Addressing complexity in prevention research: The dynamic duality of systemic and systematic approaches
Dr Melanie Pescud delivered this presentation at the Public Health Association of Australia’s (PHAA’s) annual prevention conference in Brisbane, 11-13 May 2022.
We applied a comparative case study design to explore how prevention researchers addressed complexity in their study of the prevention of chronic disease. We adapted the work of Ison and Straw (2020) on ‘systemic’ and ‘systematic’ paradigms to examine some of the similarities, differences, and patterns in the application of systemic and systematic approaches across six projects related to food and nutrition policy, obesity prevention, liveability, and health services research.
The difference between systemic and systematic approaches
Systemic referred to approaches that explored the bigger picture; with a focus on systems comprised of interconnected parts, while systematic referred to a focus on details and examining the parts within a system. Our findings show that to address complex problems, prevention research strikes a balance between systemic and systematic paradigms. We present examples of this duality, and describe a number of different and dynamic ways in which these complementary aspects of prevention research were embodied and operationalised.
Our findings suggest that prevention research judged primarily on explicit use of systems science theory and methods may be judged as systemically deficient, yet the systemic paradigm can also be expressed through other important dimensions. For example, systemic approaches may be operationalised through research partner relationships, approaches to capacity building, and knowledge mobilisation. We also present an empirically derived heuristic to inform and support explicit and fit for purpose choices about the nature and balance of systemic and systematic approaches in prevention research.