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Keywords: Systems Thinking, Systemic Intervention, Boundary Critique, Rural
Development, Action Research
Rain or shine, 365 days a year, thousands of women in rural regions of
Nicaragua walk down slender dirt paths to their businesses nestled in nearby tropical
hillsides. The women’s businesses represent diverse market sectors producing
predominantly agricultural products (e.g., cocoa, dairy) to be sold locally. However,
as their production grows, the women start to sell their products at formal markets,
hours away from their villages, with a longer-term ambition of international trade.
These endeavours promise profoundly different futures for the entrepreneurs
compared with their current realities. At best, the women could reap socio-economic
rewards for themselves, educational opportunities for their children, abundant and
healthy nutrition for their families, and environmental healing for their country. At
worst, the collapse of these projects could produce successive generations of
poverty and shattered dreams. Nevertheless, by participating in these small
businesses, the women are, for better or for worse, charting a course of action that,
once embarked upon, will forever alter their lives.
Over a four month period, design meetings and workshops were facilitated by
this researcher and a team of students and faculty from the National Agrarian
University in Managua, Nicaragua. Building on a Feminist Systems Thinking (FST)
methodology (Stephens, 2012, 2013), the workshops provided opportunities for
business owners (men and women) to conduct an analysis of their own micro and
small enterprises in rural communities using FST. Throughout this process, the
researcher sought to understand several research questions:
1. How can FST be further developed in a culturally relevant way?
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of FST in these contexts?
3. What is the effect of including FST in a larger gender analysis process in the
dairy industry in specific regions of Nicaragua?
Stephens’s methodology (Stephens, 2013), based on a comparison of
selected research on cultural ecofeminism and systems thinking, concludes that both
share similar epistemological perspectives and goals, and have the potential to
inform each other. An area of potential growth for systems thinking is to go beyond a
general concern with power relations and engage more explicitly with situations
where sexual oppression or gender-based marginalisation could be present.
Conversely, the embracing of theoretical and methodological pluralism (widely
explored in systems thinking) could help work through epistemological differences
that currently splinter feminism’s influence (Stephens, Jacobson et al., 2010;
Stephens, 2012).
The resulting methodology from this research, tentatively called Feminist
Systemic Intervention (FSI), further developed the above ideas in the context of
various practical and participative activities (e.g., observations, interviews,
workshops) undertaken in Nicaragua with broad stakeholder groups and
This paper describes the process and findings of the introduction of systems
thinking to rural communities, together with theoretical and methodological
reflections on the implications for the new FSI.