Critical Systems Thinking

In the nineties of the last century, critical systems theory was the logical next step in the development of systems theory. Previously, the step from hard systems thinking to soft systems thinking had already been made. Soft systems thinking is seen as an alternative for the straightforward hard systems approach. The starting point for soft systems thinking is that people interpret the world differently and therefore have different worldviews (Weltanshauung) on situations. By clarifying the worldviews of the stakeholders, a rich shared insight into the various aspects of a specific situation can be gained. By conducting a structured dialogue, supported solutions can be formulated and subsequently implemented. Nonetheless, soft systems approaches have their limitations. One of the most important ones is not being able to deal with power imbalances. This limits the scope to situations in which the involved have the will to accomplish improvements together and where abuse of power only plays a limited role.

The answer to this was found in the critical theory of the Frankfurter Schule, mainly in publications by Jürgen Habermas. It formed the basis for the critical systems theory. Critical theory is a social theory that takes a critical look at society because it wants to gain insight into the underlying mechanisms that cause certain groups to be repressed. As such, critical theory has an emancipatory character. Another characteristic of critical theory is that society is not just analysed from the sidelines, but that ways to improve society are actively sought out.

The basis for critical systems theory was laid with Habermas’ insights which were gathered in‘Knowledge and Human Interests’ (Habermas, J., 1 januari 1978), in which three forms of human fields of interest are distinguished:

  • Work: enables achieving goals aimed at the wellbeing of people in work situations. An important element in this is controlling natural and social processes.
  • Interaction: aimed at mutual understanding of each other’s positions within a social system. Lack of understanding is a threat to society.
  • Emancipation: people have an emancipatory interest, i.e. they wish to free and develop themselves. In order for this to succeed a participative democracy must be created. It is based on what Habermas calls an ideal speech situation: a rational process based on arguments.

These fields of interest share common traits with the hard, soft and critical varieties of systems thinking, respectively. All three systems approaches can therefore play a role in finding solution paths in a problematic situation. Depending on the situation, a choice can be made for the most effective systems approach or a combination of the three approaches. The collective name for this overall approach is Critical Systems Theory (CST) (Jackson, 2003). CST has three principles:

  • Critical consciousness.
  • Human development (not just emancipatory).
  • Pluralism in chosen approach, both theoretically (underlying philosophy) and methodologically (research approach).

This has led to the development of meta methodologies such as Total Systems Intervention (TSI) (Jackson, 2003), which is used to decide which method or combination of methods can be used in a specific situation.

Lees hiervoor: Second-Order Cybernetics
Lees hierna: Critical Systems Heuristics