Open Thinkering


Tag: praxis

TB872: Systemic praxis and epistemological devices

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.

As a Philosophy graduate, I’m entirely comfortable both in using terms such as ontology and epistemology, and also unphased when other start throwing them around as well. After all, most of the time, what people are talking about is what exists (ontology), or what/how we can know things (epistemology).

So from a Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) perspective, it makes sense to be talking about ‘epistemological devices’. These are just ways of knowing about a particular situation. Meanwhile, ‘systemic praxis’ just means ‘theory informed practice within a systems thinking context’.

Diagram of woman thinking about a situation of concern. Text reads: 'Systemic praxis involves a practitioner (s) bringing forth a relational dynamic between a system and an environment mediated by a boundary judgement. For an aware systems practitioner a system of interest is an epistemological device - a way of knowing about a situation.'

Putting it all together makes it seem all academic but really all that’s happening is that we’re saying people look at things in different ways because they have different backgrounds and ways of understanding the world. They also are likely to be thinking about things at different scale. In the example above, which is a screenshot from a video on the course, the person/practitioner could be thinking about the pond in terms of the production of fish, or in terms of increasing biodiversity.

In both cases the ‘boundary’ of the system is the pond itself, within a wider ‘situation of concern’. However the purpose is different. The point when drawing diagrams like this isn’t to try and capture some kind of objective view of a situation, which would be impossible. Rather, it’s a good way of helping understand and communicate with others the way you see it.

I particularly liked the way that the course authors explained how STiP fits, like Russian dolls, inside wider issues — for example, systems literacy and systemic sensibilities. Crucially, they’re then situated within what is labelled the ‘technosphere’ and the ‘biosphere’. In other words, everything is connected.

Person with thought bubble which includes nested ideas from 'Systems thinking in practice capability' through to 'Biosphere'

In addition, it’s fascinating to see how they break down what they’ve learned about studnets on Systems Thinking-related course over the last 50 years or so. There have been over 40,000 students, and they’ve started to notice some patterns.

A ‘rule of thumb’ is now recognised: about one third of students come with a strongly held systemic sensibility. For this cohort, discovering systems thinking through formal study offers solace, and gives credibility to the way in which they intuitively understand the world. It is a great relief for them to know that they are not alone, that there is a language and concepts that make sense of the way they think. For another third, study of Systems creates ‘aha moments’. This is when realisation dawns that you can appreciate your own thinking … and act to change it. For the final third, the courses lead to a sort of personal precipice, one might say a challenge to their sense of identity, because systems thinking challenges what they are good at or how they have succeeded in their world. Fear of change undoubtedly plays a part.

I’m definitely in the first cohort, the ones with a ‘strongly held systemic sensibility’. The reason I’m finding the module so interesting is because it really gives me for the first time a way of explaining something I find innate.

TB872: The PFMS heuristic

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.

The word heuristic comes from the Ancient Greek and means ‘to find’ or ‘discover’. In modern usage we use heuristics as practical tools for problem-solving, decision-making, or self-discovery. The idea is that they’re not something that necessarily generate ‘perfect’ results, but that they nevertheless lead to a satisfactory solution.

For example, a simple (and somewhat trivial) heuristic where I live in the north east of England would be to wear waterproof shoes when going out from October until March. It might not be wet when you go out, but the chances are the weather could turn at any point. It’s not a perfect solution, as your feet could overheat, or you might not look as stylish as you would otherwise have wished, but on the whole this is outweighed by mostly having dry feet.

PFMS heuristic

In module TB872, students are presented with the PFMS heuristic which I mentioned in my first post about this MSc. We discussed this in the tutorial I attended last night. Here’s my understanding of the different elements:

  • Practitioner (P): this represents me, either in the context of the module or in the situation to be examined. Everyone is a practitioner in terms of the various aspects of our lives; this could be studying but also in our working lives, parenting, etc. Recognising that our practice is situated and embodied is essential as it means acknowledging that we are central to our own practice — and that we are influenced by our surroundings, experiences, and history.
  • Framework (F): this is the theoretical and conceptual base from which you can understand and approach the situation under consideration. We all have a ‘tradition of understanding’ which we bring to situations under consideration. I currently think of this in terms of W.V. Quine’s web of belief, in which we have things which are more core or more to the periphery of our belief systems. So, for example, the ‘framework’ which we bring to a situation could be a formal one, but equally it could be a hodge-podge of correct, incorrect, useful, and tenuous ideas.
  • Methods (M): these are the things that you use to practically apply theoretical concepts from the framework of ideas. They can also be thought of as ‘tools’ to help engage with, explore, and understand the situations we encounter as practitioners. So, for example, whereas the idea of ‘interconnectedness’ or ‘holism’ might be a framework, the method by which we instantiate this could be through rich pictures, which help us visually see how everything is connected.
  • Situation (S): this refers to the specific context or situation in which we find ourselves practicing. In TB872, the situation is the module itself, whereas in my day-to-day work this might be the organisational change that we’re helping a client with. In my personal life, a ‘situation’ could be managing my migraines through a combination of nutrition and exercise.

The PFMS heuristic is a tool to help us think about our practice within the module. What I like about it is that it helps us think about praxis (i.e. theory-informed practice) and gives us a way of separating out, for example, the theoretical frameworks from the methods by which we apply them to a situation.