American Academy Blog

Application of Systems Thinking in social work research and practice

November 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm Comments are off for this post

Albert Einstein said that problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them. Similarly a grand social challenge cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them. Therefore this grand challenge is not about a particular social ill. Rather it is about the fundamental way social workers think and work. I think Social Work as a field is better equipped to understand and solve social problems because of the Person in Environment framework. We understand that the larger system plays a major role in shaping human behavior. The larger system (or environment) is complex with multiple feedback loops, non-linear relationship, and time lags between cause and effect. However, our research relies on simple linear theories and models. Our logic models for designing and evaluating programs depend on simple linear relationships. The complexity of the s ystem and the simplicity of our approach produce programs and policies that don’t work or make things worse. A lot of our grand social challenges such as urban blight and sustainability stem from applying simplified linear knowledge in a complex world.


Systems thinking is a way to think about the world not by reducing it into small parts but by embracing the complexity that emerges from interconnection of parts. Systems thinking has been used by fields such as public health, management, organizational behavior, and sustainable development. It has been incorporated into the curriculum of K-12 to doctoral programs. Social work as a field already uses the system oriented framework (i.e. PIE). But we cannot be merely satisfied by understanding that the person is affected by the environment. If we are to solve our grand social problems we have to open the black box and ask how the environment affects the person.


Systems thinking also allows for interdisciplinary collaboration. By looking at how different parts of the system are interconnected it provides a great impetus to bring different disciplines together that have knowledge about those parts. Social workers understand that complex social problems cannot be understood and solved within disciplinary silos. Systems thinking can be a powerful approach for different disciplines to see where they fit in the larger system and how they are connected with others. Instead of forcing different disciplines to work together systems thinking provides a clear understanding of why they need to work together. Social worker equipped with a systems thinking tool can be an agent for such collaborations.


Few steps are needed to achieve this grand challenge of incorporating systems thinking into social work. Some of the steps include 1) Statements from CSWE and NASW regarding the value and role of systems thinking in social work; 2) Development of systems thinking curriculum for social work; 3) Development of papers that look at major social issues from a systems thinking point of view and 4) Identification of field education opportunities for systems thinking social workers.