Systems Theory

Systems Theory

Social work practice involves taking into account different factors in a person’s life. While many theories exist in social work, the system’s theory provides a unique way of understanding human behavior in terms of their environments and multilayered relationships. The theory is constructed from the notion that a good system is grounded on individual expectations, needs, rewards, and attributes of individuals in a specific system (Lai & Huili Lin, 2017). It is also grounded on the idea that human behavior is influenced by different factors in a system that works collaboratively. These factors incorporate family, social settings, friends, environment, and economic class. The theory articulates that among these factors other significant factors influence how people act and think. Thus, analyzing the social structures to come up with ways of adapting the missing elements and correcting the ineffective parts of a specific system can impact human behavior positively.

Historically, systems theory originated from the general systems theory which became popular within the natural and psychological sciences during the 20th century. General systems theory examined how system parts affected the entire organism or system. Scientists from different fields of psychology and physics started applying systems theory to comprehend the work around them (Valentinov, Verschraegen, & Van Assche, 2019). By the mid-20th century, systems thinking and general systems theory were broadly used by psychologists, social scientists, and social workers to create more specific models of understanding and addressing social and individual problems. The systems theory became a rebuttal to the prevailing idea that psychological problems and individual dysfunction originated within an individual. Since then, the systems theory could be applied in different fields.

Systems theory provides different theories that can be used in social work. The theories grounded on social systems theory are becoming significant in helping social workers address and understand social and individual problems. One of these theories is Bowen’s family systems theory which views the family as a complex system comprising of feedback loops and its parts (Lai & Huili Lin, 2017). The theorist came up with eight interlocking family system concepts that can be applied by practitioners in enhancing family functioning. There is also the life model of social work practice which emphasizes policy advocacy and policy practice. It requires social work practitioners to examine how individuals fit with their environment and how they cope and adapt toxicity and limitations of their environment. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) socio-ecological model of development is also grounded on systems theory. This approach examines how multiple levels of social environments and social systems impact people’s behaviors and experiences.

Systems theory is critical in social work since it helps social workers address different problems affecting people and the general society. It provides a framework for thought and inquiry that integrates various subject areas, including natural science, social science, and the humanities, that typically (because of extreme specialization) lack a shared language and fail to communicate adequately (Valentinov, Verschraegen, & Van Assche, 2019). In one sense, humans, along with the universe, can be considered to be a system. And like nearly every complex system, it is constituted by other sub-systems (immune system, and digestive system) connected and interdependent upon other systems (social systems, economic systems, and family systems). Systems theory and systems thinking are about generating a variety of ways of seeing situations and the world. It is a strategic approach that allows people to see the way parts in the system interact so that the whole has features that none of the constituent parts have in isolation.

Systems theory also has several strengths and weaknesses. It helps social workers look beyond a person for them to understand the factors in a clients’ social system that contribute to their problems. It also empowers social works to address different problems at diverse levels in clients’ environments. Social systems thinking informs significant facets of social workers such as community work and social advocacy. A major limitation of systems theory is that the various meanings that people are ascribing to these terms constituted system theory’s genetic variability and that therefore any attempt to enforce a uniform set of definitions would be a mistake (Lai & Huili Lin, 2017). Science is not, IMO, sufficiently mature to support such mandated definitions. These arguments over terms are still going on today.
















Lai, C. H., & Huili Lin, S. (2017). Systems theory. The international encyclopedia of organizational communication, 1(1), 1-18.

Valentinov, V., Verschraegen, G., & Van Assche, K. (2019). The limits of transparency: A systems theory view. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 36(3), 289-300.



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