Posted: March 18th, 2023
Theoretical Applications in Sociology: Critical Theory vs. Systems Theory
Exciting advances are being made in the development and application of sociological theories to social work practices. Two of the foremost theories are systems theory — currently undergoing an architectural evolution due to the implications of the chaos and complexity disciplines — and critical theory, which seeks to change the current systematical frameworks of society for the better. For the purposes of this paper, I will compare and contrast the two theories, highlighting the similarities between them as well as the segments of departure and their practical implications. I will then apply both theories to a single case study in order to show the strengths and weaknesses of each theory in practice.
In “New Directions in Systems Theory: Chaos and Complexity,” authors Warren, Franklin and Streeter examine how advances in the chaos and complexity disciplines are instigating an evolution of traditional systems theory. While in the past, systems theorists have typically argued that systems are rational, orderly, and essentially stable as governed by “boundaries, homeostasis, and equilibrium” chaos and complexity theorists argue that the system only becomes rational and orderly after a preceding stage of chaos, and that the most complex systems — such the human family — exist “on the edge of chaos and order” as opposed to a completely chaotic or completely orderly sphere (Warren, Franklin & Streeter, 1998). The chaos and complexity disciplines arose from the need to understand changes in systems that don’t necessarily adhere to linear cause and effect models, i.e. nonlinear dynamics. Rather than A leading to a proportional B. As is the case in a linear cause and effect model, nonlinear dynamics refers to cases in which A and B. are disproportional and essentially unpredictable. Warren et al. put forth the example of a mounting argument between a child and parent. While in a linear system, the child’s rise in pitch would result in a proportional rise in pitch in the parent’s voice, in a nonlinear system, the child’s rise in pitch could result in silence, no change in the parent’s voice, or a disproportionally high rise in the pitch of the parents voice. The argument here is that the tiniest difference in pitch as perceived by the parent could result in any number of reactions, hence the erratic and unpredictable nature of nonlinear systems. Put in more general terms, the smallest change or modification of A — the cause — can result in a number of possible altercations of B — the effect — from the truly proportional to the outlandishly disproportional.
Another example of the often disproportional relationship of cause and effect was the introduction of VHS vs. Beta videotape players in the 1980s. As Warren et al. explain, while VHS and Betas was introduced to the consumer market at around the same time and sales were initially proportional between them, at some point VHS sales slightly exceeded Beta player sales, resulting in more people buying VHS videotapes for their new VHS players, which in turn resulted in video stores stocking more VHS tapes than Beta tapes, which in turn led to more people buying VHS players in order to watch the VHS tapes now available at their local video stores. In the end, the Beta videotape and videotape player disappeared from the market altogether, and the VHS prevailed as the predominant format of home movie viewing. This is an example how the slightest change in a cause can inevitably snowball, resulting in a dramatic and disproportional change in its effect (Warren et al., 1998).
In more human terms, Warren et al. cite the human learning process as an example of a change in a cause snowballing to a disproportional effect. According to child psychologist Jean Paiget, as the mind of a child develops it continually integrates new knowledge as received from its environment with existing knowledge, resulting in the practiced ability to acquire knowledge more easily, with in turn results in the ability to perform higher thought processes, further enhancing the ability to learn. In other words, the more you learn, the easier it is to learn, which in turns allows you learn more. This is an example of chaos and complexity theorists call “nonlinear growth” (Warren et al., 1998)
The process of nonlinear growth does not continue forever. Rather, after continuing on in this chaotic and predictable fashion for a certain time, the system with eventually attempt to stabilize and reorganize itself, resulting in a growth plateau. For example, a person goes on a diet and loses three to six pounds a week for the first four weeks, only to lose no weight in the fifth week. This is an example of the system — the person’s body — attempting to stabilize itself in resistance to nonlinear change. Yet even this resistance is chaotic and unpredictable, as a weight loss “plateau” could last for a week, three days, two weeks or five years, depending on the many potential actions of the system’s agent, in this case the person. If the person responds to the plateau by further decreasing her calories and/or increasing her level of activity, the weight loss plateau could last no more than a few days. On the other hand, if the person becomes discourages by the plateau and gives up, she might either maintain her weight for several months or years, or possibly even gain weight. In this way, systems theory as perceived in the chaos and complexity frameworks is necessarily empowering of the individual agent, as the actions of the agent are essentially a cause that can result in any number of effects.
The systems theory of “structural determinism” purports that a “living system [is] an expression of its structural connections, which in turn determine all its operations” (Warren et al., 1998). The system is therefore autonomous and “self-organizing” and any changes in the system is a result of the system “pushing itself” to attain higher and higher levels of organization (Warren et al., 1998). In this initial push, the system uses resources made available by its exterior environment, termed “positive feedback”; when these resources are depleted — “negative feedback” — a plateau in growth occurs. The duration of the plateau is dependent on how quickly the system is able to replenish the resources it needs to support and sustain growth, at which time another “growth spurt” may occur (Warren et al., 1998). In this way, the system’s evolution is continuous and never complete, as growth continually leads to plateaus and plateaus are continually broken in an infinite cycle of change. An example of this continual cycle, as put forth by Warren et al., is the continual development of a person’s sense of self:
According to cognitive therapists such as Guidano (1991) and Mahoney (1991), a person’s development of a sense of self goes through a process similar to the one described earlier. A person adapts new knowledge from his or her environment to match his or her personal meanings. All pushes for personal changes in self from the environment are subsumed under the person’s core constructs or present experiential order. Life experiences and subsequent pushes from the environment, however, result in the “discontinuous emergence of more inclusive knowledge of self and of the world” (Guidano, 1991, p. 9). This also means that as a person adapts to the environment he or she also changes the environment, which in turn is influencing them. Thus, a recusive feedback loop is established. (Warren et al., 1998)
The development of a sense of self is also an example of a highly complex system — the human mind — at work in creating itself, which in turn has a creative effect on the system’s environment. According to complexity theorists, “the local interactions of individual [systems] give rise to a global system,” and the focus of complexity theory is on “the ways in which those local interactions act to maintain and increase the complexity of the system” (Warren et al., 1998). In terms of people, a person’s creation of self is a contributing cause of the effect of the creation of the environment, and even the slightest change in a person’s perception of self can have a dramatic impact on the global system as a whole.
The notion of a human being as a self-organizing system autonomously determinant of its own evolution leads to the corresponding of notion of what complexity theorists call “path dependence” (Warren et al., 2008). Essentially, path dependence purports that two systems can begin in the same place and end in two completely different places, depending on the actions of the autonomous systems in question. For example, two brothers are born and raised in the same inner-city slum. One brother chooses to neglect his studies, drop out of school and join a local gang, while the other brother studies hard, graduates high school and goes on to college. Though they both began in the same place — even within the same household — they’re opposing decisions led them in vastly different directions with correspondingly different results. Path dependence is essentially the flip side of “equifinality” which purports that two systems can begin in different places and end in the same place (Warren et al., 2008). What the two notions have in common is the premise that a system’s autonomous actions necessarily determine the system’s fate.
The perception of the individual as an agent of change has vast implications for sociological theory and social work practices. In addition to changing the ways in which sociologists perceive and interpret systems theory, it lends support to critical theory, which purports that the global social system is not fixed and invulnerable to change, but ever changing and requiring revolution. Initially, critical theory developed out of the belief that the global system was corrupt with injustice and domination, hence the focus of traditional critical theorists on empowering the oppressed towards the purpose of disallowing unjust domination. As social philosopher and economist Karl Marx said “Philosophers have always interpreted the world, but the point is to change it” (Barnoff & Coleman, 2007).
For critical theorists, society is shaped by a struggle for power. The dominant group seeks to oppress the subordinate group by denying them the power to change their situations in effort to maintain power and the dominant role.
Oppression entails associations of domination that split people into leading or superior groups and secondary or inferior ones. These associations of domination entail the methodical diminishing of the characteristics and offerings of those thought to be inferior and their barring from the social assets accessible to those in the dominant group seek to refute agency in those who they deem inferior. In addition, the ruling group describes the lesser situation of those at the bottom of the social pile as one of a submissiveness that has little capacity for change. They draw on instruments of normalization that endorse dominant values and precedence’s to inflict a range of social control groups intended at restraining the actions of subordinate groups within the grounds that the dominate group delegates as lawful. Therefore, oppressive relations are about restraining the range of choices that subordinated people and groups can eagerly implement. (Dominell, 2003).
An example of this type of oppression is sexism, “A system of male dominance that disadvantages women in all aspects of public and private life, such as employment, media and personal relationships” Barnoff & Coleman, 2007). Similarly, racism is a system of typically white dominance that disadvantages Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Puerto Ricans and other persons of color in education, employment, and social media. Because the institutions of sexism and racism are interwoven into fabric of the predominant social system, the system itself must undergo a revolution in order to discourage — and perhaps even disallow — oppression of subordinate groups.
Returning to the perception of the individual as an agent of change, changing the global system necessarily entails changing oppressive circumstances of individual agents. According to Mullaly (2002), specific challenges to changing oppressive circumstances include the following:
1. Meeting and suppressing the dominating force of the prevailing culture.
2. Navigating the psychological and interpersonal trauma related to the experience of oppression.
3. Overcoming the political component of oppression as constructed and maintained by the dominant group.
4. Addressing the internalized effects of dominance and oppression on the part of the oppressed as well as the dominant.
With these challenges in mind, Mullaly asserts that anti-oppressive social work “requires forms of interventions that link the division of existential liberty and socio-political freedom” (Mullaly, 2002). In other words, anti-oppressive social work must provide currently oppressed individuals with the necessary tools to rise above their current oppressive circumstances. This includes providing education and employment resources, adequate housing, and various other resources designed to meet the basic needs of oppressed individuals, toward the purpose of empowering them to “alter themselves and their social circumstances” (Mullaly, 2002). While anti-oppressive social work can provide the necessary tools for change, it remains the responsibility of the individual to carry out this change.
In an effort to exemplify how both systems and critical theory can be applied to practical situations, consider them in relation to the following fictional case study. Known as “Fresh” by his immediate peer group, Michael is 12-year-old African-American boy growing up in the inner-city projects. Though Michael is highly intelligent, performs well in school, obeys the rules of his aunt whom he lives with — with 11 other cousins — and hopes to eventually leave the projects behind him, he resorts to running drugs for a local drug dealer in an effort to save money and attain the respect of the neighborhood thugs. This is a description of the plight of the young protagonist in the film Fresh (1994). Though Michael’s current situation is one of severe disadvantage, he eventually seeks the help of a police officer investigating several murders Michael was a witness to. The first murder was that of his friend, Rosie, caught in the crossfire of gang member’s gun; the second murder was that of his friend, Chucky, jumped by another gang; and the final murders were those of the gang members themselves by an another rival gang. Such violence is one of the many components of Michael’s current situation of systemic oppression. Other components include the severe poverty of his family, neighbors and friends, the heroine-addiction of his only sister, and the perception that he must resort to the same activities of the drug dealers he loathes in order to escape his current situation. The money he makes running drugs, he saves in a tin can hidden by the tracks on the city’s outskirts. Says Fresh to his friend Rosie in scene two, “If I had me a million dollars, I’d get me a Porshe 959.” And when Rosie says it doesn’t matter because he’ll never have a million dollars, “I will too,” says Fresh. “Someday, I’m gonna have it” (Fresh, 1994).
It is Michael’s determination to rise above his current situation that makes change possible for him. When Michael realizes that he is being groomed to be the dealer’s right hand man, in which case he may never get out of the projects, he forms a plan to turn the opposing gangs against each other, wiping one out completely and turning another in to the police. In exchange for his eye witness testimony against the gang, Fresh asks only that he and sister be removed from the projects to a safer place.
In terms of systems theory, the notion of path dependence comes to mind. Though Michael was born and grew up in the same place as his friends Rosie, Chucky, and the gang of drug dealers he eventually outsmarts, he ends up in an entirely different place due to the decisions he makes and his autonomous actions. In this way, Michael is perfect example of an autonomous, self-organizing system continually pushing itself to higher and higher planes of organizational capability. While the movie ends without clearly defining Michael’s fate, the audience is left with the impression that he will indeed continue to rise above his current situations to ever increasing heights of existential freedom.
Nevertheless, he will encounter challenges along the way. Of particular note is the challenge of overcoming the internalized effects of his oppressive experiences, to include but not limited to the violence he has witnessed. While Michael maintains an air of detached stoicism throughout the film, in the final scene of the film he breaks down. This is indicative of previously internalized trauma rising to the surface, as Mullaly (2002) cited as one of the foremost challenges to changing oppressive circumstances.
While Michael’s case can be viewed from a systems theoretical perspective, critical theory is more applicable in a practical sense. As a social worker assigned to Michael’s case, the first order of business would be to remove him from the projects to place of safety and security — both perceived and actual — and then to provide with the educational and psychological resources necessary to alter himself as he sees fit. Once again, while anti-oppressive social work can provide the tools of change, it is up to the individual to bring the change about.
According to both systems and critical theory, a change in one person’s life can contribute to a change of the entire system. For example, imagine that Michael is successful in overcoming the trauma of his past experiences; imagine he is successful in obtaining an education, graduating high school and going on to college; imagine he decides to use his experiences to the benefit of others by becoming a counselor for children dealing with similar oppression-related trauma, and imagine that many of those children are in turn successful in their pursuits of productive, well-adjusted lives. Now think back and remember that it all began with one little boy’s determination to change his current situation and to become something other than street corner drug dealer. Remember that one little boy’s success at getting out of the projects led to the further success of becoming educated, which in turn led to success in the professional world, which in turn led to successful rehabilitation of hundreds more children who began in the same place as he did, but will go on any number of potential directions in pursuit of their goals. In this way, the system itself necessarily changes in response to one individual’s circumstantial change, which is the primary objective of critical theory in practice. As critical theorist Rasmussen said, “critical theory is a tool of reason that can transform the world” (Barnoff & Coleman, 2007). In order to bring about this transformation, critical theory must first be applied to lives of individuals who, in transforming themselves, gradually transform the global system as a whole.
Dominell, L. (2003). Anti-Oppressive Social Work Theory & Practice. Publisher’s City: Publisher’s Name.
Warren, K., Franklin, C. & Streeter, C.L. (1998). New Directions in Systems Theory: Chaos and Complexity. Social Work, 43 (4), 357-372.
**Not sure of all the information for the other sources (Book Title, Publisher, Publisher City ect). Take a look at the following cite for help in completing the reference page: http://www.library.cornell.edu/resrch/citmanage/apa
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