Writer’s block

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You’ll see I haven’t been blogging much recently.  It’s not that I haven’t been doing any thinking or reading – just that none of it is coherent enough to rally together into a blog post.  It’s a little weird not having the rigour of an academic course to say – read this, think about it, reflect it back in assignments – at least the academic courses gave me a route, a journey to follow, and a timetable.  Sure I did little forays every now and again – up interesting cul de sacs and detours, but the main journey was charted for me and I could see what it was to make progress.

The primary reason I can’t home myself in is because I am in the process of trying to write up my research for a journal article – this has led me back to literature reviewing.

I’ve been advised to choose the journal I would like to publish in and then situate my article in the ‘story-line’ of that journal.  I’ve done the first bit – home in on the journal, then I did the second bit – get access to relevant papers in that journal, but then each paper I read leads me outwards, up interesting forays.  At what point does ‘enough’ kick in?

There is a another aspect too.  My paper does not fit ‘neatly’ in a single domain.  So I am having to dip my toes into different areas…all of them really interesting…

Firstly, there is the public health stuff – what it says about the need for systems approaches and systems thinking in this domain of practice.  There was one interesting quote I found quite a relief…

“Public health asks of systems science, as it did of sociology 40 years ago, that it help us unravel the complexity of causal forces in our varied populations, and the ecologically layered community and societal circumstances of public health practice.” (Green, 2006)

It is kind of saying what I have thought all along.  Nevertheless, I do find the public health literature mentioning systems quite research-centric.  It is all about how systems thinking can help us understand the forces and factors that create wellbeing and health – how it can be used in a more ‘critical’ epidemiology and studies of ‘health systems’.  There seems to be less said about how systems thinking can be used to improve public health policy and practice, just mention of the importance of ‘systems thinking’ as a competence amongst public health leaders (e.g Wright et al 2000).  One notable article I was excited to find that does look at systems tools in health improvement practice more directly is Midgley (2006) – which ironically has been there in my face all along as Ray Ison included it in his book – talk about going full circle!  It is easy to keep on reading and following up citations etc in these articles – that would be a whole research project in itself – but ultimately, all I need the public health stuff for – in my article, at this time – is to be able to back up a statement that says something like – “There is an increasing ‘call’ for systems thinking amongst those involved in public health practice” – it is only a paragraph in the introduction.

Secondly, there is Systems stuff itself.  Ultimately, I have my hands on all the OU text books etc, but what I don’t know is will it go against me if all I quote are some standard ‘text books’ however recently they are written.  When you read stuff on a hierarchy of acceptable literature, they always say peer-reviewed journals are the ‘best’ most reliable sources.  So do I have to ‘hunt’ for original sources for stuff I feel I can just say because of my knowledge of Systems through the eyes of OU academics.  When I have looked around a bit – particularly in the journal Systemic Practice and Action Research – the articles that hit the nail on the head, that help me say what I want to say, predominantly connect through their author back to the OU.  The reason I need this material is to make a clear statement about the perspective of systems thinking that underpins the research project – that ultimately have informed the ‘sensitising concepts’ that I used to look at my data.  So it must be okay to limit it to just that – the perspective and understanding of systems thinking that I have through my masters.

Thirdly, there is the field of public administration research.  I have picked a journal from this domain so this is where I need to ‘sit’ my article.  In particular, I have been looking at what this literature says about collaborative working and partnerships (of health partnerships in particular but also useful learning from studies of urban regeneration, community safety and partnerships formed around other issues) – there is a strong sense that ‘collaborations’ are a response to the realisation that we need them to be better placed to deal with ‘wicked problems’ – so in a way they are a manifestation of systems thinking – an acknowledgement of the need to bring multiple stakeholders with different perspectives together.

The ‘story-line’ of the journal I have looked at places discussions about effective collaborative work within Giddens structuration theory – the fact that agency and structure interact to determine what happens – I touched on this theory when I studied TU872 Institutional development – but I am not sure how much I really ‘get it’ enough to frame my own discussion strongly in that area.  So this is one of my areas of reading –  institutional theory and sociology – there are some huge chunky text books on Amazon – and that feels like a whole other masters at the moment!

Different articles in the literature on collaboration tend to acknowledge the agency-structure interplay but then go on to focus on one or the other.  The ‘agency’ side of the balance has been helpful to me in giving weight to my argument – ‘There is an increasing ‘call’ for systems thinking amongst those involved in collaborative practice’.  This is another side to the public health stuff already mentioned.  It is kind of a mutually reinforcing argument – wellbeing and health is messy, it requires us to use systems thinking, therefore we set up partnerships and need to work collaboratively, therefore we need systems thinking.

Also big on the agency side is all the discussion about ‘leaders’ and ‘leadership’ in the collaborative domain – a whole story line that talks about transformational leadership, integrative leadership, and also civic capacity.  Fortunately this is all well summarised in a very up to date article – Sun and Anderson, 2012.  Crucially yet again ‘systems thinking’ keeps coming up as something that leaders need to use.

The ‘structure’ side of the balance is a bit more of a challenge.  In essence, my argument is – that ‘structure’ creates the opportunities and constraints for actors to use their ‘agency’ and use systems thinking.  But existing research is not on the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘systems thinking’ but between ‘structure’ and ‘effective collaborative working’ more generally.  I am in effect re-framing the conclusions of these articles – to link them with the factors that constrain systems thinking – an overreliance on systematic thinking, a collective inability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and reducing possibilities to think and learn with others (Ison 2010) (mmm just realised that this is more constraining the expanded form of systems thinking i.e. systemic as an expanded context for systematic – perhaps I need to make that clear).  But the literature in this field is very varied and hard to grasp – there is stuff that uses the concept of the network; stuff that looks at it from a governance perspective; stuff that looks at it from an adaptive policy making perspective; stuff that touches on knowledge exchange/creation; stuff that talks of partnerships as needing to be complex adaptive systems; stuff that talks of sense making, meaning making and touches on discourse  – and all this seems a long way from the reality of how partnerships seem to be conceived in actual public sector life – as a reified super-structure organisational form (essentially made up of committee-structures) whose ‘job’ it is to do assessments, write strategic plans, performance manage delivery and so on.  On top of this there is literature on how ‘structure’ impacts on possibilities to address health inequalities (whether working in partnership or not).

The interesting thing is a lot of this writing has lineages in common with systems thinking e.g. complexity; network theory; social learning.  I am finding it so hard to organise it in my head – to think of a structured, dare I say it systematic, way of covering the ground I need to be able to place my argument – and my own findings.  I am a little worried that I’ll go so far off I won’t then know how to bring it back to my own empirical study.

Enough to situate the article, enough to support my argument, enough to not say anything stupid – where is the line?  Maybe not writer’s block then, maybe it comes back to my readiness to make a boundary judgement, to decide what is ‘in’ my system-of-interest and what isn’t.  Perhaps I should just stop being so interested! 😉


Green L.W. Public health asks of systems science: to advance our evidence-based practice, can you help us get more practice-based evidence? Am J Public Health 2006; 96: 406–9

Midgley, G., 2006. Systemic Intervention for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 96(3), pp.466–472.

Wright, K. et al., 2000. Competency Development in Public Health Leadership. American Journal of Public Health, 90(8), pp.1202–1207.

Sun, P.Y.T. & Anderson, M.H., 2012. Civic Capacity: Building on transformational leadership to explain successful integrative public leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 23, pp.309–323.

Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

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