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Systems thinking and practice
Systems thinking and practice

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4.2 Summary

Systems thinking is useful for investigating complex situations. It involves a holistic approach that looks at the behaviour of wholes, and the many interconnections between the components, using a variety of methods. Some of these methods are systematic and orderly but in general systematic thinking is more prevalent in reductionist thinking where situations are broken down into parts and mostly simple, linear cause and effect relationships examined.


What are the main characteristics of systems thinking and why are they held to be of positive benefit?


These are the main characteristics of systems thinking discussed in Section 4.

  1. Changing one's perspective on an issue or problem. This leads to changes in attitude and approach which make it easier to identify the social components required to 'solve' complex situations.

  2. Holistic thinking. This avoids losing the issues which are intimately associated with the connections of the situation.

  3. Simplifying by making more abstract. Some simplification is essential to make a problem tractable, but the simplification must not reduce the connectedness. By becoming more abstract the connectedness is maintained and the problem simplified.

  4. Using standard systems and diagrams. These are 'tools of the trade', rather than 'characteristics of systems thinking'. They allow the other characteristics to be realised.


Illegal drug use and its associated criminality is a vexing problem for European governments. Plant-derived drugs, grown by peasant farmers in less-developed countries and processed, shipped and distributed by organised crime syndicates, are a major part of the problem. Chemically-derived drugs, produced in illegal laboratories all over Europe have lately been gaining ground. Some drugs are addictive or dangerous or both. Most are expensive, tempting users into petty crime to raise money for their purchases.

A number of solutions have been proposed to alleviate the problem. Without attempting to evaluate their acceptability or practicability, identify which ideas arise from a reductionist, closely focused, approach to the issue and which from a broader holistic approach.

  1. Increase police powers to stop and search so that suspected drug users can be identified more easily.

  2. Use aerial spraying (illegally if necessary) to eliminate drug crops identified by satellite.

  3. Pay farmers (the principal growers) not to grow drug crops.

  4. Legalise all drugs to eliminate the criminality associated with the drug production and distribution.

  5. Provide free, confidential help to anyone using illegal drugs.

  6. Provide cheap, safe drugs on the free market to undercut the criminal interest.

  7. Increase customs vigilance at all points of entry to the European Union.


  1. Reductionist. Identifying illegal drug users is only a very small part of the problem.

  2. Holistic. Drug crops are an entry point to the 'drugs system'. Eliminating all the drugs crops would at least eliminate the plant-based drugs problems.

  3. Reductionist. Although superficially related to 2 above, this solution tackles only part of the problem and so allows the system to adapt. Traffickers could increase payments to farmers, use intimidation or grow their own supplies.

  4. Holistic. This might well eliminate the criminality part of the problem although legal producers may well exploit cusomers' need by charging high prices. It does nothing to address the personally harmful effects of drug use.

  5. Reductionist. This addresses only a very small part of the problem. Not all users are in need of help. Many enjoy taking drugs and would continue to do so.

  6. Holistic. Like 4 above, it would eliminate organised criminality and the petty crime needed to support expensive drug use.

  7. Holistic. This could prevent the entry of plant-based drugs into Europe although it might divert the market to other places. Whether it could be implemented rigorously enough is another matter.