Open Thinkering


Tag: field

TB872: Systems lineages

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

A lineage of Systems Thinkers approaches from the Open University's TB872 course materials

(tap to enlarge)

The above diagram is from Chapter 2 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act. He’s one of the course authors, and this is one of the set texts, although we won’t get to it properly until a later part of the module. Ison is keen to stress that this diagram is a heuristic device rather than a definitive map of the entire field.

There are some familiar names on there, some of whom I’ve studied (e.g. Hegel, Heraclitus, Whitehead, Dewey, Singer, Kuhn, Peirce) and some whose work I’ve encoutered in passing (e.g Mead, Meadows, Checkland). The rest are, as far as I’m aware, entirely new to me. What’s exciting, especially given my background in Pihlosophy, is that there are so many traditions which feed into what Ison calls ‘Cybersystemics’. He notes that it’s paradoxically both “a discipline in its own right, but also a transdisciplinary metadiscipline, applicable across all domains of human activity – a bit like mathematics”.

As useful as the diagram is, it’s not how I would represent influences. As one of the other course authors noted, there are no dates on it which make it difficult to understand the order of things. For example Heraclitus came centuries, if not millennia, before A.N. Whitehead!

The main people mentioned in the video I watched in the course materials were (in order by birth date):

  • W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993)
  • Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)
  • Margaret Mead (1901-1978)
  • Ross Ashby (1903-1972)
  • Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993)
  • C. West Churchman (1913-2004)
  • Stafford Beer (1926-2002)
  • Frederic Vester (1925-2003)
  • Humberto Maturana (1928-2021)
  • Peter Checkland (1930- )
  • Donella Meadows (1941-2001)

Something else which is in the course video but not, weirdly, actually in the diagram provided in the resources section, is an arrow to the extreme right. This indicates that the names and organisations in the yellow square box are organised intentionally in terms of how they think of systems:

The approaches are organised from top to bottom, in terms of what are perceived to be one of two common commitments or tendencies of a majority of practitioners within the given approach. These commitments are to see systems as real entities, systems as ontologies. The alternative is to see systems as constructs or epistemological devices that enable learning and change in situations.

I don’t have enough knowledge right now to draw my own lineage of influence of people and organisations who have had an impact on Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). However, I think I’d want to lay it out vertically for a start. I guess that doesn’t fit on a video, or a slide deck, very well.

One of the activities in the module is to read the introductions to the first and second editions of the book Systems Thinkers, another set text for the module. It’s interesting to read the authors applying the term ‘boundary’ to their work of deciding who should be in the book! I’d usually approach this through the lens of ‘scope’ when it comes to client work, but thinking about things as a system and what the boundary (or, I guess ‘lens’) is, constitutes an insightful approach.

It’s rare to see authors be so explicit in sharing their method, and then explaining their methodology:

Our basic criteria for inclusion were that an author:

  1. Explicitly identified themselves with one or more of the major traditions in sys￾tems thinking, by citing the works of previous authors within those traditions
    and/or working directly with earlier thinkers
  2. Advanced systems concepts through their work and/or advanced another field
    through their application of systems concepts
  3. Expressed their ideas in print
Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2020) Systems thinkers. London: Springer. p.xiv. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4471-7475-2.

As a result, I think it’s fair enough that the authors chose not to include, for example, Aristotle and Heraclitus as they don’t fit with the criteria. I, on the other hand, absolutely would have included a lot more philosophers. But then that betrays my own personal background and interests.

The authors of any kind of book like this have to explain what it’s going to do about people who aren’t white men. Do they attempt to be potentially ahistorical but more inclusive? Or do they simply list the figures whose works are seen as ‘canon’? It’s a tricky issue and one where it’s impossible to please everybody.

A gap in this book is the absence of practitioners who have not chosen to describe their methods, ideas or applications in written form. This is not to say that such practitioners do not advance the discipline, given that much work within systems thinking is grounded in the cyclical relationship between theory and practice, but our focus in this book is on systems thinking, as expressed in writing.

Two other under-represented groups in our list of thinkers are women and those from outside of the Anglo-American tradition. We regret the lack of many women in this book (only three of our 30 thinkers are female), but this sadly reflects the history of systems thinking as a discipline, which as with many scientific disciplines has been male-dominated. We made a decision not to hide this fact by skewing our
criteria to include more female writers. There are many women currently doing highly important work in systems thinking, so it is to be hoped that this balance may be different in future work.

Ibid. p.xvi.

A problem that I’ve run into in my own work, especially when studying History, has been my inability to read languages other than English. That presents an unwanted, but necessary ‘boundary’ in one respect. The authors of Systems Thinkers found themselves in a similar position:

Most of our thinkers are either from North America or Europe, and indeed most of the mainland European thinkers have worked in North America (many as part of the large migration by academics from central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s due to Nazi persecution and post-war hardship). Our stance partly reflects our need (due to our own limitations) for authors to have written or been translated into English, but also reflects the intellectual tradition we have considered, which largely arose in the USA with a significant British connection. There are many interesting systemic thinkers from outside this group, and the systems thinking traditions we discuss would be richer for hearing their voices, but this is not something we have been able to do in this work.

Ibid. p.xvi.

STiP practitioners do like a diagram, and so the authors have grouped the 30 thinkers into seven categories, as shown below.

Diagram showing authors and groupings for 2nd edition of 'Systems Thinkers' book

While the introduction to the first edition talked about boundaries, limitations, and groupings, the introduction to the second edition discussed what had happened in the decade that had elapsed. A global financial crisis, more realisation in the general population about the climate emergency, and what the authors explicitly name as ‘surveillance capitalism’ (after Zuboff, 2019).

Switching to the personal pronoun, Magnus Ramage then explains what has been going on in terms of his own practice in the decade that passed since the publication of the first edition. These, he says, have all impacted and deepened his understanding of the systems thinkers covered in the book: academic conferences and workshops, taking on the role of editor-in-chief of a well-established journal, become more concerned with “critical approaches to informa￾tional phenomena” (i.e. “working closely with colleagues who have a deep concern for the interaction between information technologies and race, gender and class”), and writing papers that built on the themes in the book.

This is fascinating in terms of the trajectory diagram I drew focused on my ‘arrival’ to this module. It seems that Ramage is essentially saying that his has altered as a result of further thinking, and that he is ‘arriving’ at making changes for the second edition of the book as a slightly different person that the one who originally co-wrote it.

The PFMS diagram, as applied to the TB872 course

In terms of the PFMS heuristic, which is included in the diagram above as mapped against the TB872 module, it’s heartening to see Ramage reflect on his own practice. My understanding is that when he helped create the first edition of the book, he understood himself as a practitioner applying a framework and methods to a situation (PFMS).

However, when Ramage came back to revise it a decade later, he was reflecting on himself as a practitioner using that kind of approach (i.e. P(PFMS)). In addition, he had the opportunity to talk with others about the book, and about why some thinkers were included and some not. Ramage therefore got to understand and debate other people’s point of view as practitioners, therefore coming to the kind of viewpoint shown in the diagram as P(P(PFMS)).

As someone who understands deeply systems thinking approaches, instead of Ramage and his co-author taking different viewpoints, they could discuss and agree on a single way forward which would lead to the best outcomes. In this case, for example, they decided to revise the book but keep the original list of 30 thinkers. This gave them something fixed as they set to work amending and updating their work.

Reflecting on the evolving nature of STiP, it’s evident that this field is shaped by a diverse range of thinking and experience. The revision undertaken by Ramage and Shipp for the second edition of their book highlights the continuous transformation inherent in this area. The Week 3 activities I’ve covered in this post have not only broadened my perspective on the depth and variety within STiP but has also made me more aware of my own evolving position within this landscape.

So, as I progress through the TB872 module, I anticipate further shifts in my understanding and approach to STiP. I’m particularly interested in its future in relation to navigating complex societal issues and global challenges such as the climate emergency. After all, this MSc is supposed to be as much about personal growth as it is about academic learning!