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Systemic Theoretical Assumptions

There is generally a great deal of misunderstanding when the term systemic is used. The common use of the term refers to including children, families and other role-players. Although this is important, including different stakeholders does not in itself constitute or reflect a systemic perspective. Working systemically refers to the theoretical assumptions that are held to govern the interactions and relationships of any particular system, or in different words, the way what happens between the parts of the system is defined and understood, rather than the parts in themselves. A system can therefore refer to an individual in terms of the parts of the self that interact in a unique and governed manner, as well as an community with different roles, individuals, structures, and so forth. The following theoretical assumptions provide an overview of the complexities of systemic thinking in general, and constructivist thinking in particular.



The whole is more than the sum of the parts. A system cannot be understood by simply including or understanding the different parts, or by working with the different parts in isolation. A system as such can be an individual, couple, family, community, school, organisation or programme. Non-summativity means that a system is a new order of entity. If we consider them together, for example a couple, what we have is more than the unique actions and qualities of each individual. We have a relationship, which is more than the sum of the two individuals. It also becomes evident when a couple is in the room, that there is information that becomes available from their interactions that is somehow more than their individual descriptions of their interactions.




Ecology refers to the fact that all things in nature, including social systems, exist in multiple embedded, overlapping and mutually influencing systems. For example, to consider a rainforest one can discover that all the microorganisms, insects, animals, plants, and so forth play a unique part in maintaining the larger unity, the rain forest. To understand the impact of the rainforest on the local rainfall, groundwater, and so forth, cannot be achieved by studying any particular tree, or just the trees. One has to study the whole system and in doing so understand that systems are interconnected. The key to understanding systems is therefore always to understand the relationships between the parts or subsystems. In working with couples this means we see and understand the couple as a social system in itself, that can only be understood when we consider the relationship and interactions between the individuals who are part of the relationship.




When we speak about context in working with couples, we are assuming not only that they exist in relation to a larger social ecology, but that their unique behaviour and roles form an integral and functional part of the larger community in which they live. Needless to say this has substantial and far-reaching implications for when we start considering the idea of change, and what makes change possible. As such context can mean that a couple exists in a community, society and culture with certain values. The latter highlights that context does not refer only to place and people, but also to culture, language and ideas. In this way we can say that couples are embedded in specific ecologies or networks of ideas, meaning, values, roles and so forth. The implication for change is that what we set out to change can never be limited to behaviour of individuals, but has to address the patterns of ideas, meanings and roles that govern such behaviour. Systems always exist in a context with which there is mutual interaction.




Within systems, and specifically the ecologies of ideas and relationships, there are always patterns that are recurring and recognizable. For example, a pattern in a couple may be that the more she gets frustrated and want the husband to engage, the more he withdraws from the emotional intensity and tries to keep the peace.  If it is assumed that the behaviour serves a function, we need to understand that the behaviour of the individual is part of a greater process. To use another metaphor, the role, meaning and behaviour of a particular actor on the stage only makes sense if seen in the context of the whole play and other actors. In working with couples we see the behaviour of the individual as only a partial aspect of a larger pattern, which cannot be understood or worked with in isolation, and is specific to the relationship with the other.




A system is not just a collection of interactions and relationships, but these are organised and give rise to a unique entity. Wholeness means that, for this reason, any change in any part of the system will result in the system as a whole changing. A system is made up of relationship and therefore any change in one part or relationships affects all the relationships and interactions in the system. In practice this means that one can intervene at different places to stimulate change in a system. The couple is a social system and wholeness means that if any part of the relationship changes, the relationship as a whole will undergo change.


Circular Causality


Linear causality assumes that A causes B. However, circular causality assumes that A and B are merely different points that can be distinguished in a pattern of interaction, where ideas such as cause and effect become irrelevant. In a couple it is to some extent irrelevant to determine whether problems started because one partner started staying out late or another partner started being more demanding. In working systemically the unit for intervention is therefore the pattern of interaction, since it is assumed that the other parts contribute to conserving the pattern. In working with couples this highlights why identifying and locating the "problematic behaviour" in one individual, whether by the couple or the therapist, may in itself contribute to maintaining a description that prevents relational change (or more specifically, second-order change, see later).  Systemic thinking does not hold that such distinctions are useful. Of greater importance is how the unique set of interactions and relationships are conserved or maintained in the present.




Different systemic theorists use different words to describe the unique balance, steady state or status quo that a system maintains. Recursivity means that there is a recognizable and repetitive quality of a systems interactions and relationships. Circular causality means that there is a circular or reciprocal relationships between parts and interactions, where ideas of cause or reason becomes irrelevant. Self-regulation means the system maintain a particular set of interactions and relationships and that the origin of this is to be found in understanding the system itself. In other words, there are rules governing each system. When we then speak about homeostasis or coherence we are stating that the system maintains a particular balance or steady state. It is the same that it conserves or maintains. Homeostasis refers to the quality of systems to regulate and maintain a unique internal set of interactions and relationships between its constituent parts. In working with couples, this unique coherence is what we will later refer to as blueprints and patterns.


Stability & Change


Following the above it is important to understand that a system achieves a steady state through stability and change. The classic example is the tight-rope walker who maintains his position on the rope through constant changes and adjustments. Similarly the human eye perceives through difference, and staring at a spot on the wall will result in the spot disappearing. In other words, the changes and fluctuations in individual and social behaviour can be understood as both being part of the process of conserving a particular balance, homeostasis or coherence. This means that a system maintains its coherence or homeostasis through a dual process of changing to maintain a certain balance or stability. This can be seen in working with couples when considering how the behaviours, meanings, emotions and interactions between the partners go through various changes over the course of time, yet how the coherence and unique pattern remain broadly the same.


Positive & Negative Feedback Loops


A system maintains its homeostasis through two processes, positive and negative feedback loops. First of all however it is essential to understand that positive and negative feedback has nothing to do with it being good or bad, positive or critical. It was said that a system maintains its homeostasis, which is achieved through negative feedback or deviation negation. This means that the system responds to any perturbation or disruption by attempting to return to its steady state or homeostasis. In order words, its behaviour in some way reduces or removes the impact of the perturbation. On the other hand positive feedback is deviation enhancing or amplifying. This means that rather than compensate for the perturbation (negative feedback) it continues to change along the direction of the positive feedback.

From the above it should be clear what was said earlier, namely that change and stability cannot be separate. In terms of feedback this means both positive and negative feedback takes place through change. In the case of negative feedback the change is towards returning to the familiar stability or steady state of the system. The opposite of this is positive feedback where the system establishes a new steady state or homeostasis. In systemic language the former is called first order change, and the latter second order change.




It has been described that in social systems we find patterns and regularity. This raises the question of what is the pattern and what governs this pattern. From a systemic perspective a system is self-regulating or self-governing. This means that the unique recursiveness within a system is a product of the system itself. The system develops its own rules by which it is governed, in social systems often observable in the roles, functions and meanings of behaviour. For example, a pot of boiling water will naturally return to the temperature of the room. This follows laws of thermodynamics. Obviously social systems are much more complex. The balance, steady state or baseline is similarly more dynamic.




Each behaviour or meaning conserves a certain baseline pattern of meanings and interactions. This is why all behaviour can be understood as serving a function within the system in which it is embedded, and system refers not only to the relationships between people, but the complex set of ideas and meanings that is maintained. We therefore always have to ask what the function of a particular behaviour is in terms of the conservation of the coherence of the system. Individual behaviour therefore does not simply signal or convey passive information about our internal state or a passive relationship with the world, but is an active process of managing the dynamic nature of the relationship.


Adaptation & Conservation


It was said that a system is self-regulating and that all systems exists within a context. The question may arise to what the self-regulation is about, what is the purpose. Self-regulation is the system's unique way of managing its adaptation to its environment on the one hand, and conserving its identity as a unique entity. In social systems adaptation can be understood as being about the demands for change made on the system by the context (community, environment, changing political structures, etc) and its members (parents growing older or getting divorced, mother getting a new boyfriend, child becoming a teenager, child leaving the house to start their own family, and so forth). The system has to deal with these perturbations (see theory of change) or disruptions whilst maintaining the unity and integrity of a system.



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