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Edward Berge has been studying all things integral since 1998. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. By profession he has been a massage therapist and is a retired professional liability insurance underwriter. By avocation he is dancer, researcher, writer, and art and literary lover and critic. He is an active participant in the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum and blogs at Progressive Participatory Enaction.

Can you be at a level of development?

Edward Berge

The very notion of a COG then seems to be at best an inappropriate substitute, and at worst “absurd and flagrantly ideological”.

It seems common in integral circles to stereotype people by claiming an individual resides at a specific developmental level, as if someone fits easily into one category. Granted the AQAL model allows for different domains or lines to be at different levels, but nonetheless in each domain the claim remains that said domain is at a specific, measurable level. In addition, there is the concept of a center of gravity (COG), generally associated with the self-related or ego line, as it is apparently the organizing structure for the other levels and lines.

But there is ongoing debate about the COG in developmental literature, so some empirical research follows by other developmentalists not so enamoured. But first let's look at the support for the COG. Integral Life describes it thus:

“A phrase used to describe an individual or group's central point of development. An individual's center of gravity typically hovers around their level of proximate-self development in the self-identity stream. In groups, it usually 'resides' in the dominant mode of discourser”

In Chapter 3 of The Religion of Tomorrow (Shambhala 2017) Ken Wilber defines the structure-stage COG as “the most general identity of the overall relative or conventional self-sense” and claims it is “fairly easy to recognize […] and there are numerous tests that individuals can take to help determine them [levels].”

This notion is supported by Cook-Greuter's work on the ego line of development, although in the Introduction she does note that “all stage descriptions are idealizations that no human being fits entirely” (3). She qualifies further: “Nobody is at one or another stage 100%. Although a person may test as having his or her center of gravity at a specific stage, we always see a distribution of responses over at least 3 levels” (5). Nonetheless, she too accepts the notion of a testable COG.

However there are developmentalists who question the COG notion. Reams notes the following:

"What we can see upon first glance is that ego stage models tend towards describing a center of gravity, a structure of self-understanding and meaning making that is relatively stable with periodic transformations, and within which variability happens, but is harder to account for. Fischer's dynamic skill theory, on the other hand, starts from two different sets of empirical findings. One is that variability is central to performance, understanding etc. and that this variability is both moment to moment within an individual and across individuals. Thus statistical norming or establishing a center of gravity is not in focus. The other is that the unit of analysis is the skill being performed and the hierarchical complexity of it, not an individual ego and its stage of development. Individuals are simply the means through which we can observe these structures" (126-27).

The idea of a COG is not only “not in focus” but questioned altogether. E.g. Fischer and Mascolo:

"To speak of the development of psychological structures is not the same as speaking about the development of a person. There are no general or 'all purpose' psychological structures. Although they undergo massive development over the lifespan, psychological structures consist of localized skills that are tied to particular situational demands, psychological demands and social contexts. [...] It is not appropriate to say that an individual functions at a single developmental level, even for a particular skill. Instead it is more appropriate to say that an individual's skills function at a range of levels depending on context, domain, time of day, emotional state and other variables."

Zak Stein agrees:

"The idea that a holistic assessment could tell us about the essence of a person is absurd and flagrantly ideological. Development assessments at their best can only paint pictures of the differential distribution of capabilities within persons. We can't assess people as a whole, we can only assess their performances along particular lines in particular contexts. And performances vary across contexts, which means that you may perform at one level in one context and at a very different level in another context" (11).

Also see Stein's study of graduate students in integral studies at JFKU. One area of the study was significant: Those who stereotype individuals, or worse cultures, within a particular level or color is antithetical to higher cognitive complexity, and if fact inhibits it (18). In this Stein paper note the chart on p. 5 of the levels, then the chart on p. 10 on the range of interpretations of the AQAL model in stages 10 through 13 (aka formal, systematic, meta-systematic, paradigmatic; or orange, green, teal, turquoise). The notion of a 'center of gravity' for levels is, irony of all ironies, green relativism! And typical sophomoric interpretations of quadrants and levels are orange! Stein concludes here that "the idea that a holistic assessment could tell us about the essence of a person is absurd and flagrantly ideological” (11).

Also note the model of hierarchical complexity on COG:

"In mapping the mathematical orders of order of hierarchical complexity and of stage transition on to real world data, there are a number of considerations. Because the model does not call for global measures (e.g., of a person's 'center of gravity'), it is possible to look at change trial by trial, choice by choice, task action by task action. [...] The methodology is also flexible in contrast to instrument-dependent stage theories (e.g Loevinger, 1976). [...] By contrast, other stage theories have no such independent variable much less one that works as well as order of hierarchical complexity" (318).

Rob McNamara notes some consequences of the COG approach:

"For those of us interested in adult development, too often we tend to focus on stages. [...] Implicit inside these assumptions about development is that we can be located at a specific stage of development. [...] The antidote to this 'vertical pursu-itis' is to look instead at what we call developmental range. This is different from our 'center of gravity, an abstracted normative range in which you (or others) tend to show up developmentally, but which moves us away from the specificity of our aliveness in any given moment. Developmental range instead steers us towards specific contexts, particular behaviors and distinct skills. Instead of generalized abstractions, developmental range focuses on the immediacy of our developmental complexity in response to environmental and contextual surrounds from moment to moment. The concept of developmental range focuses us on the dynamic, relational quality of our skills and behaviors."

And related to his 'vertical pursu-itis,' recall Edwards on altitude sickness. One of Edwards' key points is that we get misled when we take one lens as the central and defining lens for all the others. But as Edwards points out, even the altitude lens is itself only one of many and does not rule the others. The reigning metaphor is less like a ladder and more like an inter-meshed web. Mascolo notes:

"Although it is possible to identify particular tasks and activities that operate within particular domains of thinking, feeling, or acting in everyday life, most tasks involve an integration of multiple task domains. […] Higher-order skills emerge from the constructive differentiation and inter-coordination of skill elements from diverse task domains. […] Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that development takes place in a multidirectional web of pathways (Fischer and Bidell, 2006) rather than a unidirectional ladder. […] Developing skills do not move in a ?xed order of steps in a single direction, but they develop in multiple directions along multiple strands that weave in and out of each other in ontogenesis, the developmental history of the person (or other organism)" (336-37).

The very notion of a COG then seems to be at best an inappropriate substitute, and at worst “absurd and flagrantly ideological,” for specific, detailed analysis of the actual complexity and nuance of individual development that covers a wide range of levels and lines in specific contexts. If there is any center at all in development it is virtual and in the distributive tensegrity formed by each unique, individual web instead of some dominant central structure (Edwards et al., 2015).

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