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This space between positions, like the ends of string tied into a knot, is the space we want to move into.

Evan Barba

On a typical day, we navigate many overlapping entanglements. On weekday mornings, my household is an entanglement of people, tasks, and motivations that is different in every instance but still follows some predictable and repeatable pattern. Everyone has a role, and it is the tasks we need to accomplish, both individually and collectively, that structure interactions in the household. There are always lunches to be made, schedules to be sorted, and checklists of items to be included for the day at work and school. What emerges from this short-lived and very local entanglement sets the stage for the day that follows. Is someone late? Are needed items missing? Do schedules need to be adjusted? These initial conditions put everyone in the household on a particular trajectory—a trajectory that pushes us into larger and more long-term entanglements.

There are many different meanings to the word “entanglement,” and many different scales at which it operates, and all of them have some significance to research and practice in systemic design. In physics, entanglement at the quantum level describes the phenomenon where two particles remain connected over vast distances and can be treated as a single unit. This has implications at the smallest scale, for quantum computing, for instance, and at the largest astrophysical scale as well. While these may seem far off for systemic design, the themes of action-at-a-distance, intra-relations between objects, and emergence all have resonance for systems thinking. This is just a starting point, however.

On entanglements

Part one

In psychology, entanglements are messy human connections that blur the boundaries between individuals and can produce uncomfortable, mutually dependent cognitive and emotional states. This line of thinking can now readily be extended to characterize technologically-mediated relations with non-human entities, including AI and nature.

Research and practice have their own entanglements and, in fact, are entangled themselves. Researchers often fall into the habit of thinking of themselves as outside the object of study, and the concepts and tools they use to understand research objects follow that premise. But, this is only an approximation which serves some useful—and some counterproductive—purposes. Researchers are entangled with their object of study. The questions and methods they choose define the answers they receive. The discourses around concepts are deeply dependent on their histories and the disciplinary boundaries that make some problems apparent and tractable while rendering others invisible. By framing research as entanglements, researchers can acknowledge their own position as well as validate the positions of others in the construction of knowledge in ways that allow for new concepts, methods, and findings to emerge. It is tempting, and not altogether unproductive, to try and make sense of entanglements by imagining them as research objects themselves, but this goes against the very idea of entanglement. Thinking in entanglements calls upon us to acknowledge and articulate our own relationships to what we study, to remind us that knowledge is always partial and situated and challenges us to adopt multiple perspectives and to seek larger truths.

For practitioners, it comes as no surprise that they are entangled. The many trade-offs between idealized outcomes and real-world situations are a constant reminder that practice is situated within the systems it seeks to influence. The limits of a practitioner’s ability to change any particular situation are set by its entanglements with other systems—systems of politics and authority, economic systems, and social relations, to name only the big ones. Effective practice depends on making sense of and influencing these systems through establishing partnerships, listening to those affected, and discerning what is practical and effective from what is possible ‘in theory.’ In other words—getting more entangled.

Framing RSD12 in entanglements

Part 2

Transdisciplinary work requires translational action between research and practice. By considering ourselves to be entangled with the work that we do, we create implicit connections to others who are also, but differently, entangled. This space between positions, like the ends of string tied into a knot, is the space we need to move into if we wish to untangle that knot and create stronger, more intentional and more useful connections.

In the same vein, second-order cybernetics sought to include the cyberneticist as a part of the system of interest; we’ve chosen to frame contributions as entanglements rather than as “areas” or “topics” or any number of other more common terms to defamiliarise approaches to knowledge-building and encourage new ways of knowing that acknowledge the interconnectedness between the things we typically think of as distinct: research and practice, researcher and object, designer and client.



RSD12-Bogotá and RSD12-online livestream
RSD12-Washington DC and RSD12-ONLINE

Reading List

These are just a few thoughts that help me situate my own entanglement, there are many other resources and meanings to explore, and the works cited below are a great starting point.

A short primer on Quantum Entanglement

This is a terrific book that has many insights into entanglement, starting at the quantum level and building up into feminist theory, science and technology studies, and ethics. It will be better for those with some background in those topics.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

A nicely written article that summarizes many of the important points around entanglement and “new materialism” with implications for research and discussion of “form” that is relevant to design.

Hargraves, Vicki. (2016). Research as entanglement. ETD – Educação Temática Digital. 18. 541. 10.20396/etd.v18i3.8646104.

An academic journal dedicated to viewing ethnography through the lens of entanglement.

Nolas, S-M., and Varvantakis, C. (2018). ‘Entanglements that matter’, entanglements, 1(1):1-4.

Global Entanglements of Art and Culture




Citation Data

Author(s): Evan Barba
Year: 2023
Title: What and Why: Systemic design and entanglements
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD12
Article No.: pre-release
Host: Georgetown University
Location: Bogotá | ONLINE
Symposium Dates: October 6–20, 2023
First published: 15 July 2023
Last update: no update
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404
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