Box 4-1

Definition of Key Systems Concepts

Systems approach: A paradigm or perspective involving a focus on the whole picture and not just a single element, awareness of the wider context, an appreciation for interactions among different components, and transdisciplinary thinking (Leischow and Milstein, 2006).

Systems investigation: A promising new frontier for research and action in response to complex and critical challenges (Leischow and Milstein, 2006).

Systems thinking: An iterative learning process in which one takes a broad, holistic, long-term, perspective of the world and examines the linkages and interactions among its elements (Sterman, 2006).

Systems theory: An interdisciplinary theory that requires merging of multiple perspectives and sources of information and deals with complex systems in technology, society, and science (Best et al., 2003).

Systems science: Research related to systems theory that offers insight into the nature of the whole system that often cannot be gained by studying the system’s component parts in isolation (Mabry et al., 2008).

System dynamics: A methodology for mapping and modeling the forces of change in a complex system in order to better understand their interaction and govern the direction of the system; it enables stakeholders to combine input into a dynamic hypothesis that uses computer simulation to compare various scenarios for achieving change (Milstein and Homer, 2006).

link research to practice and policy have merely highlighted the challenges of transferring knowledge from single-discipline, highly controlled research to practice settings. Interdisciplinary investigation using a systems approach can potentially help close this gap (Mabry et al., 2008).

A systems approach to solving health problems requires new tools, including data, methods, theories, and statistical analysis different from those traditionally used in linear approaches. No single discipline can provide these tools. Therefore, it is necessary to approach health research with a collaborative team of investigators who bring knowledge and expertise from a variety of disciplines and sectors (Leischow et al., 2008). The theoretical frameworks and methodologies that result from such collaboration can generate new conceptual syntheses, new measurement techniques (e.g., social network analysis), and interdisciplinary fields of inquiry (e.g., behavioral genetics) with the capacity to tackle complex population health problems (Fowler et al., 2009).

Sterman (2006) explains how the dynamics of a system work, using policy resistance as an example. His explanation, reproduced in Box 4-2, encompasses the key concepts and variables in systems thinking: stocks, flows, feedback processes (positive or self-reinforcing and negative or self-correcting), side effects, and time delays.

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