Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Systems at Work

A dominant theoretical foundation of social work is Systems Theory, which uses biological or ecological systems as a metaphor for understanding human behavior. As you may remember (from biology, or from human behavior courses), a system is made up of interdependent parts that adapt to each other in order to maintain equilibrium - a state of balance, or the status quo.

We can gain insight into human behavior by considering how this concept applies to different levels of human functioning:
  • An individual person functions as a system, with biological, psychological, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual "parts" of the self interact to maintain a stable ego state.
  • Families (of all shapes and sizes) function as systems, with each member influencing and influenced by the others, functioning interdependently to maintain the family's identity, meet its material needs, and function in relation to the outside world.
  • Other small groups also function as systems, including therapy groups, clubs, committees, etc. The members function interdependently and adapt to one another in order to effectively carry out the group's purpose.
  • Organizations function as systems, with interplay between individual staff, between different teams and departments, between management and employees, with funding sources and outside constituents, all in the service of fulfilling the organization's mission.
  • Communities function as systems, with each of the previous levels of systems existing within communities as parts that interact to maintain the overall functioning of the community.
  • Societies, cultures, states and nations are also systems, with each of the preceding levels of systems functioning as pieces thereof.
We are most likely to intentionally draw on systems theory if we're practicing macro social work, focusing on the systemic functioning of the community, society, state, or nation; doing family therapy, focusing on the functioning of a family system; or doing group therapy, establishing and maintaining the group as a functioning system. We're also likely to notice how we fit into our organizations as systems. In contrast, it can be easy to forget about systems when we're doing individual therapy.

However, perhaps especially in individual therapy, it's a mistake not to think about systems. In the macro, family, or group work, we intervene with an entire system. However, with individual work, we intervene with one person, as both an individual system, and part of larger systems (family, group, organization, community). It behooves us to remember that systems strive to maintain equilibrium, and therapy often functions to destabilize the system's balance. When we work with someone to change their thinking, there are going to be ripple effects in their emotions and behavior. When our work with a client changes their behavior, it's going to effect the other systems of which they are a part. Sometimes these ripples facilitate and expand the changes clients are trying to make. Sometimes, however, there is a push-back from other parts of a system as the system seeks balance through the status quo. Therefore, when our efforts in individual therapy aren't leading to the desired effects, we have to consider what other forces might be operating to maintain our client's existing role in the functioning of a system.

How do you think about systems and their role in your work? What level(s) of systems do you work with?

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