Towards Praxis in Systems Thinking

Reynolds, Martin (2016). Towards Praxis in Systems Thinking. In: Frank, Moti; Shaked, Haim and Koral-Kordova, Sigal eds. Systems Thinking: Foundation, Uses and Challenges. New York: Nova Science Publishers, pp. 3–33.



Systems thinking renders complex realities of practical situations into conceptual constructs, with an underlying intention to improve the situations being conceptualized. Systems thinking involves thinking both systemically - going up a level of abstraction with an holistic understanding of the real world – and thinking systematically in terms of then implementing ideas in practice through engaging with different stakeholders. Together the two activities comprise praxis; theory-informed-practice for the purpose of helpful transformation. Praxis might be understood as a continual conversation between understanding and practice. One expression of such conversations is using the systems idea as both an epistemological device and as an ontological device, with the primary intent being on the former rather than the latter; systems thinking for learning in practice. This chapter describes the features of systems thinking in practice as praxis.

Praxis might be described as the process by which a theory, lesson, or idea is enacted, embodied, or realised. “Praxis” captures many of the notions of ‘duality’: dualities like thinking and practice; theory and action; planning and implementation. Praxis helps to move away from seeing such dualities as ‘either/or’ dualisms - for example, understanding “or” practice, thinking “or” acting, planning “or” implementing. Praxis is also mindful of the transformation or change in a situation that occurs.

Praxis is illustrated here using a powerful systems tool - critical systems heuristics (CSH). CSH is a reference system – a particular form of conceptualising, bounding, or representing a situation of interest - comprising twelve questions (boundary judgements) which might be asked either in the normative ‘ought’ mode and/or the descriptive analytic ‘is’ mode. The twelve questions are organised into four groups which respectively signal four generic questions that might be asked of any situation: (i) who gets what? (ii) who owns what? (iii) who does what? and (iv) who gets affected by what some people get in the process?

The case study exemplifying praxis explores natural resource-use appraisal (NRUA) in Botswana and how it is undertaken and how it might be improved. The inquiry focuses on two systems; one, an epistemological system of inquiry; the other, an ontological ‘object system’ as a subject of inquiry – NRUA in Botswana. The general parameters of praxis are dealt with in accordance with three stages of unfolding, each with a dialectical praxis component: (i) Boundary questions: contrasting ‘practical’ with ‘conceptual’; (ii) Systems critique: contrasting ‘actual’ with ‘ideal’; and (iii) Social critique: contrasting ‘affected’ with ‘involved.’ To reveal what these stages look like in relation to the NRUA inquiry a dual focus is undertaken on the epistemological use of ‘unfolding’ as applied during fieldwork, and the ontological parameters of ‘unfolding’ as they were subsequently used in the full study. It is argued that features of a critical systems approach can be used for developing resource-use appraisal as an agency for change and transformation rather than as an agency of control and stability. Systems thinking as praxis can contribute significantly to an improved level of debate on issues regarding development practice.

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