This post was originally published on the Ashoka Peace Blog.

While other fields of study, such as biology, computer science, physics and engineering, have used systems theory as a conceptual lens for decades, this type of holistic framework is now increasingly being used by NGOs, academia and policymakers to analyze conflict around the world.

Historically, a separatist worldview has dominated U.S. foreign policy (take for instance the "us-versus-them" thinking advocated by past U.S. administrations). In contrast, a worldview based upon systems theory accepts the premise that we are living in a truly interconnected system. (This type of thinking is supported in part by the current administration's efforts towards multilateral diplomacy.

In this interconnected world each part of the system can only be understood in relationship with every other part. Take as an example the fine balance of our ecosystem and how one small component, like a mosquito, has an impact on the entire system. Change the way we perceive our relationships to others - as interconnected and interrelated - and the way we behave transforms.

Reactions to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 are a good demonstration of how our behavior is influenced by the worldview we choose to promote. Instead of asking, "why do they hate us?", the popular question being asked by media and government was instead, "what can we do to reform them?" The latter question embodies the "us-versus-them" approach to conflict instead of a systems-wide approach.

The paradigm shift we are undergoing in our world order - from a separated set of actors to truly interconnected human beings - begs the questions, "How do we approach the world in an interconnected way?" and "What does this mean for the way we assess and resolve conflict around the world?"

I want to point to an interesting document titled Systems Theory and Peacebuilding compiled by Lisa Schirch from the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. In the brief Schirch highlights seven aspects of a 'system' and the implications each has for peacebuilding. We've outlined them below and are interested in hearing about people or organizations putting these ideas into action.

  1. Each part of a system can only be understood in relationship with every other part. Implication for Peacebuilding: Conflict assessment processes should map the system of conflict, all of its stakeholders, its history and how a conflict at the local level is “nested” within larger conflicts.
  2. In systems, there are multiple causes that contribute to effects. Implications for Peacebuilding: A systems approach moves away from a “blame” orientation in conflict that isolates specific leaders (Bin Laden) or groups (Al Qaeda); instead it looks at the entire system of causes and effects and the interplay between groups.
  3. Systems are processes. Implications for Peacebulding: Negotations and other peacebuilding processes are ongoing processes that require ongoing support and attention over time.
  4. Each part of the system is involved in either sustaining or changing existing patterns of relationship. Implications for Peacebuilding: All systems react to positive or negative feedback loops. If one individual or group retaliates in an escalatory fashion, the change that occurs is negative feedback for the system. The pattern of relating has not changed. If, on the other hand, no retaliation is sought for an offense or acts of reconciliation are offered, the change may bring positive feedback for the system bringing it back into balance and stability.
  5. Patterns are preferred ways of interacting in systems. Implications for Peacebuilding: Broadly defined, there are five different styles of dealing with conflict: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, collaboration, and competition. “Smart” systems learn how and when to use each of these different styles to the benefit of the whole.
  6. Power is the ability of one part of a system to affect other parts of the system. Implications for Peacebuilding: Peacebuilding is a process of empowerment for all parts of a system, so that each has a voice in the quality of the relationships between them.
  7. Changing systems is complex. Implications for Peacebuilding: Rather than focusing on how to change the other parts of a system, most of our efforts in peacebuilding should go into identifying the wisest, most emotionally intelligent ways for ourselves to behave in our systems.
How are these ideas being put into action?