(Critical) Systems Thinking

Systems thinking provides a general, non-reductive approach to investigating phenomena characterized by feedback, unintended and long-term effects, chaotic dynamics, and emergent behaviors […]. It takes a holistic perspective, examining relationships between wholes and parts across levels of granularity. (Raymaker, 2016)

Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read it but ins some article or book the author mentioned some similarities between (I think) assemblages and critical systems thinking. I have not read much about critical systems thinking and I neither know from which tradition it comes/ in which it is used nor do I know the specifics about its ontology/epistemology.

Nevertheless, I thought I would paste the parts of articles that I read and that I thought might explain this quite well. However, to get what CRITICAL systems thinking is I tried to look further into systems thinking, and, to be honest I was surprised what I found.

I found the article written by Kogetsidis (2010) intriguing, as the author starts of by elaborating on the philosophy of systems thinking. “The platform of Western culture in the past 20 centuries has been occupied by a methodology, which is built on a style of thinking focused on “either. . . or. . .” and makes us divide the concepts in a binary mode without paying much attention to the fact that often entities or concepts constitute subsystems of greater systems (Herrscher, 2006). This traditional scientific method, which is also known as reductionism, breaks down wholes into their parts and aims to offer an understanding of the whole from the understanding of its parts. This type of Newtonian-Cartesian thinking has helped scientists over the years to understand natural phenomena and has been the typical approach used in the natural sciences. The problem with the reductionist approach, on the other hand, is that it ignores the fact that the whole often takes on a form that is not recognizable from its parts and it is therefore the whole that gives meaning to the parts and their interactions (Jackson, 2003) […]. However, based on this perspective, problems are broken up in separate parts, and, as the athors further explain, this leads to the false assumptions “that the components of the whole are the same when examined singly as when they are playing their part in the whole, and that this division will not distort the phenomena being studied” (Kogetsidis, 2010).

“Systems thinking emerged as a reaction to reductionism and the failure of the traditional scientific method to cope with the level of complexity inherent in the biological and social domains (Jackson, 2003). With systems thinking, valid knowledge and meaningful understanding comes from building up whole pictures of phenomena, rather than breaking them into parts (Flood, 2010)”. (In Kogetsidis, 2010)

So, this is where the opposite to reductionism, and the basis for systems thinking comes in: holism.

According to Kogetsidis (2010), holism “adopts Aristotle’s principle that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” and as a result puts the study of wholes before that of the parts ( Jackson, 2003). Holism takes a broad view of the problem situation, tries to take all aspects into account, and mainly concentrates on the interactions between the different parts of the problem (Checkland, 1981). Unlike reductionism, holism does not try to break down wholes into smaller parts in order to understand them but ensures that the parts are functioning and are related properly together in order to serve the purposes of the whole ( Jackson, 2003). This whole is showing properties, which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts. Holism gives attention to both structure and process, provides a powerful basis for critique and should therefore be reinstated as an equal and complementary partner to reductionism (Jackson, 2012).”

While this sounds relevant to me and also seems to have similarities with assemblage thinking, I also want to point out that three main schools or “streams” evolved in systems thinking: primarily hard systems thinking and soft thinking (and the critical one that I write more about later on).

  1. Hard systems thinking: “Hard systems thinking, the first to emerge in the late 19th century, typically takes a mechanistic world-is-a-system positivist approach to inquiry”
  2. Soft systems thinking: “In the 1970’s soft systems thinkers challenged the utility of applying mechanistic thinking to complex social phenomena, which led to the world-can-be-understood- systemically interpretivist approach of soft systems thinking” (Raymaker, 2016)
  3. Critical systems thinking

Based on this I am not 100% sure if the description by Kogetsidis applies to both hard and soft systems thinking or just the latter.

Critical Systems Thinking

As the most recent systems thinking paradigm, critical systems thinking (CST) has challenged both hard and soft systems thinking, asserting that:

(1) the mechanistic positivism of hard systems thinking is indeed incompatible with social systems inquiry; however,

(2) soft systems thinking neglects power relations and therefore is insufficient for social systems inquiry, and further

(3) the black-and-white separation of hard versus soft systems thinking is not useful (Raymaker, 2016).

According to Jackson (2010) critical systems thinking developed primarly based on two reasons: “1. a growing critical awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of individual systems approaches, and an 2. appreciation of the need for pluralism in systems thinking.”

While this seems quite straightforward, Kogetsidis (2010) points out that “CST is perceived by systems thinkers has been through considerable debate over the years. CST can be seen as an evolving set of developing themes that provides a theoretical foundation and practical framework for reflective research and practice (Stephens et al., 2010).” And furthermore, that “ there is no single approach or set of principles that define what CST is (Flood, 2010)” however, “systems thinkers seem to agree on its critical nature”.

In the article, Jackson (2003) was cited, who summarized the features of CST by outlining three commitments:

• a commitment to critical awareness;

• a commitment to improvement;

• a commitment to methodological pluralism.

Raymaker (2016) further clarifies some of the essential features of CST: “Unpacking the criticism around power relations in particular, proponents of CST argue that without a commitment to human emancipation and critical reflection on power, systems thinking and its methods can be exploited by those in dominant positions—either deliberately or through lack of awareness—to maintain the status quo. This risk is structurally rooted in assumptions about the value-neutrality of methods (i.e., value systems are independent from a selected methodology; for example, choice of qualitative or quantitative inquiry is unrelated to the values of the investigators or study participants), and about power-neutrality between actors (i.e., individuals involved in inquiry are equitably positioned with respect to each other; Jackson 1990). […] To address its critique of systems thinking, CST has infused the systems thinking approach with the three intentions of (1) complementarism at the theoretical and methodological level, (2) critical reflection, and (3) dedication to human emancipation (Flood 1990, 2013; Flood and Jackson 1991; Jackson 1990).”

I also looked around a bit online and found this page: https://agilejar.com/2020/03/the-covid-19-case-as-an-example-of-systems-thinking-usage/

In my opinion, a nicely done page with pictures for clarification, however, it looks at “systems thinking” without differentiation. The reason why I mention this here is because I also listened to the https://www.philosophizethis.org/ podcast on Deleuze (well the first 3 in the series on Deleuze). Both the webpage as well as in the podcast a bike was used as a metaphor. The webpage referred to its parts without a connection to humans, in the podcast however, the bike was used as an example to clarify Deleuze’s nation of machines and to explain the virtual and the actualization of machines. (The bike needs humans=another machine to actualize itself, otherwise, it is just standing in the corner= virtual).

Jackson, Michael C. “Reflections on the Development and Contribution of Critical Systems Thinking and Practice.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27, no. 2 (2010): 133–39. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.1020.

Kogetsidis, Harry. “Critical Systems Thinking: A Creative Approach to Organizational Change.” Journal of Transnational Management 17, no. 3 (July 1, 2012): 189–204. https://doi.org/10.1080/15475778.2012.706704.

Raymaker, Dora M. “Intersections of Critical Systems Thinking and Community Based Participatory Research: A Learning Organization Example with the Autistic Community.” Systemic Practice and Action Research 29, no. 5 (October 2016): 405–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11213-016-9376-5.

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