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SYSTEM THEORY IN COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT Andy Tamas Whitehorse, Yukon and Almonte, Ontario January, l987 and January

, 2000

Community Development is a very complex activity - there are so many elements involved that it seems almost impossible to describe development in a clear and organized manner. Although it is indeed a very complex field, there is a method which can be used to identify many of the components and processes involved in this work. This way of organizing information has been called System Theory. General System Theory, which was developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy1 and others, provides an analytical framework which can be used to describe some of the many factors involved in community development. Some of the key concerns in community development, such as assessing power and influence, understanding the dynamics of inter-group relationships, and considering the changes involved in planning development activities, can be understood and described using System Theory. Terms such as systems and sub-systems, closed and open systems, system boundaries, the transfer of energy or influence across boundaries, feedback and system balance (or homeostasis) can be used to clarify what sometimes seems to be a bewildering array of information involved in community development work. Other System Theory concepts, such as the description of various environments related to a system, and the very important notion of entropy, can also be used in community development. This paper will describe these basic System Theory concepts in a way which will relate them directly to community development.

System Theory Concepts

Some of the basic terms which are used in system theory are defined as follows:

A system is defined by von Bertalanffy as "a set of elements standing in interaction" -- in other words, a group of things which have something in common. This includes any grouping with any sort of relationship - a collection of people, a forest, the planets, rabbits on a hill-side, a pile of rocks, or anything else -- if it is possible to identify a group of things, this cluster can be seen as a "system." There can be smaller systems (sub-systems) within other, larger systems - a clear example of this would be a single household in a village (see illustration below). The activities inside that house would be seen as taking place within a system (the family group involved in that household), which in turn exists within the larger system of the village itself. The village can also be seen as a

von Bertalanffy, Ludwig. General System Theory. New York: George Brazilier. 1968.

Sub-Systems and Boundaries System Boundary Each system is defined by some sort of boundary .a boundary can be thought of as an imaginary line which determines what is inside and what is outside of a system. it may be convenient to see the community as a cluster of different households or family groups. it may be convenient to show the different age groups in a community -in this case another set of imaginary lines would be drawn which crossed those of the earlier "family-system" example. Boundaries Household VILLAGE Figure 1 System. In the example given above there is a boundary around the small system of the single household. regardless of the families to which they belonged. the region or territory in which they all are located. and there could be another boundary which includes the households in that part of the village. and for any purpose. In a village. In this case boundaries would be imagined which marked out these families. such as a candle burning .System Theory in Community Development 2 sub-system. There could also be a boundary around the whole community or area in which these people live." A closed system is one which is completely sealed off from its environment by its boundary. for example. At other times. as all people within a particular age group would now be within one "age-system". one of a number of communities which together comprise an even greater system. Open and Closed Systems The boundary around any system can be said to be either "open" or "closed. System boundaries can be "drawn" wherever any observer wishes.

" and to progress to a stage of reduced coherence and eventually completely random order." In closed systems this is illustrated by the extinguishing of the candle flame when all the oxygen in the sealed jar is consumed. All "organic" systems. and people did not communicate and share things easily with each other. or the phone system did not work. A lack of trust in a community.e. or television and telephone links which permitted free exchange of goods and information across the boundary between the village and the rest of the world. At this point the energy and the relationship of elements required to maintain the order of a burning flame no longer exists. a term which includes human beings and their communities. while other forms can be unhelpful. and different people in a community hold varying amounts of these types of power." which is often in the form of information. Understanding how to help communities gain access to and control beneficial types of energy is one of the main aims of community work. for example. the boundary could be said to be relatively closed. the candle flame will consume all the oxygen in the jar and then it will go out). There are different forms of this influence. A lack of affection has a similar effect on a child's psychological development. This "energy. and is a necessary element in the functioning of social systems. on the other hand. at which point the activity will cease (i. each has a boundary which is open to some extent and which makes it possible for energy or influence (in various forms. however. is usually the main product of human relationships. such as information or goods) to pass into and out of its system. We also use other forms of influence which can be termed social power or psychological energy. If there were roads. Some energy is able to help communities progress. They tend to consume all the energy which they have available and eventually stop functioning or "fall apart. would contribute to making boundaries seem "closed". In the community example given above. that system boundary could be said to be very open. The same openness would apply if the people were co-operative and worked together in harmony: they would share things across their respective boundaries.System Theory in Community Development 3 in an air-tight jar. All systems tend to "run down. There are usually various kinds of social energy. The activity within such a closed system will continue until all the needed elements are consumed. one of the factors determining the "openness" of the system boundary between the community and the outer world would be the ease of communication. There are relatively few completely closed systems in our world. boundaries would be relatively closed. there were less ease of communication. Entropy In System Theory The term "entropy" has been used to describe a force or tendency which is present in all systems. If. if there were no roads. A human being requires physical energy in the form of food in order to survive. The same thing occurs in organic systems which receive insufficient food: they die and their bodies eventually decompose. Energy In System Theory The various things which pass across the boundaries of systems can be called energy or influence. If there were tensions in the community. are open systems: that is. .

Forms of energy which can be destructive to the well-being and harmony of social systems. of the tasks of community development is to help communities find ways of reducing or countering the tendency toward entropy which exists in all systems. or Dynamic Balance (and Change) in System Theory "Homeostasis" is a term which is used to describe a condition inside a system. This reverse tendency. Working on this common task might change attitudes and the type of communication between groups and foster a system-wide shift from conflict to cooperation. such communities can become unpleasant places to live -. injustice. If things break down further. which has been called "negative entropy" (and other terms). maintains or increases the order or harmony within these systems. violence. The concept of homeostasis thus includes reference to the passage of time: a system will progress through time in a state of balance if it can continue to gain access to the resources it needs to keep itself in that condition. If there is an insufficient amount of social energy of the appropriate kind (some call this energy love) exchanged between a husband and wife. If there is a desire to make a change in a system there is a need to alter its "steady state" by modifying some of the conditions in that system. It is a "steady state" or a "dynamic balance" which occurs within a system when its internal and external conditions stay essentially the same from one day to the next. Anything which alters the energy flow within or between parts of a system will bring about changes. and any other forces which prevent people from working together in harmony to achieve mutually-acceptable goals for their collective betterment. they may become homeless. A unified family system could deteriorate into a less harmonious condition in which there could be two residences in which the partners carry on their separate lives. and the bond between them could weaken. medicine. a community which has high levels of disunity and backbiting among sub-groups can be changed by giving influential members of each sub-group an important task to do which requires them to collaborate with their counterparts in other sub-groups. with the husband/wife bond as its central unifying force. In large social systems such as communities. For example. malnutrition. poverty.System Theory in Community Development 4 Families can be considered as systems. poverty or injustice. are oppression. . it is often difficult to maintain the highly-ordered forms of co-operation and social cohesiveness which are needed to foster harmony or well-being among the people. education. or anything else which helps sustain or improve the circumstances and unity of the members of a community. and as such tend toward disunity and disorder. back-biting. Examples of energy or influence which can act as negative entropy are food. This process of analysis of conditions and introduction of beneficial change is the core of Community Development work. where there can sometimes be an abundance of entropy-related forces such as disunity. "Homeostasis". Without constant effort. there is likely to be some sort of breakdown in their ordered relationship. The tendency toward entropy in organic or social systems needs to be constantly countered through the generation or exchange of energy or influence across boundaries from one system to another.

the condition within an open system is often in a dynamic balance. there would likely be quite a marked change in the internal balance of the house -. or the mine's markets dry up and metal prices fall. and this extra energy were to suddenly enter the house (in the form of kids coming in through the front door). As soon as there is a change in either flow of energy or resources across that community's boundary (if either the ore runs out and shipments stop. as along as the noise made by . or Dynamic Balance and changes in a community as it goes through time Boundary Management As noted above. it is necessary to control or manage the flow of energy across its boundary.System Theory in Community Development 5 A clear example of this balance can be seen in a one industry mining town. people doing other things in the house would probably have to be relatively quiet to maintain that condition or steady state. or steady-state. Either the sleeping child would awaken and possibly join the action. causing the money in-flow to change greatly) there is likely to be a dramatic change in the internal balance of that community. this might succeed in maintaining the internal condition in the house. This concept of boundary management can be illustrated using the example of the household in the small community (discussed above). The condition of that steady state within a system is influenced by the energy or influence that crosses that system's boundary. The following figure illustrates some elements of the concept of homeostasis.there would be a need to re-organize in order to accommodate this new energy in a healthy way. however. If there were a group of noisy children returning home from school. where the output of the system (such as concentrated ore produced by the mine) is balanced by energy imported into the system (in the form of money earned from the sale of ore) to keep the mine and its community going. State if Conditions Improve ? Community at Present Path to the Future The community at some time in the future ? State if Conditions Worsen Figure 2 Steady State. If there is a need to achieve (or maintain) a desirable condition within a system. If there were a baby sleeping in the house. or someone else would tell the boisterous children to be less noisy (energetic). If the response were to try to close down the boundary by telling the kids to play outside.

System Environments There are several environments related to any system. . and the internal environment of which it is aware The deeper internal environment of which the system is not aware The system's external environment of which it is aware The system's distant external environment of which it is not aware Environments form the context within which any system exists. would be considerably disturbed if it were not possible to exercise some sort of control over the boundary between mining companies the northern areas they wish to explore. 3.System Theory in Community Development 6 their happy play did not come through the walls or windows of the house to awaken the baby. 2. 4. The system under consideration. System Theory is a very useful conceptual tool to use to understand issues such as this. It is thought that the delicate balance of nature. These can be described by referring to the following figure: 1 2 3 4 Figure 3 System Environments 1. If their activities did eventually wake the baby (as a result of too much "noise-energy" coming across the boundary and into the house). there would be a change in the internal condition of the household. Another example of the need to control the flow of influence across a boundary can be seen in attempts to limit the influx of mineral exploration activity in northern areas. and energy or influence might be able to flow across the boundary from any environment to any other to alter the balance of any part of the system. and with it the lifestyles of many of the native people of the north.

Assessing the community. examples of the dynamics of these environments could be as follows: #2. such as a forest fire on the edge of town. As a result they propose changes which will force the company to shut down the mine or go bankrupt. could make dramatic changes in the internal balance of the system. The External Environment . in terms of money needed in a distant and unknown environment.could be an internal struggle among senior mine managers for control of the operation. Selecting development goals. If the system under consideration (#1) is the total population and geographical area of the town. such as a technological breakthrough in a remote laboratory which would greatly increase demand for the mining town's product. 5. Because of this lack of involvement. #3. would eventually create changes in the system.changes in this environment. Assisting communities to develop the will and capacity to control the many influences from these distant environments is one of the major roles of development work. 2. and exert powerful influences in communities which often have very little opportunity to exercise any control over these activities. #4. In this case the residents of the town would be subjected to influences and would experience changes which were brought about by forces originating in a number of environments much removed from their awareness. It could be that due to troubles these banks have collecting interest payments from other loans which they have made to developing countries. Although the population of the town may not know about the struggle. 4. it is likely that any outcome of such a dispute will spill over into the system and cause changes in the way the community operates. 3. Another powerful influence from the distant environment could be related to unfavorable decisions made in far-away board rooms of banks to which the mine's parent company owes large sums of money. The Deeper Internal Environment of which the System is Unaware . Changes in the flow of energy. Conclusion These basic concepts form the foundation of System Theory as applied to community development. Carrying out activities to achieve goals.changes in environments which the townspeople can't see. . Planning a strategy to reach those goals. and. could bring about major changes in the system's internal condition. they decide there is a need to collect on loans to mining companies. Decisions of a political nature also often take place at a considerable distance from most communities.System Theory in Community Development 7 These environments can be illustrated using the former example of the system consisting of a oneindustry mining town. The Distant External Environment . Evaluating progress and including the results of evaluation in subsequent activities. communities can often exert relatively little management over the boundaries over which these influences flow into their communities. Most community development work usually involves the following steps: 1.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Wheatley.System Theory in Community Development 8 The use of these System Theory concepts can help workers organize information and see the patterns in complex community processes as they plan and carry out development activities with their communities. Managing the Unknowable: Strategic Boundaries Between Order and Chaos in Organizations. . 1992. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. Although chaos theory is a further development of the themes described here. For more information on chaos theory see works such as M. an adequate description of these turbulence-related concepts is beyond the scope of this brief paper. Note: There is a more complex form of System Theory called Chaos Theory which helps describe conditions in systems that are experiencing rapid and unpredictable change. 1992 and R. Stacey. Leadership and the New Science.