A Living Systems
Perspective as a Metaframework
for Viewing the Dynamics of Human Experience
R. Parent, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 12214
LaJolla, California 92093
This paper describes
a new metaframework for understanding the dynamics of human experience,
on both an individual and group level. It builds on the traditional
living systems model of input-throughput-output. Information exchange
and interaction via material-energy flows, between each person and his
or her personally-experienced (or subjective) world, is viewed as a
micro-system, a subsystem of a larger person-environment system.
The conceptual model
emphasizes the importance of information feedback and feedforward processes
in influencing the pattern in how, as individuals and as members of
social-cultural groups, we live our everyday lives. The results of both
positive and negative information feedback (about what has already happened)
and information feedforward (instructions, about what one wants to happen)
are reflected in the decisions we make about how to channel our life
These include the
physical energy invested in sensor- motor and motor activity, in mental
energy reflected in perception, cognition and memory, and in the emotional
energy we represent as feelings. Other systems concepts and principles
are relevant: system boundaries, system balance and equilibrium, the
importance of goal-direction and evolutionary change.
The conceptual model
focuses on the individuals subjective perception of the meaning
of his/her day-to-day experience. It is the personal meaning
- - the results of our individual interpretive processes, that determine
how we channel our life energy flows. In the study of groups, particularly
in cognitive anthropology, attention is focused on those shared meanings
that reflect cultural norms and prescriptions.
The conceptual model
accommodates individual differences in abilities, aptitudes, and prior
experience, as well as the unique way we each represent them mentally.
It accommodates research activity into both the idiographic and nomothetic
aspects of human experience. The model has potential as a unifying metaframework
for all areas of psychology by directly accounting for person-environment
living systems, information feedback and feedforward, life energy, human
A personal Note
In 1969, the author
was in the audience when George A. Miller, outgoing president of the
American Psychological Association, urged fellow members to find ways
to "give psychology back to the people." He argued that much had been
learned about human behavior in the psychological laboratory, and urged
that ways be found to make that information available for ordinary people
to use in their everyday lives. In the years that followed, that challenge
became part of a personal mission statement for the author. Some vision
of exactly how that translation of theory-into -action might be done
came gradually, with an increasing fascination with systems thinking
and the apparent utility of a system perspective for viewing human experience
in general and the life experience of the individual, in particular.
The conceptual pieces began to fall into place, finally, with the authors
contact in 1991, with Millers (1978) Living Systems, and then
subsequent applications ! of living systems theory in the work of the
Fords (Donald and Martin, 1987, 1992). The result of that personal philosophical
and conceptual search is the metaframework, based on a living systems
perspective, described below.
Model and Metaframework
is viewed in the context of interaction between two interdependent systems.
The first is the individual person as a unique system of systems - -
biological, physiological, cognitive and psychological.
The second is the
unique, personally experienced environment (physical and social) in
which each person lives his or her everyday life. The operational model
is described in terms of information and material-energy inputs --
throughputs - - outputs between individual subsystems within the
individual as well as between the individual and the environment.
include (a) a focus on the whole as well as interrelationships and interdependencies
among the parts; (b) the role of dynamic equilibrium - - the process
of maintaining stability in the process of change; (c) the developmental
movement from simple to complex structures and relationships; and (d)
the importance of balance and harmony in each individual person-personally-experienced
(or subjective) world system.
A Brief History
of System Science and Systems Thinking
The history of systems
science and its gradual ascendance in engineering, mathematics, computer
science, biology, economics and the management sciences is well documented.
(Bertalanffy, 1968; Laszlo, 1973; Sirgy, 1988; Bahg, 1990; Levine &
Fitzgerald, 1992). Less well established is the history of its impact
in the social sciences.
In psychology in
particular, the use of systems concepts, principles and ways of thinking
about various aspects of human experience, has progressed slowly but
steadily since the 1980's. Although a focus on interaction between the
person and the environment appeared in the writings of psychologists
earlier in the century: (Kantor, 1924; Koffka, 1935; Lewin, 1935; Murray,
1938; Allport, 1960; Kelly, 1963; Endler & Magnusson, 1976; Watzlawick,
1978;), it was Living Systems Theory (LST) (Miller, 1978) that set the
stage for identifying the processes which account for stability, adaptation
and change in open systems, at eight levels of organization and complexity.
was Miller's explanation of the hierarchical structure of all living
systems and the evolutionary processes (shred-out) which facilitate,
on a physiological level, the process of change. The impact of Millers
work has been particularly strong in the area of developmental psychology
(Gibson, 1988; Ford and Lerner, 1992; Thielen and Smith, 1993, 1994;),
in organizational development (Forrester, 1973; Vickers, 1983; Drucker,
1989; Wheatley, M.J., 1992; Ackoff, 1994) and in the planning of educational
change (Plas, 1986; Jasnoski, 1991; Banathy, 1992;).
in the physical sciences (Feigenbaum, 1980; Capra, 1982, 1996; Prigogine
& Stengers, 1984) have contributed to our understanding of complex,
nonlinear systems. The result has been a change in our understanding
of our universe and of systems dynamics in particular. The development
of analytical tools in psychology followed. (Levine & Fitzgerald,
1992) These are based on a view of systems in terms of the interaction
of a set of many feedback loop processes that change the system's state
variables over time. The assumption is that these feedback mechanisms
are related to the flow, accuracy, and timing of the information in
the system. In addition, human systems are viewed in terms of goal seeking
and goal conflict activities and the roles that feedback loop structures
play in these processes.
of Systems Thinking in Psychology
These ideas about
systems dynamics have been incorporated in a variety of recent studies
in specific domains in psychology. They are as diverse as the study
of the U.S. Army (Ruscoe, 1982); in therapy (Bateson, 1991; Greenberg,
1992; Yank, Barber & Spradlin, 1994); the family (Bronfenbrenner,
1986); of attitude change, (Kaplowitz and Fink, 1992). A growing number
of psychologists, with different models and perspectives (Olds, 1992;
Walsh, Craik and Price, 1992; Matzger, 1989; Kindermann, 1989), work
from a specific person-environment interaction framework. The area is
known as person-environment psychology.
In the seminal work
reported by the Fords (Donald and Martin, 1987), a living systems framework
is used to describe the person as a self-organizing, self-constructing
living system. This same model is the basis for Developmental Systems
Theory, (Ford, D. and Lerner, R, 1992) and for Motivational Systems
Theory, (Ford, M., 1992).
A Systems Perspective
on the Dynamics of Human Experience
In the proposed
metaframwork, human experience is defined as those patterns of individual
human behavior which result from each person's unique and continuous
interactions and transactions with changing environments, in space and
over time. Although the overall developmental pattern of the life experience
is the same for all individuals (conception-birth-infancy-childhood-adulthood-death),
individuals vary in their personal characteristics, their life experiences
and the unique way they represent the meaning of their experience mentally.
In addition, there is variability in both the specific social-cultural
influences as well as the physical constraints and facilitating conditions
in the environment that affect individuals pattern of interaction
(M. Ford, 1992).
An important assumption
in the model is that members of a particular social-cultural group share
certain prescribed patterns of environmental interaction as well as
similar mental models or world views. (Hutchins, 1980; Cole and
Means, 1981; D'Andrade, 1995; Cole, 1996).
The basic framework
is the traditional input-throughput-output system model, with
information and material-energy exchanges playing a central role in
system operations in general, and in living systems in particular (Miller,
1978). This human species model emphasizes the importance of information
feedback (from the environment) and information feedforward processes
(in the individual) and their effects on individual thought, emotion
and action. (Mandler, 1984; Bandura, 1989; Lazarus, 1991)
The components (or
subsystems) of this conceptual model are those of each individual person
in continuous interaction with his/her personally-experienced (or experiential)
world. This person-experiential world system, in turn, is a subsystem
of the larger physical and social environment in which each is embedded
- - that part of the outside world that is real and relevant
to the individual.
of the Person-Experiential World System
The individual person-experiential
world system is described as an open or organismic system, which is
both concrete (the person and the larger physical and social environment)
and conceptual (the individuals model of his/her experiential
world). It exists in space and time. Each person-experiential world
system is self-regulating, within the boundaries which have developed
vis-à-vis their respective environments as well as the biological
and physiological constraints present in the individual.
the exchange of information and materials takes place (a) between individual
components of the person-experiential world system and (b) with the
components of the larger physical and social environment.
Shared by Members of Social-Cultural Groups
In the group or
human species context, the model specifies a composite of human qualities
and characteristics common to members of a particular social-cultural
group. These include, for example, the group-approved and habitual ways
of thinking and behaving, their interests and value systems, their definitions
of the meaning and role of causality, space and time. The experiential
world consists of mental representations specific to a particular group.
It includes regularities, in the form of beliefs and assumptions, that
are part of that groups' shared worldview or mental model of
their world. (D'Andrade, 1995)
of Individual Human Beings, as a System of Systems
The most recent
and comprehensive effort to understand human behavior using a living
systems framework is that of the Fords - -Donald and Martin, (1987,
1992). In the Ford Living Systems Framework (LSF), the individual person
is viewed as a system of systems (physiological, biological, cognitive
and psychological). Each individual is considered as a unique combination
of genetic, biological and psychological characteristics and attributes.
These features are represented in patterns of behavior (thought, feelings
and action) that reflect the effects of life experiences that are unique
to each individual. These are termed behavior episodes, their
mental representation as behavior episode schemata.
In the Ford model
(as well as those of a number of other writers, (including White, 1959;
Holyoak, 1969; Gergen, 1985, Pervin, 1985) the individual is described
as an active, causative agent, striving to achieve desired effects in
his/her experiential world. The effects of the environment (both material-energy
transactions and information feedback to the individual about these
effects) are part of the input of each person-world system. How that
input affects system operation is a function of what takes place in
the throughput, specifically in the activities of the executive and
governing activities of what Mandler (1984) terms the cognitive-interpretive
system. The latter coordinates the actions of various information-processing
structures as well as production systems for structuring consciousness,
for physiological-arousal (for emotion) and for sensori-motor action
mechanisms include structures for the bottom-up processing of information
feedback (of incoming sensory impressions from both the inside and the
outside world - - about what has happened), on a moment-to-moment basis.
They also include top-down processing or the information feedforward
which reflects the results of the individual's cognitive activity -
- the expectations, anticipations, plans - - about what may happen,
about what the person wants to happen. These latter computations are
based on the individual's past experience and the content of that person's
knowledge structures and personal meanings system. These guide
the system output, or behavior. The coordinated effects of these two
processes are summarized in Ford, 1987:
and feedforward are combined, a dynamic control system potential
emerges that can combine information about past, present and projected
future events to guide the flow of its current activity in a variable
environment to either maintain or alter its current steady states.
Ford, Donald H.
Humans as Self- Constructing, Living Systems,
of Each Persons Personally-Experienced (Experiential) World
Each person's experiential
world is described as that part of the external world that is represented
(or can be constructed, on the basis of past experience) mentally by
each individual. It includes information about that part of the physical
and social environment that is available in consciousness (or that can
be brought into awareness) for each individual person. It is that part
of the external world that is real-- and has personal meaning
or significance for the individual. Its contents are available through
introspection and awareness-inducing activity. It could be thought of
as a figure/ground relationship, with the individuals experiential
world as figure in the ground of the larger, external social and physical
environment. Each experiential world (or mental model of that
world) is unique.
and biological system functioning in the individual provides both facilitating
and constraining conditions on that systems operation. However,
it is the decider or executive function (Miller, 1978; Ford, 1987) performed
by the cognitive-interpretive system (Mandler, 1984) which apparently
determines the level and quality of person-experiential world system
Embedded in the Conceptual Model
- that the whole
is more than the sum of its parts and that systems and their elements
can only be understood in terms of their pattern of interactions,
in their relationship to each other, and to the whole.
- there are individual
differences in the person, in the nature of each person's interaction
with his/her experiential world and how that person represents it,
as well as individual differences in the nature and patterns of the
behavior which result from that interaction.
- a hypothesized
executive subsystem in the individual that receives inputs from all
other subsystems and transmits to them the information that controls
the output (behavior) of the entire system (Ford, 1987). In this model,
a cognitive-interpretive system (Mandler, 1984) coordinates the interdependent
relationships between cognition, physiological and emotional arousal,
and sensori-motor arousal and activity.
- there are boundaries,
at both the individual component as well as the system level. In this
model these boundaries are psychological and social as well as physical.
Emphasis is on the individual's psychological boundaries (including
the content of the individual's personal meaning system) and how they
determine the nature and extent of that person's interaction with
his/her experiential world.
- the process of
change in open systems takes place over time and is usually evolutionary.
In this model, there is an assumption of unique biological patterns
(or blueprints) which influence if not determine individual physical
growth and development.
- there are self-organizing,
self-constructing and self-stabilizing activities and processes in
all human systems and in their relationships with their subsystems.
- in human activity
systems (Checkland, 1989, Banathy, 1996) the focus is on understanding
rather than predicting future human behavior.
- the role of information
and energy and how they determine the pattern in how we live our everyday
input: its available quality, accuracy, adequacy and relevance
(and the way it is interpreted) influence the quality and appropriateness
of our thinking and decision-making, and the emotions and actions
output: its availability, direction and intensity and how we
channel it - - into our thoughts, feelings and actions, is reflected
in the patterned way we live our everyday lives.
Note: An application
of this metaframework, in an educational model for life planning and
change, is reported in another paper.
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