Why and how is a systems thinking, or Systems Thinking Framework, applicable to human rights?
The Systems Thinking Framework is by no means a new approach to problem solving. It is however, unknown or new to most researchers and scholars active in the broad areas of inquiry known as social sciences and the humanities. For scientists and researchers in physics; biological, engineering, and computer sciences however, systems thinking has been used to successfully build a formidable body of knowledge that explain the most complex ideas and solve the most difficult problems. Explaining the systems thinking framework 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, let’s provide some basic definitions and explanations. At the core of the Systems Thinking Framework is the idea of “system”. In other words, engaging with the concept of systems thinking framework requires the capacity to process two things at the same time: the meanings and functions of “system” and “systems thinking”. Systems thinking presupposes the existence of system as being the engine behind any event: If a thing happens, such a thing must be the outcome of a system. An event—an apple falling from a tree or a child feeling happy; a volcano erupting or a revolution taking place… for each event there is a system that produces it. This is a basic understanding of what is meant by a system; once this is established, systems thinking becomes a compelling approach: if every event is produced by a system, understanding and managing 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.—but they are negligeable compared to the pull of gravity. Once all determinant forces are accounted for, the boundaries of the system can be delineated, which would allow for 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 human rights abuses: genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, mass killings, deprivations, and hundreds of other instances of grave and egregious abuses and denial of basic resources. Human rights abuses collectively, and single instances of human rights abuses, are rarely outcomes of a single system. They are often outcomes of systems that were designed to produce something else, but the system, indirectly, produced a particular instance of human rights abuse as well. In other words, these problems are complex problems because they are outcomes of a plurality of deliberately designed systems as well as natural processes. Systems thinking is an approach to solving problems, simple and complex. However, complex problems require far more energy to define the systems involved. 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 specific outcome, which would affect the input or output other connected systems in feedback loops over time. The most important things to keep in mind when applying the systems thinking framework is that (1) all events are outcomes of systems, and (2) systems are intra-and interconnected. These properties distinguish this understanding of “system” from other definitions of systems and highlight the difficulty of properly isolating systems. Applying systems thinking require the isolation of individual systems for analysis purpose, but importantly it involves looking for networks and connections between systems to assess an event from a comprehensive holistic point of view. Systems are purposeful, with set goals, objectives, and processes; eventful single systems themselves are part of larger purposeful systems with their own goals, objectives, and processes. Systems are adaptive, with characteristics over all times, dynamic, transformative, and emergent. Knowledge developed through systems thinking framework depend how a system is defined because systems thinking framework studies relationships between the various parts of the system and obvious and non-negligible connections between systems. Defining a system means determining its boundaries, to distinguish what parts are contained inside the system and what parts are considered the 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 wholistic understanding of critical events—in our case, human rights abuses events.