Systems Research Methods Handbook

September 9, 2010

A handbook prepared in 1997 for the Southern Region Sustainable Research and Education Program


Rick Welsh
 Assistant Professor
 Clarkson University, School of Liberal Arts
 Ph: (315) 268-3988

Keith Ingram
 Dept. of Crop and Soil Science
 University of Georgia Georgia Station
 Griffin, GA 30223

 Ph: (770) 412-4045


Systems research can be both a complement and an alternative to reductionist research approaches. Reductionism is the concept "...that a complex system can be understood by seeking out its most fundamental constituents" (Williams, 1997:476). Systems research is based on the concept that investigators attempting to make sense of the world, should envision the world made up of a variety of "wholes," which are ultimately connected to each other and influence each other (Wilson and Morren, 1990).

A systems approach also assumes that a complex system is more than the sum of its component parts. Interaction and dependency between system parts, in essence, add an additional element to the whole. From this perspective, breaking a system into components actually causes the researcher to lose some of what is under investigation. This assumption is known as the emergent properties premise (Wilson and Morren, 1990:68). The emergent properties premise is somewhat controversial within the mainstream biological and physical scientific community (Williams, 1997). However, it is well accepted within much of the social science community.

It is not the intention of Southern SARE to enter the debate over the validity of the emergent properties premise. The goal of Southern SARE is to promote a sustainable southern agriculture as defined by the authorizing legislation for SARE. To that end, Southern SARE has recognized that southern agriculture is socially, economically and ecologically diverse, with a large number and variety of stakeholders. Because SSARE is a public institution, our mandate is to serve all agricultural stakeholders within our region. To accomplish this mandate SSARE has found it useful and necessary to manage the program and to promote sustainable agriculture in a participatory and inclusive manner. This means that SSARE works to include diverse institutions and organizations, scientific disciplines, individuals and groups in its governing structure as well as in the research, education, extension and training projects it funds.

In setting program management and funding priorities, SSARE must also consider how its programs fit with other research, education, extension and training programs for the region. For the most part, the $65 million spent on agricultural research by land-grant universities in the South is directed towards component-based, reductionist research approaches. Considering the SSARE mandate and other programs in the region, component-based, single discipline, reductionist research has come to be viewed by the SSARE Administrative Council as less applicable, or helpful, for achieving program goals. Therefore, SSARE's shift toward a systems-based research approach is less epistemological than pragmatic.

Because our approach to systems research is pragmatic, our definition and use of systems research may not conform to "textbook" prescriptions. Rather, being guided by the vision of weaving a sustainable agriculture from the myriad of interests, commodity systems, ecosystems, cultures and organizations which compose southern agriculture, we use, and adapt, the tools which a systems approach provides.

In this vein, the goals of SSARE in promoting a systems-based approach to research, education, extension and training are two-fold:

1) to fund a diverse array of projects which provide critical information and insight on sustainability to multiple stakeholders who have a direct investment in project outcomes; and,

2) to build institutional and collaborative capacity in the South, so that problem solving in regards to sustainability becomes more flexible, effective, participatory, inclusive and applicable.

Sustainable Agricultural Systems Research

Systems research is problem focused. For SSARE, the problem to be solved is the sustainability of southern agriculture. The systems research method is to take into account multiple variables and their interactions simultaneously, and to discover how certain interventions might impact these variables and their interactions. How many variables, what interventions, and what impacts are determined by the researchers and depend on their research goals. In this vein, the first step in any systems research project to be submitted to SSARE is to carefully read the Call for Preproposals. How sustainability is defined, the objectives of SARE, and the SSARE priority areas and their descriptions will assist researchers in defining their research design, choosing variables and methods and implementing their research plan.

Wilson and Morren (1990:68-69) write that:

 "All systems approaches have in common the assumption, commonly referred to as the holistic perspective , that everything is or can be connected to everything else. The systems perspective encourages us to examine how things interact, interconnect, interrelate, or, in some cases control each other."

"By definition, a system is a set of parts that behave in a way that an observer has chosen to view as coordinated to accomplish one or more goals. Note that the concern is an observer's choice of parts to study. It is best not to think that systems are real. As is the case with the scientific method, using systems thinking is a way of imposing meaning on and shaping inquiry about experience" (emphasis in the original).

These passages provide the basis for the SSARE approach to systems research. For our purposes, systems research is an attempt to look at the interconnectedness of parts of an agricultural production system and how such parts and their interactions do or do not relate to agricultural sustainability. In addition, researchers should realize that imposing a description on an agricultural system is to engage in a process of simplification of that system. Therefore researchers should be aware that the systems they describe, and attempt to influence through investigation and intervention, are ultimately models of reality and not reality per se.

However, some models are more accurate, insightful and helpful than others. Developing systems models or descriptions to guide research is important. The key is the process by which such descriptions are developed. Because agricultural systems are dynamic and incorporate social, economic, political, physical and biological components, it is important to get input from a variety of sources.

There are three recommended methods of addressing this issue. 1) Involve diverse scientific disciplines; 2) Involve different types of institutions; 3) Involve farm household members or other farm level workers, managers or workers in off-farm agribusiness firms, or end-users such as consumers or rural community residents.

Multiple Disciplines

Scientists are trained within disciplines. They have sets of substantive issues with which they are concerned; and methods and theories which they employ to work on problems which are also defined by their disciplinary perspectives. Real-world agricultural problems seldom occur within disciplinary boundaries, rather they cut across multiple dimensions of an agricultural system. For this reason, research-based solutions to such problems should take into account the perspectives of scientists from different disciplines (see Lewis et al., 1997).

The number and type of disciplines required for a holistic approach depend on the type of agricultural system under investigation, how the problem is defined, and the availability of expertise. The search for the right mix of disciplines is often an iterative process where a number of different mixes of disciplines are tried over time until the participants feel comfortable and productive with their team. Care should be taken to make sure the iterative process is a sincere effort to forge an insightful group with common goals but with diverse skills and perspectives. The process should not be a vehicle for homogenizing a research team to achieve a certain comfort level on the part of researchers.

During initial phases of project development, it might be helpful to find a project or team coordinator, not necessarily a university scientist, to take the lead in putting a team together. Such a person should be able to relate to a range of scientific disciplines, and understand issues of agricultural sustainability in the South. In addition, it is essential that the coordinator has excellent consensus building skills and is respected by the team members.

Multiple Institutions

Agricultural development in the southern United States has a long, complicated, often inspirational, as well as troubling and painful history. In addition, the Southern Region covers a large, ecologically diverse geographic area. For these reasons, a diverse array of institutions have developed, each with its own history and formal or informal mandates. For example, 1862 land-grant universities have a greater number of scientists and scientific disciplines than other agricultural research institutions. They often have strong ties to large-scale farming operations and off-farm firms and commodity groups of a great variety. On the other hand, 1890 land-grant universities are less endowed in these areas. However, they have developed a farm-household centered approach to agricultural development, especially in regards to diversified small-holder, limited-resource, and minority farmer agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a variety of agencies and programs operating in the South, as do state and local governments, all with different mandates, constituencies and clients.

And, there are a large number of agrarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the South, as well as the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG). SSAWG is an umbrella organization of individuals and groups working on issues of sustainability. These NGOs fill a variety of roles including networking between 1862s, 1890s, USDA, state and local government entities and other institutions. They also have direct links with, and are often composed of, producers of all types, as well as activists working on issues such as social justice, environmental protection, farm-worker safety, minority farmer advocacy and promotion of family farm survival. In addition, there are a number of private and public/non-land-grant colleges and universities working on issues of rural and agricultural development and agricultural sustainability.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. It merely illustrates the broad array of institutions working on issues important to sustainable agriculture and SSARE. The existence of these institutions argue for an inclusive, holistic approach to sustainable agriculture. While it is impossible for a project to include all types of institutions, it is essential that researchers include a variety of different partners to bring greater insight into the investigation.

Like the development of a multidisciplinary team, the process of building a multiple institution team could also be iterative and rely on a coordinator. The coordinator in this case would be familiar with the work of organizations on specific issues related to agricultural sustainability.

Farmer or End-User Involvement

Most of the research funded by SSARE has been done on issues related to sustainability of agricultural production. Farm-household members and farm workers ultimately deal with the real world problems which university and government researchers investigate. Also, producers are the recipients, or potential end-users, of the results derived from university, government, and private research efforts.

Rather than constructing research designs and farming recommendations in isolation from producers, agricultural researchers should consider that the research process and the production process are parts of one system. How and why farm-household members and other farm-level workers farm in particular ways are important to discern if university and government researchers wish to offer effective alternatives. In addition, the insight of people involved in the day-to-day work and management of the farm and farm household is essential for understanding the interaction between parts of production systems.

Because systems research shifts the research focus from isolated components of systems toward understanding relationships among system components, perspectives of producers are essential for a research project. In fact, the SSARE program regards producers and other end-users as researchers on a par with university and government researchers. Therefore, producers and other end-users should be part of the research process from early design through implementation to evaluation.

As SSARE funding priorities have expanded to include off-farm linkages to rural communities, as well as post-harvest, marketing, distribution and food access issues, the concept of end-user has also expanded. For a project looking at production, processing and marketing of farm products in a sustainable manner, consumers and consumer groups as well as processing operation managers and workers could be considered as end-users, in addition to farm-level workers. Therefore, projects which attempt to address problems beyond the farm gate, may need to bring different types of end-users into the research design process.

Research Methods and Objectives

Southern SARE views a number of research methodologies as potentially systems based. These approaches could include, but are not limited to, whole-farm planning or management, watershed level research, landscape ecology, farming systems research and extension, local/working/indigenous knowledge and participatory approaches, ethnographic or other interviewing and survey methods, holistic resource management, or formal quantitative modeling procedures. In addition, emergent or ad hoc approaches developed by project participants may be considered. The type of systems approach is less important than the thoroughness and soundness of the development process, and how well the participants have integrated the multiple perspectives needed to investigate a research problem using a systems approach. Researchers can also be flexible in choosing aspects.of the agricultural system to investigate from a systems perspective. However, researchers should avoid efforts to evaluate the changes on indicators of productivity, profit or environmental protection from the introduction of a technology or technique not previously used on the farm- that is, a component-based approach which tries to isolate a single cause and effect relationship. Instead, researchers should consider the entire system under investigation including its social, economic, biological and mechanical aspects. Once the system is defined and understood, the researchers should focus on how some subset of these multiple aspects interact to enhance or limit sustainability of the whole system, and plan their interventions accordingly. This does not mean that experiment station and on-farm randomized block design experiments for evaluating the efficacy of fertilizer or pest control treatments are not eligible for funding through SSARE. However, such experiments should not stand alone, but be embedded within a larger investigation of related social, economic, and biological issues.

For example, this could require a team look at how farm household members interact with each other and their production operation regarding profitability, productivity, environmental protection or social goals before proposing a specific experiment. Or a research team could develop a project which investigates the links between farms, or between farms and the surrounding communities. Such social and economic links could be used as vehicles for assessing differences and similarities in production and marketing strategies and how such differences and similarities enhance or detract from sustainability. In addition, researchers may decide to evaluate impacts on sustainability (biological, economic or social) from changes in certain aspects of the structure of agriculture, or from changes, or potential changes, in agricultural or environmental policy.

However a team chooses to proceed, all research proposals should situate the project within a larger context-social, political or economic. Such an exercise will help team members better understand the goals of the project and help technical reviewers understand the overall importance of the research. Ultimately, the goal is for the research team to communicate to the reviewers that team members understand the system under investigation, and have deliberately focused on some subset of that system for well-defined reasons.

Proposal Development and Implementation for Systems Research and Education Projects

Initial steps

1. Identify the problem in broad terms.

2. Read the Call for Preproposals. Make sure that the problem fits within the Program Objectives and Priorities, and that a successful solution to the problem will enhance the sustainability of Southern U.S. agriculture.

3. Obtain a copy of the Southern SARE annual report and look over what projects have been funded in the past. Since 1997, projects have been funded based on systems research criteria.

4. Familiarize yourself with systems approaches. A brief list of citations is provided at the end of this handbook. Don't limit yourself to these references.

5. Using an iterative and participatory process, assemble a project team. This team will further define the research problem, develop a research design, and construct an evaluation and outreach plan.

5.1 Identify scientific disciplines and individual scientists needed through this process. Some scientists may drop out and others may be added as the problem identification and research design process unfolds.

5.2 Involve producers and other end-users.

5.3 Identify and involve the relevant groups and institutions working on the issues under consideration.

5.4 Choose a project coordinator. A well respected individual: 1) who can relate to all project participants and can help project participants relate to each other, 2) who understands the overall project goals, and 3) who can lead the team through problem definition and project development activities.

5.5 If the work of developing a proposal requires resources not readily available to you or your group, consider submitting a planning grant to SSARE. Planning grants can be used to finance the steps listed above and below.

Team steps

The team will work together on the following steps through regularly scheduled communications, whether face-to-face meetings, conference calls, e-mail or snail mail conferences, or other methods of communication. It is important to designate a person who will record important decisions and action points for follow up at subsequent meetings.

6. Describe the overall agricultural system to be investigated. Discern how the components fit together and interrelate to form a whole or a series of wholes.

7. Identify the subset of components to be investigated. Describe to yourselves how the components relate to each other and the entire system. Add or subtract as needed (this may also entail adding or subtracting institutions, scientists or end-users).

8. Define goals and objectives. Go back to steps 1 and 2.

9. Draft a plan to achieve these goals.

10. Discuss and plan how project participants will be integrated into project implementation. Note that the coordinator who led the project development effort may not necessarily lead project implementation. Return to step 5 to review team composition.

11. Finalize and submit proposal for consideration.

12. If selected for funding, implement project. During the project, it is imperative for the team to continue regular communications, and to periodically review the plan and evaluate project progress, and to discern the validity and efficacy of the systems analysis informing the research design. If significant changes are necessary, all team members should work together and with the SSARE program director to make such changes.

For more information

Jeff Jordan
 Program Director
 1109 Experiment St.
 Room 206, Stuckey Building
 University of Georgia Griffin Campus
 Griffin, GA 30223-1731
 Ph: (770) 412-4787
 Fax: (770) 412-4789


Candace Pollock-Moore
Public Relations Coordinator
1109 Experiment St.
Room 207, Stuckey Building
University of Georgia Griffin Campus
Griffin, GA 30223-1731
Ph: (770) 412-4786;
Fax: (770) 412-4789

National Program 

Kim Kroll
Associate Director
(301) 405-9912

 SARE does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin,sex, age, handicap or veteran status.


Lewis, W.J., J.C. van Lenteren, Sharad C. Phatak, and J.H. Tumlinson, III. 1997. "A Total System Approach to Sustainable Pest Management." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, U.S.A. 94:12243-12248.

Williams, Nigel . 1997. "Biologists Cut Reductionist Approach Down to Size." Science, 277:476-477.

Wilson, C. and G. Morren . 1990. Systems Approaches for Improvement in Agriculture & Natural Resource Management. MacMillan.

Other consulted readings

Checkland, P . 1981. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Deutsch, Bill, Cornelia Flora, Chuck Francis, Alan J. Franzluebbers, Stephen Gasteyer, Rhonda Janke, Philip A. Moore, Jr., Mark Risse, Joyce Scheyer, Jean L. Steiner, Judy A. Tolk, Cran Upshaw . 1997. Investigating Ecosystems Dynamics at a Watershed Level. Soil and Water Conservation Society White Paper.

Doorman, Frans . 1989. "Strengthening Qualitative Methodology in Agricultural Research: the social scientist's contribution." Sociologia Ruralis, XXIX:250-263.

Francis, Charles, James King, Jerry DeWitt, James Bushnell and Leo Lucas . 1990. "Participatory Strategies for Information Exchange." American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 5:153-160. Hildebrand, Peter (ed.). 1986. Perspectives on Farming Systems Research & Extension. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Janssen, Willem and Peter Goldworthy . 1996. "Multidisciplinary Research for Natural Resource Management: conceptual and practical implications." Agricultural Systems, 54:259-279.

Kloppenburg, Jack . 1991. "The De/Reconstruction of Agricultural Science: local knowledge for a sustainable agriculture." Rural Sociology, 56:519-548.

Lockeretz, William and Molly D. Anderson . 1990. "Farmers' Role in Sustainable Agriculture Research." American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 5:178-182.

Park, J. and R.A.F. Seaton . 1996. "Integrative Research and Sustainable Agriculture." Agricultural Systems, 50:81-100.

Park, Peter . 1997. "Participatory Research, Democracy and Community." Practicing Anthropology, 19:8-13.

Southern Association of Agricultural Experiment Stations . 1994. Southern Strategic Research Plan: research on food, agriculture and natural resources.

Worstell, Jim . 1995. Southern Futures: opportunities for sustainable agricultural systems. Delta Land and Community, Inc. Almyra, AR.


The authors acknowledge the vision of Paula Ford in conceptualizing and initiating this project during her tenure as manager of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Southern Region (SSARE). In addition, the leadership of the SSARE Administrative Council, especially the Project Review Committee under the guidance of the chair, Larry Jeffries, was instrumental for the successful completion of this project.

The authors also thank Gwen Roland for editorial help and the following members of a systems workshop panel convened to assist the authors in conceptualizing and addressing the issues critical to conducting systems research.

Adell Brown, Southern University
 Jim Horne, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture
 James W. Jones, University of Florida
 Ira Linville, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region VI
 Luanne Lohr, University of Georgia
 Laura Meadows, U.S.Dept. of Agriculture, Rural Development Office
 Carolyn Orr, Berea College
 Frederick Payton, Institute for Community and Area Development, University of Georgia
 Jean Steiner, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service

 Robert Zabawa, Tuskegee University

Southern Region SARE is administered by a consortium of the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University. The Southern Region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Puerto Rico and the U.S.V.I.

Since 1988 the SARE program has funded more than 1000 projects nationwide, currently investing more than $10 miilion annually in research aimed at making farming more profitable for the farmer and safer for the community and the environment.

For more information about the Southern SARE Research and Education Program contact:

Candace Pollock-Moore
Public Relations Coordinator
1109 Experiment St.
Room 207, Stuckey Building
University of Georgia Griffin Campus
Griffin, GA 30223-1731
Ph: (770) 412-4786;
Fax: (770) 412-4789

Related Locations: North Central, Northeast, South, West