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Systems Thinking

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years ago

Systems Thinking



“We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” – Norbert Weiner (1950)


Vincent van Gogh. (1889). The Starry Night. Oil on Canvas, 72 x 92 cm (29 x 36 1/4) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York




We know that individual "things" (plants, people, schools, watersheds) are not really separable from the larger systems in which they exist. “Systems Thinking” is a way to describe thinking that is consonant with this knowledge. According to Fritjof Capra (1996), systems thinking requires shifts in perception, so that we think in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context. He writes, “Nature is seen as an interconnected web of relationships in which the identification of specific patterns as objects depends on the human observer and the process of knowing.” (p. 40). He cites Heisenberg, who says, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our system of questioning.”



Systems thinking means shifting perception:


From parts to the whole: Systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts.


From objects to relationships: An ecosystem is not just a collection of species; it is a community. Communities, whether ecosystems or human systems, are made up of sets, or networks, of relationships. In the systems view, the "objects" of study are networks of relationships…..” (Anonymous, May 2006).



Systems thinking has implications for research. P. Robinson (2005) challenges researchers to move from conceiving truth as something ‘out there’ to be discovered. Instead we can aim for “a mutual discovery of multiple truths infused with the knowledge of our own cultural conditioning and the wisdom and compassion that can accompany this realization….” (P. 100-111).



Understanding communities as living systems has profound consequences for culture, as Ball (2004) explores: “As a living system the future of a community can never be predicted; so long as the pattern of relationships that characterize the community is alive the potential for spontaneous generation of new structure and forms of behaviour – including new knowledge – exists. Points of instability in the history of a community are of special importance since they represent the points where new forms of structure, behaviour and knowledge unique to that community can emerge….”(p.466).




Anonymous. (May 2006). Exclusive to Transition Culture. Fritjof Capra on Relocalisation - an Interview. http://transitionculture.org/2006/05/09/exclusive-to-transition-culture-fritjof-capra-on-relocalisation-an-interview/


Ball, J. (2004). “As if indigenous communities mattered: transformative education in First Nations communities in Canada.” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3 & 4, pp. 454-479. Retrieved October 6, 2006 via the Project Muse database.


Capra, F. (1996) The Web of Life. New York: Anchor Books.


Robinson, P. (2005). In Bowers, C. and F. Apffel-Marglin, Eds. Re-thinking Freire: Globalization and the Environmental Crisis. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Electronic Version.

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