The discipline of Systems

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This blog is prompted by a conversation I was in the other day with other Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice colleagues.

The conversation triggered three related but not yet integrated streams of thought – just want to get them down so I can crystalise them enough to reflect on them.

Stream of thought 1…

The term ‘discipline’ is used in an academic world to refer to a branch of knowledge, but it is also used in an every day way to refer to the way people are trained or ‘disciplined’ to behave or act in a certain way.  Goodin (2013) draws attention to this mixed use of the term when writing about political science – the idea that disciplines discipline us to understand the world in a particular way, to ask certain questions of the world, and to work to a set of standards.

“To subject yourself to some discipline is to be guided by a set of rules for doing certain things in an orderly fashion, rules that are shared among all others subject to the same discipline. Those who share the discipline take a critical reflective attitude toward those aspects of their conduct that fall under those standards [….], judging their own conduct and that of others according to those standards […]”       (Goodin, 2013, p.5)

So this raises the question as to what happens when we subject ourselves to the discipline of Systems?  What standards do we agree to be judged by? What are the ‘rules’ of the discipline?

Stream of thought 2….

Academic disciplines are often categorised in accordance with two dimensions – a hard/soft dimension and a pure/applied dimension.  As examples, physics would fall into the category of hard and pure, whilst engineering would fall into the category of hard and applied.  And, sociology would be thought of as soft and pure whilst social work would be soft and applied.

Looking at Systems in this way is difficult.  It has lineages in the hard, the soft and the critical.  Some treat Systems in quite a ‘pure’ way (knowledge that is important in its own right) but key to our work at the Open University is that we see it as something that is applied – in practice.  This means that the development of the discipline should be guided in part by the problems experienced by practitioners out there in the world – rather than ‘gaps’ in academic knowledge.  Yet, there seems to be very little academic study of systems practitioners doing systems practice – what happens out there ‘in the swamp’.

Stream of thought 3…

Words like multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and transdisciplinary also get used in academia.  So, is it possible that Systems is something other than a straightforward discipline?

During the conversation, Ray Ison explained that we do not have to think of this as a choice between one or the other (dualism).  He prefers to regard it as a duality – of Systems as both discipline and transdiscipline.  I hope my interpretation of what he said doesn’t stray too far from his explanation….

It is helpful to think of Systems as a discipline in the sense that there is a literacy to develop (systems literacy) – systems practitioners learn a particular language, learn to think and act in a certain way, become familiar with the various lineages and their implications and so on.

But it is also helpful to think of Systems as a transdiscipline in that it has the potential to open up possibiities in a wide range of other disciplines, especially the applied ones.  Although it is important to highlight that its relevance isn’t just limited to professional practice (such as management or education) but how we conduct our life as citizens (parenting, neighbourliness, activism, environmentalism and so on).

So as STiP educators, our role isn’t just to ensure that students become disciplined in the discipline of Systems.  But also to support them to apply this in their practice and the situations they are part of as they do what they do.  I coined the term ‘practice integrated learning’ to refer to this – borrowing the idea of ‘work integrated learning’ that is used in vocational teaching and apprenticeships.

The idea of discipline and transdiscipline as a duality really resonates with me.  But I am left with questions – if you have subjected yourself to more than one discipline – Systems and say, engineering or management or public health – then how does that pan out in terms of the rules you live by and the standards you uphold?  If you uphold the standards and rules of one, does that clash with the standards and rules of the other?  Is this one reason why systems practitioners can start to feel peripheral to their ‘home’ discipline?


So there are my three threads – now to keep thinking about them.


Goodin, R. E. (2013) ‘The state of the discipline, the discipline of the state’, in Goodin, R. E. (ed.) The Oxford handbook of political science. Oxford, UK: Oxford Handbooks Online.



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