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incorporating Unitary Approaches, Family Systems, Institutional Systems, Ecological Models and Networking


What is Systems Theory? Biological Models A Case Study The Pincus and Minahan model Social Work and Ecology Strengths and Weaknesses

An Example
Think of Lincolns transport system: if you improve car access, you potentially boost the economy, you satisfy individual demand, but potentially damage the environment and increase risks of accidents; if you switch to public transport, you boost jobs through infrastructural spending, but you lose income from car parking, from passing trade, potentially from any action in one part has a consequence on the whole system

Another Example
Excluding your family and blood relatives, how many friends and acquaintances do you have? Write down the number that best approximates to your social system

Further Examples

Examples of simple systems are babysitting circles, allotment societies, share the care schemes Examples of complex systems are neighbourhoods, families, kinship networks, church / faith groups, peer groups, social communities


A Social system is a system of processes of interaction between is the structure of the relations between the actors as involved in the interactive process which is essentially the structure of the social system. The system is a network of such relationships (Talcott Parsons: The Social System)


Things do not have a meaning in themselves, but only in relation to other things (Saying from Eastern philosophy) Society is an organism of functionally interdependent parts evolving through structural differentiation (Herbert Spencer: The Study of Sociology)

The whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts Systems are highly organised Boundaries are very important, as are patterned transactions The behaviour of the individual cannot be understood without reference to the system to which s/he belongs


Behaviour is best understood as a circular process Systems are naturally self preservationist and conservative Systems need energy flow across boundaries to achieve equilibrium Systems are goal directed

Practice Example of Simple Use of Systems Theory as an Explanatory Framework School Refusal

Parents pleased by Ds help. David feels safe at home

David refuses to go to school

David picks up anxieties. Wants to comfort Mum & cheer up Dad

Dad guilty Mum unhappy Money focus makes him feel useless Anxiety Attacks angina gets worse

Mum worries about her Health, but cannot discuss. Worries about money problems

Reminder how would other theories intervene in this case?



3. 4.

Psychodynamic would try to engage with Davids inner world of feelings Behavioural identify and try to isolate those factors positively reinforcing Davids school refusal Cognitive what do you think? Systems as implied earlier may use any one of aboveBUT would also:

Systems Theory Intervention in Davids Case

Enquire into the way the actions of each family member impact on the others see diagram slide 7 Encourage parents to go to school regularly to see teachers about Davids progress Enquire about possible bullying at school & the nature of the ant-bullying policies Make sure that the health care system is aware of the emotional aspects of Ds fathers health problems Establish whether there were other forms of support available to Ds parents Ensure the parents were aware of all potential benefits available to them In this sense then Systems Theory is making sure that the problem is perceived in the round and in an inter-connected manner..simple good practice you might think!


All people depend upon human systems: INFORMAL: family; friends; neighbourhoods FORMAL: church; clubs; associations; trade unions SOCIETAL: school; employer; authorities; state structures (Pincus and Minahan, 1973)

Pincus & Minahans 4 basic social work systems

System Description Further Information

Change Agent System Client System

Social workers & the organisations they work in

Not just social workers!

People, groups, families, communities who seek help & engage with change agents People whom the change agent system is trying to change to achieve its aims People with whom the change agent system works to achieve its aims

Actual clients have agreed to receive help & have engaged themselves; potential clients are those with whom the sws are trying to engage Client and target systems may or may not be the same Client, target & action systems may or may not be the same

Target System Action System

Noel Timms three levels

MICRO: reference to interaction and mutuality in personal peer relationships MEZZO: access to resources, often facilitated by central figures, informal leaders MACRO: relationship between people and more formal community organisations

Linking Systems and Structural Theory


social work demands a systems orientation and a change of attitude from social work about roles and tasks (Coulshed, 1988) Working with communities, neighbourhoods and networks: a systems approach to service delivery

Can Systems Theory be Critical?

Systems theory does allow social workers to be critical of and target for change considerable issues outside the immediate behaviour of the referral; including: The referrer's immediate environment; their own agencys policies; other agencies; local & national government policies; social conventions generally

Linking Systems theory to Networking

a systems approach may be applied to the analysis of the complexity of biological, psychological, social and cultural forces at work in the relations between formal social work and informal social support networks (Garbarino, 1986: 24) the aim is to create artificial systems that will go on to function as natural systems (Collins and Pancoast, 1976: 65)

Coates J (2003) Ecology & Social Work

Starts from the notion that SW must support sustainable development, through: Developing caring communities Identifying & developing activities that benefit the common good Promoting active partnerships Building capacities in individuals & communities Promoting decentralised & localised decision making - & making it work! Promoting community health & social resilience Promoting environmental and social justice Reducing human & ecological stress with much use of grief work Focus on natural methods of healing & spirituality So, it is logical that a radical and critical systems theory would question all the conventional systems within which SW is practiced - and promote alternatives

Strengths & Weaknesses of Systems Approach as a Guide to Practice


It offers a unitary approach by combining psychological, social and community approaches It is interactive it facilitates being able to understand the impact of people on each other, as well the impact of systems on people & other systems It offers more than one way to tackle an issue eclectic not stuck in one preferred approach It allows for the integration of approaches It avoids strict determinist accounts of behaviour

It is not prescriptive does not tell us what to do (some might say thats a strength!) It is a generalised theory - hard to apply to specific situations It points to many connections but does not provide any specific theory that might link them in an explanatory manner Maybe it includes too much maybe we need theory that places some emphasis on what is most important In many guises it can be quite conservative creating stable self reliant systems Similarly it may overstate the importance of social cohesion and solidarity It can have a complex and over technical language like many other theories!