Social Work Helper

Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Complexity Lexicon

Dr. Michael Wright 2013/07/24

by Dr. Michael Wright

As part of my ongoing series on ecological systems theory and practice, this week I will be discussing complexity lexicons. Complexity grows exponentially due to interactivity, and interactive effects are present at each level and every context of assessment and intervention. In the sociological context, interactive effects mean that individuals in groups often influence one another toward homeostasis. In environmental practice, interactive effects result in ability of systems to predict choice behavior by intentionally structuring the choice calculus—increasing or decreasing options by managing awareness and expectation of role, culture, access, and capacity.

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  1. Utilize a new lexicon for discussing change in human systems.
  2. Articulate how purpose and rules impact perception, construction, and mechanism in human systems.
  3. Articulate operational methods to structure human systems to predict outcomes and control outputs.

The Short Version: Perception, Construct, and Mechanism

As a blog post, this post is rather lengthy. I emphasize the most important points in bold, but I did not want to short change the curious. For my other friends, the whole post in a nutshell: Whether you are working with an individual client, a community change effort, research or consulting 1) all these activities are related through ecological systems theory and practice; 2) begin your work with a consideration of agents, institutions, and environment that impact the choice behavior of your clients.

In order to set the lexicon for prediction of choice behavior, we must move from “individuals” to “agents,” from “groups” to “institutions,” from “environment” to, well, “environment.” We also introduce Sociocybernetics. Sociocybernetics is the study of the social contracts that result from the interaction of institutions, agents, and environments.

What do we call an individual that operates within a system for a specific purpose based on rules of engagement? AGENTS. Agents are both intentional and unintentional.

What do we call a collection of individuals who convene for a purpose and produce a charter and standard rules of behavior? INSTITUTIONS. Institutions include social constructions like marriage or volunteerism.

What do we call that convening space that influences social roles by virtue of its own rule that either highlights the strength of the individual or exposes the weaknesses of the person? ENVIRONMENT. Environments are physical and metaphysical. The physical we call the environment. The metaphysical we call culture.

Agent Complexity

Agent complexity is focused on the agent profile as well as the agent perception. Agent profile includes the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual characteristics of the individual. Agent perception recognizes that these characteristics influence a construction of meaning within the client that either highlights or obscures options. The combination of biopsychosocial-spiritual characteristics also means that each client has constructions and distortions that impact meaning and behavior choice. The job of the worker is to manage both the constructions and the distortions to increase the sustainable options perceived by the agent. The point here is that these complexities in the agent are useful. They are not simply annoyances that presuppose dishonesty, they are powerful tools toward creating a new reality that supports sustainable choice behavior even in the absence of a complete comprehension of the theoretical frame. Once a habit of sustainable choice is practiced, the work of increased comprehension can proceed in earnest. The worker must support empowerment of the agent to intentionally select sustainable choices. The agent is made more complex in that the examination of complexity must account for both constructions and distortions. Said another way, the prediction must incorporate ways that clients lie to themselves.

106567388 300x240 Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Complexity LexiconConstructions

A number of theorists and scholars have contributed to our understanding of constructions. Among them Carter and McGoldrick (1999) informs family contexts, Greene (2012) informs resilience, Erickson (1980) remains a seminal work on identity and social perception, Bandura (2001) informs social agency toward action, and Rollo May (1975) must be included for his work on creativity.

Each of these has in common the concept of the “lifespan.” Santrock (1999) presented the constructs of the lifespan approach. You need to know them because the lifespan approach allows social scientists and practitioners to understand and apply stage theories and structural conceptions in a review and modeling of individual choice. In one way, the lifespan concept is the “it depends” answer to a question of individual complexity. We can model this complexity because we can identify the variables upon which the answer depends.

Behavior, cognition, and meaning are the three domains of assessment. In the spaces between those three, we find more nuanced or complexity-producing concepts. These introduce time, the chronology to events, into the discussion of individual agency. In other words, clients make choices (behavior) based on what they think (cognition), and expectations (meaning), but these result from history/experience, perception/awareness, and meaning/sense-making.

History/Experience. Each individual experiences life events, and those experiences shape future behaviors. That much is common knowledge. But, the social scientist must add that the individual constructs schema for choosing how to apply the knowledge gained from experience. That is, whether it is conscious to the individual or not, behavior has a mechanism. This is useful because we can discuss the prediction of behavior as a function of the mechanism of choice rather than attempting to discern the intention of the individual. Work toward behavior change begins with this foundational exploration of the patterns that make up a profile of the individual.

Perception/Awareness. Each individual attends to life events in ways that are specific to that individual. This may seem to introduce a level of complexity that cannot be overcome. But, conscious or not, each individual approaches events with discernible logic and observable methods that provide a window into perception and add predictability to what she will have the capacity to be aware. This is useful because we can use the typical intervention of psychoeducation, but also, discerning the logic (or dismissal of logic) we may introduce the intervention of cognitive restructuring. A common example of cognitive restructuring is when you ask a client to begin to use positive self-talk. Instead of referring to himself as “idiot,” you may ask him to speak of himself as a “learner.”

Meaning/Sense-Making. Humans choose to do what they expect will give them what they want. This is why despair is so dangerous. Not because it signals a metaphysical dearth of hope, but because it signals a lack of predictability. Sense-making also points to variability in the conclusions drawn from observing the same event. Meaning is not only a function of historical prediction and perception, but humans make sense of events in comparison with what they expected prior and what they are motivated to continue to believe and expect later. This is useful because we can use it to facilitate new realities demonstrated in new behaviors the client could not make sense of prior and therefore could not, in his mind, achieve.

HL9112 001 300x296 Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Complexity Lexicon


Theorists and scholars also exist to inform our discussion of distortions. Among them Brené Brown (2012) informs vulnerability and shame. A host of seminal authors like Freud, Rogers, and Bateson who describe ego defenses. Logic is considered one of the ancient arts. As such check Aristotle for original quotes Socrates. Fowler (1981) adds faith. These highlight the ability of the human mind to disregard evidence and context and create a new reality. It is important to realize that this function of the human mind is useful when all evidence suggests failure. To believe in something unseen and illogical is sometimes needed to overcome the fear and trepidation toward learning and acting to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge.

I divide Ego Defenses into three categories. I tend to focus on the grouping of defense mechanism that Vaillant (1977) calls Neurotic, but it would be interesting to expand my categorization with listings from other authors.

Consider my categories, whatever the actual ego defense, as characteristic ways to distort reality to your needs. AVOIDANT (Resistance) Characterized by a subconscious (non-aware) resistance to the anxiety producing stimulus. “I will not believe it. I have not seen it. It is not true.” REACTIVE (Decoupling) Characterized by action to decouple evidence in behavior from labels and meaning when faced with the anxiety producing stimuli. “Look at my actions. That PROVES that I am what I say I am.” PROACTIVE (Restructuring) Characterized by an intentional or unintentional activity aimed at restructuring the meaning implied by behavior in response to the anxiety producing stimuli. “You are mistaken. To be like this means to act like this.”

Ego defenses can be useful, for example, in a situation of client self-doubt by trading on Proactive Ego Defense. We cognitive restructure client meaning by pointing out that the client has made positive progress. We encourage, “You are making progress, more successful days than challenging days. Progress IS success.”

Logical Fallacies are seemingly systematic ways of “making it up” as you go along. They are often presented in the form of substantive arguments, but any review of the structure of the argument reveals flaws. The fallacies also do not hold true to transfer.

For example:

  1. I like red cars.
  2. I have seen many red cars today. (Implying that others also like red cars.)
  3. Everyone is buying red cars.

This can be useful because logical fallacies suspend logic and the requirement for things to “add up.” It can be especially useful when a system of self-defeating logic has been employed by the client. The client says:

  1. I have not been able to find employment.
  2. The economy is depressed.
  3. I will never find a job.

The worker rebuts:

  1. You have employable skills.
  2. Our community is recovering economically.
  3. You will find employment with help.

The work here uses faulty logic to move the client’s focus away from the economy, which he cannot control to encouragement and help, which the agency can provide. Again, logical fallacies are not sustainable in the long-term, but they can move a client out of a rut of despair.

Faith is my favorite of distortions. Faith confidently states, “I believe even if I cannot see any evidence. Further, my hope is all the evidence I need.” Faith is a powerful tool to be shared with clients.

For example, a client who feels some anxiety about her performance in a job interview speaks with a worker at an employment services agency. She has practiced with the worker and at home, but she has never been in a real interview situation. The worker counsels, “Trust me. You have prepared. You’ll be amazing.” The client calms and performs well in the interview.

Institutional Complexity

Humans when in groups exhibit behaviors that are not necessarily expected from any one of the individuals in the group TOWARD stability, purpose and order. These types of systems are termed Complex Adaptive Systems. They are driven by heterogeneity: the more different the individuals, the greater the impetus for change toward homeostasis.

Institutions have specific processes for transmittal of environmentally supported culture and enforcement of rules. The resultant culture and rules are expressed in values, beliefs, and expectations linked to environment and events over time.

This means that hierarchies naturally form as the goals, standards and norms are agreed upon implicitly or explicitly. The leadership and culture that results is primarily dependent upon individual expertise. It is not necessarily competence for the tasks at hand. Without clear qualifications for leadership or evaluation of fit with goals, leaders will hold operational expertise or political advantage. It is always true that individual expertise is most important to leadership and culture change in institutions. The question is does the group have the structural policies in place to support sustainable change? It is not enough to answer this question with a Yes or No. Examining the complexity asks HOW the structural policies influence choice behavior.

Quick Thought on Choice

The primary motivation of all individuals is toward purpose and order, predictability and homeostasis. But, agency is a complex choice (Bandura, 2001; Bertalanffy, 1969; Csikszentmihalyi, 1998; Miller & Page, 2007). Humans are not unique in their ability to both make decisions and articulate their process as a pattern for observers. Other animals can teach and learn. But, humans (other than marketers and salepeople) seem unaware or at least passive toward their ability to create physical embodiments of expected choice behavior. Creating institutions is about INFLUENCE through the physical space and culture—reinforced behaviors, norms and beliefs about the knowledge, relationships, and social roles.

Environmental Complexity

Environmental complexity is our entry into the emerging science surrounding behavior, mental health, well-being and their connection with the physical brain, neurology, and the fundamental mechanisms underlying “humanness.” What may surprise you is that the social work profession has advanced models beyond the diagnostic statistical manual (DSM). What I hope excites you is that application of these models within the context of statistical/mathematical models combined with neuroscience portend an expansion of our understanding of choice behavior and monumental improvement in service to clients.

128074523 199x300 Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Complexity LexiconThe Sociocybernetics of Culture and Contracts

Person-In-Environment was presented by Karls & Wandrei as an alternative model of client profiling (as opposed to diagnosis). The framework is supported with evidence and implementation history as far back as 1983. At its core, the detailed taxonomy provides a basis for contextualizing the interactive effects of social role, environmental factors, and strengths of the individual (See Karls & Wandrei, 1994;1983).

Ecological Perspective of Gitterman & Germain, not to be confused with the ecological systems theory of Bronfenbrenner, was presented as early as 1973. The framework describes how transactions with Environment and Culture impact behavior (See Gitterman & Germain, 2008;1973).

These add to Agent and Institutional complexity another variable. Humans make “deals” or contracts functionally with the environment. More specifically, humans perform based on role perception and adoption specific to culture outside the individual or the institution, and resulting from the interactive effects of person-to-institution and person-to-institution in the environmental context.  This means that examining complexity must include a careful articulation of the physical environment and metaphysical culture. This is not just a description. Careful articulation suggests a connection between agent, institution, and environment-culture. The agent perceives a contract. The institution supports a contract. Both contracts operate within a larger structural context that impacts whether any certain real outcome is possible.

A simple example. An annual race is organized with a reported $500 prize. Individuals train all year for the event. The town gears up with industry supporting the annual race. The agents are ready to run. The institutions are supportive. What no one counted on was the flood that would envelope 75% of the town under 3 feet of water. It is impossible to run the race in these conditions. Though this example illustrates an act of nature, consider that other environmental (and even acts of nature: meteorology anyone?) are predictable if we account for them in our examination of complexity. To simply abdicate predictive capability is at least ignorant of available technology. At most it is negligent of due diligence. Neither are good looks for a social worker.

Using ABM to Handle Complexity

Group behaviors are unexpected but predictable if characteristics are known: Agent profiles, Institutional Structure and Policies, Cultural Environment, and Interactive effects. The outcomes of systems can be modeled through a process called Agent-Based Modeling (ABM). Control systems provide the structural policies that influence agent choice. A well-formed control system can provide a predictable output each time it is executed. Though human inputs are more complex, a well-formed control system will account for the variability with new operations that adjust to the needs of the agent perception, the institutional construct, and the Sociocybernetic mechanism—the environment control system in execution.

Consider that the combination of agents and institutions in action, constrained by culture is a control system: inputs, system activities, outputs, and feedback. Consider what could be done if you exercised a level of influence within that system. This is what social work has that no other profession has in the combined mandate of individual, social, and environmental practice…the scientific and ethically-grounded framework to utilize sociocybernetic constructs to promote sustainable gains in health and well-being. What did you think you were learning?

About Author

Dr. Michael Wright

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers expertise as an mentor, entrepreneur, educator, and philosopher. Wright has maintained a social work and media macro practice consultancy for more than 15 years. He has logged dozens of professional relationships with public and private entities seeking to increase capacity, conduct social research, train staff, and grow strategically. Wright participates on a number of national committees with groups like the Council on Social Work Education. Succeed @ View all posts by Dr. Michael Wright →

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