Systems theory
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SYSTEMS THEORY. Whitchurch, G. G., & Constantine, L. L. (1993). Systems theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 325-352). New York: Plenum Press.

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Systems theory


Whitchurch, G. G., & Constantine, L. L. (1993). Systems theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 325-352). New York: Plenum Press.

Three distinct but closely interrelated theoretical legacies

Three Distinct But Closely Interrelated Theoretical Legacies

  • Information theory: focuses on the reduction of uncertainty which is achieved by the acquisition of information.

  • Cybernetics: a science of communication concerned with the transmission and control of information; it examines the communication and manipulation of information in various systems.

  • General Systems Theory (GST): interested in systems in general; family systems theory is an extension of this branch.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Definitions and terms

Definitions and Terms

  • Three Uses/Definitions:

    • General Systems Theory (GST) is used to explain the behavior of a variety of complex, organized systems.

    • GST is also a process of theory construction which focuses on building universal concepts, postulates, and principles.

    • GST, as a worldview, emphasizes interrelationships between objects.

  • Terms

    • Isomorphism: Refers to equivalence of form: there is a one-to-one correspondence between elements and relationships.

    • Cybernetic system: systems with feedback.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Core assumptions of general systems theory

Core Assumptions of General Systems Theory

  • GST Has Potential for Unifying Science: suggests that there are unifying principles in every discipline; GST is a way to consider isomorphism between them.

  • A System Must Be Understood as a Whole

    • Von Bertalanffy: promoted the notion that a family, or any system, is greater than the some of it's parts.

    • Lewin: the whole is different from the sum of it's parts.

  • Human Systems are Self-Reflexive

    • Human systems are characterized by their ability to make themselves and their own behavior the focus of examination; this is self-reflexivity.

    • Self-reflectivity

      • permits humans to examine their systems and set goals.

      • permits humans to examine social influences on systems and behaviors, rather than naively accepting them as “natural.”

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Research and theory foci

Research and Theory Foci

  • Ongoing Family Processes:

    • Transactional patterns (e.g., predictable behavior sequences).

    • Shift focus from individual to the family.

    • Topics:

      • family functioning,

      • family communication,

      • family conflict,

      • separateness and connecetedness,

      • cohesion,

      • adaptation to change.

  • Example of research questions (from Montgomery & Fewer, 1988):

    • What elements of a social system are influenced by other parts of the system; how does one element of a system recursively influence the whole system?

    • How does the behavior of different components fit together?

    • How does the fit between systems affect functioning?

  • What is the Relationship of Family Systems to Other Systems

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Major contemporary concepts of general systems theory

Major Contemporary Concepts of General Systems Theory

  • Interdependence/Mutual Influence

  • Equifinality:

    • Definition: the ability of a system to achieve the same goals through different routes (e.g., we may take different roads to campus but we all arrive at the same place).

    • Communication patterns are organized into feedback loops which affect goal-setting behavior in systems.

  • Hierarchy:

    • The “layering” of systems of increasing complexity, including

      • Subsystems: smaller parts of the same system.

      • Systems

      • Suprasystems: larger systems (e.g., economic and political system).

    • Controversy: disagreement about definition of sub- and supra-systems as well as identification of components.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Major contemporary concepts of general systems theory cont

Major Contemporary Concepts of General Systems Theory (cont.)

  • Boundaries and Open/Closed Systems

    • Boundaries define membership in a system.

    • Boundaries also represent the point of contact between the system and other systems.

    • Boundaries vary in degree of permeability, the degree to which they control the flow between systems.

    • Customary approaches to operationalizing boundaries:

      • Assessment of permeability and cohesion.

      • Emotional connectedness between family members.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Contemporary concepts cont

Contemporary Concepts (cont.)

  • Feedback and Control

    • Feedback loop

      • Path of communication in a system.

      • Feedback is considered either positive or negative based on the effect it has on the system, not on it’s content.

    • Types of feedback loops:

      • Negative:

        • feedback is used to maintain homeostasis. This type of feedback has also been called constancy loops and deviation-attenuating loops.

        • Morphostatic feedback: refers to feedback which promotes maintenance of existing structure.

      • Positive: feedback used to promote change.

        • These types of feedback are also referred to as deviation-amplifying loops or variety loops.

        • Morphogenic feedback: refers to feedback which produces change in the system.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Examples of research emerging from general systems theory

Examples of Research Emerging from General Systems Theory

  • Marital and Family Interaction

    • Hess and Handel (1959): integrated GST and symbolic interactionism to examine the family as a system that socially constructs it’s reality. They suggested that there are five essential processes of family interaction.

    • Comparison of family interaction patterns between “normal” and “schizophrenic” families (Mishler & Waxler, 1968).

  • Family Dysfunction: individual patterns of dysfunction are attributed to family interaction patterns.

    • Alcoholism: Steinglass and Wolin have integrated a family development and systems approach, suggesting that alcoholism influences families in stages which accounts for patterns of alcoholism in families.

    • Family violence: systemic explanations are controversial. This research suggests that the failure to leave an abusive situation is a form of positive feedback.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Examples of research cont

Examples of Research (cont.)

  • Marital and Family Taxonomies

    • Olson’s Circumplex model

      • Three dimensions create sixteen relationship types; the three dimensions are

        • Cohesion

        • Adaptability

        • Communication

      • Three general types of relationships:

        • Balanced

        • Mid-range

        • Extreme

      • In general, research has revealed that balanced families will function more adequately than the other types of families.

      • It has been criticized for not including a dimension for competence.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Examples of research cont1

Examples of Research (cont.)

  • Marital and Family Taxonomies (cont.)

    • The Beavers systems model examines family competence (e.g., healthy, mid-range, and severely dysfunctional).

    • Typologies melding systems with symbolic interactionism: develop, for example, a typology based on the effect of family members shared perceptions about their social environment (symbolic interactionism) on the social environment (a systems construct) (Reiss, 1981; see also Constantine, 1986; Constantine & Israel, 1985; Fitzpatrick, 1976, 1988).

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Limitations of general systems theory

Limitations of General Systems Theory

  • General Criticisms: focus on application of systems theory.

    • GST is too vague and general, making it difficult to operationalize and evaluate empirically.

    • Criticized for poor explanatory power because, although it provides conceptualization, it is difficult to clearly identify and measure constructs.

    • Criticism of subtle assumption that all parts of a system have equal power.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

Limitations of general systems theory cont

Limitations of General Systems Theory (cont.)

  • Feminist Critique:

    • Limited recognition of power in family systems which obscures the privilege of dominant groups.

    • Systemic constructs often reflect sex bias. Enmeshment is pathologized, for example, while differentiation is promoted. This devalues a way of relating that is common to women.

    • Clinically, emphasizes therapist neutrality.

    • Ironically, it is viewed as not systemic enough.

    • Interdisciplinary scholarship has demonstrated that all cultures utilize gender and generation as fundamental categories of organization, but systems theory ignores gender concerns.

Dr. Ronald J. Werner-Wilson

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