Social Field

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= "the structure of the relationship among individuals, groups, organizations and systems that gives rise to collective behaviors and outcomes". (Otto Scharmer writing in Huff Post)

Also a special concept from Field Theory, proposed for research into internet localization, as opposed to rival notions of Community, Network or "public sphere"


1. Otto Scharmer:

" Kurt Lewin. Lewin viewed the social environment as a dynamic field that interacts with human consciousness. Changes in the social environment affect particular types of psychological experience, and vice versa. In his field theory, a field is defined as "the totality of coexisting facts, which are conceived of as mutually interdependent." He believed that, in order to understand people's behavior, one had to look at the whole psychological field, or "lifespace," within which people act. Lifespaces are constructed under the influence of various force vectors.

Accordingly, human behavior is determined by the totality of an individual's context. This context is a function of the field that exists at the time the behavior occurs. Lewin also looked to the power of underlying forces (needs) to determine behavior by integrating insights from topology (e.g., lifespace), psychology (needs, aspirations, etc.), and sociology (e.g., force fields).

Lewin's field theory was groundbreaking in twentieth-century social psychology and action research and led to the development of numerous experiments and projects. Awareness and sensitivity training in T-groups in the 1950s and '60s, and the dialogue practices, and organizational learning methods at the end of the century, are all part of this lineage." (

2. John Postill:

"In view of these difficulties with public sphere, I wish to propose instead the concept of ‘social field’ as one possible way of overcoming the community/network impasse. Put simply, a social field is a domain of practice in which social agents compete and cooperate over the same public rewards and prizes (Martin 2003). One advantage of field is that it is a neutral, technical term lacking the normative idealism of both public sphere and community. Field theorists have developed a sophisticated vocabulary that is increasingly being recruited to the study of media (Benson 2007, Benson and Neveu 2005, Couldry 2007, Hesmondhalgh 2006, Peterson 2003). More pertinent to the case at hand, Field Theory offers us a framework with which to analyse the Internet-mediated relations between local authorities and residents by treating these two parties not as discrete entities but rather relationally, as two sectors of a porous, conflict-prone ‘field of residential affairs’ (see Epstein 1958, Venkatesh 2003)." (


Otto Scharmer:

(full text with more quotes in the Huff Post article)

"Every social field has the following characteristics and conditions:

1. Wholeness. Social fields are whole. Because all human beings are connected, what happens to other people also happens to an individual. This is not only because everyone shares the same ecosystem and is connected through multiple interdependencies, but, most important, because all people are directly connected to one another, as becomes manifest when we enter the deeper states of the social field.

2. Boundaries. There is a boundary between the outside and the inside of social fields and social systems.

3. Interiority. What differentiates social fields from social systems is their degree of interiority. Social systems are social fields seen from the outside (the third-person view). At the moment we cross the boundary between them and step inside a social system -- that is, at the moment we begin to inquire into its interiority by turning the camera around (from the third-person to the first-person view) -- we switch the perspective from the social system to the social field.

Once we cross this threshold we discover the interiority (or being-ness) of this field -- its inner landscape. It shows up in the form of different states that transform our first-person experience along the seven dimensions outlined below (points 4-10).

These shifts are well known by many experienced practitioners, innovators, top athletes, and artists.

4. Time slows down. Time slows down, sometimes to complete stillness. Many of us experience the slowing down in moments of deep listening.

5. Space widens. The experience of space opens up. In moments of profound shifts in group processes, participants often sense a widening of the surrounding collective space, particularly upward. When moving from Field 1 to Field 4, the texture of the social space morphs from one-dimensional mental images (Field 1), to a two-dimensional exterior connection between observer and observed (Field 2), to a three-dimensional social space where the observer moves inside what is being observed (Field 3), to a four-dimensional living time-space in which awareness becomes more panoramic and perception takes place from the evolutionary movement of a social field, where one senses the space of future possibility (Field 4).

6. The self-other boundary collapses.

7. The self is "de-centering." The experience of self shifts from a localized center-self (Field 1), to a rational self that is anchored and operates from inside the head (Field 2), to a relational self that operates from the heart (Field 3), to an emerging higher self that is connected to and operates from a surrounding sphere of possibility (Field 4). This awareness is sometimes also referred to as panoramic awareness. Russell seems to refer to a panoramic awareness of the entire field, "including all the opposing players."

8. Materiality changes form and quality. The quality of matter and sensual perception also shifts. For example, in moments when social presencing happens, workshop participants often report a "thickening" and "warming" of light. In moving from Field 1 to Field 4, one's sense of the planet evolves: from a perception of absence (Field 1), to an awareness of its function as a resource (Field 2), to an awareness of its function as a living system (Field 3), to an appreciation of it as a living being or presence that holds the space for connecting to our deepest levels of humanity (Field 4).

9. Connecting to Source: rule-generating. Connecting to source, or "presencing," means being present and acting from a direct connection to our deepest source of creativity and self. Connecting to the source often comes with an experience of a presence that isn't me-centered but operates through me. Sometimes that presence emerges from a relationship with another person. Sometimes that presence is simply felt, a collective awareness that "sees" us from the surrounding sphere. The members of the Circle of Seven referred to this awareness as "the presence of the Circle Being."

Our quality of agency can be traced to the source from which social action originates: existing habits and rules (Field 1: rule-repeating), responding to exterior conditions (Field 2: rule-realizing), reflection on both exterior and interior conditions (Field 3: rule-reflecting), or the full presence of the source in the now (Field 4: rule-generating).

10. From habitual thinking to presencing. The quality of thought -- thinking -- creates the world. As we move from Field 1 to Field 4, our quality (and center) of thought moves from habitual, or the absence of true thinking (Field 1), to thinking from the head by relating to the world as a set of exterior objects (Field 2), to thinking as an activity from the heart that allows us to relate to the world from both outside and inside (Field 3), to thinking as an activity at the source of the social field, that is, from an awareness of emerging future possibilities (Field 4). These four modes of thinking embody four different gateways for connecting to the world: habitual thought (downloading), rational thought (seeing), empathic thought (sensing), and generative thought (presencing).

Our first-person experience opens up when the deeper interiority of a social field is activated or awakened (points 4-10). As we move from the third-person (points 1-3) and first-person perspectives (points 4-10) to an integrated perspective that links the first-, second-, and third-person views, we realize that these shifts have profound impacts on the core dynamics of how social systems show up in the world:

11. Co-creativity. A social field, once its deeper interiority is activated, turns into a generative field that allows its participants to access their deepest sources of creativity, both individually and collectively. The co-creative flow that occurs in generative social fields can be, in the words of cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch, "shockingly effective." As the stream of emergence deepens, the relationships between the parts and the whole, between individuals and the social whole, shifts in subtle ways. In Field 1, the self is at the center, inside of its own boundaries, locked into its current identity. As the system moves through Fields 2-4, the self functions with progressively more open boundaries and eventually from its surrounding sphere.

12. Non-locality. Generative social fields regenerate and to some degree replicate or multiply themselves over time - -often over many, many years; they also transcend the boundary of space by becoming non-local. Being non-local means that, once I have a deep heart-to-heart connection with the other, I can feel the impact of this relationship and its real-time changes regardless of our spatial proximity.

13. Matrix of Evolution. Activating the deeper levels of the social field is like reintegrating matter and mind on the level of the collective. If the collective body and mind are separate, social systems will download the patterns of the past (rule-repeating). When the collective body and mind are integrated, we see the rise of generative social expressions that operate from a direct connection to source (rule-generating).

The Matrix of Social Evolution spells out the idea of moving from body-mind separation to integration. On the horizontal axis we see four system levels of action (individual, group, organizational, and systemic); on the vertical axis we see four degrees of separation between matter and mind. In row 1 we see how the social field manifests when there is full separation between collective body and mind -- that is, between action and awareness (Field 1: downloading). By contrast, row 4 depicts how the generative social field manifests when there is full integration between the collective body and mind, that is, collective action and awareness (Field 4: presencing).

14. Consciousness. Consciousness is the independent variable that can facilitate a change in the degree of separation between body and mind (or action and awareness) on the level of the collective. The Matrix of Social Evolution spells out the evolution of social fields through four levels of consciousness: traditional (level 1), ego-system awareness (level 2), stakeholder awareness (level 3), and eco-system awareness (level 4). The development of social fields is the embodiment of a human consciousness that is evolving from ego to eco. Viewed from this angle we see the current global ecological and social crisis as a call to shift our way of operating from ego-system to eco-system awareness.

15. Mirroring. To change the operating levels of a social field, people need a mechanism that helps them bend the beam of observation back onto the observing self. When this happens for the individual (micro), we call it mindfulness. Mindfulness is the capacity to pay attention to your attention. When this happens in a group, we call it dialogue. Dialogue is not people talking to each other. Dialogue is the capacity of a system to see itself. What's missing in today's capitalism is a set of enabling or mirroring infrastructures that would help our systems to sense and see themselves and thereby remove the barriers preventing the next round of profound institutional innovation and systems change.

16. Holding Spaces for Courage, Love, Listening. In early 2015, we asked the 10,000 plus participants in a global U.Lab (an MIT-sponsored MOOC), what it would take to realize their "highest future possibility." What would it take to bring it into reality "as it desires" (Martin Buber)? Their resounding answer was simple and clear: courage! Then we asked them what support they would need from others in order to actually make it happen, to make it work. Again their answers very clear: love, listening and trust! These responses from a multi-cultural community of change makers are similar to the responses we've heard from others. Profound shifts in small groups tend to happen when the two following conditions are in place: (1) individual courage and vulnerability, and (2) a holding space of deep listening with unconditional love.

Which leads me to the final question: how to build the capacity to shift social fields on the scale of the whole? My father, like many good farmers, attends to the quality of the soil on the entire farm. But in social fields, our cultivation efforts are broken into many small and often disconnected pieces.

The recent rise in popularity of mindfulness practices is a positive development that is beginning to reshape professional practices in education, health, and leadership, among other sectors. In almost all cases, however, we see the power of mindfulness applied to the cultivation of the individual, the assumption being that once there is a critical mass of individual practitioners, they will eventually shift and transform the whole system.

That view reflects a naïveté in the current mindfulness movement; it tends to be ignorant about the collective structural dynamics of profound social change. From the perspective of social fields the essential question is: How can we apply the power of mindfulness not only to the cultivation of the individual but also to the transformation of the collective--that is, the evolutionary shift of social fields?

17. Eight acupuncture points. At the core of transforming the current social field from ego-system to eco-system is the transformation of the economy--and of economic thought. Rethinking the key categories of economic thought from ego- to eco-system awareness includes the reframing of:

  • Nature: from commodity to eco-system
  • Labor: from jobs to creative entrepreneurship
  • Capital: from extractive to intentional
  • Technology: from system-centric to human- and eco-centric
  • Leadership: from individual heroism to co-sensing & co-shaping the future
  • Consumption: from consumerism to conscious, collaborative sharing
  • Coordination: from hierarchy and competition to co-creative fields
  • Ownership: from state and private to commons-based ownership rights

Facilitating these shifts in the economy requires a whole suite of institutional innovations. These institutional innovations need to be complemented with innovations in learning infrastructures, such as collective cultivation practices that build the collective capacity to co-sense and co-create.

18. Collective cultivation practices: social field mirroring. To activate the fourth level of the Matrix of Evolution (generative fields) not only requires institutional innovations around the eight acupuncture points but also new learning infrastructures that today exist in part on the micro and meso levels (individual and teams) but that are largely missing on the macro and mundo levels (organizations and systems). Figuring out how to co-create these new learning infrastructures is one of the most interesting challenges of our time. At the MITx U.Lab and the Presencing Institute we have developed and tested several building blocks for such collective cultivation practices, including deep listening case clinics, technology-enabled global stillness practices, and Social Presencing Theater. All three of these practices effectively do the same thing: they activate the fourth level of the social field and then turn that field into a mirror that allows the actors to sense and see themselves from the evolving whole.

In the case clinic, the mirroring is effected through deep listening and then reflecting back images, feelings, and gestures that embody the essence of the case at issue. In global stillness practices, the social field is activated by a real-time global community engaged in a guided meditation exercise: people connect to their individual selves, to the planet, and to the collective social field and then look back on themselves from the perspective of the evolving whole. In Social Presencing Theater, an art form that blends mindfulness, constellation practices, and social science, the generative social field is activated through spontaneous body sculptures that represent the deeper dynamics of the current social field, and then inquiry into the possibilities of transformation. The mirroring in Social Presencing Theater happens through first enacting, then debriefing, and finally reflecting on the deeper transformation dynamics of the social field.

These mirroring processes, by activating the fourth level of the social field, have an enormous inspirational and transformative power. The MITx U.Lab demonstrated that the fourth level of the social field can be activated in distributed social fields on a global scale.

19. Two core axes of the social field: collective body-mind and self-other. The vertical axis depicts the body-mind split of the collective--that is, the degree of disconnect between collective action and awareness (presence or absence of Source). The other axis depicts the split between self and other--that is, the degree of disconnect between actors in a social system. Currently, the social field suffers from the combined effect of both splits. Case in point: global climate change. We collectively produce results that no one wants: severe climate destabilization. That's the body-mind split. Why, then, don't we wake up? Because at this point the second split kicks in: I am so remote from the people who are beginning to feel the worst impact of climate destabilization that in spite of their suffering, nothing motivates me to move from beginning awareness to action.

How does the vertical split, the split between the collective body (collective actions) and mind (awareness) show up in real life? The reintegration shows up in the opening of the mind, of the heart, and of the will (cycle of presencing). The disintegration shows up in their opposites: getting stuck in ONE Truth, ONE collective skin (us vs. them) and ONE fanatical will -- a.k.a. fundamentalism or cycle of absencing.

The above acupuncture points and infrastructure innovations around social mirroring are leverage points for overcoming this double split, for reintegrating collective action and collective mind on the scale of the whole.

The recent results of the global MITx U.Lab prototype in early 2015 and related learning experiences that activate the fourth level of the social field represent a very hopeful beginning. They mark the beginning of a new platform and global movement that aims at integrating science, consciousness, and social change by putting the learners into the driver seat of profound personal, relational, and institutional renewal." (


Peggy Levitt:

"In a 2004 article, Nina Glick Schiller and I proposed a notion of society based on the concept of social field and drew a distinction between ways of being and ways of belonging. Social fields are multi-dimensional and encompass structured interactions of differing forms, depth, and breadth that are differentiated in social theory by terms like “organization,” “institution,” “networks,” and “social movement.” National social fields are those that remain within national boundaries, while transnational social fields connect actors, through direct and indirect relations, across borders. Neither domain automatically takes precedence; rather determining the relative importance of nationally restricted and transnational social fields is an empirical question.

The concept of social fields is a powerful tool for conceptualizing the social relations linking those who move and those who stay in one place. It takes us beyond the direct experience of movement into domains of interaction, where individuals who do not move have social ties with people who do. For example, because of these relationships, both non-migrants in a sending country or the children of immigrants in a receiving country can be influenced regularly by people, ideas, and material objects from far away. NGO staff who have never traveled or attended an international training workshop learn of ideas and practices from their co-workers who do. They gain the skills and know-how to participate in these social fields and they can access its social networks. Therefore, people with more direct social ties are not automatically more transnationally active than people with weaker connections. Nor can we assume that people with few direct cross-border ties are uninfluenced by the field’s dynamics." (

More Information

* Article: The Blind Spot: Uncovering the Grammar of the Social Field. Otto Scharmer.


"Today, in most social systems, we collectively produce results that no one wants. These results show up in the form of environmental, social, and cultural destruction. The ecological divide (which disconnects self from nature), the social divide (which disconnects self from other), and the spiritual divide (which disconnects self from self) shape the larger context in every large system change today.

The intention of this paper is to uncover the grammar of the social field -- the key variables that make it possible for the operating logics and modes (states and stages) of a social field to shift."

  1. Community Informatics ; Networked Individualism: rival concepts
  2. Background on Field Theory