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Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Visualizing Human Systems

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Our ability to understand human systems was bolstered by the work of many scholars. Bertalanffy introduced what is now known as General Systems Theory (GST) in 1934. We now accept that human systems are organic seeking purpose and order. Weiner explained cybernetics in 1969. His work clarified the control system that is the interaction among humans and between humans and the environment.

We now understand that human systems are dynamic. Bronfenbenner offered Ecological Systems Theory in 1979. His work provided a way to view the multiple interactions that occur within, among, and between human systems. We now interpret that human systems are complex.

At the conclusion of this section, you will be able to:

  1. Articulate the origins of human systems knowledge.
  2. Trace the development of human systems knowledge from 1934 through 1979.
  3. Define human systems as organic, dynamic, and complex.

Organic Systems

The earliest of these specifically employing the term “system theory” is Ludwig von Bertalanffy originally in 1934. His General System Theory (1969) describes the structures and processes of closed versus open systems explaining how the tendency toward entropy (disorder) in closed systems is a tendency toward steady state (order) in open systems. Closed systems are characterized by isolation from their environments. Open systems receive input and provide output to their environment. Open systems or organic systems evidence “a transition towards higher order, heterogeneity, and organization” (p.41).

Bertalanffy enabled us to state with certainty, “Humans are organic systems.” Human systems evolve in the context of specifically identifiable environments. Human behavior is real and observable. The maintenance of a steady state (akin to equilibrium in biology) depends on a constant inflow and outflow of resources. From his work, we also understand the concept of equifinality. The same outcome can be achieved with various inputs.

These concepts are important to visualizing human systems because, prior to this, closed systems were considered as the only reliable way to study organic occurrences. That would have left human systems researchers attempting to control environments rather than explain their impact on human systems. Because of the inflow and outflow, human systems do not violate physical laws. They tend to naturally dissipate chaotic energy and evolve order motivated toward steady states.

Practically, this means that people tend to identify social roles, meaningful and useful relationships, comfortable transactions and routines, and new information. Crisis, trauma, or unsustainable choice may trigger isolation and an inability to continue the above traits. This isolation disrupts the steady state or equilibrium of the person and necessitates an intervention to restore insight into purpose and expulsion of chaos and stress.

Dynamic Systems

With its first publication in 1948 and a second edition in 1961, Weiner advanced the field of “cybernetics.” Cybernetics expands our understanding of the interactions that occur within the human system. It is based on a modeling of the human central nervous system applied to the building of machines for the repetition of elementary processes. This was the 1940s. We have come to know these repetition machines as computers.

Weiner enabled us to state with certainty, “Human systems are dynamic.” Human systems serve a phylogenetic learning purpose, which may have “been devoted to establishing the possibility of good ontogenetic learning” (Weiner, 1961, p. 170). Human systems are characterized by interactive and feedback structures. They process information. They construct meaning and refine that meaning over time.

Practically, this means that people can reproduce themselves in their image. That is, they communicate their lessons learned, rules, norms, and acceptable behaviors to others. Appropriate behaviors are reinforced while inappropriate behaviors are reduced. Individuals and groups engage in this exchange.

Complex Systems

Ecological systems theory is credited to Bronfenbrenner (1979). The theory allows us to speak of relationships within individual systems and between systems. This perspective introduces the fact that systems can be nested and interdependent.

Bronfenbrenner enabled us to state with certainty, “Human systems are complex.” We can speak of the systems we focus on as the micro systems. They are nested within larger mezzo systems. These are nested within still larger macro systems. Bronfenbrenner introduced exo systems to describe those systems that are not nested with our system of focus. The chronosystem is Bronfenbrenner’s term to model the interactions over time.

Practically, this means that the “learning” within the individual and between the systems has nested effects that result in complexity. That is, the effects of individual meaning construction impact the group. We are able to identify the groups and determine the extent of the impact based on membership, diffusion, relationships, and historical factors.

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Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

          
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