Systems Thinking Meets Pol-Sci at Knology

Two earlier posts in this series focused on Knology’s transdisciplinary approach to political science. This one looks at Knology’s tradition of integrating political science with systems thinking.

by Johann Chacko
Sep 29, 2022

In previous posts here and here, I talked about how Knology's commitment to transdisciplinarity has shaped its engagement with political science. But political science also has a deep overlap with one of Knology's core research areas, systems. I took over as the systems practice lead researcher from Knology Fellow Joseph de la Torre Dwyer, who like myself trained as a political scientist. In this post I'll explore the entanglement between systems thinking and political science, and its value as a set of tools for dealing with real-world complexity.

Systems research began to emerge between the two world wars, when people studying the workings of things as radically different as cells, the weather, and the economy noticed the deep similarities in the way that these entities seemed to be governed. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, these impressions crystalized into a general theory of systems, built on specific concepts like feedback loops, boundaries, and phases. More recently, systems work has differentiated into systems thinking, systems science and systems engineering. Their use has extended into every field—from healthcare to information technology and urban planning, and far beyond.

Despite this, talk about systems can sometimes come across as a little "woo-woo," in part because of its association with holistic thinking—a term which has been heavily co-opted by new-age pseudoscience. The systems approach is far more than a simple belief that "everything is connected to everything." This matters because perhaps the most important single area where systems thinking enables our work is in developing theories of change for complex phenomena.

To be of use as a critical tool, we must actually map out and identify what specific elements are connected within a system. An individual system may have many subsystems within it, but every single system has an "inside" and an "outside." Identifying where that boundary lies is crucial. Although what happens outside affects a system as a whole, any individual element inside is significantly more affected by its connection to the rest of the system than the outside.

For example, politicians routinely adopt positions that are shaped by pressures generated within the political system (e.g., the narrow electorate in primary elections), even if these positions were something that they, their families, and their social circles had previously rejected. On the other hand, the media and the economy are also identifiable as systems, and they serve as a major environmental influence on the political system, and vice versa. As a result, people outside the political system who want to shift politicians' positions may need to leverage these other influential systems to succeed.

This entanglement between the political system and other systems (health, criminal justice, education, the market, etc.) means that its dynamics must be considered during analysis and intervention. But the political system itself is a nested series of subsystems from local to national. Taking a systems view helps identify which scale—and therefore which political systems—to focus on when coming to grips with a problem. For example, Knology's "New History of Investment in Financial Education across the United States" came out of an informed investigation into the impact of state-level investments in financial literacy.

Tackling climate change is perhaps the ultimate systems challenge, because it touches on nearly every single major planetary system, living and nonliving, artificial and natural. Knology was proud to play a role in facilitating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's development of a theory of change to empower climate action in the US at the community level. Knology hopes to follow up on this work, and as we move forward systems thinking will be critical to our engagement with this and other pressing social challenges.

Photo by Deva Darshan at Unsplash

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