The Systems Thinking Framework is not a new approach to problem solving. It is, however, unknown or new to most researchers and scholars active in the broad areas of scholarly inquiry known as social sciences and the humanities. For scientists and researchers in physics and biological, engineering, and computer sciences however, systems thinking has been used to successfully build a formidable body of knowledge solving some of the most difficult problems and explaining mysterious phenomena.
Explaining systems thinking as it applies to human rights, a topic of interest to scholars in almost all academic and professional fields of study, and as it is applied by scholars of human rights is a challenging task, let alone convincing scholars to adopt it in their research and teaching.
Notwithstanding all the above, given the complexity of the topic of human rights, systems thinking can be a compelling framework for explaining the forces behind some of the most egregious human rights abuses throughout history and across cultures. The degree of success in applying the framework to human rights largely depends on researchers’ ability to define the elements of the framework, for the definitions will greatly vary. Therefore, providing definitions of what is a “systems thinking framework” is a good place to start.
At the core of the Systems Thinking Framework (STF) is the idea of “system”. To be sure, engaging with the concept of systems thinking requires a capacity to process many things at the same time including the meanings and functions of “system” and “systems thinking”.
Systems thinking presupposes the existence of “system” as being the engine behind an event: if a thing happens, such a thing must be the outcome of a system. Here, the use of the word “system” requires a break with the generalized and specialized use of the term at the same time, to instill in our mind the technical meaning of the word. A system is the simplest structure or process within which or by which an event is realized.
Event is another key word that must be understood properly for systems thinking to make sense. An event refers to the occurrence of a thing. Here, too, understanding the occurrence of a thing is critically important as it refers to things that routinely happen and things that experience a change in their routine.
The sun rising from the direction we call east is an event, though very few people see that as an event; whereas an apple falling from the tree is an event and asking the question why the apple fell from the tree became an iconic moment. An event—an apple falling from a tree or a child feeling happy; a volcano erupting, or a revolution taking place. Each and every event is an outcome or the outcome of a system.
This basic understanding of what is meant by a system is crucial in understanding systems thinking. Once a sound understanding of “system” is established, systems thinking becomes a compelling approach.
If every event is produced by a system, understanding an event can be accomplished by understanding the way the system works and the way the elements of the system are connected. The apple falls once its stem fails to tether it to the tree because it is being pulled by the Earth’s gravity.
It is true that a free-falling apple could be affected by many other forces besides the pull of gravity—like air resistance, friction with particles in its path etc. However, these forces are negligeable compared to the pull of gravity and the weakening of the stem connecting it to the tree. The better an event is isolated the easier it would be to identify the force or forces that make the event possible.
Arguably, an event is often the outcome of more than one force. However, for an event to occur, one of these forces must become a determinant force that cancels out the action of other forces, contributory forces, at play.
To facilitate the identification of all forces, the boundaries of the system must be deliberatively delineated, resulting in isolating one system from all other systems connected to it. Returning to our examples, focusing on just one apple the minute it is disconnected from the tree would allow for a detailed study of the behavior of falling apples and apply that knowledge to explain and manage other falling (or ascending) objects.
Instead of a free-falling apple, we now want to understand the system that produces instances of human rights abuses like genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, mass killings, deprivations, and hundreds of other instances of grave and egregious abuses and denial of basic resources. Just like the apple that grew from a flower on a tree to a ripe apple falling off the tree, human rights abuses collectively, and single instances of human rights abuses, are rarely outcomes of a single system.
Although many instances of human rights abuses are direct outcomes of systems deliberately designed for that purpose, many human rights abuses are also outcomes of systems that were designed to produce something else. Nonetheless, the system (or systems), directly and indirectly, produces a particular instance of human rights abuse as well.
What is true of rights abuses is that they are outcomes of both determinant and contributory systems, making them uniquely complex problems. In other words, these problems are complex problems because they are outcomes of a plurality of deliberately designed systems as well as natural and social processes.
Systems thinking is an approach to solving complex problems. Complex problems require far more energy to define the systems involved in producing an event or connected events. Systems thinking is the application of system concepts to frame the limits of our understanding of events to the extent that it would allow us to adjust the outcome of systems or to counteract the effects of systems to dynamically achieve desired outcomes (remediation). At minimum, a system consists of at least two elements that internally interact to produce a specific outcome, which would affect the input or output of other connected systems in feedback loops over time.
There are some important things to keep in mind when applying the systems thinking framework in general and to issues related to human rights.
First, it must be understood that all events are outcomes of systems.
Second, systems are always connected; with intraconnectivity referring to the connections between elements of a single system and interconnectivity referring to the connections between systems. These properties distinguish this understanding of “system” from other definitions of system and highlight the difficulty of properly isolating systems.
Third, applying systems thinking requires two critical undertakings: (1) properly isolating individual systems for analysis purposes, and (2) identifying networks and connections between systems to assess the occurrence or non-occurrence of an event from a comprehensive holistic point of view.
Fourth, systems are purposeful, with set goals, objectives, and processes. An eventful single system is in and of itself part of many purposeful systems with their own goals, objectives, and processes.
Fifth, systems are adaptive, with characteristics that are over time dynamic, transformative, and emergent.
Sixth, knowledge developed through the systems thinking framework depend on how a system is defined because systems thinking framework studies relationships between the various parts of a single system and the obvious and non-negligible connections between systems.
Seventh, defining a system means determining its boundaries in order to distinguish what parts are contained inside the system and what parts are considered in an environment of another system.
Lastly, it should be noted that Systems Thinking Framework (STF), in this sense, is not an alternative methodology, approach, or tool of analysis. It is applied to integrate settled knowledge developed by all these other tools of analysis in various disciplines to provide a holistic understanding of critical events—in our case, events of rights abuses.