Theory on systems, complexity and chaos

Authored by: Christopher G. Hudson

The Routledge Handbook of Social Work Theory

Print publication date:  July  2019
Online publication date:  June  2019

Print ISBN: 9780415793438
eBook ISBN: 9781315211053
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter introduces an emerging theoretical framework for assessing a wide range of personal and social systems that social workers are regularly asked to work with. This framework includes elements of traditional structural-functional general systems, and ecosystems theories that became popular in the latter half of the 20th century. It also incorporates several newer theories, collectively termed complex systems theory. These include chaos, self-organization, and autopoietic theories (Hudson, 2010). Unlike the earlier functional and general systems perspectives that focus on understanding the conditions for the maintenance of stable or equilibrium conditions, complex systems theories focus on systems that function at ‘far from equilibrium’ conditions, which are also, alternatively, referred to as the ‘edge of chaos’ (Richards, 1996). In this respect, they focus on how systems change, on the dynamics or processes by which systems move from one state to another, how they disintegrate or develop greater levels of adaptability and creativity. These newer theories extended rather than replacing the earlier general systems model. That can now be understood as describing a special but ubiquitous type of system embedded in a broader array of social, biological and physical systems.

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