One of the most frequent content questions I get as a coach: What in the world is Cybernetics? So I want to offer a break down on: cybernetics, second-order cybernetics, and how it’s different from first and second order change.
First, it’s understandable that you may not know much about this concept. It is deeply rooted in the history of systemic thinking and the evolution of Marriage and Family Therapy, and so if you didn’t spend a lot of time in graduate school talking about the early history then you may have only heard this term once or twice. The reason that this is important to know for the test is because it is deeply rooted in systemic thinking. The domain of Practice of Systemic Therapy is all about systemic thinking. So, it is likely that you may encounter a handful of questions that are either explicitly about cybernetics or at least related to it in some way.
Let’s start with the big picture. Cybernetics is exactly a big picture concept. It is a theoretical perspective of systems. It is a concept that is concerned with organization and patterns rather than content (hopefully that sounds familiar to you). In fact, sometimes the term cybernetics can be interchangeable with Communication Theory or Systems Theory.
When talking about Cybernetics you will often hear different terms: simple cybernetics or first-order cybernetics, and second- order cybernetics or cybernetics of cybernetics.
Let’s break down the terms. Here is my understanding of them.
First-order Cybernetics: The observer of a system is placed on the outside of the system. Thus the observer (or you can use the world therapist if that helps) perceives themselves as separate and able to give an objective view of the system.
Second-order Cybernetics: The observer or therapist of a system is placed inside the system. The observer cannot be an objective entity. When a therapist interacts with a system they become part of that system.
Here’s the official definition of Cybernetics taken from the AAMFT Family Therapy Glossary: …”the descriptions of a family system and interventions toward a system cannot be separated from the distinctions which are drawn by the observer who is describing and working with that system.”
Here’s another helpful definition of Second Order Cybernetics from Becvar & Becvar: “The problem does not exist independently of the ‘observing system’ that are reciprocally and collectively defining the problem.”
So how is first and second or cybernetics different from first and second order change?
First and Second order change are smaller concepts that describe specific movements within a system. These are concepts related to the movement of the homeostasis in the system.
If you zoom out and consider the nature of the relationship between a therapist and family system you are dealing with first and second order cybernetics. If you zoom in and consider how a specific family is functioning and how change happens then you are dealing with first and second order change.
- The concepts of Cybernetics is likely to show up on the test.
- It is a big picture theoretical concept.
- First Order Cybernetics is when the therapist perceives themselves to be outside of the system.
- Second Order Cybernetics is when the therapist perceives themselves to be inside and part of the system.