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Systems theory

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Whitchurch, G. G., & Constantine, L. L. (1993). Systems theory. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, & S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 325-352). New York: Plenum Press. Three Distinct But Closely Interrelated Theoretical Legacies Information theory: focuses on the reduction of uncertainty which is achieved by the acquisition of information. Cybernetics: a science of communication concerned with the transmission and control of information; it examines the communication and manipulation of information in various systems. General Systems Theory (GST): interested in systems in general; family systems theory is an extension of this branch. Definitions and Terms

Three Uses/Definitions:
General Systems Theory (GST) is used to explain the behavior of a variety of complex, organized systems. GST is also a process of theory construction which focuses on building universal concepts, postulates, and principles. GST, as a worldview, emphasizes interrelationships between objects. Terms

Isomorphism: Refers to equivalence of form: there is a one-to-one correspondence between elements and relationships. Cybernetic system: systems with feedback.
Core Assumptions of General Systems Theory
GST Has Potential for Unifying Science: suggests that there are unifying principles in every discipline; GST is a way to consider isomorphism between them. A System Must Be Understood as a Whole
Von Bertalanffy: promoted the notion that a family, or any system, is greater than the some of it’s parts. Lewin: the whole is different from the sum of it’s parts.
Human Systems are Self-Reflexive
Human systems are characterized by their ability to make themselves and their own behavior the focus of examination; this is self-reflexivity. Self-reflectivity
permits humans to examine their systems and set goals.
permits humans to examine social influences on systems and behaviors, rather than naively accepting them as “natural.” Research and Theory Foci
Ongoing Family Processes:
Transactional patterns (e.g., predictable behavior sequences). Shift focus from individual to the family.
family functioning,
family communication,
family conflict,
separateness and connecetedness,
adaptation to change.
Example of research questions (from Montgomery & Fewer, 1988): What elements of a social system are influenced by other parts of the system; how does one element of a system recursively influence the whole system? How does the behavior of different components fit together?

How does the fit between systems affect functioning?
What is the Relationship of Family Systems to Other Systems
Major Contemporary Concepts of General Systems Theory
Interdependence/Mutual Influence
Definition: the ability of a system to achieve the same goals through different routes (e.g., we may take different roads to campus but we all arrive at the same place). Communication patterns are organized into feedback loops which affect goal-setting behavior in systems. Hierarchy:

The “layering” of systems of increasing complexity, including Subsystems: smaller parts of the same system.
Suprasystems: larger systems (e.g., economic and political system). Controversy: disagreement about definition of sub- and supra-systems as well as identification of components. Major Contemporary Concepts of General Systems Theory (cont.) Boundaries and Open/Closed Systems

Boundaries define membership in a system.
Boundaries also represent the point of contact between the system and other systems. Boundaries vary in degree of permeability, the degree to which they control the flow between systems. Customary approaches to operationalizing boundaries:

Assessment of permeability and cohesion.
Emotional connectedness between family members.
Contemporary Concepts (cont.)
Feedback and Control
Feedback loop
Path of communication in a system.
Feedback is considered either positive or negative based on the effect it has on the system, not on it’s content. Types of feedback loops:
feedback is used to maintain homeostasis. This type of feedback has also been called constancy loops and deviation-attenuating loops. Morphostatic feedback: refers to feedback which promotes maintenance of existing structure. Positive: feedback used to promote change.

These types of feedback are also referred to as deviation-amplifying loops or variety loops. Morphogenic feedback: refers to feedback which produces change in the system. Examples of Research Emerging from General Systems Theory

Marital and Family Interaction
Hess and Handel (1959): integrated GST and symbolic interactionism to examine the family as a system that socially constructs it’s reality. They suggested that there are five essential processes of family interaction. Comparison of family interaction patterns between “normal” and “schizophrenic” families (Mishler & Waxler, 1968). Family Dysfunction: individual patterns of dysfunction are attributed to family interaction patterns. Alcoholism: Steinglass and Wolin have integrated a family development and systems approach, suggesting that alcoholism influences families in stages which accounts for patterns of alcoholism in families. Family violence: systemic explanations are controversial. This research suggests that the failure to leave an abusive situation is a form of positive feedback. Examples of Research (cont.)

Marital and Family Taxonomies
Olson’s Circumplex model
Three dimensions create sixteen relationship types; the three dimensions are Cohesion
Three general types of relationships:
In general, research has revealed that balanced families will function more adequately than the other types of families. It has been criticized for not including a dimension for competence. Examples of Research (cont.)

Marital and Family Taxonomies (cont.)
The Beavers systems model examines family competence (e.g., healthy, mid-range, and severely dysfunctional). Typologies melding systems with symbolic interactionism: develop, for example, a typology based on the effect of family members shared perceptions about their social environment (symbolic interactionism) on the social environment (a systems construct) (Reiss, 1981; see also Constantine, 1986; Constantine & Israel, 1985; Fitzpatrick, 1976, 1988). Limitations of General Systems Theory

General Criticisms: focus on application of systems theory.
GST is too vague and general, making it difficult to operationalize and evaluate empirically. Criticized for poor explanatory power because, although it provides conceptualization, it is difficult to clearly identify and measure constructs. Criticism of subtle assumption that all parts of a system have equal power. Limitations of General Systems Theory (cont.)

Feminist Critique:
Limited recognition of power in family systems which obscures the privilege of dominant groups. Systemic constructs often reflect sex bias. Enmeshment is pathologized, for example, while differentiation is promoted. This devalues a way of relating that is common to women. Clinically, emphasizes therapist neutrality.

Ironically, it is viewed as not systemic enough.
Interdisciplinary scholarship has demonstrated that all cultures utilize gender and generation as fundamental categories of organization, but systems theory ignores gender concerns.

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