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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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Critical systems thinking

Critical systems thinking (CST) is regarded as a systems approach to research and intervention in complex situations. The approach developed from the concerns held initially by C. Wes Churchman and his student Werner Ulrich. Later, Mike Jackson and Bob Flood, who were then professors at the University of Hull in the UK (e.g. Jackson, 1991, 2000; Flood and Jackson, 1991) developed their interpretations of the earlier work. Jackson and Flood were concerned that existing systems methods, including Checkland's SSM and other ‘soft’ approaches, reinforced rather than challenged relations of power.

CST continues to be developed in a distinct strand by Werner Ulrich, a Swiss administrator and systems researcher concerned with the provision of public health and social services (Ulrich, 1983). His motivation was to make transparent what was involved in plans developed by experts without consideration of local people and their needs. CST, it is argued, is a debate within the Systems research community around three themes.

  1. Critical awareness is a process that involves boundary critique by considering in formalised ways the question of where and by whom boundary judgements around a system of interest are made. This involves examining and re-examining taken-for-granted assumptions, along with the conditions that give rise to them (Midgely, 1996; Midgely, Munlo and Brown, 1998). The motivation is to address issues of marginalisation.

  2. Improvement – or emancipation, development or desired change – is defined temporarily and locally, taking issues of power into account. It is argued that critical awareness is required to surface different viewpoints in any attempts at purposeful action.

  3. Methodological pluralism – uses a variety of systems methods that are flexible, dynamic and locally decidable. The role of the systems practitioner is to work with local stakeholders and to facilitate their capacity to select and use relevant methods, taking issues of power into account.

Midgely (1996), in an article entitled What is this thing called CST?, argues there are no consensually accepted definitions of what it is. He regards CST as an evolving debate around a set of themes that are regarded as important by a significant number of systems practitioners.