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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 Yor
k: 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.

: a science of communication concerned with the transm
ission 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.


Isomorphism: Refers to equivalence of form: there is a one
one correspondence
between elements and relationships.

Cybernetic system: systems with feedback.

Core Assumptions of General Sy
stems 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 fam
ily, or any system, is

than the some
of it's parts.

Lewin: the whole is

from the sum of it's parts.

Human Systems are Self

Human systems are characterized by their ability to make themselves and their own
behavior the focus of e
xamination; this is self


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

ngoing 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 c

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 a
bility 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
behavior in systems.


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

Boundaries and Open/Closed Systems

Boundaries define membership in a system.

Boundaries also represent the point of contact between the system a
nd 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 mem

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

Positive: feedback used to p
romote change.

These types of feedback are also referred to as deviation
amplifying loops or variety

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 fami
ly 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




Three ge
neral 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.

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 pr
ovides 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

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

, 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