Chapter 1 The Ecosystems Perspective: Implications for Practice Mark A. Mattaini and Carol H. Meyer Social work involves, at its core, work with interconnected transactional networks. The ecosystems perspective has been almost universally accepted in social work because it provides a framework for thinking about and understanding those networks in their complexity. This strategy for viewing the world can at first seem rather abstract, so it may be useful to explore why it was developed and has been so widely adopted. Since the beginning of the profession, practice has been focused on the person and the environment.
This “psychosocial” focus is so important as a distinguishing feature of social work that it has become its identified purpose: to address the psychosocial matrix of which individuals, families, groups, and communities are constituents. Although the person-in-environment concept has governed practice since the work of Mary Richmond (1917) nearly a century ago and has been defined and redefined (Hamilton, 1951; Hollis, 1972) over the years, its hyphenated structure has contributed to a continuing imbalance in emphasis on the person or the environment.
As a result, practitioners have often attended primarily to one or the other, missing key dimensions of the case. For example, a child who refused to attend school might have been treated for depression, with limited or no attention paid to the role of his school or his family (his environment) in his behavior. Conversely, attention only to serious dysfunction in a school or a family might have led to ignoring the plight of the child’s response. Often, practitioners have selected a focus that was compatible with their preferences, assigning peripheral status to either the person or environment.
Another consequence of the perceived separation of the person-in-environment construct has been the tendency of practitioners to avoid environmental interventions in favor of changing people in isolation from their life situations–because the environment is often seen as so intractable and so difficult to affect (Kemp et al. , 1997). This emphasis has been encouraged by the development of extensive knowledge regarding human behavior and development, as contrasted with a less-well-developed, cohesive knowledge of the environment.
Clinical social workers’ choice to focus on the person to the exclusion of the environment may also have had something to do with the view that their professional status was dependent on their engaging in practice similar to psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Thus, the psychosocial purposes of social work were being eroded, and the person-in-environment construct did not appear to be helping. The problem was real, and profoundly affected work with clients.
Beyond these consequences for direct practice, the severe social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s brought awakened populations calling for social services. Previously noticed mainly in public services, poor people, members of ethnic and racial minority groups, women, people with severe social problems, and those with new (or newly acknowledged) lifestyles demanded help from social workers in the voluntary sector. Problems such as child abuse, family violence, AIDS, and homelessness caused all professions to redefine their approaches to account for the evident psychosocial features of these problems.
By 1970 it became clear that it was essential to review and rethink the person-in-environment construct so that social workers would find it more possible to intervene in a more transactional fashion in cases that were clearly (nonhyphenated) psychosocial events. The “invented” construct was called “the ecosystems perspective. ” The Ecosystems Perspective The ecosystems perspective is a way of seeing case phenomena (the person and the environment) in their interconnected and multilayered reality, to order and comprehend complexity, and avoid oversimplification and reductionism.
It is a way of placing conceptual boundaries around cases to provide limits and define the parameters of practice with individuals, families, groups, and communities. It can be pictorialized as an ecomap (Hartman, 1978; Meyer, 1970), a graphic device for viewing the relevant, connected case elements together, within a boundary that clarifies for the practitioner the case system as the focus of work. A typical ecomap of a case in social work practice may look like this: A fundamental purpose of all professional practice, including social work, is to individualize the case. If all cases are to be treated in the same way, there is no need for professional judgment. ) In the case of social work, this individualizing process applies to individual persons, families, groups, and communities. Because no person can be understood apart from his or her defining social context, the ecomap presents the field of elements in which the person is embedded. The use of the ecomap makes it virtually impossible to separate the person and his or her environment in one’s perception of the case phenomena. It guides one to see connectedness and to eliminate the hyphen between the person and his or her environment.
This is important because the way one presents and works with case data depends on one’s habits of thought. Research by Rosen and Livne (1992) demonstrated that social workers tend to focus particularly on intrapersonal issues at the expense of transactional problems with significant environmental roots. Lindsey (1998) found that social workers often do not recognize shortages of financial resources, housing assistance, social support, or substance abuse services as significant barriers to restabilizing homeless families and may also underestimate the importance of battering.
Preliminary research by Mattaini (1993), however, indicated that social work students are more likely to view a case in its transactional complexity if they prepare an ecomap like John’s, shown above. The Roots of the Ecosystems Perspective The ecosystems perspective (Auerswald, 1968; Meyer, 1976) emerged from two sets of ideas: ecology (DuBos, 1972) and general systems theory (GST) (von Bertalanffy, 1967), both of which originated in biology. Ecology is the science concerned with the adaptive fit of organisms and their environments and the means by which they achieve a dynamic equilibrium and maturity.
Drawn from biology, ecological ideas denote the transactional processes that exist in nature and thus serve as a metaphor for human relatedness through mutual adaptation. GST is a general science of wholeness that describes sets of elements standing in interaction, or the systemic interconnectedness of variables, such as people and their environments. It is an organizing conceptual framework in which otherwise unconnected elements are integrated into a synthetic view and fall into place.
As GST explains, when the variables of a case construct a boundary and exhibit certain systemic properties (the “emergence” of a higher-order system from subsystem components, like a family from individuals), they demonstrate reciprocal responses. That is, if one factor in the case is touched by an action or an event, another factor is likely to respond because the two factors are systemically connected. For example, in John’s ecomap, if he cannot withdraw from drugs, then his schoolwork will be affected, as will all of the other components of his life described within the circle of the case.
If an intervention in another part of John’s life is successful, it is theoretically possible that his drug use will be affected. When one intervenes in an interconnected system, such as in John’s case, an intervention can take place directly or indirectly and target something that is distant from the objective of intervention, yet result in the desired outcome. For example, one may intervene in the school so that a teacher pays special attention to John, which will affect his self-esteem and lessen his interest in pursuing the drug culture.
In GST this process is called “equifinality,” which means that one might enter a case through multiple avenues, more than one of which will lead to comparable results. Notice also what does not appear on this ecomap, for example, any significant involvement with churches, extended family, or other possible supports for John or his family. Such missing transactions may also be the focus of intervention. Recent Advances in Systems Thinking As in other sciences, knowledge in ecological systems thinking continues to advance. Several principles with direct application to social work emerge from recent systemic research and theory.
Capra (1996) provides a readable summary, although some of the material in his treatment remains quite controversial; Hudson (2000), reviews material on emergence and self-organization, key constructs in modern systems thinking, very well. Among important emerging concepts in systems thinking are the following: • a shift to viewing networks of transactional relationships, rather than objects, as the basic elements of reality; • the central importance of self-organization in those networks; and • the crucial place of diversity in those self-organizing systems.
Brief summaries of work in each of these areas may be useful for deepening understanding of the value of systems thinking. The primacy of relationships. Contemporary biology and physics recognize that reality does not consist of a collection of objects, but rather an “inseparable web of relationships” (Capra, 1996, p. 37). The primary components of this web are patterns of transactional events; objects (including organisms) are secondary, and have reality only in networks of relationships. Cells, organisms, and ecosystems are all organized in this network pattern. Hierarchies” in systems thinking of this kind consist of levels of networks rather than dominance hierarchies. For example, a community may be seen as a network of families, which in turn are themselves networks of people, which in turn are organic networks of biological organs and so forth. “Members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. They derive their essential properties and, in fact, their very existence from their relationships to other things” (Capra, 1996, p. 298).
This level of organic interdependence is core to contemporary systems thinking. The work of social work is action directed toward these transactional webs of relationship. The social worker is part of the web, the client is part of the web, and the work they do together will be supported, opposed, or both, by transactions elsewhere in the web. Self-organizing networks. Recent systems work has also expanded our understanding of the structure and boundaries of such transactional networks (Hudson, 2000). These networks (technically termed autopoietic, Maturana & Varela, 1980), are self-organizing and “self-making. The dynamic patterns of transactions that constitute the network are organized by the network itself, and establish their own self-constructed boundaries. The boundary of such a network occurs as a natural result of its organization. These natural boundaries, for example, that of a family or a network of fictive kin constructed among a group of gay persons, need to be attended to in practice, with recognition that work inside of those boundaries is likely to take a different approach than work outside of them.
Transactional entities exist only as long as the transactions continue. The patterns that constitute them are termed “dissipative structures” because, like a whirlpool, they exist only as long as the transactional processes continue. All living systems are dissipative in this sense. Such networks “couple” with their contextual environments, with transactions across the boundary. How a network responds to an influence from outside is determined by the state and structure of the network, however. For example, two families may both be coupled to a dangerous neighborhood.
One may respond by collapsing, with its boundaries diffusing and members lost to the street. Another may respond with great resilience, taking collective steps to couple with healthier networks (churches and youth organizations, for example). The response of each family cannot be predicted from knowledge of the impinging environment, because the enduring patterns of transactions within each family are key determinants. At the same time, increasing environmental stresses will gradually overwhelm the resilience of more and more families.
The role of diversity. Diversity is regarded as key to ecological stability and balance in ecology. “A diverse ecosystem will also be resilient . . . The more complex the network is, the more complex its pattern of interconnections, the more resilient it will be” (Capra, 1996, p. 303). In human society, many regard respect and appreciation for diversity as primarily a matter of “political correctness,” but systems thinking tells us diversity is key to cultural and spiritual survival. Consider the criminal “justice” system in the U. S.
Traditional European American practice has produced an enormous and growing prison population, ultimately constituting an economic drain on society, although in the short run producing economic advantages for some. Incarceration produces profound damage (emotional, social, spiritual) for those enmeshed in the system, but note that not only prisoners are so enmeshed. So are those who work in the system–and ultimately, so are we all, for we really are all connected. The damage is serious and continuous, but there is no apparent way out of this cycle within the dominant culture’s practices.
Indigenous groups, however, have developed entirely different responses from their very different worldviews, responses that are much less expensive, more effective, and more humane (Ross, 1996). Tragically, cultural diversity is disappearing as rapidly as is biodiversity (Davidson, 1994), with profound implications for human society. The transactional focus, in which all processes are addressed to the person in the environment, distinguishes social work from other professional disciplines such as psychiatry or psychology.
It implies that individuals and their environments are always actually or potentially adaptive to each other, and that interventions can be carried out in either sphere of the case or directly in the transactions and can be expected to affect other spheres. The ecosystems perspective has enabled social workers to enhance this psychosocial focus through the use of a systemic lens that does not separate the person from the environment but requires that they be seen in their transactional reality. The use of the ecomap as a graphic depiction of the case allows both the practitioner and the client literally to see things concretely.
The reader will note that terms such as “see” and “lens” have been used to indicate that the ecosystems idea is a perspective, or a way of looking. It directs the vision of client and social worker toward the complex transactions in cases, helping connect them and recognizing their interactions. It is crucial that those transactional layers be recognized, regardless of the practice approach preferred by the worker. It is possible to operate from any of several practice approaches while taking an ecosystems perspective, as long as that approach recognizes the multiple levels present.
Although a few authors have suggested that the ecosystems perspective is a way of “integrating” practice theories, this is neither realistic nor desirable, as will be seen below. The ecosystems perspective, rather, is at a higher level of abstraction than a practice approach (or “practice model”) and suggests that whether one is operating from an ecobehavioral (Mattaini, 1997), ecological (Germain & Gitterman, 1996), “psychosocial” in the psychodynamic sense (Goldstein, 2001), or other practice approach, the heart of professional social work practice requires examining the entire transactional field.
A purely cognitive approach, for example, that focused only on patterns in the client’s thinking would by definition not be ecosystemic, nor would an approach that focused only on the client’s psychosexual development, without recognition of the social and physical environment within which the client is embedded. Systemic Thinking versus Linear Thinking Systemic thinking (used in the ecosystems perspective) allows the practitioner to recognize the interconnections present in a case, and thus to consider interventions anywhere in the case.
Linear thinking, on the other hand, results in oversimplified understanding, creating a narrow view precluding attention to events and patterns significant to the case. Recent shifts from linear to systemic thinking in many disciplines are connected to the findings of modern physics, which recognize phenomena as “explosive,” spontaneous, and sometimes ultimately unpredictable, as well as to the science of self-organizing networks just discussed.
Contrast these ideas with linear Newtonian physics, where an apple falling from a tree had only one direction to go–straight down. This is an epistemological change in that the way of seeing or knowing has changed. We are not concerned here so much with the nature of things, but rather with the construction of reality, with what processes binding people and events together become the focus or attention. Modern views of reality are more diverse and open to individual interpretation than ever before.
For example, a child in an inner-city school and a child in a suburban school are likely to have very different views of educational institutions, although family culture will also affect their visions; a lesbian feminist and a fundamentalist will probably perceive differing biases in political processes; and a welfare commissioner will evaluate the worth of public services from a perspective that is foreign to a welfare client. Therefore, it is always useful to reflect on how one views phenomena, because one’s standpoint makes an enormous difference in the reality one observes. This is a good reason to have clients draw their own ecomaps. ) Linear thinking suggests greater certainty, even to asserting simplistic causal connections, such as “If x occurs, y will inevitably follow. ” In John’s case, assuming that John had turned to drugs because his father rejected him would reflect linear thinking. In systems thinking, consequences (such as “y”) are ascribed to, and contingent upon, multiple causes and their interactions. In John’s case, systems thinking would note that as one consequence of his father’s rejection, John relied more heavily on his peers, particularly an older boy who was a drug dealer.
This new social environment influenced John to begin to skip school–in which his educational needs were being poorly addressed anyway–which brought him to the attention of the social worker. One can already see several possible entry points to this case through the use of systems thinking (including intervening with John, with the family, with peer networks, with the drug dealer, or with the school). Linear thinking can generate greater apparent certainty and predictability. Because this may result in missing crucial dimensions of the case, however, such practice often proves ineffective.
Systems thinking is intended to recognize and accommodate multiplicity, complexity, and uncertainty. In exchange for a certain lack of certainty and predictability, by thinking systemically the social worker and client gain a much broader palette of options to think about and from which to choose interventions. The transactional field (constituted of multiple transactional systems) affects clients in multiple ways; systems thinking therefore also brings one closer to clients’ realities. The Structure of Systems: Implications for Practice
Systems, as understood by GST and more recent perspectives, have a number of distinguishing properties that will be briefly considered here, for they can illuminate the usefulness of the ecosystems perspective for social work practice. John’s ecomap, taken as a whole, is a case system that can illustrate basic principles of the structure and processes of systems in general. The following are some of its salient features: 1. Systems have boundaries; in fact, systems create their own boundaries as part of the self-organizing process.
These boundaries can be reflected in physical space, as in a classroom in which the class is a system. Or they can be “drawn” conceptually, as in John’s case, when one locates the salient transactional patterns and operationally defines a boundary (a circle) around them. (Systems have patterned relationships–students meet regularly in classrooms, for example. In contrast, if an accident happens on the street, the people who gather to watch it are not a system but a random aggregate. ) A physical boundary is usually self-evident; a classroom or a school building, for example, has walls.
When it comes to conceptual boundaries, however, the social worker’s judgment is involved in discovering the boundaries used in creating the ecomap. Do John’s family members belong inside the ecomap if they do not live in the same city as John? Should John’s friend in prison be included because John considers him a role model? There is some power in establishing the boundary of a system, because the picture that is finally drawn will shape the understanding of the case. This power should be shared with the client and often others involved as well.
Therefore, the very definition of the case becomes a co-creative act. At the same time, system boundaries are not arbitrary. Social work usually involves work within existing systemic boundaries or in the transactional networks among systems. In some cases, however, the social worker and clients may envision new networks of transactions, new systemic entities to be constructed and elaborated. 2. All living systems are open: their boundaries are permeable, and they exchange energy (interact) with their environments.
This exchange enables the system to grow and permits its elements to differentiate and develop. Closed (self-contained) systems, in contrast, cannot thrive because they use energy without accessing additional energy from their environments. In John’s case, if he were to become isolated and afraid to leave home, he would sooner or later wind down like an unattended clock. In GST, this phenomenon is called entropy–a universal law of nature that all systems move toward disorganization or death without the importation of energy.
When systems are open, they may import more energy from the environment than they expend (a condition labeled negative entropy–note that the word “negative” does not have negative connotations here). They then tend toward greater complexity through elaboration and differentiation. John’s isolation implies that he is “closing down,” and any number of social work interventions could help him maintain and extend his connections with people and places in his environment, importing energy, information, and life. 3.
Systems tend to preserve their transactional patterns (structure), even as the elements of the system may shift in their relatedness. For example, in family therapy, the members of the parental subsystem usually do not change, but the parents may behave differently. Systemic survival requires substantial structural stability. Because of this need to preserve their structure, systems tend to resist change as they seek to maintain a steady state. At the same time, because living systems are dissipative structures, that steady state is a dynamic balance, not a static equilibrium.
If everything simply stopped, the system would collapse. Some transactions with environmental forces can also overwhelm the resilience of the system. A functioning system maintains its balance through rich but manageable transactions with the environment. In viewing John’s case as a (systemic) ecomap, one sees that his equilibrium might be “tipped” if most of his transactions were with the drug culture, or that he could “run down” if he continues to isolate from other environmental forces. Yet, we can recognize multiple sources of energy–relationships, events, programs, ideas–that might be tapped for John’s replenishment.
Helping him find his way back to school or to a new job, bringing his family members back into his life, or meaningful problem-solving dialogue are all possible, non-exclusive, options within a shared power relationship. Systems can also be overwhelmed if too much energy is introduced precipitously, as for example, if John does not have the time or tools to cope with these new inputs and still maintain his equilibrium. If John were slowly emerging from his isolation, the social worker should be sensitive about pushing him too quickly to join a group or find a girlfriend.
If John felt overwhelmed, his self-balancing mechanisms would take over, and he might, out of self-preservation, pull back from the onrush of interventions. 4. The elements of systems are potentially reciprocal, in that they act on each other. Thus, if John’s family members were brought back into his life, they would have an effect on him, just as he would have an effect on them. However, John and his family are not all that is reciprocal in this case. John’s drug use, school, friends, and illness are reciprocally connected within the boundary of the case.
Thus, as noted earlier, change in one part of the system generates effects in other parts; interventions in one or another aspect of the case always reverberate through other elements of the case in some way. These reverberating (and in some cases amplifying) effects have great practical implications because a social worker can sometimes influence “distant” parts of the case by intervening in more available or accessible areas. So, helping John distance himself from the drug culture may have a reciprocal effect on the way John’s mother responds to him, even if the social worker never has direct contact with her.
Moves away from drug-using peers and toward family may also tip John back toward healthy peer connections, which in turn may produce additional effects. 5. In closed systems, the final state is determined by the initial conditions. For instance, the planetary system follows its course largely on the basis of its original structure. In personality theory, an example of a final state’s dependence on its initial conditions might be the idea that after suffering an emotional trauma, a child is fixated at a certain age and his personality is forever determined by the original trauma.
In contrast, in viewing the child on his or her developmental trajectory as an open system, one would factor in broadening experiences as the child matures, so that good teachers, friends, parents, and successful life experiences could counteract the effect of the original trauma and increase resilience. Changes introduced at any of multiple “locations” contribute to the end state, and there are multiple routes for arriving at a satisfactory conclusion (this is, in systems terms, equifinality). Thus, the child’s life course can be viewed as contingent and not determined by his or her initial condition.
Because of the rich transactional connectedness among elements, a single event occurring in a case, such as the birth of a baby or a carefully constructed intervention, will also have multiple effects. Awareness that the initial state does not determine the outcome offers an optimistic view of systemically oriented practice, while reminding social workers also to pay careful attention to unintended effects. Ecological theory, GST, and recent advances in systems thinking have contributed to the ecosystems perspective and the ecomap, which represents a case system.
Theoretical understandings of living systems offer a perspective for understanding the functions of case boundaries, the properties of open systems, and the ways in which case variables are related and transactional. After one begins to view cases systemically, as fields of connected events, institutions, and people, it is difficult to return to linear views of isolated case variables and not to notice the transactional potential among adjacent parts of the field, or to ignore the reverberating effects taking place in more remote parts of the field.
A few of the structures and processes that are characteristic of ecosystems thinking have been illustrated using John’s individual case as an example. Imagine now that a community is “the case,” for systems thinking applies to systems of all sizes. In the community under consideration (which is a real case), there is a neighborhood social services center used by young people and their families. The immediate neighborhood is bordered by a commercial area that includes three small stores, a restaurant, and a movie theater.
A nearby park, a primary school, a police station, a health care center, and two churches constitute the community within the boundary of the case. This is a simplified ecomap of the community: The problem brought to the attention of the neighborhood social services center was that a group of about a dozen 11-year-old boys had been harassing the storekeepers by menacing customers and drawing graffiti.
The police could not catch them, their parents felt helpless to stop them, they resisted the pleas of their pastor and priest, they would not attend group sessions at the neighborhood center, and there were no after-school programs. Thinking systemically, the social worker at the neighborhood center assessed the situation of the aggressive boys and the lack of neighborhood resources and developed a plan. She approached the store owners and, after a heated exchange with them, helped them consider alternative ways of dealing with the boys. Chasing and scolding them were not working.
The store owners (facilitated by the social worker) called the boys together for lunch at the neighborhood restaurant and created a neighborhood baseball team, bought the boys uniforms (with the names of the stores on them) and equipment, and took turns managing the team when it played other teams in the park. Needless to say, all of the people in the neighborhood who had felt the effect of the boys’ destructive behavior were relieved. As in John’s case, there were many options for intervention, including clinical treatment with the boys and their families.
The social worker chose what appeared to be both a parsimonious and a powerful intervention. One can only speculate about the later wellbeing of the neighborhood: the increase in the boys’ sense of competence and the relief of the parents, the police, the pastor and priest, and the store owners and their customers. Developmentally, it was crucial that something be done immediately, before the emerging group of youths began to move more deeply into gang culture. Systemic principles illustrated in this case example include identification of meaningful boundaries, connectedness and reciprocity, equifinality, and the shifting of dynamic balances.
The Ecomap and Choices in Practice Drawing an ecomap that clarifies the significant elements of a case and the transactions among them offers the practitioner and client(s) opportunities to explore and assess the dynamic relationships among case variables. Furthermore, although neither systems thinking nor the ecomap prescribes actions, laying out the case as a field of forces enables the practitioner to select interventive approaches likely to influence the primary transactional issues that emerge.
Instead of a predefined template that is too often determined by preexisting expectations, an ecomap opens options and ensures that the most critical factors in the case receive attention. Its use can recast traditional modes of helping, so that the practitioner might use any or all of the social work modalities (individual, family, group, community) and one or several methodological approaches selected for their relevance to the case (Meyer, 1983). This flexibility is possible because the power of transactional networks is harnessed for the work. Thus, the social work practice repertoire, as well as the ecomap, remains an open system.
In addition, recognition of the full field of events and transactions present in a case moves the focus away from a narrow view of cases grounded primarily in individual pathology and problems (“What is wrong with this client? “) toward a view that recognizes both challenges and resources, acknowledging not only issues, but also strengths and resources of the client in transaction with the environment. A second important emerging “perspective” in social work is the strengths perspective (Saleebey, 2002), which suggests that the vision one has of people and systems should focus extensively on their strengths.
At root, strengths are not “things” that one carries; rather, systems thinking suggests that strengths are realized (made real) in transactions in which a person has the skills to engage. If personal strengths are seen as consisting of what people can do in transaction with other persons and other systems, the strengths perspective and the ecosystems perspective become deeply intertwined. The strengths perspective reminds us to attend not only to current transactions, and not only to problems, but to transactional patterns that may possible in the process of reshaping a client’s reality.
In addition, the strengths perspective directs attention to the many resources available in the transactional field that may support positive actions. The following are some examples of the ways in which systemic principles can contribute to the recasting of case situations. The foregoing example of the neighborhood boys turning from a gang into a baseball team reflects the systemic thinking of the practitioner, who chose the simplest intervention that would have the broadest effect (equifinality). Another example is a case of a boy with “school phobia,” classically treated through either psychodynamic or behavior therapy.
An ecomap of a boy’s situation of being afraid to go to school might depict his mother who has just had a baby, a teacher who is excessively demanding, and a tough neighborhood through which the child must walk to school. Interventions in any or all of these arenas have the potential of improving the mutual adaptations of the child and his family, his school, and his neighborhood. Such interventions are likely to rely on actual or potential strengths and resources already present in the situation, if only they can be identified in a process of shared power. What could the family contribute?
What could the teacher contribute? What can the social worker contribute? And, critically, what power does the child bring to the situation? Again, one notes the opening of interventive options, because the ecomap has displayed the transactional field from which options can be chosen or constructed. This approach allows the practitioner to enter cases at the points at which there appear to be real capacity for change. The ecomap enables people’s environments to be depicted as the matrix of their lives, not only as background. As a result, one can better understand the emergence of family therapy.
Once, the family was considered the background in a person’s life. Today, family members are recognized as parts of a self-organizing system. Thinking systemically, a practitioner would not treat a young child without directly engaging the child’s parents. Practice with families is becoming increasingly community-centered as well (Sviridoff & Ryan, 1997), recognizing the deep transactional connectedness between the family and other elements of community networks, which can support or sabotage the collaborative efforts of the family and social worker.
In the case of a group of tenants who are dissatisfied with their housing manager, a systems-oriented practitioner might mediate a meeting between tenants and manager rather than assuming the total responsibility for advocating on the tenants’ behalf. Even better, a shared power perspective might also suggest working with the tenants as a collective, which could creatively elaborate and implement strategies impossible for an individual, drawing on the differential power and gifts each member carries.
Systems thinking has also affected the way organizational processes are viewed. In health settings, although medical authority still prevails, practitioners of other related disciplines are no longer viewed as secondary; rather, the approach to patients is multidisciplinary, in which members of several disciplines share responsibility for cases in holistic ways. In systems terms, a health setting is constituted of interrelated elements in transaction; multidisciplinary teams are more reflective of that reality than is a traditional hierarchical model.
In each example, note the connections between thinking ecosystemically and working within a shared power framework (Lowery & Mattaini, 1999). Everyone within the boundary of the case potentially has something to contribute, and responsibility for outcomes is also shared. The ecomap lays out multiple transactional dimensions of a case and allows the social worker to view the elements of the case in different ways, offering newer and deeper insights into the dynamics present.
The ecomap depicts an open system in which the social worker and client can contemplate multiple points of entry into the case. In keeping with the range of roles that social workers enact, the ecosystems perspective helps the practitioner envision many possibilities for professional action, which may be combined and phased in an ever-changing mix. In John’s case, one might see the potential for advocacy with the school, therapy with his family, group work with John and others in his situation, a drug program, or community action in the neighborhood.
The use of the ecomap also allows the social worker and client to evaluate progress by (figuratively or literally) placing a transparency of an ecomap at Time 2 over an ecomap at Time 1, to note changes in the overall configuration over time. By generating the presentation of case phenomena in such a way that attention is drawn to the possibilities of what might be done, an ecomap is a tool for assessment, the process by which cases are individualized. It is also a tool for operationalizing the ecosystems perspective, providing the broadest possible canvas on which the social work practitioner and client can sketch a plan for intervention.
Note that it is also a tool for building hope, because power and resources that may contribute to a successful outcome are found throughout the transactional field being mapped. Advantages and Limitations of the Ecosystems Perspective for Practice Although the ecosystems perspective has been almost universally accepted over the past three decades in social work, some critiques (for example, Wakefield, 1996a, 1996b) draw the profession’s attention to the perspective’s inevitable limitations and have also been helpful in sharpening ecosystemic thought.
Other perspectives, like that of strengths, clearly are also useful in social work. Perspectives (and practice theories) are valuable to the extent that they contribute to positive outcomes. No single perspective, theory, or worldview is universally best; remember the importance of diversity for survival of any living system, including that of the social work profession. Nonetheless, the ecosystems perspective has demonstrated its usefulness in a number of ways, outlined below. As described previously, the ecosystems perspective is not a practice model, and as such it does not provide direct guidance regarding what to do in a case.
This is not its purpose. Rather, the ecosystems perspective provides guidance regarding what to look at in the case. The purpose of the ecosystems perspective is to ensure that the practitioner pays attention to the multiple interacting elements that are always present in a case, particularly in assessment. Wakefield’s insistence on the need for substantive theory to guide intervention is surely accurate, but identification of transactional factors important to the case is a prior step, important regardless of theoretical approach.
The importance of expanding social workers’ view of cases is more than rhetorical, given research indicating that practitioners tend to focus on some areas at the expense of others. Social workers, like everyone else, pay attention to those questions they ask themselves or are asked about (Williams, 1981). As discussed above, there is considerable research indicating that social work practitioners and students tend not to look at multiple transactional levels of their cases unless they rely on a structure for ensuring that they do so. The function of the ecosystems perspective is to ensure that questions about the broad case field are asked.
Many practice approaches can be encompassed within an ecosystems perspective, as long as they honor the transactional realities of life. For example, an ecobehavioral model that attends to the behavioral events (public and cognitive) and transactions among all actors in a case (client, family, workmates) within an environmental setting (physical environment, neighborhood) can be ecosystemic. By contrast, some narrower behavioral models (still occasionally found in the literature), which focus only on diagnosing and treating the dysfunctional behavior of the client, by definition are not ecosystemic.
Similarly, a psychosocial model with roots in psychodynamic thought can be ecosystemic (for example, Meyer, 1988) or can narrowly focus on psychotherapy for clients’ intrapsychic dysfunctions. In these examples, the first is consistent with social work purpose, while the second is not. Note that no claim is made here that ecosystems theory somehow enables social workers to “integrate” incompatible practice approaches or models, although some authors (Greif & Lynch, 1983; Vickery, 1974) have on occasion made such a suggestion.
This is clearly neither possible nor desirable. Assessment Wakefield (1996a), in his critique of the ecosystems perspective, suggested that it is not very useful for assessment. Several arguments can be made for its utility for just that purpose, however. First, the perspective has stimulated the development of tools for assessment, including the ecomap and many others (Jordan & Franklin, 1995), which direct the practitioner’s attention to potentially critical areas that are otherwise often missed.
Second, the perspective draws attention to factors that have a major effect on cases, even if they cannot be addressed directly. For example, the experiences of a person of color with personal and institutional racism need to be recognized–and often directly addressed–in practice, even when there is little that can be done about them directly. The client or worker may find it empowering to become involved in advocacy and social action related to these issues, and the client may develop new strategies for dealing with new incidents that arise, but only if the reality is acknowledged.
Despite claims to the contrary, many social workers who do not ask the core ecosystems question, “What are the principal positive and aversive transactions the client experiences or could experience, and how can they be addressed? ” simply miss such factors. As one of the author’s clients replied in response to his question about a problem with a potential landlord, “Race is always part of the issue! ” So are gender, socioeconomic status, the physical and social environments, and other variables toward which the ecosystems perspective points.
Third, practitioners operating without an ecosystems framework may agree with Wakefield’s (1996a) assertion that, “Assessment is, to a large extent, a matter of defining the client’s problem . . . A framework that does not help with problem definition cannot be said in any significant sense to help in assessment” (p. 14). Social work assessment, however, is not primarily about diagnosing a client’s problem but rather about determining what new reality should be constructed, how this differs from the present reality, and what resources will be required to move from the latter to the former.
A medical model suggests that finding a simple diagnosis of client pathology and treating it is the essence of the work, but social work practice is far broader than this (Mattaini & Kirk, 1991). Assessment in social work consists of the co-construction with the client of a vision of an improved life configuration, and the development of a plan to get there (see Chapter 7). Problem definition is only one, sometimes minor, dimension of such assessment. Connectedness
The ecosystems perspective emphasizes the connectedness among case elements, consistent with contemporary physical, behavioral, and ecological science as well as many important philosophic traditions. This emphasis has been criticized, however. For example, Wakefield (1996a) suggested that more linear “domain-specific clinical theories” are required to decide which of the possible or actual connections are relevant to a case and doubted the “general existence of the proposed circular transactions in social work cases” (p. 1). The first observation is in one sense true; one needs both a coherent theoretical model and a broad ecosystemic view of cases to practice social work. The examples given to support Wakefield’s second observation, however, are problematic. For example, Wakefield (1996a) indicated that the notion of connectedness and transactional causation might suggest false circular causes, for example, that “institutionalized mental patients’ symptoms are due to feedback from the asylum’s social structure. . . ” (p. 2), and indicated that “almost all instances of abuse of children seem to be best explained by linear causal processes originating entirely in the environment” (p. 13). These illustrations are actually excellent examples of complexity and reciprocal transaction. Although the underlying causes of schizophrenia appear to be primarily biological, for example, the form and severity of symptoms are in fact extensively shaped by the institutional or family environment within which the patient is embedded (Wong, 1996), and the course of the illness is profoundly affected by cultural factors (Castillo, 1997).
The child maltreatment research indicates that children with more difficult temperaments (generally viewed as present from birth) are at higher risk for abuse (Rutter, 1987), and that many transactional factors within and outside the family appear to be involved in the etiology of abuse (National Research Council, 1993). Note that this says nothing about blame or responsibility, only that psychosocial phenomena are at root deeply interconnected. A child born with a difficult temperament is not responsible for being abused, for example.
However, helping children learn to get what they need in less challenging ways does in fact reduce the chances that they will be abused and increase the chances that they will receive affection and attention from parents, teachers, and peers; we do them no favor by ignoring that fact. Of course, the primary intervention in cases of child maltreatment involves work with the parent, but the outcome of that work is also profoundly affected by other social transactions experienced by the parent (Dumas & Wahler, 1983).
Similarly, perhaps the most widely accepted approach to reducing domestic violence is to ensure that the batterer does not have access to his or her victim (who certainly bears no responsibility for the abuse) by helping the victim make a “safety plan” (Reiss & Roth, 1993). Although robbery victims are not to blame for the crime perpetrated against them, their availability is an important occasion for the crime, as is a lack of observing witnesses.
In many cases, the most effective preventive and interventive programming for human problems focuses on recognizing and manipulating such indirect variables rather than on simple unicausal or linear approaches (Mattaini & Thyer, 1996). Connectedness is real. A shared power perspective on practice rooted in “web thinking” (Lowery & Mattaini, 1999, 2001) requires the connectedness principle of ecosystems.
From this view (grounded in Native American thought), all actions on the part of the social worker (and the client, and other actors in the case) either contribute to or damage the interconnected reality within which people (worker, clients, and others) are embedded. The focus of practice is on working toward a point at which all actors with a stake in the case (for example, biological parents, foster parents, foster child, social worker, and other professionals) have strong voices in planning, make contributions from their respective strengths (note the link to the strengths perspective here), and share responsibility for the outcome.
This is not to say all bear “equal” responsibility, because each carries different responsibilities, but all participate in overall responsibility for the child’s welfare. This approach is possible only if the essential interconnections among case elements are recognized. Summary This chapter introduced the ecosystems perspective, a conceptual framework that allows the social work practitioner to organize the complexity that exists in clients’ worlds. The ecological metaphor of mutual adaptation between person and environment is the context for the principles of GST and more recent work in systems theory.
These principles explain the way case variables interrelate and reverberate and the way the structures and functions of open systems can serve as a model for social work cases. The transactional ecomap provides a concrete depiction of the elements in a case, enabling the practitioner and the client literally to draw its components. The ecomap has many uses in social work practice. It can help draw order out of apparent chaos, illustrate the ways in which the case system functions, serve as a communication tool between practitioner and client and among professionals, and chart the progress in a case.
One of its most important functions is its use as a tool in assessment, for the ecomap can show assets and liabilities present in the case configuration, and the patterns of positive and negative transactions within which the client is embedded. Finally, the ecomap can expand the perspective of the practitioner seeking points of intervention, opening consideration of the use of multiple modalities, methods, and roles with any or all of the actors and conditions in the case. The open view of social work practice supported by the ecosystems perspective characterizes every chapter in this volume.
Although reading a book is a linear experience, the reader will discover that each chapter contributes to a holistic, systemic perspective on practice. The concepts of connectedness, of attention to self-organizing systems, and of attending to transactional elements in assessment and intervention are elaborated and reverberate throughout. References Auerswald, E. H. (1968). Interdisciplinary versus ecological approach. Family Process, 7, 202—215. Capra, F. (1996). The web of life. New York: Anchor Books. Castillo, R. J. (1997). Culture and mental illness: A client-centered approach.
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