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Emery, Frederick Edmund (Fred) (1925–1997)

by Alastair Crombie

Edmund Frederick Emery, by Heide Smith, 1992

Edmund Frederick Emery, by Heide Smith, 1992

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an20016847

Fred Emery, who died at his home in Cook on April 10, was widely regarded as one of the finest social scientists of his generation. He was a senior Research Fellow at ANU from July 1969 to November 1979, first in the Department of Sociology, RSSS, and then from 1974, at the Centre for Continuing Education.

A psychologist by training, his initial academic appointment was at Melbourne University, where he made significant contributions to rural sociology, and the effects of film and television viewing.

Constantly drawn towards testing social science theory in field settings, in 1958 he joined Eric Trist, one of his closest intellectual collaborators, at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London.

Over the next 10 years, he, with Trist and other colleagues, established "open socio-technical systems theory" as an alternative paradigm for organisational design — field-tested on a national scale in Norway, in partnership with Einar Thorsrud.

Two of Emery and Trist's key publications were The Causal Texture of Organisational Environments (1965) — which became a citation classic—and Towards a Social Ecology (1972).

At the ANU Fred continued his action research in industry and the public sector, and developed new tools for the diffusion of democracy in organisations and in communities.

He also attended to a backlog of writing. Within the next 10 years he authored, co-authored, or edited 10 books for publication, and published around 30 papers.

The three books that perhaps best convey the extraordinary breadth and depth of his thinking are Toward a Social Ecology (1972, with Trist), On purposeful systems (1972, with Russ Ackoff), and Futures We're In (1977).

He also edited for Penguin two volumes of readings called Systems Thinking (the initial volume was reprinted six times), which will long remain a staple resource on the origins and development of open systems thinking throughout the life sciences.

In the final two years of his life, he co-edited the third and final volume of the "Tavistock anthology" being published by the University of Pennsylvania Press — The Social Engagement of Social Science.

In 1979 when his CCE Fellowship expired, efforts were made by some of his colleagues to find a permanent post for him at the ANU, but to no avail.

Thus, long before their numbers swelled and their own association was formed, Fred became one of Australia's outstanding Independent Scholars.

By 1985 he had published at least another 15 journal articles (a flow which continued to his last year), and governments, enterprises, students, universities, and many others, from this country and elsewhere, continued to seek his expertise.

On September 25 1992 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa — by Macquarie University.

Original publication

Citation details

Alastair Crombie, 'Emery, Frederick Edmund (Fred) (1925–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 August 2020.

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