Reading Time: 7 minutes


Bailey, K. D. (2005). Fifty years of systems science: Further reflections. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 22(5), 355–361.
  • Outlines the 10 goals of systems theory (p. 356; first 5 are from Hammond, 2003)
    • Develop theoretical understanding of systems that transcend the standard departments of knowledge
    • Understand the similarity and differences between different concepts, methods, models (isomorphy) within various departments of knowledge and find ways to make them relevant to one another.
    • Encourage theoretical development where needed
    • Eliminate duplication of theoretical approaches from differing departments of knowledge
    • Promote communication between specialists
    • Address stunted research development due to hyper-specialization
    • Promote a common framework for comparative analyses from different fields.
    • Emphasize the non-linear relationships and interactions of phenomena being studied. Focus on relationships between variables and not just the variables themselves.
    • Emphasize systems thinking concepts: boundary, emergence, holism, and information.
    • Avoid piecemeal analysis or reducationistic analyses.
Hammond, D. (2004). Reflections on the role of dialogue in education and community building. Systems Research and Behavioral Science21(3), 295–301.
  • Discusses the notion of integrative concept (attributed to Boulding) in research, which emphasizes the need for communication, acknowledgement of interdependence within a complex social system, thus building community and connection.
  • This can be achieved through dialogue in an integrated approach (participatory/collaborative?)
  • She utilized a collaborative approach to build more meaningful interactions between the school and the academic institution.
Keaney, S., Leung, L., Joyce, A., Ollis, D., & Green, C. (2016). Applying systems theory to the evaluation of a whole school approach to violence prevention. Health Promotion Journal of Australia27, 230–235.
  • An example of using systems theory in relation to bullying prevention. Specifically, they explored feedback loops within their evaluation, whereby frequent updates were given to the school for them to reflect on and integrate into practice where necessary.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. (D. Wright, Ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Summary to come, this book will take some time to summarize.
Mulej, M. (2007). Systems theory: A worldview and/or a methodology aimed at requisite holism/realism of humans’ thinking, decisions and action. Systems Research and Behavioral Science24, 347–357.
  • One of the intentions of systems theory and cybernetics is holism. It is in direct opposition to over-specialization, therefore the methods and methodologies should reflect holism.
  • Holism is achieved through acknowledging all attributes of a phenomenon.
  • Mulej advocates for a dialectical approach to systems theory to address holism. This allows for multiple, interdependent, often opposing viewpoints to be explored to provide insight on the phenomenon being explored.
  • When framing a study, Wilby (2005 as cited in Mulej) suggests that the goal of holism isn’t to look at absolutely everything, but rather to determine what is relevant to look at, thus creating boundaries for the study itself.
  • Within an organization, there can be a shift to more cooperative management through dialectic endeavours, however, there is a learning curve in becoming cooperative rather than centralistic.
  • Emphasis that within life, humans are not self-sufficient, thus, it does not make sense to view them as individuals or by individual factors within research.
  • (Bartalanffy, 1986 as cited in Mulej) Systems theory developed from engineering and mathematics to explore the complexity of modern technology. However, it has been utilized more and more to explore human and social systems. Just what the system is that is being explored can be defined and adapted based on the needs of objective research. The goal is to explore the interrelations between variables within the system.
  • “real systems; that is, entities perceived in or inferred from observation, and existing independently of an observer. On the other hand, there are conceptual systems such as logic, mathematics (but e.g. also including music) which essentially are symbolic constructs; with abstracted systems (science) as a subclass of the latter, i.e. conceptual systems corresponding with reality. However, the distinction is by no means as sharp and clear as it would appear. . . . The distinction between “real” objects and systems as given in observation and ”conceptual” constructs and systems cannot be drawn in any common sense way’ (Bertalanffy, 1979, pp. XXI–XXII).” (p. 351)
  • Caution against any one person defining the boundaries of the system, as this may be limiting.
  • Things to consider:
    • Attributes of the whole that parts do not have (Systemic: Complexity)
    • Attributes of parts which the whole does not have (Systematic: Complicatedness)
    • Interdependences of the parts that make the whole, how are they emerging and how are they working together (synergy in outcomes)(Dialectical: Basis for Complexity)
    • The selection of viewpoints to ensure holism and thereby reducing reductionism and oversights.
  • Systems thinking is a world-view (education, values, culture, ethics, behavioural norms), thus will impact methodological choices.
Parsons, T. (1970). On building social system theory: A personal history. Daedalus99(4), 826–881.
  • Subsystems within a system may be interdependent, but also may influence each other (interpenetrating).
  • Seek to look for patterns
  • Analyze processes and structures; adaptation, system goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance and latent tension management (four function paradigm).
    • Specifically looking at the inputs and outputs
Rayburn, A. D., Winek, J. L., & Anderson, H. (2016). Engaging Families and Other Systems in School-Based Treatment: Lessons from an Interdisciplinary Treatment Team. The Family Journal24(4), 395–405.
  • Again another example where systems theory was used within a school context for intervention purposes.
  • The authors focus on the processes and patterns of processes within relationships. Acknowledging the hierarchy and network in which these relationships work.
  • Linking it to constructivist ideas, they pay particular attention to the types of conversations that are happening with the students to attempt to foster more constructive conversations that support the child in searching for resources and acknowledging their own capabilities.
  • They explore home systems, parental systems, sibling systems, peer systems, school system (teacher, admin, extracurricular, school resource officer systems), and wider systems (social services, medical, psychiatric, court, therapist systems).
Von Bertalanffy, L. (1972). The history and status of general systems theory. Academy of Management Journal15(4), 407–426. Retrieved from
  • Historical basis
    • “The whole is more than the sum of its parts,” (Aristotle)
    • Hierarchical order
    • Opposition or fight amongst parts
    • Not limited to quantitative expression
    • Dialectic process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis
  • Consider the order and organization of systems
  • Reductionist research has provided some insight, but often we are left with questions about other variables that may be involved and how they interact.
  • Rooted in cybernetics (human as machine) and evolution theory (interactions of circumstance and environment)
  • Systems theory applies to organisms, organized entities, social groups, personality, or technological devices.
Zehetmeier, S., Andreitz, I., Erlacher, W., & Rauch, F. (2015). Researching the impact of teacher professional development programmes based on action research, constructivism, and systems theory. Educational Action Research23(2), 162–177.
  • Another example of using systems theory (with constructivism) in a school setting, specifically related to teacher professional development.
  • Constructivism posits that you cannot take solutions to problems, knowledge, experiences, etc and transfer them to a different person or group.
    • We only know what we have access to.
    • “Focuses on communicative, socially determined constructions of truth” (p. 163)
    • Truth/reality is socially constructed with others
  • Systems theory focuses on the interactions, groups, organizations, subsystems or the whole of society
  • Luhmann outline systems theory as focusing on interactions, decisions, structures, and processes. Central elements include autopoiesis, self-reference, operative enclosure, and observation.
  • “It is crucial here to see the concepts of observation of ‘1st, 2nd, and 3rd order’ in systemic and cybernetic theory. Observation of first order means that one observer observes ‘de facto happenings’ (e.g. sunrise) and draws any conclusions from this (e.g. ‘the world is a plate’). Second-order observation means observing the observer and drawing conclusions about his/her conclusions or revealing unconscious patterns of communications and interactions. This process of observing and observing the observer can be observed on a third level and this leads to a notion of reflection (Luhmann 2000; Simon 2011), which consequently allows conceptualizing a notion of learning (see below). Observations of second order are basic interventional tools in consulting processes and part of reflecting loops as ‘systemic’ methodology intervening in social systems. Institutionalized reflection loops follow a structured procedure, consisting of at least four steps: observation, second order; collaborative interpretation; collaborative generation of options for action; and consequences for further development (Erlacher and Ossimitz 2009; Königswieser and Exner 2008).” (p. 164)
  • For organizational development/change, organizations/groups must be able to observe themselves to understand themselves apart from the environment.
  • Reflection is key for gaining an understanding of the system, external reflections may be beneficial. Reflections are then analyzed and put back into the system to address potential issues (feedback loops).
  • Willke (1999 as cited in Zehetmeier et al.) suggests that organizations must strive to find a way that values both individual learning and organizational learning and how they can work together.


I have opened a can of worms in regards to systems thinking and complexity. Initially in my conceptualization for my dissertation project I was drawn to complexity and ecology (as an epistemology). However, conceptualization just how it would fit in wasn’t very clear. The interconnectedness of everything has always been how I saw the world, but had trouble articulating it. However these readings have perplexed me more, but at the same time assured me that this is a suitable way to theorize my research.

The key for looking at bullying prevention, and understanding what happens when the implementers have left will be conceptualizing the subsystems at play. I think the diagram of participants provides a starting point for understanding the systems involved in bullying prevention. The diagram itself may need to be reworked to show their interconnectedness and as parts of a whole. Additionally, I may need to consider also including some of the program implementers within the project.

Meadows discusses the issues around policy and why policy change may be ineffective within a system. Thus, I think it would also be prudent to explore the policies that the school board has in place regarding bullying prevention, as well as the individual schools bullying prevention policies. In addition to interviews and focus groups, I think it may also be beneficial to look at pre-existing school climate data to gain an understanding of the impact bullying prevention programming may be having within the school (bullying is an included measure).

Ultimately, I’m excited to see how my theoretical and methodological frameworks are working together in a coherent manner.


I think to meet the goal of dialectic holism, participatory research provides a unique opportunity to engage with differing viewpoints and understandings. Specifically, I seek to meet this through open research (more on this later), whereby I am regularly sharing—through a blog—the analyses and reflections on the research, from there, participants are encouraged to engage through comments to share their own reflections or ideas.

This additionally will act as a feedback loop to the schools/board. Participants can take this information and choose to enact change based upon it. Thus, leading to organizational learning (up coming blog post on this).


Just a note on the process of blogging while doing this. This week I started leaving the summary/blog until I had read “enough” on a given topic. However, this makes for long blog posts, and makes it much harder for me to summarize and reflect. This week I will try to be more consistent, whether I think I have read “enough” or not.

Things to Explore Further

  • Hammond D. 2003. The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory. University Press of Colorado: Boulder, CO.
  • Critical theory and Epistemology: The politics of modern thought and science by Anastasia Marinopoulou
  • Social Systems by Niklas Luhmann, John Bednarz Jr., Dirk Baecker
  • General System Theory: Foundation Development Applications by Ludwig von Bertalanffy
  • The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory by Debora Hammond


David Ing · January 27, 2020 at 5:20 pm

Heather, as I was doing some research on systems theory, I happened across this blog post. If you’re ever in the Toronto area, Systems Thinking Ontario meets regularly.

    Heather W. · February 11, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you, David! apologies for the delayed response! I will certainly keep the group in mind if I’m ever in the area!

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