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Systems theory and the spirit of feminism: grounds for a connection (a). (Research Paper).

The relevance of a general systems theory approach for feminist analysis, feminisms, is multiple. So too is the compatibility of many feminist ideas with a general systems theory approach. Yet this common ground and venue for fruitful stimulation to both areas has not been explored. I attribute this to misunderstanding of the principles of systems theory specifically a perception that systems theory is necessarily conservative and justifies status quo. This may derive from the large presence of sociologists in feminisms and the classic association of systems theory in sociology with authors like Parsons (1979), Buckley (1967), Sorokin (1969) and Luhmann (1982). I have argued elsewhere (Hanson, 1995a) that the conservative bias of these applications derives not from a general systems theory approach, but rather from the traditional sociological assumptions that these authors integrated into their theories. Since it is these authors who have garnered the greatest attention this has led to a perception that they represent a general systems theory approach in total.

On examining a wide range of approaches in the social, physical and medical sciences more possibilities appear. Rather than being inherently status quo or positivist, general systems theory approaches arose in the radical transformation of scholarship in the first half of the 1900s in the physical, natural and medical sciences (Capra, 1996). At about the same time post-modernism/ post-structuralism was emerging as a counterview to theories of nation and structure, general systems theory was enraging in response to the limitations of Newtonian physics (mechanism), awareness of global ecology, the Cold War and expansion of mental health intervention. Relativity, bio-feed back, cybernetics, holism, family therapy and double bind surfaced as new ways to theorize various substantive topics. In the mid to late 1900s second-wave feminism gained momentum in politics scholarship to the point that it has grown into a variety of different theoretical approaches (Martin, 1987; Khafif et al., 1986; Kesssler and Mc Kenna, 1978; Fireston, 1970). Both areas have grown and diversified in the past 50 years to the point that what may have appeared as disparate or anti-thetic in the 1950s has come to common ground on several points. Remaining differences can fuel growth in both areas.


This paper has roots in a number of gardens. My earliest major scholarly passion was for general systems theory. It remains my point of departure and led me to write a book outlining and updating the various insights and ideas which have helped me in my analysis of senile dementia, fertility, and cancer: General Systems Theory Beginning with Wholes (Hanson, 1995b). I use the assumptions of constructivism which I first encountered with the works of Erving Goffman (Goffman, 1959, 1961) and later found echoed in von Glaserfeld (1984) and Watzlawick (1984). Entering into academia in 1986 brought me face to face with the everyday realities of sex discrimination and encouraged me into feminist politics. Over the last decade I have been bringing together my theoretical stance with issues of gender in my scholarship. This has led me to a view where general systems theory and feminism seem compatible, even inseparable. Yet I have encountered resistance and rejection as I try to address feminist issues within a general systems theory approach. I have been told in several reviews that what I am doing is 'not feminist theory'. This has made me uncomfortable since I have trouble reconciling the growing intellectual diversity in feminisms with the idea that it is possible to define a boundary of what feminist theory is not. Also, I see how many feminist issues can be usefully approached with systems theory.

In the past, definition of what feminism is and is not has led to significant criticism notably as regards women of colour and diverse sexual orientations. By defining boundaries or margins, North American feminism made itself ripe for the challenges of women of colour from authors like Patricia Hill Collins (1991) and bell hooks (hooks, 1981). It was argued that what feminists were defining as inclusiveness and equality was in fact an exploration of these topics as relevant to white middle class women in developed nations. These lines of critique from the margins of feminism shook to the core what had purported to be a critique of marginalization.

I consider general systems theory and feminism in the same vein as women of colour did. Talking about margins and who is inside and outside them invites criticism of those who draw the lines. This is as true of intellectual as political lines. I argue that a general systems theory approach can and should be part of feminist analysis, both because margninalizing it from intellectual feminisms is internally contradictory, and it offers useful ideas for feminist analysis.

I feel that it is no longer useful, and perhaps even not possible, to talk about feminist or feminism in any singular sense. This makes the term feminisms more appropriate. However, even though it may not be possible to provide a singular definition of feminism, feminist analysis, or feminist theory, it is possible to talk about a spirit of feminism in two basic ideas: sexuality and equality. These two central ideas run thorough the majority of feminisms to a greater or lesser extent. I have distilled out these two ideas in order to consider the possibilities in a general systems theory approach for feminist issues.

One reason stated for ignoring systems theory in the past seems to be the association of systems theory with the natural sciences, positivism and objectivity. Developed in mathematics and biology, systems theory may seem anathema to the uninitiated or those who reject objective nomothetic science, logic or positivism. Looking within a systems view offers precisely the opposite idea. Systems thanking was the seed for contextual, non-mechanistic views within science and a springboard to pan-disciplinary study. Feminist critiques and revisions of science have been a vital part of gender analysis (Hubbard and Margaret, 1988; Keller, 1985; Fausto-Sterling, 1985; Bleier, 1984). So too have been the critiques of and alternatives to conventional science that systems theory has brought to the fore. This is particularly relevant where systems theory in the social and behavioral sciences has been linking it to constructivist thought with authors like Bateson (Bateson et al., 1976), Lidz (Lidz et al., (1957), Watzlawick (1984), Polllner and McDonald-Wikler (1985), Dell (1986) and myself (Hanson, 1989b).

In sociology and social sciences authors like Buckley (1967), Luhmann (1982), Sorokin (1969), and Parsons (1979) all used notions of hierarchy and status quo that imply a conservative political agenda. Neither hierarchy nor status quo is necessary to systems theory, but these authors have set the pattern for how systems thinking is viewed in sociology. Given this view, and the large presence of sociologists in ferminisms, it is not surprising that feminists in the social sciences would be turned away from, or not interested in, systems theory. Feminist analysis with its strong component of praxis, political action and change would seem antithetic to a status quo ideology.

However, systems theory can be usefully considered by feminist scholars in its broader range. This means looking at work done on families (Shenberg, 1992; Weingarten, 1991; White, 1989; Goldner, 1988), family therapy (Peck et al., 1995; Goldner, 1988; Hare-Mustin, 1978), social work, pan-disciplinary theory (Capra, 1996; von Bertalanffy, 1968), chaos theory (Gleick, 1987) and peace and conflict studies (Rapoport, 1974, 1989) as well as newer versions in sociology (Hanson, 1995b; Bailey, 1994).

Within this broader view of systems theory it is possible to see an epistemological alternative to traditional theory that is based on mechanism, linear cause or ideological assumptions in use of relational units, cybernetic causality and a nonassumption approach. Systems theory arose in response to many of the same scholarly limitations and historical events that spawned postmodernism and proliferated feminism. Because of this it is worth looking for common ground between these lines of thought.


I argue that there is no such thing as feminist theory as a singular at present. While there are many people who define themselves as feminist theorists there is little or no agreement about what feminist theory is. Therefore it is not possible to define what it isn't. To do so, define in terms of what something isn't, is a form of scholarly creation of the `other', a concept which has become important in the area of race relations (Ahmad, 1993), health (Figlio, 1982) and feminism (Rosser, 1992). People reify their position by defining others as not them. In this sense feminist analysis would seem to be an argument for intellectual inclusiveness to correspond to its political inclusiveness. This has already begun in feminist thinking with authors pointing out how various practices of scholarship and language are exclusionary (Smith, 1987; Irigarav, 1985; Spender, 1990; Ortner, 1974; Keller, 1985; Norris, 1991; Reinharz, 1992; Butler, 1990). In some cases this is usefully extended to self-reflexive practices of feminist scholars who question assumptions made in rejecting practices or language that can be revitalized if a feminist stance is taken (Moi, 1985) or reconsidering topics like methods (Williams, 1990; Stanley and Wise, 1990; Pugh, 1990).

My position as someone who has long used a general systems theory approach got me thinking that feminisms, like general systems theory, could be considered an approach. It might be possible to distil out topics like equality and sexuality to create a spirit of feminism, and think about a point of departure for a feminist approach rather than an assumption or set of assumptions that ultimate chafe individual scholars and their political visions. This would fill the same role meta-theoretically as the systems point of departure--the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It might be a way to reinterest people who were attracted to systems theory in the past but rejected it when it has criticized for being sexist or conservative. In feminisms it might open up pan-disciplinary dialogue among the natural, physical and medical sciences to expand interdisciplinary discussions that have primarily focused on the social sciences and humanities.

To this end, I propose the ideas of equality and sexuality as the spirit of feminism in the sense that they represent dominant ideas that most feminists deal with. Even though I am sure it is possible to find scholars who define their work for self as feminist and do not address equality or sexuality, I argue that these two ideas are sufficiently representative of dominant notions in the area to distinguish it from other types of scholarship and still capture something of relevance. So, into the fray of conflicting and competing definitions of feminism, feminist theory and feminist scholarship, I offer my own interpretation of what I see as the `Spirit of Feminism' with two central issues: equality and sexuality. For purposes of organization and clarity under the headings of equality and sexuality I offer general systems theory ideas that could be useful to each issue and point out instances where feminist scholarship has grown into common ground with these ideas.


Equality refers to the question of social differentiation, encompassing both access to scarce resources and the varying forms of meaning that are attached to people in social context. To considerations of access to scarce resources which focus on the differential access of men versus women, general systems theory offers three relevant ideas: first, from communication theory and the definition of system there is the idea that action and inaction are equally causal; second, a view of social context that does not rely on the separation of micro and macro levels; third, is parallogic--the ideas that since systems of logic are specific to contexts they can be seen as parallel to one another rather than diverging from a single point.

Action and Inaction

The notion that action and inaction are equally causal (Hanson, 1995a) is derived from the basic definition of a system: two or more parts interrelated such that changing one part changes all parts. What this means is that any change reverberates through the system. Because parts are inextricably linked the possibility for causal significance from inaction arises. If one part does nothing, another may take up the part. Thus, lack of action leads to change. It is corollary of Watzlawick. Bavelas, and Jackson's axiom of communication: the `impossibility of not Communicating' (1967, p. 72). Or, the extension you `cannot not communicate'. (P. 75).

Inaction as cause is an important political concept which was suggest by John Fitzgerald Kennedy's statement, `If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.' In the idea of action and inaction as equally causal is a means of modeling this formally. Issues like affirmative action are well addressed in this vein with the observation that doing nothing is in effect increasing equalities. This is stepping stone to issues of racism and anti-racism by theorizing inaction as a causal factor in explaining events. In a systems view there is a focus on the pattern rather than just the substance of events as a means of long-term prediction (Capra, 1996; Gleick, 1987).

Beyond the Micro/Macro Debate; An `A' Structural View

Summative structural models that rely on the average, typical or most frequent have trouble capturing individual occurrences or cases. They also invite models of dominant ideology to the neglect of minority groups or individuals in case-level intervention. This has spawned the micro/macro-level debate that has occupied a great deal of attention sociology and related disciplines and interdisciplinary studies. Much effort has gone into trying to find ways to bridge the gap between structural constructs like class, or institution, with everyday-life ideas like self, prevailing definition or stigma. Where feminist analysis relies on structure it shares its limitation.

The question of gender has presented a key dilemma to structural models. Views of gender that relied on a man/woman dichotomy were criticized for what they ommitted. Contradictions began to challenge these models as critiques from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons emerged. Groups advocating traditional views of women and mothering, and the particular nature of the experiences of women of colour and disability, further challenged summative structural models. All of these groups pointed out that structural notions of woman/man gender did not adequately represent the nature of their experiences. The inclusion of critiques and political concerns of many groups led to addition of new structural categories of oppression or marginalization. With this expansion came the further problem of theoretical reconciliation of a multiple oppressions, as in the case of disabled, trans-genered, person of colour.

This has been recognized and advanced by recent developments in feminist analysis incorporating post-structuralism, deconstruction, or discourse that echo the nonsummative basis of a general systems theory approach (Norris, 1991; Butler 1990, 1993). In this sense political issues of inclusion can be seen as derivative of underlying epistemological reliance on summative structural categories. Systems theory as a nonsummative, therefore `a' structural, theoretical approach allows for common ground.

One of the strengths of feminist analysis has been it pan-disciplinary nature in bringing together scholars from various disciplines was well as political activists and practitioners. This has led to a collection of methodologies and theories that has gone a long way toward overcoming the problems inherent in individual disciplines. The downside has been trying to reconcile what has been derived from different epistemological, theoretical, ideological bases.

Where these bases have a structural, hence micro/macro-level component, a paradox arises. The diversity of feminisms brings out contradictions that may not appear to those working within a single discipline or practice. The paradox between women's lived experiences (oral history) and aggregate views of social structures is not resolvable because there is no way to link women to a woman, the structural concept to the person in front of you. Structural approaches require separation of parts. Thus, putting parts back together is not possible. The need to define common structural notions sets up a situation where individual cases or groups of cases do not apply. This makes rationalizations of inequality like right wing traditional views of women's roles and biological destiny inevitable. What began as a singular notion of being `a feminist' has grown into questions of what kind of feminist, anti-racist feminist, lesbian feminist, gay feminist, trans-gendered feminism one is or one's political ideas represent.

A general systems theory approach makes it is possible to get past non-resolvable questions of structure and level by seeing that the issue derives from a mechanistic epistemology (Capra, 1996; von Bertalanffy, 1968). This notion is often traced to Aristotle and has run through various forms of thinking in the physical medical and social sciences. It evokes notions of separation of parts and with it a notion of linear cause and effect. Though mechanism and linear causality have been dominant ideas in scholarship since the European Enlightenment, alternative views based on relationships have a history just as long and became a major intellectual force in the twentieth century. The advent of relativity theory in physics, growth of ecological biology, birth of family therapy, economic globalism, environmentalism and holism have fuelled use of an epistemology of relationship, cybernetics, feedback or systems. Structure and level are derived from a specific epistemology: mechanism. A general systems approach provides a way to transcend divisive stances on the structure, agency, micro/macro issue by using the alternative of relationship epistemology.

This allows leaving the assumption of hierarchy aside by reframing the issue in terms of causality, rather than level. In this manner a general systems theory approach provide a means of escape from the prescriptive boxes of level by moving instead to a cybernetic model of causality. There is no means of resolve when the debate itself is defined in terms of separation of parts into levels. A systems approach shifts attention from causes to patterns of events over time: feedback processes.

Cause becomes a back-and-forth, action and reaction, causal web, which steers in certain directions. Anti-feminist backlash can be modelled in this vein like the swing of a pendulum. The rapid international moves to unravel social safety nets can be modelled as reactive to putting such nets in place in the past hundred years.

Parallogic: Beyond Exclusive Inclusivity

Feminist analysis brought out the idea that inequalities are created and maintained when a group is marginalized from the mainstream and directed political action at erasing such margins. However, a contradiction was created by the assumption that marginality could be defined by a singular group of people or school of thought. Women of colour, women who did not accept second-wave feminism, lesbians, gays, trans-gendered persons, women with disabilities, pointed out this contradiction by challenging whose feminism this was. This has led to a profusion of feminism that directly address issues for each of these groups.

General systems theory provides a way to avoid further contradictions and embrace diverse social groups in the concept of parallogic. Parallogic captures the idea that because meaning is specific to context, systems of logic are parallel: parallogic (Hanson, 1989a). While reality may be objective, meaning is subjective and therefore context specific. Because of this, behavior needs to classify relative to its context. This means being sensitive to both the position of observer and the standpoint of persons involved in a social context. As such, it provides a theoretical link to models of standpoint feminism (Smith, 1987). It captures the insights of a person or persons in a context, as well as allowing for the observations of those who try to understand a context but are not part of it. This is echoed in conceptions of autopoesis, and self-making in systems theory (Capra, 1996; Bailey, 1994) and the relativity of categories (von Bertalanffy, 1968). In human contexts this points to the need to be aware of the context of observers and those being observed.

The parallogical message is that by linking the suggestions of a concept of meaning, with its roots in symbolic interactionism and constructivism, to a wholes notion of context via nonsummativity, it is possible to transcend a view of universal logic or rationality. The reference point for logic rationality or sanity becomes moot, and reference points become the focus. This ties in with the postmodernist idea that `... an absolute point is no longer assumed to be available to legitimize truth and order' (Murphy, 1988). Further, it forms a bridge to feminist criticisms of logic in science (Keller, 1985). A parallogical view offers that while there is no single point, there are points and as such the theoretical grounds for a multiple logic.

   Sexuality is to feminism, what work is to Marxism. (Mackinnon, 1982)

Sexuality is the second part of what I have come to think of as the spirit of feminism. This includes sexual attraction, sexual activity, reproduction and child care. Until the 1960s these issues fell largely under the purvey of medicine. Because of this there was an implicit model of health and pathology, normal and abnormal. Feminists broadened the issue to consider how sexuality transfers into social events, why what had been considered private aspects of life could be seen as political phenomena. For example, Robyn Rowland looked at the way a social preference for pregnancy through heterosexual intercourse has led to defining women as infertile even when the issue is a low sperm count. This has spawned reproductive technologies that focus primarily, and sometimes solely, on women's bodies. In so doing female body parts and potential children become commercialized (Rowland, 1992). While much of feminist thought has been focused on women, the last 20 years has seen expansion to include men, trans-gendered persons and diverse forms of sexual practices (Butler, 1993). Systems theory can contribute to this growing area by offering three ideas; going beyond blame, relational units, and emotion as supra-rationality.

Beyond the Blame Trap

Blame is non-sequitur to a general systems theory approach in that it violates the principle of non-summativity. To blame men, women or systems theory is therefore inappropriate. Blame involves two notions: being able to assign cause in the form of responsibility, and being able to separate cause from effect. Both enterprises are non-sequitur within a general systems theory approach. The notion of blame involves separating parts of a system in order to isolate the causal factor, then attributing responsibility to that factor. This requires two aspects of epistemology: separating parts from whole, and finite linear causality. Neither are appropriate to a general systems theory approach. Blaming systems theory for blaming women, in this vein, is without theoretical foundation.

A notion of feedback or cybernetic causality renders the idea of assigning blame via cause to any part of a system non-sequitur. This is both a strength and a weakness of a general systems theory approach. It strength lies in the ability to delve into situations that may seem morally abhorrent and suspend moral judgment in order to first see and fell through the eyes and hearts of people embedded in a context. Systems approaches have a long history in looking at intimate contexts of abuse (physical and emotional), incest, alcoholism, anorexia and violence. Intervention may not be usefully guided by trying to assign blame in these situations. Until a therapist or analyst sees what is meaningful to people in the context and how these meanings interact in the manifestation of a targeted behaviour, it is useful to suspend moral judgement. In fact it is perhaps systems theory's lack of such alleged universal judgements of right or wrong, sane or insane, correct or incorrect, which is its most useful tool for understanding what things mean to people in context. Understanding issues like spouse abuse, incest, anorexia, alcoholism, in terms of their pattern of meaning in context rather than departure from external normal for behaviour, holds potential for understanding rather than judging. However, this lack of judgement or blame can also be seen as a weakness if one seeks a punitive or moral approach to understanding and intervening in behaviour.

To accuse systems theory of blaming either relationships or individuals within those relationships is inappropriate. It presents a misunderstanding of the principles of systems analysis. This is echoed in Dell's work, where he points out that the work of early systems theorists in mental illness has been inappropriately interpreted to mean that families cause mental illness (Dell, 1980). In its broader range, systems theory can be seen as a way to transcend the strictures of mechanism that was put forth by people like Gallileo and Decartes (Capra, 1996). This adds a dimension to feminist critiques of a particular mode of science.

Blame creation can be seen as an attempt to moralize or ideologize, which is unnecessary to a systems approach. What is the analytic point of trying to establish who or what is to blame for war, discrimination, spousal abuse, poverty? There is little to be gained in blaming isolated parts when the system shows a marked ability to replace parts and attempts to blame can worsen the conditions which such lame making tried to fix. The importance of the systems shift to discarding blame as at target of analysis, making it an `un-question', comes up when we see that a search for blame can inflame or exacerbate problems.

In my own work on senile dementia in family contexts, I observed a pattern whereby family members seem to be in desperate search for blame in the sense of explanation for emotional distress (Hanson, 1989b, 1991b). Defining a disease entity and a family member who has it is a way to locate troubles. In this process the `cause' is constructed to be the illness of one family member who becomes the patient. In the course of the social construction of the idea that the problem is this person's illness, even ostensibly sane and appropriate behaviour is reinterpreted for the person into the illness category. This even extends to the judging of feelings or opinions as wrong or inappropriate, therefore, problematic. This sets up a situation where the person considered a patient has no means of being correct, not even having correct feelings. The search for blame in the form of a person's illness thus increases and ingrains illness behaviour. The message here is that the search for blame can lead to events which are the obverse of those intended.

Feminist analysis can approach policy using the idea that blame is a non-sequitur. Temporarily suspending judgments that lead to blame allows focus on the long-term effects of a policy instead. This is particularly important when the attribution of blame itself may harden positions. People willing to discuss middle-ground, mutually negotiated solutions to problems, often back away and entrengh when forced to defend themselves against the idea that something is their fault. It sets off an adversarial stance that makes issue resolution more difficult and less likely to last long term. This is why effective dispute resolution tries to keep away from adversarial positions and work out solutions of mutual benefit. It is an implicit recognition of the systems ideas of cybernetic causality and feedback. When parts are separated and one part is blamed, there is likely to be a feedback process that causes the original problem to resurface again, often in more severe form. Blame is like pushing on one end of a waterbed, making it contract briefly then rebound in manner that might split the seams. Even if you are convinced a given person or group can rightfully be blamed for something, it may be in your better long-term interest to stay away from blame.

Attempts to blame, men, patriarchy, eurocentrism, colonialism, may create a kind of political rip tide that, in a system where everything is related to everything. Inevitably comes back in the face of those who pushed it out. Moves to target a bad thing, like an illness with a vaccine, may increase rather than decrease resistance. Witness the recent emergence of antibiotic-resistant viruses, `superbugs'. Systems theory is a way to look at action-reaction in the long term in order to guide intervention.


Feminist analysis is destined to remain trapped by the biological reductionism it criticizes unless it can resolve the paradox of the unit issue. A key dilemma is how to apply feminist principles at the case level (Hanson, 1994). I argue that the challenges to second-wave feminism made by gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered persons were not just a question of political exclusion but are related to the theoretical definition of units in feminist analysis. From a general systems theory approach it is possible to spot and transcend three traps.

First, focus on categories of man and woman is mechanistic, hence reductionist. This is problematic when categories fail to capture variation on the case level. It shows up in cases where a women beats her children or a man quits his job in order to stay home to raise his children. Also, it does not allow for changes in behaviour over a lifetime such as cases where a domineering man becomes subservient and dominated by his wife when he is debilitated by a disease, or a battered child begins to batter their child. When the categories fail to capture these individual events people do not respect their use either in terms of reflecting their lives or in academic analysis of social life.

Second, the woman/man unit neglects a variety of pairings. A glaring limitation to this approach to units has been pointed out by gay and lesbian scholarship in the omission of man/ man woman/woman in sexual relationships. The question of transgendered and bisexual persons shows up how a man/woman unit limits consideration not just to a particular paring of sexes but to pairs. Therefore, it neglects relationships of three or more as is implicit in bisexuality and explicit in various forms of close relationships like siblings, parents and children, and extended families.

Here the implicit cast of a mechanistic approach to units limits feminist analysis. A general systems theory approach can get past these limitations by moving to an analysis of relationships rather than parts or positions. Within this view it is possible to think about gender relations based on oppression, dominance, isolation, marginalization. Once the relationship becomes the unit membership is open and can be expanded to fit the question of the analyst. This makes it possible to reconcile the dilemmas presented by multiple identities (Clarke, 1993) and the tendency for relationship patterns to persist even when membership changes. Since conventional views of identity rest on mechanistic views of separation, a relational unit transcends categories that arise from the original definitions of unit (Capra, 1996). This is reflected in feminist scholarship that challenges feminist traditions by considering masculinity (Layland, 1990).

Third, mechanistic units echo biological reductionism--something feminist analysis has often criticized. A two-pole social distinction of man and women reinforces biological sex classifications. This point has been made by feminist scholars (Butler, 1993; Irigaray, 1985). I add to this line of through by offering that these political contradictions and exclusions may derive from reliance on mechanistic units.

Seeing it as a unit issue makes it possible to use systems ideas to get past these contradictions. Focus on non-summative pattern dynamics allows us to conceptually separate sex, biological characteristics, from gender, social constructions. Biological characteristics are individual and continuous, while social constructions of gender are relational and dichotomous. This escapes the bind created when a female is taken to represent the category of woman, or a male the category of man. Within a systems view the dynamics of violence, dominance and submission, oppression, or marginalization, are not restricted by sexual categories; therefore they can be applied to a greater range of phenomena and explain more case-level behaviour. A woman can be violent and a man can be nurturing without upsetting the theoretical or relegating the issue to models of pathology/disease. A bridge to this kind of relational approach in found in Dorothy Smith's concept of `underlying relations' to the everyday world (Smith, 1987, p. 129).

A general systems theory approach, by discarding part in favour of relationship or whole, allows taking sexual dichotomy itself as problematic. It is possible to question the construction of sex categories in biology as a dichotomy rather than a continuum. Physical factors of sexual difference are more and less rather than either/ or. All of us have greater and lesser amounts of sex hormones that vary not just among us but hourly in our bodies. We have more and less body hair, bigger and smaller genitalia etc. Even chromosome testing is no longer considered definite. Biological constructions of dichotomous sex reinforce social separations.

Of note here is the work of Laqueur (1990), who chronicled the move in 1800s. Europe away from classic models of sexual biology which had one sex, male, and women were seen as relatively male. A new two-sex model emerged with differences of `kind' rather than `degree'. By looking reflexively at the ways in which implicit models of biology enter into sociological theory it is possible to argue that a two-sex model is a social construction that handicaps analysis by assigning a biological dichotomy (Hanson, 1994). This dichotomy has been implicit in some feminist scholarship and has led to reflexive criticism by feminist scholars (Butler, 1990).


As many feminist scholars have pointed out, the purview of logic is very limited both as a scholarly principle and a theorized trait of humans in general. Unless inquiry escapes this limitation, pressing problems like racism, sexism, global degradation and armed conflict will remain perpetually inexplicable. Did the Gulf War make sense? What is the reasonable explanation of sexual assault, euthanasia, anorexia? Is it rational to destroy the rainforests? The epistemology of logic means that explanations within this frame are limited to the cognitive, rational, sensible.

Trying to find a reason for human behaviour is only as useful as human behaviour is reasonable. The greater the importance of emotion, the less useful models of rationality. The pursuit of knowledge about human behviour has often been a denial of human characteristics, notably emotion. Here there is a direct connection between a general systems theory approach and feminist analysis in the work of Simone de Beauvoir (1989). Seeing woman as the second sex and relegating women to the category of what men are not has often meant the neglect of emotion. This has limited analysis of men and women through failure to model and analyse essential human characteristic. In this sense, emotion can be seen as the first frontier for inquiry, one that has been denied or paved over but has yet to be explored (Hanson, 1991a).

By using a model of rationality to try to capture human behaviour emotion has effectively been modelled based on what it isn't rather than what it is. Rendering any emotional response as outside the purview of the model effectively means that it cannot be explained. There is an interesting parallel in considerations of gender. Simone de Beauvoir (1989) pointed out the idea of sexual relativity in The Second Sex. Woman was modelled relative to man and as such found inexplicable, necessitating models of pathology, without considering the possibility of a `woman centric' model of women.

Emotion has been modelled relative to logic, via the same principle, and also found inexplicable Focus on logic or reason as male has led to scholarship that excludes women indirectly (Nye, 1990; Lloyd, 1984). Here the argument is meta-theoretical on two grounds. First, there are similarities in terms of the structural attributes of models of gender and emotion. Second, the rendering of logic may be tied to the association of emotion with women (Lloyd, 1984; Harding, 1986; Gilligan, 1993) has abetted by a concentration on logic as a mind in science (Keller, 1985). It is possible to argue that the relegation of emotion to relative or second status has co-emerged in social historical context with the ideology of sexism.

Systems theory offers an alternative to conventional theory, or more aptly lack of theory, about emotion. Rationality is at its core a reflection of linearity. To capture the explosive and dampening nature of human individual and group emotion, a non-linear or cybernetic model of cause is useful (Capra, 1996; von Bertalanffy, 1968). In the notion of system and feedback cause come the linked ideas of multifinalty (Many ends) and equifinality (one end) (von Bertalanffy, 1968). Because everything is related to everything in a system it is not possible to predict the result or end of acting on system based on knowledge of input alone. Systems have the ability to create, shrink, expand, explode, dampen, in non-linear ways in the sense that you can't draw a straight line between cause and effect when going through a system (Gleick, 1987). So you can get many different results (multifinality) from the same stimulus or the same result from many different stimuli (equifinality). A multifinal example would be the way in which the restriction of alcohol in the United States during Prohibition led to the creation of a black market, organized crime, speakeasies, bathtub gin, and generally increased the level of alcohol consumption in the USA. Equifinality is seen in the way any health problem a woman has tends to be attributed to her sex characteristics, genitalia and hormones, leading to universal prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy and hysterectomy (Hanson, 1997).

The non-linearity, unpredictability based on stimuli, reactivity and creativity, seems a more fitting model of an essential human trait that is at the heart of action. Emotion can override cognition and may be at the heart (literally) of a large portion of human individual and group behaviour. However, underlying reliance on linear cause, in addition to the exclusion and marginalization of women and their theorized nature, has rendered emotion outside the viewing lens of traditional scholarship. In the notions of multifinality and equifinality lies a way to bring emotion and women into focus.

A move to give prominence to emotion in models of human behaviour may provide more gender-balanced theories. We can be less concerned with whether something makes sense, and more concerned with its own patterned redundancies. Providing this alternative, or addendum, to rationality may offer a means of humanizing models of humans by recouping a salient characteristic which can be used to explain behaviour. This advance is suggested by recent feminist works (James, 1993). In this manner the conceptual jackets designed to fit humans will be better tailored by allowing for curves and movement.


I propose revitalizing the consideration of feminist issues through exploration of a non-assumptive, pan-disciplinary approach. General systems theory may provide the scholarly tools to address issues of equality and sexuality in the context of globalism in ways which structural, mechanistic, ideologically based theories can't. Further, general systems theory provides a bridge to scholarship in the natural, medical and physical sciences that have previously been criticized but rarely included in feminist scholarship.

A non-assumptive feminist approach can be proposed with the following point of departure: taking as problematic the relationship between biological nature and social constructions. From this beginning point the systems notions of the impossibility of blame, action and inaction are equally causal; an `a' structural view, and pandisciplinary view may contribute to current thinking about identity in keeping with developments in feminist scholarship (Brewer, 1993).


Thanks to Panline Greenhill for ideas about what a point of departure for a feminist approach might took like.


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Barbara Hanson *

Atkinson College, York University, North York, Ontario, Canada

* Correspondence to: Barbara Hanson, Atkinson College, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, Ontario, M3J 1P3 Canada. E-mail:

(a) Presented in the session on `Using Chaos and Complexity Theories to Explain Social Change--Macro Level' at the 1996 annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, New York and the International Society for the Study of Systems 2000 annual meetings, Toronto, Canada.
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Author:Hanson, Barbara
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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