Systems Model Series: Boundary Critique and Systemic Intervention

Boundary Critique, Systemic Intervention

Adapted from the article originally written by Ndirangu Warugono

for the Cabrera's, Cornell University, System Thinking in Public Affairs Course


Boundary Critique and Systemic intervention both fall into the third wave of systems thinking [1]. In response to the power dynamics introduced by social theory and postmodernism, boundary critique, in particular, focuses on what is not considered or marginalized by these two schools of thought and assigns a corresponding value judgment.

This dynamic occurs in response to boundary judgments drawn by different agents1 where one agent may draw a more narrow boundary than the other. The area between these groups’ boundaries is the margin and often requires secondary agents, with a wider boundary judgment, to be subject to the parameters of the primary boundary.

MarginalizationThe conflict between these two boundaries can be resolved by making the margin area sacred (valuable and included) or profane (ignored).

Systemic intervention, in extension, is defined by a deliberate change made by an agent in consideration of these boundaries and is unique for its consideration of observation as a form of intervention. Observation as intervention, rather than a passive “objective” exercise incorporates both the means by which the parameters of an observation are created and their subsequent execution and results are determined.[2]

The relationship between boundary critique and Systemic Intervention is drawn from Critical Systems Thinking (CST) and comprises critical awareness, improvement, and methodological pluralism. Each of these core principles works in tandem to provide more holistic forms of evaluation.[3]

Core principles:

Critical Awareness - identifying biases through continuous re-examination and understanding their origins and implications.

Improvement - incorporating an understanding of power dynamics and their determination of scope and success. Methodological Pluralism - leveraging the strengths of a variety of research methods to coherently draw more conclusions from more complex scenarios.


Systemic Intervention as a tool of Systems Thinking can be applied in a variety of ways. For instance, a policy that seeks to mitigate the vulnerabilities of homeless youth can leverage a pluralistic approach by incorporating multiple research methodologies.

Most notably, the utilization of both a Boundary Critique and Systemic Intervention framework, allows for the inclusion of the youth as viable stakeholders in the research and policy creation process. This broadens the boundary judgment and centers their voices by bringing them in from the margin.

In addition to simply valuing the voice of these stakeholders, it is also remarkable that they can be given the same gravity of importance in the process of the study. This accounts for the power dynamic created by the fact that they are young and often dismissed or infantilized. The result is that they are brought into the conversations in the same context as more traditional stakeholders: social workers, policy specialists, and/or researchers. [2]



  • Pluralistic Approaches - allows for a combination of methodologies and broadens the perspective the findings.
  • Adaptable - as power dynamics or wicked problems evolve, a systemic approach and a revisiting of boundaries allows for more feedback to be considered and better understanding of the issue.


  • Consensus building of stakeholders - incorporating a pluralistic approach and accounting for multiple perspectives can make processes seem slower and/or less efficient.
  • Theories around marginalization are contentious - accounting for the boundaries associated with power dynamics can rely on compromise to move forward which can also seem slower and/or less efficient.

Sources and further readings

  1. Coghlan, David, and Mary Brydon-Miller, eds. The SAGE encyclopedia of action research. Sage,
  2. Midgley, Gerald. "Systemic intervention." Systemic Intervention. Springer, Boston, MA, 2000. 113-133. 3.Midgley, Gerald, Isaac Munlo, and Mandy Brown. "The theory and practice of boundary critique: developing housing services for older people." Journal of the Operational Research Society 49.5 (1998): 467-478.