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Social Tensegrity - Social Work Blog

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Contrasting Whole Systems and Mechanical Systems


This blog is about the central concepts of a wholistic model of social work practice by differentiating between mechanical and wholistic views of whole systems. Social work in the West, for example, evolved along mechanistic lines that embody principles of :


  1. fragmentation,

  2. focusing on problem-solving with outside forces influencing change,

  3. formulating mathematical models to solve problems,

  4. relying only on analytical predictability of “objective” observation instead of including synergetic wholeness of co-empowerment,

  5. detached observation, wherein a comparison was made between value-neutral practice versus value-directed practice. The former was seen as a tenet of the mechanical approach where study is undertaken merely to validate (prove or disprove or test linear cause-effect relationships) or a hypothesis. Whereas in social work practice, the aim would be to follow through with value guided actions based upon observer-observed interactions,

  6. analytical predictability that stressed the ability to foretell the actions of a whole system by studying its different parts, thereby disregarding various relationships within and outside a system. This differs from the principles of synergetic science that state, “the behavior of the whole can never be predicted completely through the sum of its parts” – a core essential for working wholistically.

Wholistic views

"In both, Universe is depicted as a whole. “When each entity is separately connected to the whole Universe”, or Atman = Brahman (the microcosm is inseparable from the macrocosm, the whole). "

Wholistic views are closely tied to the works of David Bohm, a theoretical physicist, in his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1983) and Swami Jitatmananda in his book, “Holistic Science and the Vedanta (1993). Bohm refers to the increasing support for holism found in 20th century science (Post Newtonian or Post Modern in my view). Jitatmananda links the conclusions about holism found in postmodern science, sometimes called “new” science, to the holistic philosophy of Vedanta formulated in ancient India 3,000-6,000 years ago. In both, Universe is depicted as a whole. “When each entity is separately connected to the whole Universe”, or Atman = Brahman (the microcosm is inseparable from the macrocosm, the whole).



Bohm defined wholeness as “understanding the nature of reality in general and consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete – an unending process of movement and unfoldment (p. 9). His work helps us understand that notions of wholeness are closely tied to human views of reality. For example, a common view is the notion that “one who thinks (the ego) is, at least in principle, separate from and independent of the reality he/she thinks about…” Such a view is firmly embedded in the West and supported by the mechanistic, detached observer-observed worldview of modern (pre-20th century) science. Although, it is said to be rejected or denied in the East, this view of reality still pervades large portions of life and daily practices in the East, as it does in the West.


The tendency to think of our lives as if they are independent realities, contained separately in their own space and time, makes it very difficult to hold the view of wholeness outlined by Bohm. Modern science, which means science up to but not including the science of Einstein and others of this century tried to prove the common view. Reality was said to be made up of independent entities, separately existing in space and time that are brought together by outside forces to form coherent wholes. This is the “building block” reductionist view of Universe. The view is confirmed with the aid of theory-generated predictions/hypotheses that are designed to produce static truths until falsified by evidence of new static truths.


When humans hold the view that the world is made up of separate parts that can be connected and disconnected at will, they develop a fragmentary or “divided wholeness” view of the world. The logical extension of this view is to divide ourselves into distinct categories of people – race, nations, family, religion, profession, class, caste, and so on. When we “see” reality as something separate and independent, we are “naturally” inclined to defend our independent realities against the independent realities of others. We will always think of the divided part first: my nation, my race, my cultural beliefs, my family, my way. Thinking about the undivided whole will not occur because this Is not our worldview.


View of wholeness

"This view of wholeness is marked by a continuous process movement and unfolding of a system thereby preventing it from becoming static. This is compared to the concept of ‘divided wholeness’ where in an attempt to approach systems in a wholistic manner"

Movement away from the dominance of a modern science view, tied to mechanical rigidity, toward the concept of relativity and deep interconnectedness amongst everything in Universe is only a recent phenomenon, associated with the post-modern science of the 20th century. Consequently, social work practice in the West is now slowly opening up to the idea of ‘coherent’ or undivided wholeness. This view of wholeness is marked by a continuous process movement and unfolding of a system thereby preventing it from becoming static. This is compared to the concept of ‘divided wholeness’ where in an attempt to approach systems in a wholistic manner, we fragment the Universe into independents representations of reality, focusing on the manifestations of these entities and then mistakenly, begin to accept them as independent realities that can be amassed to form a whole.


To test the integration of one’s perceived and applied worldview, one can participate in a simple exercise. Draw an equilateral triangle on paper or in your mind, then reflect/declare whether your approach in social work is based on mechanistic wholeness or coherent wholeness. Then answer the question, “What is the sum of angles of the triangle you have drawn?” Your answer will help demonstrate whether your declared worldview (wholistic or not) matched the way you added the sum of the angles.


Figure 2

Mechanistic Wholeness Vs. Coherent Wholeness




Most participants, even those who said they held a coherent wholeness worldview, will give 180˚ (60x3) as their answer. The fact is most of us think of wholism this way, and behave accordingly, in terms of inside angles only – “my part” as if it somehow exists independently of my connection to its outside angles. This is how we have been taught from our earliest introductions (in grade school arithmetic) of a worldview of reality. For social workers, or anyone else for that matter, to think wholistically let alone act in a corresponding way, is by and large a foreign exercise. Very few participants in the fun-type test ever spontaneously given 1080˚ (combined inside and outside angles, 360x3) as their answer. We have NOT been taught or encouraged to see the whole in its interconnected entirety before looking at special case manifestations of parts of the whole.


Wholeness as Undivided


"A major exclusion from the point of view of social work."

To think of wholeness as an undivided, unbroken flow is more of a challenge than simply declaring that holism addresses the whole person, rather than a few parts in isolation from other parts. The independent reality view has infiltrated all spheres of life, whether we are dealing with emotions, human relationships or social organizations. Modern science (pre-20th century as opposed to post-modern science), for example, has always tended to ignore psychological and social factors in favour of physical explanations. A major exclusion from the point of view of social work.


Post-modern science (largely defined by 20th century, and beyond, developments in science) has discovered the limitations of a divided wholeness worldview. Analyzing the world (breaking wholes into constituent parts to understand the whole) into independently existing parts no long works in the physical sciences. Developments in the theories or relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory have advanced science well beyond the mechanical, clock-like, orderly understanding of our world.

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