Systemic Analysis

Systemic analysis is a way of thinking. It is a way of putting together the pieces of information we have to create an understanding of the whole of what is happening in our society (wherever that is) as well as communities and societies around the world. Pieces of information (that is, what informs us) can come from many sources and in many types: our experiences, the experiences of others, information in the media and from research, thoughts and feelings…all of these are part of the whole of information.

Learning to see from a systemic analysis approach requires that we are willing to move ideas and pieces of information around in our mind and in our understanding. What seem to be isolated events are rarely that. Events have causes and effects. As we examine the information about the events, we arrange and rearrange the ideas that the information generates. Usually, patterns become visible. These patterns enable us to see the systems that are involved in the events.

Systems are structured, organized sets of relationships among individuals and groups that are created to serve a purpose. An example is the educational system in a society that is expected to have as its purpose the preparation of the inhabitants for roles in meeting the society’s present and future needs. Another example is the economic system, the purpose of which is to provide for the society’s material and physical needs.

Systems can be positive or negative in their consequences, or a mixture of the two. Identifying the operative systems that are factors in causing events is essential; as is the analysis of the way the systems are operating. Doing this enables the development of long-term plans of action that address negative consequences of the way a system is operating, or that bring about improvement in the positive consequences of the way the system is operating. This is what we mean by “systemic change.”

The Politeness Factor and Its Consequences for Systemic Analysis

We each come from different backgrounds and are different ages. We each have many of the following: cultures, national origins, races, place of birth, religious traditions, family ways of doing things, etc. From the time we are little, we are taught that there are right ways to act and right ways to speak. We are taught that there are specific ways to be polite.

This politeness has many applications. It covers the way in which people of different ages respond to one another, the way they are able to hear one another. Politeness can determine what is considered acceptable in the ways men and women relate with one another, speak to one another. These differences multiply as different cultures come in contact with one another. The examples are many.

The concern with politeness is that it often interferes with our ability to ask questions. It can also affect the way we are able to see, hear, and read the words of others. This is not to say that we are to be impolite. However it is important that we learn to separate politeness from control or the inability or unwillingness to question…and to hear the answers, whether we like them or not.

When we go beyond our homes and families and enter the world of school, work, different organizations and/or cultures, we find that understandings and applications of politeness are different. Not wrong, just different.

To be willing to understand what we are hearing and experiencing, to understand what we read and experience, we need to explore the lens of politeness through which we have been taught to act and see…and eventually understand.

When we examine the experience of asking questions, we often find ourselves “bumping up against” the politeness standards of a specific community. There is also a difference between the way questions from men and those from women are received and heard by those listening. In addition, when someone being questioned does not want to answer, the question is sometimes thrown back at the original questioner for answering, implying that the asker of a question has to be able to answer a question before having the right to ask it. The truth is that all of us have the right to ask questions.

Lastly, we need to examine the different reasons why questions are important. Questions are most commonly asked for two basic reasons. First, we ask a question to find out information. Second, we question to see what someone else knows or how a person is thinking about something. In Systemic Analysis (SA), we question to analyze. We question to see what happens when we put before others pieces of information and ideas. We question when we do not know, and are searching for new ways to understand something.

Raising questions about the politeness factor in our lives is not meant to say that there is not a basic respect or civility that should provide the context for exchange of ideas or creation of the space in which we meet and discuss. However, there is a great difference between respect and politeness. As we shall see, many times politeness is not respectful at all. Many times, it is the lack of respect that causes the “formality of politeness” that ends up silencing certain voices.

Power and Voice

When we read anything, in addition to the content, there are basic assumptions operating within the article or other item being read. On face value, we usually accept that the facts within an article are true, that is, they reflect the reality they are describing. However, all sources of information are written from particular points of view, have reasons for being written, provide a platform for certain voices to be heard, etc. It is important to be able to isolate the different voices being heard in a source of information…and then look for the voices that are not being heard. In addition, it is key to understand the sources of power (and perspective associated with that power) that allow certain voices to be heard and others to be silenced.

The concept of power connotes the ability to control the behavior of others by rewards or punishment. This control may be psychological, physical, financial or military. The possession of power may be used for beneficial or harmful purposes. It may be possessed by persons or groups or it may be found in ideas.

Positions of power exist in all societies, in various forms. Tribal leaders and warriors, shamans, kings and queens, parliaments and governments, police forces and armies, religious groups, clans and families…these are some of the forms of organization that structure the systems of power. Sometimes power may be possessed by persons endowed with charismatic personalities, who can communicate ideas and motivate others to act.

Often power is achieved by accumulating the wealth (through hard work, inheritance, trickery or theft) that enables the person or group to promise rewards that gratify human needs or desires.

Power is also exercised by physical force. When beneficial, physical power is used to control or to stop hurtful behavior. The psychological force of intimidation, mockery, scorn, or exclusion is also a form of power, and can be used to control behavior. Our consideration of the “Politeness Factor” examined this exercise of power and manipulation in determining what is polite or what is rude and in using shame or ridicule to enforce it. Invoking the politeness factor is often a way of silencing voices that would raise challenging questions.

Power is also exercised by the withholding of necessary information… or the dissemination of incomplete information, misinformation or lies. When beneficial, power provides that information. In the functioning of society, this power is extremely important. In systemic analysis, we call the ability to provide necessary and correct information, to be heard, to participate in decision-making: Voice.

Persons and/or groups that are in possession of power can control who has voice, who can participate in the important decisions of the society. Leaders can be inclusive, and make sure that correct and complete information is available to all concerned. There are many ways to do this in contemporary society. Or, leaders may continue in power by enabling only voices favorable to them to be heard, and by excluding voices of dissent. Many methods exist to do this also exist, from control of information and psychological manipulation of groups, to imprisonment or physical silencing of opposition voices.

Systemic analysis examines how systems operate, especially in terms of power and voice.