Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Integral Theory Conference—Its History, Mission, and the Future of Integral Academics

Integral Life has posted an excellent article with Mark Forman and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, the brain-trust behind the The Integral Theory Conference. This is a nice interview - and I like their honesty about trying to include critical voices in the conference, both attendees and presenters.

To that end, I give them serious credit for asking me - a more vocal critic in my own little part of the world - to be the social media coordinator for the conference this year, as well as a panelist for the integral masculinity discussion.

The Integral Theory Conference—Its History, Mission, and the Future of Integral Academics: An Interview with Mark Forman and Sean-Esbjörn-Hargens

We sat down recently with Mark Forman and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, the co-founders and co-organizers of the biennial Integral Theory Conference, to chat about the history and mission of the event. Sean is the Chair of the Integral Theory Program at JFK University and is founding Executive Editor of the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice and co-author of Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. Mark is faculty in the Integral Theory Program, a practicing integral psychotherapist, and is the author of A Guide to Integral Psychotherapy: Complexity, Integration, and Spirituality, which was published this past April by SUNY Press.

The conference is currently the world’s largest gathering devoted to the study of Integral Theory and its application in various disciplines. This year’s event—entitled Enacting an Integral Future—will host over 75 academic presentations, 25 poster presentations, 20 panel discussions, and 500 attendees. Presenters and attendees will be present from more than 20 countries around the globe.

It will take place from July 29th to August 1st on JFKU’s campus in Pleasant Hill, California. The conference is currently 85% sold out (with 75 spots left). For more information or to register, you can visit the conference website.

IL: Can you tell us a little bit about how the conference got started?

Mark: Well, on my end, it was a very intuitive thing. I was walking down University Avenue in Palo Alto, sometime in the summer of 2007, thinking about the current state of things in the Integral world. Maybe because I was working hard on my book at the time. And it just hit me—Why not try and put on a conference? It was really felt and visceral—one of those plans that just arrives more than you think it up. There wasn’t really any place for Integral academics to come and gather to present work and this was a huge missing piece. My initial sense was just to try something small, maybe drawing off of the Bay Area’s Integral community as well as the many Wilber critics who work in the area. I had done some small event organization in the past, so I was pretty confident that something could be put together. Since I had worked for Sean the year before, the idea of contacting him also came up almost immediately. I knew he had the resources and infrastructure at JFKU to make it work. I sat with the idea for a few more months, drafted a proposal, and contacted him.

Sean: I had been thinking for years that we should have a conference. I’d been involved at meetings at Integral Institute since the beginning in 2000. At most meetings someone would enthusiastically suggest, “Hey, why don’t we put on a conference?” But it just never seemed like the right time, or we didn’t have the resources and the time to do it well. Nevertheless, there was this sense that a major gathering for the integral community would be an important next step at some point. I had been teaching at JFKU for several years and had just started the online program in Integral Theory. I was hoping to get an integral conference started there within the next few years as a way of furthering inroads into the academy.
What was fascinating about having Mark contact me—and we had never discussed it before—was how similar our visions were for what needed to happen. At the level of intention and vision, things moved really quickly and easily. We were off and running within a month of Mark suggesting the idea—sending out the call for papers and beginning what was to become an intense year of planning and preparation. Thank God we are only doing this event every other year—if we were doing an annual event we would be in constant planning mode. Plus, we felt it was important to do a biennial event so that the field would have time to digest the contributions of the previous one. I like to think of this as developmental rest time for a social holon.

IL: Can you say a little about what the intention and vision is the conference?

Sean: Diversity of voices and greater academic rigor—that’s what we want to promote. That’s really the mission.

Prior to 2007, there were definitely interesting things happening in the Integral academic world. In addition to the program at JFKU—where the intention was to create a program where people could come and study the field rigorously—we had also started a peer-reviewed Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. A couple of books were being worked on—the one I co-authored on Integral Ecology and Andre Marquis’ book on Integral Psychotherapy, for example. Outside of II and JFKU, folks like Mark Edwards and journals like Integral Review were doing some really great work as well. But compared to what should have been happening, when you think about the potential reach of Integral theory, it wasn’t nearly enough; there was so much more that could be done. I personally knew all of these other fantastic scholars who were doing their own work in various areas of Integral study, and applying the model as well, but there was no place for them to come together and to stand up as independent voices and practitioners. Things were pretty cliquish. Things get into group think, which is just a bad atmosphere for creative academic work. This was even happening within II, definitely.

So the vision of the conference is to create an open platform, where the best and brightest in the field can come to present their work and dialogue with their peers. The intention never was that this would be only about people who agree with Wilber’s vision of what Integral studies is. This is one of those places where Mark and I totally agreed. We wanted critical voices—both from inside and outside the “Wilber tent.” And we explicitly wanted to challenge the belief that Wilber = Integral, to decouple that equation so that Wilber’s voice becomes a voice, not the only voice. This year we’re going to address this topic in-depth in our opening night talk.

Mark: I would just add that I see the conference being a long-term investment strategy. There’s now a pretty thriving Integral marketplace—people can go to all kinds of great workshops, seminars, events, and so forth. These have immediate benefits, helping people with the more experiential side of the Integral project. But our real concern with the conference is for the incremental growth and long-term sustainability of the academic field. In our culture, in order to gain influence, you’ve got to engage the academy, the intelligentsia. Given the amount of tension and polarization in our society, there’s likely a significant number of thinkers and leaders who are open to more complex and multiperspectival approaches to different fields of study and social problems. In order to engage them, you’ve got to create a literature; a body of credible knowledge, peer-reviewed and grounded in research and careful scholarship. This is an area where we see that a lot of other progressive approaches have failed in the past—they’ve taken a self-alienating stance towards the academy. We don’t want to repeat their mistake.

This is one of the reasons, by the way, that our conference structure mimics standard academic conferences. We want to walk in that tradition. All our individual presenters at the conference perform the traditional step of submitting scholarly papers along with their presentations. We review each and pick the best eight—each of which receives a $500 award. We see these papers and the conference as really crucial. They’re amongst the major aspects of the larger Integral ecosystem that are devoted to this long-term, future-orientated process.

IL: Has the conference changed at all from the first event in 2008? Is it the same structure?

Mark: People were pretty pleased with the first one—we got great feedback. So since it wasn’t broke, we didn’t want to try to do too much to fix it. But one of the pieces that we did hear consistently is that people wanted more space for dialogue and discussion. So this year we lengthened most of the presentations from one hour to an hour-and-a-half, so there would be much more opportunity for question-and-answer and discourse. We also increased the number of our panel discussions to more than 20, and added an extra half hour to these as well. We even increased the break time between presentations to half-an-hour. As our colleague [at JFKU] David Zeitler likes to say, “The real conference happens in the hallways.” We want people to go to presentations and to connect with one another afterwards. We think this is the place where collaborations and some of the most fruitful conversations happen. Another way to say this is that academics is a “we” affair, an ultimately collaborative enterprise.

Sean: We’ll also be showcasing the poster sessions more fully, since we felt that they didn’t get enough exposure last year and yet they contained some remarkable content. Some of our best-known presenters are doing posters this year along with many newer voices—we will have two poster sessions this year paired with evening mixers on Thursday and Saturday. We have also really wanted to build on the critical voices that began to come forward in the 2008 conference. I think some of the critical voices were watching to see what would happen at ITC 2008 and my sense is we did a good job of demonstrating the importance of having a critical reflective component at the conference—even among proponents of Integral Theory. So we are pleased that there are more outspokenly critical perspectives in the line-up.

IL: How do you see the future of the field unfolding? Where are things now?

Sean: This is another topic we’re going to cover in our opening night talk, so I don’t want to completely steal our own thunder. But piggy-backing on what Mark was saying, in some sense I would say that the future is already here; there are major pieces of literature are coming out as we speak and more are on the way. It isn’t because of the conference of course, but because there were a number of people already working on integral ideas and applications and the readiness of their work dovetailed with the timing of the conference. But the conference does provide a certain kind of platform, and has played some role, and to the extent that it has contributed we are really proud of that.

To add a bit more background on this, during the planning for 2008 we were contacted by SUNY Press, who were thinking of coming and selling their books. While they ultimately weren’t able to attend the event, we made a good connection with their chief editor, Jane Bunker. I ended up proposing a book on Integral Education that I was editing with Jonathan Reams and Olen Gunnlaugson, and Mark also submitted his manuscript to them. It made sense at that point to pitch them the idea of a series in Integral Theory. I’m now signed up as the editor of that series.
I couldn’t be more excited about all the books that are coming down the pike in the SUNY Series. Mark’s book is already out, but at the conference we’ll being debuting three others, including a terrific text on Integral Psychotherapy from Elliott Ingersoll and David Zeitler and the one on Integral Education as well. Maybe most related to the conference itself, we are also releasing a book called Integral Theory in Action which is composed entirely of the best papers submitted at the 2008 event—it contains applied, theoretical, and constructive perspectives on the AQAL model and is the first book of its kind. In the next two years we anticipate another 11 books making their way to bookstores and for purchase on the net. Some of these will really alter the discourse for the next decade or so.

So I really see that we are on our way in terms of laying the foundations for an academic field. Things are changing and developing fast. We want the conference to support this process as much as it possibly can.

IL: Any final things you’d like to add about the event?

Mark: I would just say that we are very alive to the criticism that Integral was far too insular during the past 10 to 15 years. We feel like we did a lot in 2008 to initiate a trajectory to counter that. But we still hear a lot of criticism, particularly in the blogosphere, that things haven’t changed, that it’s a closed community, a closed discourse. In many ways, these are exactly the people we want most to attend the event. Even if they’re not presenting, we want them to come and ask questions, come and dialogue. The community and the field are so young, there’s so much room to make an impact and have a shaping effect. I think people who perceive themselves as outsiders will be surprised to hear how many other strong, independent voices have emerged and how individuals have been developing the integral field on their own, even in a very short time span. We aren’t surprised at this point; we get the submissions directly and can see how things have deepened even since 2008. But it’s just hard to communicate if you’re not seeing it with your own eyes. So we really want those folks—particularly those who are interested but skeptical about the viability of Integral—to join us and see for themselves.

Sean: The last thing I would want to add is about our conference theme—Enacting an Integral Future. Enactment is one of the most important and tricky concepts in the Integral lexicon. As I see it, enactment simply means bringing something into reality through your participation in it. In other words, our individual and social practices have a constructive influence with reality “out there.” And I feel this beautifully echoes what Mark is saying about the real possibility of critics and proponents to influence and to shape the field. We chose this theme because we feel that the first conference was about coming together as a global academic community and seeing ourselves for the first time as such a community. Now that we can see ourselves we need to consciously participate in the enactment of Integral Theory and Integral Studies. We have a rich history to draw on with giants like Wilber, Baldwin, Gebser, Aurobindo, etc. But we have an even richer—wider and higher—future to enact as there are many powerful voices, frameworks, applications, criticisms now being articulated and embodied. Just like the five phases of Wilber’s vision, I think we are now entering into the next phase of Integral Theory. Call it “Integral Theory 2.” I’m not sure what it fully looks like but what I can see it is quite exciting. It is literally a whole new level of discourse, community, and service to the global commons.

IL: Thanks so much for taking the time.

Sean: Thank you.
Mark: Thanks. It was our pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview…glad you’ll be involved. Should be an interesting gathering.

I’m curious if you’ve had a chance to read the paper Marc Gafni submitted for the conference, entitled “Spiritually Incorrect: Sex, Ethics and Injury.” Rather than a clear, academic presentation of Integral theory, it’s 32 pages of rambling self-justification for his sexually abusive behaviors, attacks on the women who spoke up against him, distortions of Kabbalistic teachings presented as means to defend himself, and quotes by so-called “power feminists” aligned with his perspective. Also included is the suspiciously repetitive insistence that now that he’s partnered with Mariana Caplan, he’s completely monogamous.

His writing reveals that, if nothing else, this is a man who is using his teaching platform to promote his own self-serving and warped agenda.

According to the posted schedule, Gafni will be presenting three times at the conference.

You’ve been so good about raising public concern about questionable spiritual teachers; there are many of us who are profoundly grateful for your articulate voice of integrity! So I thought you might want to be alerted to this recent example of the inappropriateness of this brilliant yet disturbed and dangerous man being presented as a leader in the Integral world.

For some reason Gafni’s name and paper longer appear with the list of presenters on the ITC website (hmmm, curious), but here’s a link to the paper if you’re interested:

william harryman said...

Thank you for sharing the link - I knew Gafni was on the schedule, so I was curious why he was not on the list of presenters.

I'll be sure to read the article - he has expressed a desire to "speak with me" at the conference - that should be fun.