Systems Model Series: Critical Systems Thinking

Critical Systems Thinking (CST)

Adapted from the article originally written by Alex Pereira

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


Critical Systems Thinking (CST) is, in Gerald Midgley’s[1] terms, associated to the third wave of the systems thinking history which began in the early 1950s. The third wave, emerged in the 1990s and incorporated human social dynamics (the political issue) into the field of systems thinking study. Considering that the three waves are not self- excluding, which means they are incremental, while the second wave added humans (the social issue) to the quantitative modeling (“hard systems”) of the first wave, the third wave brought the insight that the human relations presuppose power relations. The CST approach helps identify the stakeholders, who have the power and who is in a weak position, highlighting that injustice exists in the human interactions held and enforced in the second wave.

This wave also addresses great value to methodological pluralism, repairing the separation between the first and the second waves. Actually, CST is unique in combining elements from preceding waves on dealing with huge systems problems, the so called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous) issues. CST is considered postmodern in orientation and utmost uses recent ideas from complexity research. This wave, although strongly committed to multi-methods, defends the use of a group of tools for choosing different methods and it can cause ambiguous philosophical assumptions about the nature of social reality.


An example of how it can be used in practice could be in analyzing the dynamics of student interactions in a classroom, especially on debates: who has leadership skills; who is the show-off student; who gets to dominate debates; which students do not participate; is there bullying among students; etc. Considering that there is a power relationship among the student interactions, CST could help on conceptualizing power in this environment. Maybe some students are not as participative as they could be because the others just don’t give room for them. Thus, it could be a tool for teachers, by mapping this power relation within the students, creating a mental model of the class dynamics, to provide different ways of intervention in order to stimulate student’s participation in classes and to hold those who overstate. The teacher, after getting feedback from his/her intervention, may be able to rearrange the mental model for new interventions (a loop) to improve learning goals in the end of the day through better students participation on class debates.

On the other hand, there are negative voices when it comes to the CST pluralism. Bammer (2003) is one of these voices affirming CST places too many expectations on hierarchies, nonlinearity and feedback loops. Ultimately this emphasis leads to exclusion of groups or issues although the expressed intention was to reduce it. There are also critics of drawing boundaries judgments for not being clear the way they are made and its consequences for analyses and the system situation itself. The negative externality of pluralism in the third wave is that analyzing complex problems, scholars, policymakers and practitioners can not exactly say what is system thinking, and what is the backbone that embodies the whole system thinking study field. That is the main concern leading to the upcoming of the fourth wave.



  • Committed to methodological pluralism
  • Attend to power relations in systems approaches
  • Repaired the methodological separation between the first and the second wave

  • Avoid orientation of some approaches aiming to increase the participation       of      stakeholders  and affected parties


  • May exclude groups or issues
  • Lies in obscurity what system thinking really is
  • Undefined foundational tenets that underlie all systems thinking methods

  • Undifferentiation between tools and skills


Sources and Further Reading

Cabrera, D. (2006). Systems Thinking. (Doctoral Dissertation) Ithaca, NY: Cornell University

[1] Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, methodology, and practice. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic