Final Paper Assignments
Systems Thinking for a Complex World—SYS 5850 (Fall 2018)
** Read this entire document very carefully and ask for clarification if there is anything you
do not understand.**
I. Basic Information
8-9 Pages (double spaced).
Due Thursday November 29th.
II. The Assignment
You are encouraged to develop your own appropriate topic based on the course
material. You are also strongly encouraged to discuss your topic with me to ensure
that it is appropriate and manageable. You may send me a brief description of your
topic, which should include your thesis and outline what the main argument for
your thesis will be.
You may choose to write on one of the topics below or develop a topic arising from
any of our weekly discussion topics, if you have a particular interest in some other
topic in the course, I welcome alternate essay proposals. However, if you do this it is
strongly recommended that you HAVE THE TOPIC APPROVED FIRST. You should
clearly explain your topic and how you plan to cover it. Your topic must be relevant
to the main themes of the course, appropriate, and manageable. If a proposed topic
does not meet these criteria I may suggest modifications or that you chose a
different topic. Feel free to discuss any of your topic ideas with me beforehand.
Whatever topic you chose:
1. You must argue for a position (vis. Have a clear thesis) related to systems theory.
2. Your topic must focus on more than just one of the thinkers in the course.
3. You must find and incorporate a consideration of at least one external source
(either a book or a scholarly journal article) that is relevant to your
III. Topic Ideas
1. Critical Theory and Systems Theory.
The critical theory tradition (via the work of Habermas) has taken on board some
insights of a systems analysis of society, but it maintains that viewing the entire
social sphere simply in terms of a system is a profound reductionist mistake that
blinds us to the true nature of our communicatively structured lifeworld. Examine
this critique of systems theory. Is it correct? Does critical theory succeed in
incorporation what is useful in a systems perspective while leaving aside what is
2. Competing Accounts and Applications
While overarching agreements do seem to exist, within different strands of systems
theory (broadly conceived), there are different ways of characterizing what a
system is and what constitutes a systems thinking approach. Relatedly, there are
differing accounts of what questions or problems systems thinking can most
fruitfully be applied to. Focus on some possible area of tension within systems
theory. Explain it. Then defend one approach or account against possible
3. Evaluation of the Systems Theory Alternative
Various strands of thought falling under the heading “systems theory” have
understood themselves as innovative approaches that offer distinct advantages over
other ways of looking at the world. Describe how systems theory in general (and/or
a specific thinker or tradition) has characterized its own advantages over previous
accounts, which it tends to reject for being reductionist and mechanistic. Is systems
theory a better way of looking at the world? How so? Why or why not? Consider
counter arguments. How might a more traditional theorist respond? Are there any
problems or dangers associated with a systems approach?
IV. Tips and Guidelines
1. Specific Instructions
The first part of your essay will be particularly focused on your ability to
comprehend and clearly communicate course content. The latter portion will
require more analysis—making connections, drawing conclusions, and supporting
your own reasoned position.
Thoroughly and consistently use proper referencing in APA style.
Do not use informal or familiar language.
Do NOT avoid the use of first person pronouns. (This is not a convention in our field
as it is in some sciences)
Do not include a general introduction; just start right in by declaring your topic and
what you intend to argue.
This essay requires great concision. This means you should find it a struggle to fit
your content into the allotted space. If you find it easy to fit your material into the
allotted space this is a sign that you have not done a thorough job.
While I do ask that you find, consider, and incorporate a reference to one relevant
book or article, this is not a research paper. The main focus is on understanding and
engaging with the course texts. As long as the paper is centered around course texts
you may cite as many outside sources as you wish, including major works in the
history of thought or contemporary articles. Just remember; never appeal to any
text or thinker as an authority. Citing some famous theorist who agrees with some
claim does not lend support to that claim. Only good reasons (wherever they come
from) support claims.
Err on the side of caution; cite all sources carefully to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.
Avoid extensive use of direct quotation in the main body of your paper. One purpose
of the assignment is for you to put the relevant issues in your own words.
Avoid any statements of mere opinion. Only make claims that you establish with
arguments. Don’t tell me what you think; tell me why I should think it.
2. More General Advice
Have a clear thesis and stay focused. Do not ramble or stray off topic. Set up your
problem or question. Explain the theories and concepts operating in the background
of your discussion. Then make sure your discussion is focused on showing why your
answer is the most compelling.
Keep all your discussion closely grounded in the course text. You are attempting to
contribute to a discussion by explaining and commenting on problems that arise in
the context of an intellectual conversation already in progress, and moreover the
context of a specific text or set of texts. You are not answering a question by starting
Make sure you adequately set up your topic/problem before you try to solve it. It is
necessary to spend time explaining why something is a problem. Your reader must
see something as a real problem before its solution can make any sense. Showing
that something is a problem worth considering requires argument before we start
presenting augments in support of any particular solution.
Within the first page or two of any good paper you need to answer the question
“who cares?” Tell the reader why the topic you are discussion is important any why
the insights or arguments you are going to offer make a difference.
Go slow. Take the time to clearly, carefully, and precisely do the explanatory work.
Connections that may seem clear or obvious to you—the person who has done the
reading/thinking and come up with the arguments—may not be so clear to your
reader. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Assume they are not experts and do not
know what the problem is that you want to address. Don’t let them get lost. Take
them by the hand and lead them carefully, step by step, through the relevant
background theories and the arguments you want to relate. Always focus on clarity.
Do not try to use big words and fancy language when plain language will do. Weak
thinkers take simple and easy ideas and make them seem grand and overly complex
with fancy and obscure language. Good thinkers are able to take complicated and
profound ideas and make them seem simple by using clear and well-organized
Don’t skip the thinking step. Many people fall into this trap. They spend all their
time reading, having a few thoughts pop into their head, and then writing. They
absorb ideas—then write them down. A few initial reactions occur to them and they
write those down too. Then they hand it in. For every hour spent reading/writing
you should spend an hour with a notepad critically and actively reflecting on those
ideas. Do the theories or arguments which you have read, or that you thought up
yourself, make sense? If you read or come up with what seems like a good idea do
not stop there. Test it. Try to think of problems or objections to it. Often, people's
arguments are subject to obvious and serious criticisms or internal inconsistencies
that they would have thought of themselves, had they only spent 20 minutes
reflecting critically on what they said.
When you do consider objections to your thesis (which you should always do)
choose the best objections and try to present those arguments as forcefully as you
can before responding to them. Weak thinkers and ideologues react to a bunch of
poor objections to their position in order to make it appear stronger. They also
present counter arguments in a terse and sloppy way, which fails to make their full
force apparent. In this way weak thinkers shy away from difficult problems, and
ideologues are more concerned with appearance than achieving understanding.
Powerful thinkers, on the other hand, directly face the difficulties at the heart of the
issues they tackle. Even when there are tensions that seem intractable, it’s better to
acknowledge them than try to hide them. Good theory aims to shed light on issues,
not obscure them.
Proof read often and carefully.
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