Theoretical Approaches to Understanding Systems Thinking
During my schooling years, Psychology as a subject had always fascinated me. I was marvelled by all it had to offer - theories on why people behave the way they do, personality tests that could tell you that your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) type is no different from Tony Stark’s, and even techniques to get over your fear of fuzzy white things because you had been bitten by a rabbit when you were four. As someone who was always curious about these things (turns out, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and I share the same MBTI type!), the first few years of diving into the field were thrilling.
I was in my third year of college though, when I started to get disillusioned by what universities and colleges had to offer. Newer developments in the field from across the globe (India included) were absent in our curriculum, and we continued to treat individuals as thoroughly disconnected from their social reality, even though there was some acknowledgement in every Social Psychology course that the individual is part of a larger collective. Psychology has spent decades attempting to decode the human mind, so decontextualized from its immediate environment - why is it that, in clinical settings, we continue to treat individuals symptomatically, attending to pathologies, as opposed to systematically working on the environment to prevent symptoms in the first place?
I extend this critique to other social sciences as well. Unlike Psychology, the disciplines of Sociology, Political Science and History in India have been welcoming of critical theory, with syllabi across the country dedicated to unearthing the voices of subaltern communities. These disciplines do stress the role of power and culture in dictating how communities operate within a larger context but have not emphasised the role of an individual, intrapersonal processes.
Individuals exist within the collective; the collective comprises of individuals. This, sadly, just ends at acknowledgement. Action-oriented fields like public health and education have attempted to marry theory with change, but continue to focus on individual-level change. This, I argue, is the main reason why I am so convinced that systems thinking is an extraordinarily powerful tool in studying individuals within their own contextualised worldview. Not only do we study larger structural issues that cause suffering, but also we are also cognizant of private grievances and how these affect larger structures. By adopting a systems thinking approach to studying problems in education and health, we study fluid identities and ideologies, and how these complexities can shed light on wickedly difficult problems. As Christens & Speer (2007) have argued, contextualisation (as opposed to universalisation) is a radical approach because we have the power to study dominant ideologies, the intrapsychic processes floating amidst them, and the larger ecological system within which these abstractions operate. This contradicts traditionalist theories of change.
While familiar with the community and critical psychology, with both fields adopting a similar epistemological orientation, I was new to systems thinking when I began my internship with Leadership For Equity. While there is scant scholarship on the applicability of systems thinking to education systems, especially in action research, assisting the organisation’s research vertical on the Khed Taluka Project was both thrilling and challenging. I was acquainting myself with extraordinary qualitative micro-studies in education in India, along with teaching myself an entirely new method of approaching a problematic situation. Although not formally trained in policy research, I was still familiar with the frameworks used in systems thinking, and its emphasis on critical, reflexive research really resonates with my personal approach to academia.
This is not to say the frameworks and processes were duplicable - there were rational tweaks and modifications along the way. In spite of that though, I do believe that, methodologically, systems thinking is the way forward. I do believe the approach has some limitations - while theoretically sound, there is little documentation of its operation in practice to draw from. While most scholars have a working conceptual framework that they use to operationalise systems, I found it difficult to track down how various practitioners, on the field, go about systematically studying systems. Moreover, while systems thinking literature has plenty of resources for studying a problematic situation, there is little documentation of how practitioners solve these problems. I found it particularly difficult to track down a robust toolkit for diagnosing systems - even if programs utilise a performance assessment toolkit, few reports have any mention of the researcher’s rationale for adopting the same. However, it is only a matter of time before that research gap is populated with promising evidence for practitioners to extrapolate from.
Systems thinking is still a fairly novel approach, but one that I believe has the power to radically transform the way organisations can engage with problems that seem to have no true solution.
The author Zaphya Jena is an MA student at IIT Gandhinagar and is presently working on mental health pedagogy in Gujarat. She’s passionate about intersectional feminism, food and cuddling every cat in sight. She can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christens, B. D., Hanlin, C. E., & Speer, P. W. (2007). Getting the social organism thinking: Strategy for systems change. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39(3-4), 229.