Systems Theory #2 - Causality

Saturday, March 01, 2008

I've come to see systems theory as offering a lot of practical insights in how to address human need in a post modern context and therefore having a lot to add to a relational theology. Systems theory is a huge term that spans many branches of science from biophysics to computer science (which is why it grew out of Silicon Valley). But here I am using it as it specifically applies to a social approach to psychology that Wikipedia calls systemic psycholgy (although the focus on homeostasis that Wiki uses to define it represents old school systemic psychology rather than current practice... hmmm, maybe I should update that page).

As opposed to the more bio-chemical approach to psychology common in the States, this social approach to psychology has become prevalent in Europe. rather than focusing on the individual, its sees people as connected to complex systems of relationships - families, societies, etc - and tries to understand their "problems" within that social context rather than inside of an individual one. Because most of the development going on in this field is coming out of Europe now, as a result my source here is from a great book called "Lehrbuch der Systemischen Therapie und Beratung" ("Textbook of Systemic therapy and Counseling") by Arist von Schlippe and Jochen Schweizer, which I don't think has been translated into English.

Systems theory works out of a postmodern context and basically says "OK, if these post modern assumptions are true, now what? How would that change our approach to counseling, and more importantly how would it deepen it?" If you have read any emergent stuff - say for example Stanley Grenz - you will be familiar with the philosophical foundations of this postmodern approach: Witgenstein and his linguistic construction of reality... the idea that absolute truth is unknowable to us and that we as humans can only operate from with our subjective blinders... systems therapy takes this and rather than being hamstrung by relativism into inaction, finds a way to gain deeper insights into the complexities of humans as social beings.

For example, if we are unable after postmodernism to speak objectively of "what is" outside of our own linguistic subjective perspective, what happens to causality? In a traditional model of therapy the therapist will diagnose what is wrong and prescribe a cure. The insight of systems therapy here is that while causal relationships are indispensable with things - I flick the switch and expect the light to go on (and this includes all the complexities of a power grid across a city and a system of commerce that allows me to buy a new light bulb at a store) they are less helpful when applied to people because people are vastly more complex. We as people are not simply labels (criminal, schizophrenic, spouse, etc) in the way that a light bulb is just a light bulb. These labels describe a host of relational interactions. This is not to say that systems theory rejects cause and effect, but that it recognizes a web of complex cause and effect. Because of this it speaks instead of patterns of relationships and interactions.

One of the main consequences here is that it avoids simplistic blame. In a linear causal model one looks for the single reason for a problem, (Ex: The shooter went bizerk because of violent video games, so we need to ban them to make our world safe again). Causality effects both blame and power to change. If we know the cause, we know whose fault it is, who is responsible. Systems therapy rejects this linear causal model because it puts people into a roll of helpless victim. Say for example that you have a bad relationship with your mother who has always hurt you by her coldness. As long as the cause is described in that way, she has the control, and as long as she remains aloof can determine not only your relationship with her, but even how you feel about yourself. But if you can find a way to break out of that - say by forgiving her - then you gain creative possibilities to not only change yourself but to change the very dynamic of the relationship. Because relational problems do not have a singular but multiple causes, this not only means shared responsibility, but also that you are not trapped. You have power to change the interactions and dynamics of your relationships.

What's more, because from this perspective it is not necessary for a therapist to determine and treat the "cause", you don't need to have some deep insight into what is going on so you can prescribe a solution. Instead, systems therapy gives relational systems (say a family) creative nudges that help them to develop new patterns of interaction that foster growth. This is the idea behind Derrida's deconstruction: It's not about tearing things down, but about breaking stagnant patterns of interaction by getting people to see things from another perspective, and thus bringing about the creative possibility for a shift in the power dynamic - empowering people towards creative possibility.

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At 7:10 PM, Blogger Tia Lynn said...

Hey! I enjoy your blog, you are very thoughtful writer.

I wanted to see if you would be willing to stop by my blog and contribute to the discussions going on. I started a series on biblical equality, as it pertains to the genders. My readers are mostly complementarian and I want to make sure the egalitarian perspective gets fair representation from someone other than just little ole’ me. :)


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