In the previous episode we introduced the idea of systemic thinking and explored what ‘systems’ were. In this podcast we look more closely at the kinds of systems that we are part of throughout our lives. These can include:

  • Family
  • Education System
  • Heath System
  • Benefit systems
  • Criminal Justice System

It’s worth noting that we can exist in systems within systems such as the drug and alcohol treatment system that sits within the wider public health system. We can also exist in systems that overlap each other such as being in the drug and alcohol system whilst also being in the benefits system.

The thing about systems....

So, imagine you are in your favourite cinema, the seats are really comfortable. The lights go down; the huge screen lights up; the Dolby surround sound kicks in. The film is fantastic.; the story is gripping; the special effects are amazing.....What happens to you? You forget everything and become sucked into the whole experience. You lose sense of who you are. It is a spectacle and you are an spectator.

A bit like the example of the cinema, we can easily lose ourselves and become immersed within everyday life (and its overlapping systems). Things seem to be ‘just how they are’ or ‘it is what it is’. Any thinking is reduced to ‘well it’s just common sense’.

The problem with many of the systems we inhabit is that we don’t see we’re in them and many of these systems do not wish to reveal themselves. They can be confusing, bewildering and hard to navigate (thinking of the benefits system or the criminal justice system) - and they are set up to operate like this.

This means that for many people, these hidden systems and how they operate can leave them feeling like they’re just acting, or pretending to be a part of something  or are not fully understanding something-  at the same time as experiencing an uncomfortable feeling of not quite belonging . And if you recall the podcast we did on cognitive dissonance, this pretty much sums up that feeling. This also links to the things we talked about on the ‘Authenticity’ podcast - of not being able to ‘be’ who you feel you are.

Many of the really important thinkers, political writers, philosophers, and artists believe their work is about helping people to become aware of the systems we exist in and help the reader/viewer’ to recognise their relationships to those systems. Some would say that art or books or theatre, films and music aren’t just there to ‘entertain’ people. They exist to create a rupture or a tear in what seems to be just ‘how it is’ - to show systems up for what they are and the inequality within them.

If we go back to the idea of being in a cinema or, in this instance a theatre, one of the greatest playwrights and poets Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) created a form of theatre that is sometimes referred to as ‘Epic theatre’. Basically he believed the role of art was to make people think about the kinds of society and political systems that they were in. So rather than being wanting his audiences to be immersed in the story or being passively entertained - he used several techniques (which he called alienation effect) to remind people they were watching a performance and to be active in understanding the messages of the performance.

If we return to the kinds of social systems that we inhabit you can see that there are lots of different artists, filmmakers, and thinkers that have created work that asks questions of those systems - it doesn’t just say that’s ‘just common sense’. So in the spirit of questioning and curiosity, you might like to explore some of the following.

  • Family -  In this section we discussed the family as a system. Some of the things we talked about are psychologist Oliver James’ book ‘They F*** You Up: How to survive Family Life’. We also talked about systemic therapy that has its roots in the work of Murray Bowen and the Milan family systems approach of Palazzoli Cecchin, Boscolo and Prata. We also referred to Philip Larkin’s iconic poem ‘This Be The Verse’ reproduced in all its glory here....
  • Education System  - A big influence on Foundation for Change are the works of  Paulo Friere , bell hooks, and Ivan Illich which challenge how we understand the education system.
  • Heath System - We briefly mentioned that in the late 960s and early 70s, thinkers such as Ronald Laing, Foucault and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari were challenging how we understand ‘madness’ whilst challenging the mental health system.
  • Criminal Justice System - We briefly mentioned Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series that are currently available in the BBC i-Player. In particular the ‘Mangrove’ film about how Black political activists (known as the ‘Mangrove 9’) exposed the racism at the heart of the Metropolitan police at a time when questioning the impartiality of the justice system was rarely attempted.


This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.


But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.


Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.