Seeing in Systems: The Applications of Systems Science to Social Work Research

Saturday, January 17, 2015: 10:00 AM-11:45 AM
Iberville, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
Cluster: Research Design and Measurement
Fred H. Wulczyn, PhD, University of Chicago, John D. Fluke, PhD, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Mary Jo Stahlschmidt, MA, Washington University in Saint Louis and John Thomas Halloran, JD, AM, University of Chicago
The terminology is ubiquitous: The mental health system. The child welfare system. The healthcare system. The criminal justice system. The education system. Social workers and their clients frequently intersect with some sort of “system.” Similarly, many objects of social work research are serviced within the context of a system. However, the system itself is rarely the object of study—a limitation for understanding of systemic-specific factors which might not be discernable through study of the system’s component parts. This workshop will provide a detailed introduction to systems science and its applications to social work research and public policy. Participants in this workshop will explore the concept of “system” as used by systems science researchers.

A system is a set of interconnected organizations or people, which, because of the nature of their interconnectivity, produces its own particular set of behaviors over time. Importantly, a system is irreducible and the nature of a system cannot be understood through focus on its component parts. Systems science seeks to understand complex systems and their behaviors, providing researchers studying this dynamic interconnectivity with an opportunity to understand features of the system which may affect that system’s range of activity.

This workshop will introduce systems science methodologies through the following examples: (1) The effect of risk and uncertainty on the dynamics of child protective services continuum points, and the relation of dynamics to response patterns in decisionmaking. As a pedagogical tool, we will explore a range of rational and non-rational decision frameworks (e.g., prospect theory) with workshop participants, and consider their implications for decisionmaking within child welfare. To do this, we will apply systems scenarios that result in hypothetical error conditions and then explore them with agent-based simulations of child welfare systems. The concept is to model the behavior of the child welfare agents in order to test different probability configurations of decision state space and model their impact on the system’s dynamic behavior. (2) The dynamics of out-of-home foster care, agent-based simulation, and population growth models. We intend to explore the utility of rate parameterization of entries and exits from residential foster care as a model for system behavior. As a pedagogical tool, we will engage with participants using stock and flow model diagrams to identify system leverage points, system parameters, and the influence of policy and structure on rates of flow. (3) The use of group model building (GMB), a process for building system dynamics models that deeply involves a client group. As a pedagogical tool, we will discuss the benefits of involving those closest to the system in the modeling process and provide real-world examples of GMB projects that resulted in valuable system insights.

The objectives of the workshop are to describe how to formulate research questions and study designs that will help develop an empirical understanding of systems behavior, including the effects of decision making behavior and rates of flow into and out of the system.

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