The brief definition of a system of interest is a set of components interconnected for a purpose. There are epistemological differences between thinking that systems are ‘out there’, a position reinforced by the naming of ‘recognised’ systems in everyday language; and of seeing systems as useful mental constructs for helping to explain how complex situations work. There are reasons for being cautious in talking about the ontology – the categorisation – of systems in terms of the language we use and how that influences our perceptions.
The word ‘system’ has been used to make five points about thinking in terms of systems:
- Something cannot usefully be called a ‘system’ unless a systems practitioner has a stake or interest in it.
- The intangible elements, e.g. norms and assumptions, are essential factors in understanding how a system of interest works.
- The boundary of a system needs not correspond with recognised departmental, institutional or other ‘physical’ boundaries. Explanatory systems are identified in relation to the observer’s interests.
- Often one has to extend the boundary (take a helicopter view) in order to achieve a coherent understanding of a complex situation.
- A system at one level of analysis can be viewed instead as a sub-system in its environment at a higher level of analysis.
You should now be able to:
- use appropriate language to define and distinguish systems of interest within complex situations as epistemological devices rather than actual ontological things.
Next week you will consider the characteristics and purposes of a number of diagram types used to represent systems of interest by systems practitioners.
You can now go to Week 4.