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What is the Systems Approach?

By H. Williams
Updated May 17, 2024
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The systems approach is a transdisciplinary method of viewing a group of related elements as a whole entity. The systems approach had its roots in the 1940s in the studies of mathematicians, physicists and engineers. These thinkers began to realize that many things, from computers to bacteria to ponds, could be studied as systems, or regularly interacting groups of items that form unified wholes.

Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy decided to combine ideas from systems thinking and biology into a universal theory of living systems. His model is known as the General Systems Theory. Bertalanffy declared that a system could be physical, biological, psychological, sociological or even symbolic. He also stated that every system is a subsystem of a larger system, and that every system contains subsystems.

One of the most well-known ideas in the systems approach is that systems use both positive feedback and negative feedback to maintain homeostasis, with homeostasis defined as a steady state of equilibrium. Negative feedback indicates that the system is getting off course and signals the system to correct itself. Positive feedback confirms that the system is on the right track.

A common example of a feedback loop is a home cooling system. If the thermostat is set at a certain temperature, that temperature is homeostasis. When the air in the home gets too hot, the thermostat gives negative feedback, triggering the air conditioner to start. If the temperature is correct, the thermostat gives positive feedback, and no action is needed.

The systems approach is used in many fields, including biology, physics, engineering, software design, sociology and family therapy. The ideas of the systems approach are universal enough to apply to almost any situation. Systems thinkers approach problem solving from a broad perspective, attempting to look at all relevant systems and subsystems. Recognizing that considering all relevant information is ideal but not humanly possible, systems theorists introduced the concept of boundary critique, the idea that decision-making is always based on what facts and ideas are considered relevant and which one are considered irrelevant.

The systems approach is used in many areas of study, but it also has inspired some particular fields. Synergetics and futurology are transdisciplinary fields of study based on the systems approach. Synergetics focuses on principles of self-organization within systems. Futurologists seek to understand the future — which trends will continue, which will end and what new trends will begin. Both disciplines, because of their roots in the systems approach, study a broad variety of phenomena.

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