Systemic Idealism


Now that you have a concept of thinking systemically, we can turn the corner toward actually solving the problems we face.

We tend to see social problems as everlasting partners in our lives.  They are familiar, entrenched, and unstoppable.  I propose we have been wrong.

Social problems are our creation.  We construct them and we can stop them.

The key to solving social problems is envisioning them in an entirely different way.  Rather than focusing on the problem, we focus on the solution.

I want to introduce you to a problem-solving framework I call Systemic Idealism.

There are four basic tenets to this framework:

  1. All social problems have ideal solutions.
  2. History illuminates the path to change.
  3. All social problems are systemic and socially constructed.
  4. Anything socially constructed can be socially reconstructed.

Solutions Imagined

I previously mentioned I used to practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  My training taught me to use a number of different approaches with clients to help them through challenging times.

One approach I learned and practiced is brief solution-focused therapy.  In this approach, you address the challenges in a person’s life by helping them focus on the future.

The hallmark of this mode of therapy is a tool called “the miracle question.”  This tactic helps people see past all of the challenges in their lives.  Instead, they focus on what could bring them the greatest improvement.

After you hear the client’s list of problems, you ask a specific question.  That question is, “If you woke up tomorrow morning and everything in your life was suddenly better, what would have changed?”

I cannot overstate the impact this question can have on people.  I recall countless clients regaling me with a protracted list of all the terrible things in their lives.

Each of these problems was a legitimate issue.  However, they were so oppressive in the person’s life she or he could not see past them.

Photo by Veronika Balasyuk

It was as if they were standing with their face in the corner, unable to see in any direction.  They could not even see the possibility that things could be better.

That was until they heard the miracle question.  Suddenly, they had an opportunity to look at their life in an entirely different light.  They had to imagine the change they wanted to see.  This can instill a tremendous sense of hope and energy, and begin to uncover a path toward solutions.

When it comes to fighting social problems, we are no different.  We are stuck with our noses in the corner.  It does not have to be this way.

The Real Ideal

It is time to ask ourselves the miracle question.  If we woke up tomorrow and suddenly a specific social problem was gone, what will have changed?

The key to unraveling the solution is to focus on what we wish to see.  We cannot create solutions if we are not audacious enough to imagine them.

We imagine solutions by working backward from our ideal goal.

The word “ideal” is a bit tricky here.  Ideal for whom?  There is no way to ask this question without making some sort of value judgment.  One person’s ideal could easily be another person’s problem.

I argue there is a way to identify the most ideal outcome for the most possible people.  We can do this by studying the history of the problem.

The Map of History

Wander down the path of history of any social problem, and you will find it systemiclittered with the choices we have made.

Most of the time, people choosing laws and rules in society don’t choose these solely for the purpose of causing trouble for another group.  Most of the time, we choose laws and rules based on some sort of benefit we expect to receive from them.

Something always motivates our choices.  Sometimes that motivation is money, sometimes it is fear, and every so often, it is actual scientific evidence.  No matter the motivation, there is always a reason.

A social problem forms when the laws or rules we choose manufacture some sort of adversity in people’s lives.  Sometimes this means all people, and sometimes just a select group.

In these cases, history provides the map to lead us to solutions.  The history of a social problem tells us what we have chosen to cause the problem, where those choices have taken us, who has been helped or harmed by these choices, and even why we chose what we did.

Armed with this information, we begin to see how we could choose differently.  We now have the knowledge to shape solutions into our ideal outcome.

Systemic and Socially Constructed

My last post introduced the idea of thinking in systems.  All social problems are systemic.  They involve a number of different social systems all working together.

Photo by Stephen Crowley

The choices we make create the systems that keep social problems in place.  Any systems we create are under our control.  If we construct them to cause a problem, we can reconstruct them solve that problem.



For example, we could decide to end poverty in the United States.  This would shape the way in which we look at all other systems that contribute to poverty.

We would choose to create an economic system built to keep people from falling into poverty.  At the same time, we would build an education system that ensures opportunities for all citizens.

We could change all aspects of our healthcare system that can lead to poverty.  We would make sure everyone has access to healthy food in a land of plenty.  Likewise, it would be obvious homelessness and housing insecurity have no place in a society where poverty is not welcome.

An ideal solution to ending poverty forces us to see poverty as a systemic problem.  We have to identify the layers keeping that problem in place, and then identify ways to change those layers.

What Do We Choose?

Systemic Idealism is a game changer for social problems.  Within this view, social problems are no longer permanent or impossible to change.  They are simply puzzles.

We can take any social problem and see it through a brand new lens.  Suddenly, everything comes down to a simple choice.

Do we want to solve the problem or not?

Thinking in Systems

Photo by Jimmy Musto

In the last few posts, I have discussed what we have done and why we have chosen our actions.  Now, it’s time to take one more crucial step toward discussing specific solutions.

Over the next few weeks, I want to dig into some of the challenges we are facing right now.  Specifically, I want to discuss immigration and healthcare.  These two hot-button issues are guaranteed to remain big news, and I want to take a deeper look at what is really going on.

Before I get there, however, I have two essential points to cover.  The first is the importance of thinking in systems.

The Systems of Our Natural World

As a social worker, I have learned to think in systems.  I have realized over the years that this type of thinking is unique.  Ultimately, I think it can help us all gain a different perspective on social problems.

Think of a “system” as an entity interacting with its environment.  A specific set of rules govern its actions and interactions.  In our world, there are systems all around us, and they fall into one of two categories—natural systems or created systems.

Natural systems govern the interactions of the natural world.  The easiest example of this is the basic ecology of nature.

Photo by Joe Wroten

Think about what happens outside your window in the natural world—that is, the world not created by humans.  The sun and rain interact with the plants, which interact with the ground, which interacts with everything living in the ground, which…you get the picture.

These natural systems come in all shapes and sizes.  Plant cells, whole trees, the human body, an individual worm or a whole clew of worms (I actually looked up “group of worms” and discovered a whole article dedicated to this topic.  The Internet is amazing).

These systems are naturally occurring.  The processes within them would happen even if we were not here to notice.

All other systems outside of the naturally occurring world are systems we have created.  These include all technological systems, mechanical systems, and social systems.

This systems-centered view of the world is known in my field of social work as the ecological/systems framework. This framework allows us to envision the interactions between any system and its environment.  The framework is an combination of systems theory and ecological principals (1, 2).

The Ecological/Systems Framework

I am going to use an example of a person in poverty so we can get a better understanding of this concept.  Take a look at the illustration below.



In the middle of the picture, we see an individual person.  That individual is a system unto herself.

In the immediate layer or level outside of that individual, we find the other systems in the person’s life that have the closest relationships with her.  These include family members, friends, and so on.

In the next level, we find the systems still central to her daily life, but not quite as close as those on the first level.  This could include her job or career, school, church, and her local government.

In the outer layer, we find the overarching systems governing some of the key aspects of everyone’s lives.   These systems include very broad concepts like culture, values, and societal rules and laws.  This level also includes the policies we create in both the private and the governmental sector.

Societal Forces

You will notice the outermost layer, what I will call the “macro” systems, takes up more space in the illustration than the “micro” systems in the inner layers.

This signifies the level of influence asserted by these macro systems in each of our lives.  We tend to think the people and systems closest to us on the innermost levels assert the most power and influence on us.

This is our standard view of individual control over one’s life and creating one’s own destiny.  In reality, the larger systems force parameters on our actions and lives.  They assert much greater force when it comes to things like overcoming poverty.

If the person in the middle of the diagram wants to get out of poverty, she has to address the interactions with each of the systems pictured.

It is possible, of course, for a person to find her or his way out of poverty individually.  Sometimes, people and organizations on the micro levels are willing to offer help and support.  This can help someone to overcome the pressures exerted by the macro level systems.

However, the macro systems we create can limit peoples’ ability to climb out of the poverty hole.  If we create macro systems that do not keep people from falling into poverty, then no amount of micro-level intervention will ever defeat poverty.

Our Socially Constructed World

There is a key fact about these macro systems. They are entirely socially constructed.  We have created them.

Any system we have created is under our control.  It plays by our rules.

There are natural forces in the world that are outside of direct human control.  Tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and asteroids hurtling toward Earth are but a few.

We can prepare for natural phenomena and cope with their aftermath, but we cannot control them.  We cannot say the same, however, about the systems we have socially constructed.

 Financial Poverty

Here is one example.  There is no such thing as naturally occurring poverty.

You are not born with poverty as a natural disease or genetic disposition.  Poverty is entirely socially constructed.

One of the most obvious “symptoms” of poverty is lack of financial resources, so we can begin there.

If any population within the world suddenly decided they wanted to pay janitors within a company more than the CEO, they could.  There would be no natural forces stopping them from doing so.  Any forces would be purely social.

Photo by Brooke Lark

If we suddenly decided paying women less than men in the United States was a ridiculous practice, we could stop it.

Let’s say we decided it made sense to pay everyone an amount of money that would at least provide for their basic needs.  We could choose to do this.

If we decided to pay everyone the exact same amount for every single job, it would be possible.

Nothing in the naturally occurring universe around us is forcing us to keep poverty around.

When you begin thinking in systems, you open the window to solutions.  If we create systems that cause a social problem, we can change those systems to solve that same problem.

Now that we are thinking systemically, we are ready for one more step toward solving our problems.  In my next post, I will introduce you to a framework I like to call “Systemic Idealism”.