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Introducing Complexity into Relationships: People and Food

Image credit: Association for Psychological Science.1

I’m writing again about the four simple rules of systems thinking: Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives (DSRP). I focus today on Relationships. When hoping to understand a system or group or any plurality, after identifying the parts, it makes sense to identify the relationships between and among the parts.

As a social scientist from a quantitative-leaning department, I tended to think of relationships statistically: were two variables correlated, were they causally related, was the relationship perhaps spurious or indirect? But I am also a qualitative researcher, and learning more about diagramming complex relationships in MetaMap software from Cabrera Research Lab has been interesting and fruitful to that part of my research. (By the way, the MetaMap below is interactive, so you can get an idea what the software is like!)

The MetaMap above is dynamic so you can interact with it. Hover over the perspectives (eyeball); zoom in or out with your mouse or the +/- buttons; add to the map by double clicking in the white space to create new distinctions; drag relationships from one thing to another, etc.
It becomes particularly interesting when you make *distinctions* about the relationship between two things or ideas (see the MetaMap above). In grad school I studied self-help groups, including ones about eating disorders. In that vein, I can diagram the relationship between two things: a person and food. That relationship could be defined in different ways. Food can provide sustenance, opportunity for social engagement, and enjoyment to people. People might have various attitudes towards food, seeing it as pleasurable, a necessity, and/or as a source of difficulty and negative consequences.

Additionally, a person's relationship to food might be characterized by “disorder.” You could use the Distinction rule to further define that relationship. The disorder, for example, might have psychological, physiological, and emotional aspects (see the top map with 3 parts of a relationship distinguished). Those parts in turn have relationships to each other, which we could also diagram.

And if we think further about it, we realize that we are looking at the relationship between person and food from multiple perspectives, such as medical and social—to which we could add economic, cultural, etc. Certainly adequate study of people’s relationship to food would incorporate intersecting perspectives.

The example of the relationship between people and food also demonstrates how DSRP rules operate simultaneously. Indeed, our cognition on any subject incorporates making distinctions and seeing systems, relationships, and perspectives. For more on DSRP, see Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems.

Footnotes 1. (