Reductionist vs Systems thinking

Systems thinking is an unconventional approach to learning in higher education, but it is CRUCIAL to agroecology. Conventionally, knowledge is broken down into disciplines with theoretical approaches that distinguish one component of a situation from another. Although we live in and work in, on and with a world of systems, we are often unconscious of their influence. A systems thinking approach is a gateway to seeing interconnections within a dynamic flow of interaction. Very succinctly, thinking in systems means when we look at the whole of a situation, it is different than the sum of its parts. A farm, for example, involves multiple inter-relationships and human decision-making, which makes it complex and dynamic. It is at once an ecosystem consisting of an ecology of organisms, a human culture with social practices involving accumulation of contextual skills and knowledge, cultivation and production that are rooted in meaning, and a business enterprise that interfaces with economic markets.   

Therefore, the study of agroecosystems must involve the contemplation of its components, inputs, as well as the system’s broader context: relationships to the outer world community and boundaries. We need to consider it as a whole, with a holistic approach. While research on individual components of the system is often essential, this work is most valuable when conducted with an appreciation of the whole system in mind.

When we fixate on one component of the situation we are not just missing out on the rest of the picture, but we are altering the situation with cascading, unintended consequences that may turn things drastically for the worse. What is conventionally considered a “solution” to one problem can often create problems somewhere else. A systems thinking approach not only helps us understand situations better, but it also helps us design interventions and create improvements to move towards an improved future state.

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