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Systems Theory

Definition, history, terminology, assumptions, ecosystems, Bowen family theory, limitations, relevance to social work, practising Systems Theory

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. Suggestions for Practice

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

What is Systems Theory?

Systems Theory is used to understand and address the dynamic interplay of various influences or systems in an individual's life—personal, family, friends, community, institutions, society.  All organisms are conceptualised as systems—smaller subsystems and larger systems which interact with and influence each other.  That is, the environment in which individuals exist continually influences them, and they also influence it—creating it, restructuring it, and both changing it and being changed by it.  This change can be positive or negative.  Systems Theory focuses attention on the interactions between the systems.  It looks at the ‘whole’ rather than the parts that make up the whole.  The immediate and wider environment of family, friends, and society influences a person, as does the greater environment—the earth—while a person influences these things too (O’Connor et al., 2008).

Recognising individuals as interconnected parts of larger systems can lead to developing interventions that address the underlying causes of social problems and provide support for individuals (Bouchrika, 2024; Lonne, 2016; Peart, 2023).  Systems theory does not specify particular theoretical frameworks for understanding problems, and it does not direct the social worker to specific intervention strategies. Rather, it serves as an organizing conceptual framework or metatheory for understanding (Friedman & Allen, 2014).

Basic Systems Theory concepts that underpin systems work and thereby influence social work include:

  • Boundaries—closed systems have no interchange across boundaries, while systems are open when their boundaries are permeable.

  • Interconnectedness—All parts of a system are interconnected and changes in one part will influence all other parts.

  • Non-summativity—the whole is more than the sum of its parts and any phenomenon can only be understood by viewing the whole.

  • Feedback—A system’s behaviour affects its external environment, and that environment affects the system.

  • Reciprocity—As one part of a system changes, that change will interact with other parts of the system, causing further change.  Systems can get the same result in different ways, or have different outcomes from similar circumstances (O’Connor et al., 2008).

Relevant History and Terminology

Within social work, systems thinking has been heavily influenced by the work of the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy and later adaptations by the social psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, who examined human biological systems within an ecological environment. With its roots in von Bertalanffy’s systems theory and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological environment, the ecosystems perspective provides a framework that permits users to draw on theories from different disciplines in order to analyze the complex nature of human interactions within a social environment (Friedman & Allen, 2014). Friedman and Allen discuss the history of Systems Theory in detail in their publication.

Von Bertalanffy suggested growth and change could be better described by looking at living organisms as a whole rather than a sum of their parts. He maintained change might occur because of interactions between parts of an organism.  Other people applied this concept to other areas and looked at the ‘system’ as a whole, with its relationships and interactions with other systems, as a mechanism of growth and change. This led to the basic assumption that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” with new terminology emerging to explain the characteristics of systems. 

  • Micro-, mezzo-, and macro- are used to describe popular social systems depending on their size and complexity.

  • Each system is bounded, i.e. it is a unit of wholeness with a distinct property or structural limitation that delineates it from other systems. 

  • A system grows through an exchange of energy between the system and its environment, a process that is possible only if the boundary possesses permeability.

  • An open system exchanges matter with its environment; closed systems are isolated from their environment, e.g. an ethnic minority community that has limited access to the majority cultural institutions due to active discrimination directed against its members.  Systems grow when energy imported exceeds the energy exported.  Exporting too much energy can lead to disorder and to systems closing.

  • An open system is generally a functional system, i.e. a system that interacts dynamically with the larger environment causing change in both the system and environment.  This can lead to a state of equilibrium (steadiness) and homeostasis.  Homeostasis is a state of variable balance where the limits to maintaining balance are flexible allowing the system to bend without breaking (Friedman & Allen, 2014).

Bronfenbrenner observed that there are a number of additional environmental factors in human social systems, which he referred to collectively as the ecological environment.  This view states that human development cannot be seen in isolation but must be viewed within the context of the individual’s relationship with the environment. In addition, each individual’s environment is unique.  For example, within the context of a family, there may be forces affecting the parental subsystem that trickle down to affect the children without the children even being aware of them.  A parent who is experiencing stress at work and displaces his or her frustration at home by yelling at the children, may exert a pronounced effect on the child’s development.  Introducing the ecological environment means human behaviour not only includes the ‘here and now’ but also historical and cultural factors and any biological concerns.  Hence the bio-psycho-social nature of ecological systems (Friedman & Allen, 2014).

In 1991 Germain applied the two theoretical models (Bronfenbrenner’s ecological environment and Bertalanffy’s systems theory) to social work.  She strongly advocated looking at the biopsychosocial development of individuals and families within cultural, historical, communal, and societal contexts, a perspective that requires us to look as well at all events in the person’s life. Social workers need to go beyond the scope of looking at the individual and rely on public policy, practice, and research to gain the information needed to make an adequate assessment.

Germain characterized the nature of relationships between systems as reciprocal where each changes or otherwise influences the other over time. Such relationships are no longer linear but are circular, each system in the interaction affecting the others. Early social science practice focused on either the behavior of the person or the environment, not the complex interactions between the two. The ecological systems perspective, in contrast, is specifically concerned with the nature of such interactions between the individual (or group, family, or community) and the greater environment (Friedman & Allen, 2014).

Underlying Assumptions of Systems Theory

Systems Theory relies on some assumptions:

  • All human social behaviour is purposive.

  • Homeostasis – a system maintains itself despite the changes in its environment.

  • Self-organisation – a system will crystalise from disorder.

  • Autopoiesis – a system produces and reproduces its own elements as well as its own structures [as opposed to an autopoietic system (e.g. a factory) which takes in materials to produce something other than itself] (Bouchrika, 2024).

Models of Systems Theory

Two of the common Systems Theory models used by social workers are the socio-ecological (ecosystems) model and Family Systems Theory (or Bowen theory).

Socio-ecological (Ecosystems) Model

The ecological perspective can be traced back to biological theories that explain how organisms adapt to their environments.  The socio-ecological (ecosystems) model examines how individuals are influenced by five interconnected systems that shape their environment.  These systems include the individual, micro, mezzo, exo, and macro levels (e.g. family—micro, school or work—mezzo, religion, culture,  and government—macro). Each system contributes to an individual’s current circumstances at the individual level and to the broader cultural context (Lonne, 2016).  Sincero (2012) and Crawford (2020) outline these levels in more detail.

1.     The Micro System              The micro system's setting is the direct environment we have in our lives. Family, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbours and other people who have a direct contact with a person are included in the person’s micro system. Direct social interactions with these social agents occurs in the microsystem.  As well as being recipients of experiences when socialising with others in the microsystem, a person also contributes to her or his micro-environment.

2.     The Mesosystem                The mesosytem involves the interactions between the different parts of a person’s microsystem that have an indirect impact on the individual. This means that family experience may be related to school experience. For example, if a child is neglected by his parents, the child may have a low chance of developing positive attitude towards his teachers. Also, this child may feel awkward in the presence of peers and may resort to withdrawal from a group of classmates.

3.     The Exosystem  The exosystem is the setting that does not involve the person as an active participant, but still affects them.  Components include the economic, political, education, government and religious systems.  Suppose a child is more attached to his father than his mother. If the father goes abroad to work for several months, there may be a conflict between the mother and the child's social relationship, or on the other hand, this event may result to a tighter bond between the mother and the child.

4.     The Macrosystem              The macrosystem setting is the culture of the individual and their overarching beliefs and values, e.g. the socioeconomic status and ethnicity or race, and living in a still developing country.  

5.     The Chronosystem            The chronosystem includes the transitions and shifts throughout one's lifespan, e.g. divorce, leaving school, unemployment and retirement. This may also involve the socio-historical contexts that may influence a person. One classic example of this is how divorce, as a major life transition, may affect not only the couple's relationship but also their children's behavior. According to a majority of research, children are negatively affected on the first year after the divorce.

Family Systems / Bowen Theory

Family systems theory is a model that came out of systems theory - it has quite structured processes for practitioners who work within the whole family to bring about change.   It was developed by Dr Murray Bowen and is also known as Bowen Theory.  The Family Systems Theory sees the family as an intricate system comprised of interconnected components and feedback mechanisms.  This theory claims that families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation.  People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support, and they react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets.  A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others (Bouchrika, 2024; Bowen Center, 2024; Davies, 2022; Lonne, 2016).

Relevance to Social work

The systems approach not only helps the client but also helps the social work profession recognize the common complex systems that positively or negatively influence people (Davies, 2022; Online MSW Programs, 2023).  Systems Theory is extremely useful as a way to holistically treat clients by helping assemble the complete picture of the individual’s thoughts, behavior, and choices within their larger ecosystem of influence.  By using a systems perspective, social workers can:

  • Identify the various systems an individual or family interacts with, such as family, school, work, or community.

  • Understand how changes in one system might affect another. For instance, a change in a family system (like a divorce) might impact a child's performance in school (Peart, 2023).

Other ways Systems Theory can assist social workers include (Peart, 2023):

  • Systems Theory allows for a comprehensive assessment by:

    • Recognising multi-layered challenges: For instance, a child's behavioral problem might be influenced by issues at home, school pressures, and community environments.

    • Understanding resilience factors: Seeing how different systems provide support can help social workers leverage these for positive outcomes.

  • Instead of focusing only on specific symptoms or behaviors, Systems Theory shifts the focus towards understanding relationships and connections. This means:

    • Looking beyond immediate presenting problems and seeking deeper underlying systemic issues.

    • Creating interventions that address root causes rather than just symptoms.

  • Recognising that multiple systems play a role in an individual's life, social workers can:

    • Collaborate more effectively with other professionals, such as teachers, healthcare providers, and community leaders.

    • Design multidisciplinary interventions, pulling in resources and expertise from various sectors.

  • Systems Theory promotes interventions that are sustainable because they:

    • Address issues at multiple levels, ensuring that changes are supported by various systems in an individual's life.

    • Foster self-sufficiency by strengthening the systems around an individual, rather than making them dependent on continual external support.

Suggestions for Practice

Some of the key practice principles of a Systems Theory approach are (O’Connor et al., 2008):

  • Practice should be empowering with work carried out in partnership with people.

  • Work is based on a shared agreement with people about the issues that are important and appropriate ways of responding to them.

  • Emphasis should be placed on client decision making and action to build personal and collective strengths.

  • The environment and the demands of a person’s phase of life are constant factors in worker decision making.

  • Practice should be evaluated, and this evaluation should inform future work.

Conducting a bio-psycho-social-spiritual assessment (BPSS) provides a solid foundation for an exploration of the systems that impact on an individual, family and/or community.  [BPSS is discussed, with template examples, elsewhere on this site.  Access via the home/contents tabs.]

Generalist social work practice often uses the ecosystems model.  It involves working with client systems at all levels, connecting clients to available resources, intervening with organisations to enhance the responsiveness of resources systems, advocating just societal policies to ensure the equitable distribution of resources and researching all aspects of social work practice.  The generalist approach:

  • Is underpinned by a system or person-in-environment perspective

  • Draws on strengths and client empowerment perspectives

  • Requires multi-level systems intervention (micro, mezzo and macro interventions)

  • Involves the application of critical thinking skills to the planned change approach/process (engagement, assessment, intervention, evaluation, termination)

  • Integrates direct practice with social policy and social work research

  • Is guided by the professional code of ethics (Lonne, 2016).

Generalist social work is discussed elsewhere on this site.  Access via the home/contents tabs.

Practical tips for incorporating Systems Theory (Peart, 2023):

  • Start with mapping: As part of assessments, map out the different systems involved in the client's life. Visual diagrams can help see the interconnectedness (see the section on ‘Clinical tools for information gathering’ below).

  • Seek feedback: Systems are dynamic. Regularly seek feedback to understand how changes in one area are impacting others.

  • Empower clients: Enable clients to see their challenges from a systems perspective, helping them understand the bigger picture and their place within it.

  • Engage in continuous learning: Systems Theory is vast. Attend workshops, read relevant literature, and engage in discussions to deepen understanding.

Bowen Family Systems Theory views the family as systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation.  This connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Although families differ somewhat in their degree of interdependence it is always present to some degree.  Heightened tension can intensify the processes that promote unity and teamwork, and this can lead to problems (Bowen Center, 2024).

There are eight concepts central to Bowen Theory (see Bowen Centre (2024) for a more detailed outline of these concepts with examples).

  1. Triangles       A triangle is a three-person relationship system. It is considered the building block or “molecule” of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system.

  2. Differentiation of Self                  Families and other social groups tremendously affect how people think, feel, and act, and individuals vary in their susceptibility to a “group think”.  Groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity.  This pressure is reflected in people’s levels of differentiation of self.

  3. Nuclear Family Emotional System          Four basic relationship patterns govern where problems develop in a family (marital conflict, dysfunction in a spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance).

  4. Family Projection Process        The family projection process describes the primary way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. The projection process can impair the functioning of one or more children and increase their vulnerability to clinical symptoms.

  5. Multigenerational Transmission Process             The multigenerational transmission process describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family.

  6. Emotional Cut Off       The concept of emotional cut off describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.

  7. Sibling Position            Bowen Theory incorporates the research of psychologist Walter Toman as a foundation for its concept of sibling position as sibling position can influence development and behaviour in families.

  8. Societal Emotional Process      Each concept in Bowen Theory applies to nonfamily groups, such as work and social organizations. The concept of societal emotional process describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a society.

Clinical Tools for Information Gathering

(Friedman & Allen, 2014)

Three tools—the genogram, the ecomap, and the social network map—permit a graphic depiction of some aspect of the client’s ecological environment, providing important interactional data that can aid the social worker in the assessment process.


The genogram is similar to a family tree. It can describe family relationships in as many generations as the worker and the client wish but is typically limited to three generations. The genogram provides a historical overview of the family and is a useful way of obtaining a sense of the client’s historical milieu.  It can be used to advantage in assessment as it can identify hidden patterns.


Whereas the genogram identifies the historical ecology of the client, the ecomap identifies the client’s current social context. The ecomap works by using circles to represent different factors affecting the client and by identifying other systems that have an interface with the client system. The ecomap is constructed by having the client identify all the organizations that have some impact on his or her life. The client then identifies the nature and direction of the flow of energy between the organization and self. Because this process meaningfully involves the client in identifying the current situation and pictorially expressing it through the ecomap, the client may develop a better understanding of his or her situation and ultimately reveal strategies for resolving the dilemma.

Social Network Map

The social network map is used in tandem with the social network grid to identify and engage the client in defining his or her social supports. Social supports are important and can be classified into five interaction systems necessary for an individual’s well-being: emotional integration, social integration, opportunity for nurturance, reassurance of worth, and assistance. They enable the individual to negotiate problematic situations and sustain well-being.

The social network map consists of concentric rings, with the client identified as the innermost ring. The client is then asked to identify supports and place them on the map, quantifying the amount of support received through placement in closer proximity to the center of the map—that is, the closer to the center, the greater the amount of support provided to the client. The tandem social network grid is used as a means of quantifying the level of support the client receives from his or her network. This is not an objective measure but is based on the client’s subjective perceptions in identifying the valence of the support.

References/Supplementary Material

Andreae, D.  (2011). General systems theory: Contributions to social work theory and practice.  In F. Turner (Ed.), Social work treatment: Interlocking theoretical approaches (5th ed.), (pp. 242-254). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Bouchrika, I. (2024). What is systems theory? Social work theories in 20024

Bowen Center. (2024). Learn about Bowen theory

Crawford, M. (2020).  Ecological systems theory: Exploring the development of theoretical framework as conceived by Bronfenbrenner.  Journal of Public Health Issues and Practices, 4(2): 170-175. 

Davies, L. (2022). What is systems theory in social work?

Friedman, B. D., & Allen, K. N. (2014). Systems theory.  In B. D. Friedman & K. N. Allen (Eds.), Essentials of clinical social work, (pp 3 – 20).  Sage.  doi: 10.13140/2.1.1132.9281

Lonne, B. (2016). Systems theory—Outline.  HSSW410: University of New England, Armidale.

O’Connor, I., Wilson, J. Setterlund, D., & Hughes, M. (2008). Social work and human service practice (5th ed).  Pearson Education Australia.

Online MSW Programs with edX. (2023). Introduction to systems theory in social work

Peart, V. (2023, October 15).  How understanding systems theory can make you a better social worker.  Social Work News

Sincero, S. M. (2012). Ecological Systems Theory.  


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