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Integration and Systems
Integration is not a straightforward and linear task as might be implied by disarming phrases such as 'joined up thinking', 'adding' 'connecting' or indeed Wilson's 'jumping together' (Wilson 1998: 8).
Etymologically, integration comes from the Latin integrare – to make whole. Integration can be defined as the 'making up or composition of a whole by adding together or combining the separate parts or elements'; and 'combining of diverse parts into a complex whole' (OED 2012). In other words, integration is the process of making wholes.
The emphasis on making wholes is a fundamental aspect of systems theories and concepts. But what do we mean by system? Returning to etymology, the word system is derived from the Greek verb synhistanai meaning 'to place together'.
According to the systems writer, Russell Ackoff, a system is
a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. […] The essential properties of a system taken as a whole derive from the interaction of its parts, not their actions taken separately. (Ackoff 1981: 64–65)
Peter Checkland, the systems writer, also emphasises the importance of the whole in understanding systems: 'the central concept 'system' embodies the idea of a set of elements connected together which form a whole, this showing properties which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts' (Checkland 1981: 3).
Thus a system can be described as 'a whole' comprising interdependent parts. With this simplified, but powerful understanding, the fundamental conceptual link between systems and integration becomes evident: integration is the making of wholes or systems. In terms of methodology, the question then presents itself as: what methodological innovation can enable the making of wholes among diverse disciplines, including the social sciences, in policy contexts?
Before exploring some possible answers, it is important to be aware that integration does not automatically convey some positive quality to the system: not all systems and not all integration are positive or socially desirable. For example, an illegal waste system which ships and dumps waste computers from the EU into Africa, may be a highly integrated system, but one which, in this particular case, is considered socially undesirable and illegal.
Thus, from a systems point of view, integration, of itself, does not carry a value judgement in terms of ethics or outcomes, although of course evaluating the work done by the system may involve a wide range of measures of performance, including ethical considerations. In this sense, integration is a somewhat neutral concept – the definition and arrangement of the system for particular purposes by particular stakeholders determines whether integration achieves socially acceptable goals.
It is also important to be aware that any discussion on systems quickly reaches a point where an epistemological choice has to be made: do we see systems as 'out there', existing in the real world, or do we see systems as more observer dependent? This distinction is often linked to distinguishing between 'hard' systems which are claimed as an ontological reality and 'soft' systems (Checkland 1981) where emphasis is on the constructed nature of a system, dependent on the observer defining a system boundary. The different debates about these branches of systems and consequences for knowledge and knowing are not rehearsed here. Indeed, as Ison (2008b) suggests, the distinction between hard and soft systems has tended to create a dualism – a selfnegating pair – rather than a duality – a connected and interdependent complementarity. It is, however, notable that the 'soft systems' tradition is more aligned to qualitative framings and methodologies which find resonance in the social sciences and for this reason the focus of this chapter remains on soft systems.
A central aspect of the soft systems perspective is raising awareness of the different boundary choices by different stakeholders in a situation. In this tradition of systems, it is accepted that stakeholders 'see' and value different elements and thus their boundary choices relating to their chosen system will vary. The choices of system boundary and system elements are fundamentally linked to the purpose ascribed to any system by the observer. Thus, within soft systems, a system can be described as 'a whole defined by someone as having a purpose'. The term 'system' is used as a shorthand for 'system of interest'– ie an observer-dependent formulation of what constitutes a whole made up of interdependent parts.
For example, within the same water catchment, a farmer's system of interest might comprise elements such as crop types, water supply, markets, land-use, financial concerns and family needs. A conservationist's system of interest in the same catchment might be local species, habitat and the river ecology. A business offering canoe trips in the catchment might be mostly concerned about river levels, water quality, habitat and access rights. Each stakeholders' system of interest may overlap in terms of having shared elements (eg the river), but this does not mean each system of interest is integrated with the others. Indeed, it is the sense in which these different systems of interests are experienced as competing rather than integrating, that gives rise to a sense of divergence of goals, controversy, disintegration of action and environmental loss.
The emphasis on wholes is an important conceptual framing in systems thinking, alongside the irreducibility of a system's characteristics to its component parts: ie a system cannot be reduced to its component parts. This has particular implications for the way we conceptualise integration. In short, integration is not a thing that can be applied to a situation. Rather, integration is a system-level property that emerges from the interaction and inter-dependencies of the different elements of the system.
This may seem self-evident, but its consequences are profound: integration cannot be applied to a situation of natural resource management by researchers (of any discipline), policy-makers or practitioners. Integration arises at the systems level – ie from the set of interactions between the different elements identified by someone as being part of the system. With this insight, the focus shifts away from trying to 'add' integration as some kind of ingredient into policy process which can be applied to a specific aspect, policy process or part of a situation. Instead, considerations centre about how to create the system-level conditions in which integration emerges. Within this view of systems, natural resource management praxis is extended beyond the confines of engineering and biophysical science disciplines and into social sciences. Integration, understood as the making of wholes and an emergent property of systems, coupled with an emphasis on observer dependency, leads to the view that natural resource managing is fundamentally a social process. Methodologies are needed which recognise and engage with the social element and also the process element and which also recognise the complexity, controversy and multiple stakeholding in the way situations are framed. Drawing on exemplars from water resource managing, attention now turns to designing social learning systems
as a key means to integrate social sciences into policy processes and outcomes.
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