The origins of the systems approach

Churchman’s personal journey

This post about the origins (and future!) of the systems approach is a bit complicated. You may prefer to get yourself intellectually geared up by first reading my previous post on the reasons why people don’t apply the systems approach more often.

Biography of the systems approach          In the first chapter of ‘Enemies of the systems approach’ (1979) Churchman (1913-2004) uses his own biography to explain where the systems approach came from and how it evolved. The question that currently interests me is why people don’t apply the systems approach more often. It would seem that this was also one of the questions inspiring ‘Enemies of the systems approach’, whence this blog post, which is a summary of the part of the book that is biographical. In order to guide the writing of this summary and your understanding I produced 5 concept maps. I could have produced a single one, but five separate ones are easier to digest.

The problem of the right hypothesis         The answers that are relevant to our lives, knowledge and decisions are based on hypotheses. The wrong hypotheses result in unsatisfactory or wrong answers. To find good hypotheses is not simple; in fact it is a Churchman's personal journey Icomplex task. The philosophical pragmatist Singer (1873-1954), Churchman’s mentor, posited that only comprehensiveness can sweep in enough of reality to shed light on an issue at hand, whatever the issue may be. Singer swept in the lot: physical, social, psychological, moral, ethical and religious reality. Any systems approach worth the name starts off in the same manner (see section 3.1 in Wicked Solutions). Science works in an opposite manner. It narrows down reality to be able to apply statistical theory. In that sense science is the opposite of the systems approach. The net result is that science is unable to select the right hypothesis. Some will argue that this is not the task of science. Science just verifies. Relevance to the social good is secondary.

The problem with experts          The difficulty is that science produces experts with vast, yet narrowly based claims to truth. That´s why the third Principle of the Deception-Perception approach to systems reads: “There are no experts in the systems approach.” Churchman (1968) goes on to say that: “The real expert is still Everyman, stupid, humorous, serious, and comprehensive all at the same time. The public always knows more than any of the “experts,” be they economists, behavioral scientists, or whoever; the problem of the systems approach is to learn what “everybody” knows.” Perhaps we must refine democracy to make sure that society “as a whole” can learn better what “everybody” knows about what is most relevant to the social good?

The quest for inquiring systems       The second book of Churchman´s great trilogy (1968, 1971, 1979) is entitled “The design of inquiring systems” (1971). In 1979 he explains Churchman's personal journey IIthat the quest for an inquiring system that would produce relevant answers really took off during World War II, when he – like many other scientists – offered to contribute to American (and British) military operations and did so mainly by asking unusual but – as it emerged – highly relevant questions about early-warning radar, U-boat hunts and so on. Since they studied operations, the activity was called “operations research”, which over the years has been absorbed by economics departments of academia in a rather narrowed down form with the same name. After the war, Churchman’s quest for inquiring systems continued in city planning, labour unions and business. Despite their broad, interdisciplinary fields of operation, they were all found to be lacking the right type of inquiring systems. Worse, they opposed the idea with considerable vehemence and incredulity. Since this post is a ´biography´, it makes sense to situate these events in the correct period: the inquiring system of disciplinary science was examined in the 1930s, that of city planning just after the war (so 1945-1946, well before the arrival of Horst Rittel), that of the labour unions immediately after that, say 1946-1947, and business (at Case Institute of Technology) from 1948 onward.

No systems approach at labour unions       The initial assumption was that labour unions might be less subject to the environmental fallacy than business owners who emphasize ‘property rights’.  However, Churchman found that unions have developed their own version of the environmental fallacy, a version that happens in the medical profession and other professions as well. Obviously a labour union must serve its members, for which it needs a qualified leadership, but for this the leaders must be safeguarded against political attacks within and without, which requires a lot of a union’s resources and efforts. “Hence, the leadership becomes the top priority client in order, it is claimed, to serve best the rank and file. But this claim is rarely examined in detail.” When Churchman asked a labour union to study why the rank and file so seldom attended meetings, except in the case of a crisis, the leadership rejected the proposal, leaving the question in the air how best to serve the prime client, the member. Do the leaders know enough?

The question of ethics       Churchman went on with his personal journey of ‘unfolding the systems approach’ by looking at the question of ethics. He starts off by saying that ethics is a deep thing. In fact, so deep that it must capture the essence of the individual. At Churchman's personal journey IVsome stage in his life, Churchman felt the need to undergo Jungian psycho-analysis and came out of this with the conviction that this ‘essence of the individual’ is shaped by a Jungian process of individuation (which is in fact a systems approach to identity, i.e. a process of psychological integration with the aim of becoming a well-functioning whole. How could it not appeal to Churchman?). Any wholesome individual entertains certain goals and ideals. Churchman found that ethics apply only partially in science and business. When examining non-military government he found that often the substitute of cost-benefit analysis is used, but that largely ignores the well-integrated individual’s goals and ideals. It would appear that the systems approach is rejected everywhere.

The problem of the systems approach     Somewhere in the mid-1970s, Churchman attended a presentation by the Club of Rome and realized that world leaders could not respond to its warnings (about the limits of the global system) because they live and decide outside the systems approach. In that sense, world leaders are ‘enemies’ of the systems approach. These enemies reject the ‘whole’ system rationality the systems approach attempts to unfold. (Perhaps there was another problem with the Club of Rome’s 1972 report in that its models were mostly scientific and based on physical reality. About a quarter century later, Dana Meadows, one of the report’s co-authors, presented a very appealing theory of leverage that sheds some light on this issue. Churchman looked into another direction. He Churchman's personal journey Videntified four mighty enemies, each with their own powerful purpose: (1) politics, gathering people; (2) religion, transcending man; (3) morality, driving action; and (4) aesthetics, giving liveliness. These purposes are so powerful that they overrule the systemic sensibilities of world leaders and others. These powerful purposes are intertwined and unfold into human history, weaving a tapestry of meaning, heroism, institutions and communities.

Significance        … is what Churchman labelled the last part of ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ rather than ‘conclusion’, “for while the tale […] has no ending, it does point in a direction.” Clearly, I cannot jump from an introductory chapter to the end of a great book without losing a great deal of meaning. One of the things Churchman points at is that the systems approach could model politics and incorporate it in its ‘whole’ system approach. However, that would likely turn politics, or the art of creating communal enthusiasm, into a technocratic, empty-handed tyrant, unable to gather the people around any purpose, voluntarily that is. Let me end by saying that it would seem that the systems approach is a journey with a kind of purpose, but without an end. This suggests that the systems approach itself is a wicked problem, one that is forever worth unfolding. Its potential and importance will depend on the general understanding and acceptance of its meaning. Therefore it makes sense to promote its understanding, application and acceptance. There is no other way to let its ‘whole’ system rationality unfold into human history, together with its enemies – or friends or non-enemies or whatever.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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