Patato, Potato, let's NOT call it off...

I was recently asked the following:

"Derek, when I first came across DSRP, I was a little 'turned off' by S being called 'Systems' . For some people systems are about looking at wholes and not about what things are made of. I have calmed down since. Could you elaborate a bit on why you chose to call it 'Systems' rather than, say, 'Structures'?"

Great question. In my dissertation work1 I did a very large literature review of systems thinking. One of the things I focused on in that work was to identify some of the "popular sayings" that were being used in the systems thinking world and in ST literature. One of those was the theme [and its many variants]: "ST is holistic, not reductionistic." I found this to be a great disservice to the ST world and also nonsensical. The truth is that ST has to do more with balancing sides rather than choosing sides, and/both vs. either/or, and multivalent vs. bivalent, than it does pitting part against whole. So this notion that ST is about holism and not reductionism (aka, its about whole, not part) is somewhat absurd. That would be a bit like saying that ST is about yin, not yang. Or ST is about left, but not right, or up but not down. In order to consider the whole, one must consider the parts--they are co-implied. And, vice versa.

The problems with traditional science which some threads of ST tried to remedy was with foolish reductionism, not reductionism itself. The foolish aspect of reductionism included such things as strict logical-positivism, or overly additive, mechanistic or linear approaches that isolated things from their wider context. The purpose of the ST movement wasn't to say that thinking about parts and even assembling parts into wholes was a "bad thing" but that there were different ways to do it that were better than those trending in science at the time. So this notion of "holism over partism" is the result of a general public misunderstanding ST in the same way that it is a misunderstanding evolutionary theory to think that "survival of the fittest" means that the strong and brutish will win. I also dealt with many other popular phrases such as "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" (aka emergence) which also has a lot to do with general public misunderstanding the intimate relationship between part/whole.

The second part of your question has to do with semantics. I've given the terms a lot of thought. I named these terms nearly twenty years ago but my intention was to give them names that could cross the disciplines and not be too a) foreign, b) unacceptable. I could have called systems (S) Organization (O) making it DROP instead of DSRP. I could also have called it Structure (S) as you have pointed out, but I felt that all of the elements contributed structure. In the end I called it "System" because at its core a System is a relationship of belonging, part-to-whole and various relationships of parthood, part-to-part. In addition, when we visualize or model systems of any kind, the function that groups all of it together as a whole is the S-function, so it would follow that the name of the largest collection that constitutes the mental model should be called a System, ergo Systems Thinking. Of course, what we call it is a semantic issue, what is important is the underlying meaning structure (part-whole).

Distinctions (D) was another example of this. I could have called Distinctions (D), Boundaries (B) instead. But what I saw in the ST literature was that Boundaries were being used predominantly to get people thinking about the Boundary of the large system under investigation. Distinctions is a term that means the same thing as boundaries (the fence in between two things, not the things) but there is something of a cognitive double entendre that occurs where we often think of distinctions as being the thing itself (e.g., the dog vs. dog/not-dog). So I wanted people to understand that every distinction we make (every thing/item/element/idea in your system) is a boundary, not just for the larger system itself. Again, semantics.

The important thing is not what you call it but what the underlying structure of the theory is. Einstein's E=mc2 for example, could be described entirely in German, not using the terms energy, mass, or constant. What matters however is not the terms one uses but the underlying structure or meaning. DSRP provides an underlying structure that is quite simple and sophisticated, regardless of the terminology we use. The [simplified] table below is from p131 in Systems Thinking Made Simple2 and provides the specific structures underlying DSRP.

DSRP Table
Patterns Element 1 Element 2
Distinctions (D) identity (i) other (o)
Systems (S) part (p) whole (w)
Relationships (R) action (a) reaction (r)
Perspectives (P) point (ƿ) view (v)

  1. Cabrera, D. (2006). Systems Thinking. Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. ↩

  2. Cabrera, D & Cabrera, L. (2015). Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems. Odyssean. p. 18

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