Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Analytic Hierarchy

Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) is mathematical thinking about decision analysis based on linear algebra. It is useful when the elements included in the decision are subjective, such as is all human decisions. AHP holds that individual perception, relevant facts, and interrelationships among inputs and agents must be considered in order to predict outcomes. AHP allows for the non-logical, seemingly unpredictable nature of human interaction. The process includes three steps similar to operational modeling in form and function. Step one identifies the decision objectives, criteria, constraints, and alternatives into a hierarchy. Step two evaluates comparisons of options two-by-two at each level of the hierarchy. Step three synthesizes the results of the comparisons utilizing a solution algorithm. Saaty (1988) suggests that “the algorithm result gives the relative importance of alternative courses of action” (Saaty, 1988, p110).

Let us use AHP in a decision about ice cream. Step one: We determine that Polly, our client wants to eat some ice cream. Her favorite flavor is chocolate. She is driving. So, she needs two have a delivery method that only requires one hand. She does not want to wait to eat the ice cream. Step two: We outline the options, and determine predictions.
AHP In Step three, we begin to recognize a pattern of conditionals on which Polly’s choices are based. We construct an algorithm—a set of steps based on her preferences, the options available, and the situation in which she finds herself. We use this algorithm to determine the potential for alternatives. For example, if her options of a place to stop only included burger diners. Our algorithm suggests that Polly would choose the diner that has a drive-thru and sells chocolate ice cream in a cone.

Of course, other client choices involve seemingly more complex decisions. But, recognize that complexity rests with the client preferences, options perceived, and the situation. The analytic hierarchy process helps to manage this complexity.

I have advanced a new model, Perception of Self in Environment-Reality (POSE-R) to encapsulate the theoretical constructs of ecological systems and the presuppositions of AHP. This chapter discusses your ability to influence human systems outcomes through analysis of complexity. Each level in our system (individual, institution, and environment) has questions that assist your analysis. Even before you get to the mathematics and the specific solution algorithm, you are able to outline the ecological construct of human decision making—choice!

It should be noted here that the full AHP that attends the POSE-R model includes WILL as a prerequisite to CHOICE. The full AHP includes will, choice, consciousness, self-efficacy, institution, and movement. I will not discuss the full AHP because that discussion moves beyond the constructs of ecological systems theory and practice (EST&P) toward an integral theoretical construct, AQAL Cube, which allows us to discuss quantum consciousness and non-local, non-linear realities (Neale, 2013). Basically, utilizing the AQAL Cube and integral theory, we are not bound by the 4 dimensions that can be represented in a flat graphic. Integral theory allows us to conceptualize multiple chessboards, interrelated, operating all at the same time.

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  1. Construct an assessment that extends from the precipitating event to provide predictive information in preparation for intervention.
  2. Conduct an ecological assessment including environmental, institutional, and individual elements in a description of Perception of Self in Environment – Reality (POSER).
  3. Articulate the questions and inferential value of context, control, and choice.

Precipitating Events and Presenting Problems
As we have discussed in our review of ecological systems theory and practice, our basic hierarchy includes the individual, the institution, and the environment in an interrelated fashion. We have explored mapping and lexicon meant to conceptualize an understanding of the basic complexity of human systems. Our goal all along was to utilize the model of ecological systems theory and practice to predict outcomes. If we are able to PREDICT outcomes based on systems and inputs, we can conceivably intervene in those systems and INFLUENCE outcomes.

This is the justification for efficacy in social work assessment. Prior events shape the client’s perception of the current event. I propose that your assessment of the current event, the presenting problem, is not just as assessment of the problem, but an attempt to map both the influence of prior events AND the impact of current events. This assessment of BOTH can be termed the client’s Perception of Self in Environment – Reality (POSE-R).

Based in the construct of ecological systems theory and practice as we have discussed it, your task is to answer three general questions. These questions indicate other questions that expand our assessment into POSE-R context, control and choice, which directly connect to environmental practice sociocybernetics, institutional control systems, and individual agents.

General Questions in Ecological Assessment
• What are the social contracts supported by the economic, political, technological, and social environment?
• What are the interactive effects of the intersection of person, environment, and institutional exposure?
• What is the assessed profile and goal of the individual?

A Matter of Context: Environment Questions
Environmental practice Sociocybernetics provide a context for the review of the presenting problem. This analysis sets the stage for your engagement in social change. With this framework, you can suggest interaction schedules or lifestyle changes, financial services and literacy, innovations and technological tools, and social policies that alleviate the problem, support coping, and promote sustainable adaptation.

• What were the exposure, experiences, circumstances, and expectations prior to the choice?
• What were the financial circumstances and expectations central to the choice?
• What technologies enhanced or hindered capabilities?
• What policies are pertinent to the execution of the choice?

A Matter of Control: Institution Questions
Institutional control systems are a practical way of defining and reviewing institutions. Institutions are not buildings. They are constructs that suggest normative behavior. With this definition, consider that the major institutions in civil life are Marriage, Family, Education, Business, Faith & Volunteerism, and Health Care.

With this framework, you are able to model the structural influences on individual choice and group dynamic. This is especially useful when you need to cognitively restructure understanding or re-educate clients. Instead of conceptualizing the need for education as central to the intervention, this framework suggests that you recognize the influence of institutions (the control systems) as central to the intervention.
• What are the individual needs and expected behaviors as the client enters the control system?
• What routines and values are communicated through the control system?
• What are the controls implemented during execution of the control system?
• What is the expected outcome of the control system?
• How is feedback used after exit from the control system?

A Matter of Choice: Individual Questions
The individual agent conception offers a view of the client as both unique and active. Your task is to compose a profile of the individual agent that accounts for the complexities inherent in behavior, cognition, and meaning. Behavior is the result of choices. Cognition is the knowledge brought to bear in the decision making process. Meaning included the interactive effects of environment, institution, and individual uniqueness to produce the individual REALITY.

You are practiced in offering services and increasing options. Consider that some clients were NEVER in a position REALISTICALLY to perceive the services and options as viable for their situation. Efficacious practice means that you include this awareness in your treatment planning. Competence demands that you have a theoretical framework that offers some certainty in assessing and intervening in these situations.

With this individual agent framework, you are able to model the choice architecture of the individual agent. You can predict what options the client will see as possible. You can intervene intentionally to expand meaning and expand what is REALISTIC to the client. The foundational constructs for individual agent profile are Biology, Psychology, Sociology, Spirituality, and Meaning producing the following questions:

• Is the choice age appropriate and not the result of disease?
• Is the choice informed from multiple and competing sources?
• Is the choice free from undue influence except that it maintains the culture of the in-group?
• Is the choice based on factors that are not readily observed or are unique only to the client?
• What is the impact of OUR interaction on cognition, meaning, and potential behaviors?

Conclusion: The Root of the Problem
And here it is. My grand contribution to the knowledge base concerning ecological systems theory and practice: THE ROOT OF ALL HUMAN STRUGGLE IS CHOICE. This individual choice is confounded in institutional system structures. We seemingly lose the ability to identify the origin, to re-educate, and to introduce new options because, in institutions, the individual identity gives way to the collective identity. Once the norms and values become widespread influencing the creation of new infrastructure, problematic, unsustainable behaviors become the context from which all behaviors are judged. This is how unsustainable choices become reasonable to many. It is how culture becomes reprobate.

The solution begins at the root. Yet, the solution must address each level in the hierarchy: context, control and choice. Though the individual identity seems lost in the institution, it still maintains the predictive nature of its identity. It still responds predictably to transactions, environment, and culture based on individual choice. Social workers are uniquely trained to assess and intervene at each of these levels. The choice rests with you. The control system of social work education must integrate this knowledge. Social workers must be agents of sustainability and culture change.

Reading this series was a good start. My hope is that you see the both the immediate use of EST&P as well as the limitations of the model. Linear, system-bounded representations of human behavior are useful because they provide a construct for our beginning questions. They can even provide a foundation for simple predictions. Yet, in order to explore more complex predictions, we must employ a more robust, multidimensional model as our foundation. The mathematics of the model are useful in calculating probability, but you will be much more interested in the behaviors they present as most probable. Trained practitioners make these calculations intuitively. I offer this advancement for those who want to understand and more intentionally implement their intuition.

Bibliographic Notes
Neal, L. (June 2013). The AQAL cube for dummies. Intergral Leadership Review. [Retrieved from August 14, 2013].

Saaty, T.L. (1988). What is the analytic hierarchy process? Mathematical Models for Decision Support, 48. Springer. 109-121.

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Dr. Michael Wright

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV. View all posts by Dr. Michael Wright

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