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Reflections on systems theory: the role of self and reflexivity

In my first year of doctoral training, I learned about new theories and frameworks. One of these was Systems Theory, which relates to practice that takes into account how systems relate to one another within a larger, more complex system.

Systems theory has roots in mechanics and has been adapted to social sciences and family therapy. General Systems theory was founded by Von Bertalanfy in 1950. In social sciences, a system can be a unit such as a family, school, classroom, community or organisation. The principle is that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its part’, similar to a machine.

Systems are complex and consist of many sub systems that interlink and affect one another. Looking at sub systems in isolation, such as a child’s presentation on the playground, does not include the wider systems that the child is part of. An example of this could be the child’s peer group, classroom environment, rules and their home context among other subsystems and related factors. Systems cannot be understood entirely, if we only consider elements of a system singularly.

Systemic questioning

Questions can be a powerful tool to incorporate theory into practice and it is often through this medium that practitioners can engage with schools, families and the communities that they support. In systems theory, there are different types of questions that can elicit information, which might reveal how systems interconnect and what the impact might be on members of a system. The right question could shine a spotlight on the missing piece of a jigsaw, which might lead to a change in outcome, mindset or belief.

Linear and circular questioning

Linear questions can unveil cause and effect behaviour/situations, and circular questions could reveal the effect of connections that exist between systems.

An example of a linear question is, ‘when does X tend to happen?’, this unveils the pattern that in X situation, Y can be the outcome.

An example of a circular question is, ‘What do you think (person) appreciates most when they experience X?’.  Posing this question could create an opportunity for other members of the system to make connections between the effects of their own behaviour, belief, rules, culture or environment on each other and the person at the centre experiencing X.

As I learned more about applied systemic theory, I started to play around with questions that might have pushed my thinking in previous work-related situations. I thought about the questions I might have asked myself, agencies or children and parents I worked with. The more I reflected on times that I felt stuck, I thought about the role of the self in the context of working with others. I wondered how we as professionals and individuals who have varied, multifaceted life stories and experiences, ensure that we are aware of the role that we play in helping others to make connections between systems.

Could there be a level of bias in making connections? Could we be informed by our own life stories or things we have seen previously? As I reflected on these questions, I was reminded of Patsy Wagner’s words in relation to the role of EPs in consultation with schools and families. She stated that we must, “stop, work out what is happening and apply appropriate psychology to our own situation” so that we could have a meta-perspective of what is going on (Wagner, 2000).

Reflexivity and the role of self

Reflexivity is the examination of one’s own beliefs and perceptions. Burnham (1986) described self-reflexivity as the manner in which practitioners evaluate and observe the effects of their own practice. It can be likened to a state of awareness in terms of how the self relates to members of systems, how it positions them or alters their viewpoint (Pelligrini, 2009).

The role of the self, that is the individual doing the work, plays a part in affecting the systems that we work with and support. This means that our presence, participation and own life stories, can influence the process and the people in a system. Unless we are aware of this, it could affect our ability to have a meta-perspective of our work, particularly when we are asking others systemic questions to elicit crucial information that could determine outcomes for a child or young person.

It is this level of awareness that should serve as a reminder to pause, work out what is happening for us, so that we mitigate the potential for bias, being positioned or aligning with members of a system due to reasons relating to ourselves.

Self-reflexivity can help us reflect on our identity and the narratives we create of others in relation to ourselves. There are other frameworks that can help us develop reflexive skills such as the Social GGRRAAACCEEESSS, which map differences in relation to social categorisations such as gender, class, race among others (Totsuka, 2014). This could help us become more aware of self-reflexivity in the context of how we relate to others and especially when using systemic questions.

As I continue to gain new knowledge, new possibilities form and I am reminded of the Somali proverb, ‘aqoon la’aan was iftiin la’aan’, in my mother tongue, ‘without knowledge there is no light’.


Burnham, C. W., & Nekvasil, H. (1986). Equilibrium properties of granite pegmatite magmas. American Mineralogist, 71(3-4), 239-263.

Pellegrini, D. W. (2009). Applied systemic theory and educational psychology: Can the twain ever meet? Educational Psychology in Practice, 25(3), 271-286.

Totsuka, Y. (2014). ‘Which aspects of social GGRRAAACCEEESSS grab you most?’ The social GGRRAAACCEEESSS exercise for a supervision group to promote therapists’ self‐reflexivity. Journal of family Therapy, 36, 86-106.

Wagner, P. (2000). Consultation: Developing a comprehensive approach to service delivery. Educational Psychology in Practice, 16(1), 9-18.

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