Feminist-systems thinking: principles and practice

Stephens, Nina (Anne) (2011) Feminist-systems thinking: principles and practice. PhD thesis, University of Queensland.

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This thesis is an original social research investigation to strengthen the practice of community development and systemic intervention. A creative mix of methods and flexible and responsive approach to addressing the research objectives and questions has led to the establishment of a set of principles within a framework which I have called 'Feminist-Systems Thinking' or (FST). Originally I set out to establish a new theory of feminist-systems epistemology. Like the wording of its key principles, some of my language has changed as I have journeyed through the epistemology, methodology and ontological issues that inform and influence my thinking. The primary purpose of this research was to marry, or partner two vitally important strands of 20th Century thinking; Critical systems thinking (CST) and Cultural Ecofeminism (CEF), and this project is contained within Part A of this thesis. Both schools of thinking are born from more general bodies of knowledge. Critical systems thinking is a branch of the 'soft' systems movement. It emerged from a tradition of responsiveness to the domination of positivist, functionalist and conservative 'hard' systems approaches within the systems movement and prompted a transformation, in the latter half of the 20th Century, towards interpretive models, subjectivity and participatory concepts. Today, CST can be condensed to three crucial themes. To conduct research that (1) emancipates or liberates, (2) achieves mutual understandings and, (3) addresses issues of power and coercion in research practice. The third wave emphasises participation and human attention to how choices between the great variety of systems methods can be exercised in a critical and systemic manner Ecofeminism shares its roots in emancipatory epistemology. It is also a response to issues of power, coercion and the domination of positivist, rationalist ways of knowing. Systems and structures of oppression interlock and reinforce one another, therefore, ecofeminism positions humanity as an integral part of the physical environment. Reductionism and separation of human systems from the whole physical environment perpetuate a culturally constructed oppressive dualism. The binary constructs of 'man/culture', 'woman/nature' has its ontological root in the logic of 'value-free' science and fails to account for, or give voice to members of the underside of the dualism such as women, indigenous peoples around the world, and the environment. 'Cultural' ecofeminism deemphasizes the 'nature-woman' connection (embraced by some alternate movements) which is seen as a social construction imposed by the patriarchal order. To undertake this study, a theory-building methodology – an adapted constructivist grounded theory, was selected. Grounded theory can be conceived as a systemic tool to generate knowledge from within a knowledge generating system. A constant comparison method gave me a procedural plan to complete a comparative analysis of CST and CEF. The study found that there are a multitude of similarities between CST and CEF across a range of concepts including systems thinking language; challenges to positivist science, reason and instrumentalism; ethics and morality and praxis. Grounded in the epistemologies of CST and CEF, there is an emphasis on the need to be cognizant of marginalized agents; women's voices are often overlooked as are the perspectives of the non-human realm; and both have been treated as inferior by the dominance of the positivist-rationalist paradigms in contemporary scientific research and social organisation. Five principles emerged from the synthesis of these concepts and findings, the beginnings of a framework for feminist-systems thinking. The five FST principles are ethical themes. In accordance with my methodology, these themes are scrutinised in terms of the broader literature (chapter 6) on direct and indirectly related concepts. Insights and implications for systemic intervention (SI), Community Operations Research (OR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodologies are prevalent and sets of theoretical recommendations for practitioners are listed. Upon reflection and evaluation of the strengths and limitations of the study, however, a case was built to apply the principles in practical field research to obtain a greater depth of understanding of the potential applications of the FST principles. The five FST principles are:

• Adopt a gender sensitive approach. • Value voices from the margins. • Incorporate the environment within research/actions.

• Select appropriate method/ologies.

• Undertake research/action that promotes plurally desirable and sustainable social change.

Part B of the thesis (chapters 8 – 12) provides the reports of four contrasting and illuminating case studies. The durability and practical use of the FST principles, to better understand how, and if they can improve, community development projects, is under inquiry. Participatory action research was the qualitative methodology framework used to get 'inside' the problem, and simultaneously analyse, critique and provide recommendations on the issues I found. The first case study is a retrospective analysis of a community health intervention. The second is situated within an Indigenous community. The third is a social enterprise developed and operated within a school community and the final study contrasts to the first three which are locally situated, in that it takes a meta-regional approach to planning and regional economic development. The applied field research revealed greater insight into the relevance of the principles, with particular implications for policy and planning. FST brings to the fore the importance of valuing and considering the voices of people at the margins of social research and community development projects, and is an effort towards a new ontology and language of person and nature to adequately address environmental marginalization. The political implications of the FST principles became more apparent exploring concepts of praxis, and challenging constructed subject-object dualisms and FST's own ontology as a 'process philosophy'.

Item ID: 22008
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: systems thinking, feminist thinking, critical systems thinking, ecofeminism, systemic intervention, grounded theory, feminist systems thinking, interpretivism, participatory action research, action research, environmental ethics, feminist ethics, ethics
Date Deposited: 11 Jan 2013 01:40
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1608 Sociology > 160806 Social Theory @ 80%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169901 Gender Specific Studies @ 20%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 100%
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