes, to components of a better world that is possible, as effects.  Given that the history of the twentieth century, and of the twenty-first century so far, is strewn with the wreckage of theoretical frameworks that did not work and are not working, it would be rash for advocates of a newcomer, unbounded organization, which was formally launched in Gavin Andersson´s Ph.D. thesis of 2004,[2] to claim that it would work,  if only it were better known and more widely put into practice.  The Unbounded Organization Academy is a forum for continuing reflection that includes constantly questioning our own premises.

            The Unbounded Academy collaborates with other networks also devoted to tying theory to practice and practice to theory, and especially with

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies  https://www.humiliationstudies


Global Campaign for Peace Education

Fundación Chileufu

Ancient Wisdom Africa

         Although the Unbounded Academy is a forum for theoretical discussions, UO itself is more an approach to using theory than an explanatory theory in its own right. 

         A short bibliography following this introductory note leads to accounts of on the ground experiences where UO thinking has been deliberately applied in practice. The only case where an approach recognizably applying UO principles has been put into practice at a national level is, as far as we know, contemporary Bolivia.[3] 

       A history of the origins of UO in practice, and of the ideas that led to UO in theory, would be in some part a biography of Gavin Andersson. The other three of those creating scaffolding for the UA us were led to endorse the UO approach by separate paths leading to a common destination.

Gavin Andersson coined the term” Unbounded Organization”, but he now often prefers the term “Unbounded Organizing.”  Gavin´s history would dovetail with the history of the Organization Workshop (OW) method of community organizing.[4]  

         What is now called the Organization Workshop began in Northeast Brazil in the early 1960s.  Paulo Freire brought a pedagogy of the oppressed, and a method for literacy that found its way into 1970s South Africa, including the worker union where Gavin worked. Freire´s friend, colleague and at one-point cellmate when both were imprisoned, Clodomir Santos de Morais, shared Freire’s ideas and advocated going beyond ‘critical consciousness’ towards organizational consciousness; learning how to organize.    Moraisian methods are used to this day in Brazil, for example by the MST (Movimento Sem Terra –movement of people without land).  More recently, jumping from 1961 to 2022, UO has been applied to going beyond Freire in another way: complementing the pedagogy of the oppressed with leadership education facilitating socially purposeful and personally joyful living for the non-oppressed.[5]

        Shortly after the Brazilian military coup of March 31, 1964, Clodomir de Morais managed to slip into the Chilean Embassy in Brazil and to escape to Chile.  later worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations supporting land reform across Latin America, through the 1970s.  De Morais’ method was used successfully in Costa Rica, Honduras, the Mexican Chiapas, Panama,Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. In post-Salazar Portugal a large-scale capacitation project was launched, creating a technical support cadre for the change in economy and in enterprise forms.  

         In the1980s Gavin Andersson was working in community development in Botswana, after returning from South Africa, where he went to study and became an activist.  With two others he had founded CORDE supporting community enterprises and cooperatives towards a vibrant self-managed sector.

CORDE’s founders enrolled for a Training for Transformation course and became avid facilitators of participatory learning using its method and tenets. Here Freirean critical consciousness and the method of problematization were put in service of a liberation theology, using a repertoire of skills in participatory education – or what was also called popular education. CORDE grew exuberantly, working with small community business, small groups of people forming enterprises. 

Ian Cherrett of HIVOS, who had worked under de Morais in Honduras and then run an OW in Belize, told CORDE of the OW method. The prospect of a methodology that could involve hundreds of people, all engaged in practical work, was riveting. CORDE immediately staged the Serowe OW, with Cherrett as director. In Zimbabwe, Cherrett linked with Glen Forest Training Centre and staged the Rujeko Workshop. CORDE and Glen Forest were each excited by these experiences and asked HIVOS to support two Moraisean practitioners, Isabel and Ivan Labra from Chile to come to southern Africa for a few years.

It was the Labras who had met de Morais when his plane landed at the Santiago airport after fleeing Brazil. As it happened, they too became exiles during the long military dictatorship in Chile headed by General Pinochet. Working with de Morais for a decade in several countries of Latin America, the Labras were steeped in the Moraisean method. (As it turned out they were to work and live in southern Africa for three decades before their return to Chile, using the method in Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.)

When Gavin met the Labras he met kindred spirits.   Both Isabel and Ivan held degrees in psychology.  They were the joint authors of a scathing attack on the small group psychology of Kurt Lewin, advocating what they called “large group social psychology.”[6] Gavin was excited by the Moraisean methodology, and intrigued and alarmed by the Labras’ trenchant critique of the Popular Education methods that were inspiring activists in Africa, and were indeed used by CORDE.  He immediately set out to learn everything he could about the OW methodology and has now run many processes of crew formation then design, production, and direction of  an OW. He also, at somewhat slower pace, examined the theoretical roots of ‘small group psychology’ and Moraisean method.

Real life experience and theoretical learning sometimes intersect. Gavin was first introduced to the field of organisation development when Alan Kaplan of CDRA facilitated a self-evaluation of CORDE. This brought benefit to CORDE staff in courses and practitioner formation process run by CDRA. Gavin became one of a handful of OD practitioners working in the field of development, and supporting other organizations. This capability strengthened CORDE’s technical support to is member enterprises.

Over a pool table in Otse at the end of a working week, a friend asked admiringly how it felt to be part of an organization. There were several development NGOs in Botswana at that time. CORDE, a forestry association, an earth organization, a rural innovation organisation, a women’s organisation, a youth organisation; many organisations each with its distinct purpose and reason for being, each with its rules, each with people in the organisation and people outside  the organisation. We had many organizations yet – as was suggested by the remark of the friend at the pool table – we were incapable of development organization across society. There was a small group of people who were part of a development organisation and a far larger group who were not. Success of one organization in its focal area did not moreover bring much change in other areas of people’s lives. The organizations so zestfully organising for development were securely bounded in their activity and impact, causing hardly a ripple in the broader society…

Earlier in the day that ended with the epiphany over the pool table, Gavin was reading a book on Organizational Development[7]. Here he was startled to find that the burgeoning fields of organizational behavior, organisational development, organizational management, organisational studies, were all grounded in the social psychology of Kurt Lewin. The same Lewin that the Labras had derided for his small group social psychology. Clearly it was worthwhile to learn more about Lewin…

As Peter Franks has pointed out[8] Lewin started work in Germany as a gestalt psychologist following the school of Max Werheimer. In America he took the principles of gestalt psychology and applied them to the context of social organization. His second innovation, which came to characterize his ‘group dynamics’ was to limit his enquiry to the momentary total  situation. In working with small groups, he created a situational gestalt which paid no regard to context, history, social structure, culture, formative processes and longer-term dreams. He bounded the Gestalt, so that only that which can be brought to the group as personal experience or perception is valid. Jean Paul Sartre and others attacked this bounded gestalt pointing out that establishing the boundaries of the gestalt is not a matter of choice, and that neglecting examination of culture and social structures is in effect a choice for cultural determinism.[9]

It  is perhaps not surprising that the various schools of OD linked to Lewin’s work all treat organisations as bounded, each with a special purpose and internal rules, each with its defined members and those outside it. Much later open systems theory was able to acknowledge and treat the organization as part of a wider system, but in its early versions the focus was still on the individual organization interacting with its environment, rather than on the full organizational ecosystem. The conceptual constraint is then rather subtle: the approach of dominant OD theory and practice is auto-centric, placing the organization at the centre of the organizing universe. It is encouraged to look for its unique competence and competitive advantage, given its social context and capabilities. Anything that does not relate to the organization’s core purpose can be neglected, and this is true for many organizations. Issues like racism, climate change, xenophobia and others may be neglected by all individual organizations, while there is minimal work around alignment of diverse initiatives or the synergetic impact of partners in a network.

Ivan Labra’s opposition to Popular Education can be understood when considering that a stream of its practitioners followed Lewin’s example of ‘bounding’ the Gestalt, and not considering structural or contextual issues. The liberation theology and Freirean methods influencing CORDE’s practice meant that it never fell into that trap. There was unbounded organization of knowledge, which could be at odds with conventional wisdom and dominant worldviews including colonial thought patterns.  However, it never managed to work outside the ‘box’ of bounded organizational theory.

Lewinian small group social psychology and its bounded gestalt  became the “other” that unbounded organization would define itself as getting away from, as distinct from, as not. The OWs moreover showed in real life experience that the social psychology of large groups, strongly resonant of local culture and conditions, was at odds with small group social psychology. Time and again there is evidence of the validity of de Morais’ moves towards a truly social psychology, where traits depend not as much on situation and even personal history, as on a particular stratum of society’s experience of work.

In explaining the theory behind the OW the Labras introduced the work of Leont’ev, and most specifically his adage “the object teaches”. Just as a football invites kicking, so do tools and materials, or plants, suggest activity.

Leont’ev built on the achievement of Lev Vygotsky showed the linkage between mind and action, extending Vygotskian insights to the collective scale, looking at the activity and learning of large groups. Like Vygoysky he understood that mediational means affect the ways of acting on an object or towards an objective; worldviews, language, concepts, signs, tools and methods shape  any action.  After Leont’ev came a third wave of activity theory associated with the Finnish cognitive psychologist Yrjö Engeström, who introduced the notion of activity systems and gave the intellectual tradition the name which I is known by today, namely cultural historical activity theory or CHAT. Instead of implicitly thinking terms of silos, an unbounded approach explicitly thinks in terms of activity systems. 

        The organizing method de Morais first developed in Brazil also had features that would become definitive for unbounded organizing.  The OW requires practical tasks to be accomplished –expanded to the more comprehensive level of UO, the practical tasks can be thought of as society´s goals (which would include ending poverty and reversing global warming, among others); a given particular organization is encouraged not to do its strategic planning as if it were the centre of the universe, but to align its goals with societal goals.

         An OW requires a group large enough to make the organization of many people to perform real tasks into a real challenge.  In Brazil and elsewhere the number of participants in an OW has sometimes been over a thousand, but it can be much smaller, with as few people as 80.  The participants learn to organize by organizing, as well as by attending classes on organization theory.  It is common for the OW to establish, or to begin to establish, organizations that last for many years after the month-long OW is over.[10]  Given a large group aligned to perform tasks that serve the common good, such as building or remodelling a building, fencing land, or assuring a water supply,  all the materials and tools (and where necessary, instruction in technical skills) are provided.  It is up to the participants to organize themselves to get the tasks done.  Typically, their first attempts prove to be ineffective, and they reorganize one or more times.  More comprehensively, for UO, institutions are treated as experiments to be evaluated and modified in the light of their performance, as stated above.

        So far in this Introduction, the story of UO has been mainly a story about Gavin Andersson.  Somewhere around 2011 UO assumed its fuller meaning, or was potentiated  as theory by Howard Richards joining it to the philosophical stance of Moral Realism.

At this point, we need to indicate that the Unbounded Academy came into existence in 2018 as conversation space where practical and theoretical writings and discussions are collected, exchanged and developed. The founding members are Gavin Andersson (Botswana and South Africa), Howard Richards (Chile), Magnus Haavelsrud (Norway) and Gert van der Westhuizen (South Africa).

The UA works in close association with Evelin Lindner and her network of Dignity and Humiliation Studies, as well as NPO’s Chileufu in Chile. (See links and references to various organizations on the UA website

[1] Crain Soudien, The Cape Radicals. 

[2] Gavin Andersson, Unbounded Governance: A Study of  Popular Development Organization.  Brixham UK:  SPS Publishing, 2018 (2004); Gavin Andersson, Unbounded Governance: A Study of Popular Development Organization. Beau Bassin, Mauritius: Scholars’ Press 2018 (2004)

[3] Gabriel Loza Telleria, Neoliberalismo vs. Neopopulismo: Un Falso Dilema.  Amazon Kindle eBook Edition, 2021.   Gabriel has been Minister of Planning for Development in the government of Evo Morales, and, earlier Director of the Central Bank of Bolivia.

[4] Raff Carmen and Miguel Sobrado (editors.) A Future for the Excluded.  London: Zed Books, 2013.

[5] Kosheek Sewchurran, Sounding the Depths of Leadership.  Cape Town. Artistry in Everydayness, 2022.

A Kindle edition is available on Amazon.  Kosheek directs the Executive MBA programme at the University of Cape Town, in which Gavin and Howard are instructors. 

[6] Iván e Isabel Labra, Psicología Social.  Santiago:  Ediciones LOM, 1992.

[7] French and Bell (1999, 6th edition) Organization Development: Behavioral Science Intervention for Organization Improvement. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall

[8] Franks, Peter (1975) A Social History of American Social Psychology Up To The Second World War SUNY, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, cited in Andersson (2018) pp. 265 – 268)

[9] This thumbnail sketch of Lewin’s work and contributions runs risk of caricaturing a remarkable body of work. A reading of Andersson (2018) may repair this indecency.

[10] An account of how an OW marked a “before and after” sea-change that led to lasting changes at Bokfontein, South Africa, is included in Gavin Andersson and Howard Richards, Unbounded Organizing in Community.  Lake Oswego, OR: Dignity Press, 2013.