So THAT’S what you call it!

Two Roads Converged; Vision Photography-Rigby, via Flickr

**I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.

In preparing for teaching this class, I had to go back and do A LOT of reading, especially about social systems theory. As in, A LOT of reading. See, it’s actually been quite awhile ago that I took my human behavior in the social environment courses as an undergraduate, and social systems theory isn’t really a daily part of how I think about my social work practice. Or so I thought.

And, so, I slogged through general systems theory, biological systems, networked systems…it was all systems, all the time. I had to help my students make sense of homeostasis, steady state, entropy and synergy, boundaries, holons, and suprasystems. And it’s not that I disagree with any of it, or with its importance within the social work curriculum (although I layer a more sophisticated understanding of power and its role in groups, organizations, and communities, to broaden students’ understanding), but I’m not exactly passionate about systems theory either.

Or, I wasn’t, until I found two long words that explain, together, a lot of what I think about social work and social change.

Equifinality and Multifinality

Yes, I know. I said they were long words.

But it’s what they mean that matters.

Equifinality (my definitions, not Webster’s): entities can reach the same state from different paths

Multifinality: similar conditions can lead to different ends (or, context matters, a lot)

So, “equifinality” is my new word for describing everything I believe about social work and the power of human resilience, really; if I thought that you had to start at A to get to C, then it wouldn’t make any sense to help those who are at B, you know? It means that, with a shared vision of social justice as our destination, different communities in different contexts can forge their own paths to reaching it–a belief in the strengths perspective and in self-determination that are, together, the core of my commitment to social work.

And, multifinality, while not as central to my social work identity, captures what I try to explain to students whose immediate focus is usually on the individual and not his/her environment, and to policymakers who seize on an approach that worked in one context and wonder why it’s not having the same result in another. It’s why the person-in-environment perspective is so important in distinguishing us from other helping professions, and why we have greater success in achieving social change when we approach problems on multiple levels.

So, there you have it, straight from systems theory, words that, while long, are certainly more concise than my roundabout articulation of how they figure into my social work worldview. Social workers, what do you remember from human behavior classes that you still apply in practice? Any systems theory concepts that really resonate with you?

2 responses to “So THAT’S what you call it!

  1. Melinda, this blog, your gift to us, is my new “favorite thing!”

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