The word “system” is widely used. We speak of planetary systems, transportation systems, nervous systems, number systems, filing systems, political systems, systems of checks and balances, systems of grammatical rules, systems of weights and measures, and so on as if they shared the same reality. Their common denominator is a multitude of component parts, depending on each other, working together in complex ways, and functioning as wholes. Beyond these commonalities, such systems exhibit at best Wittgensteinian family resemblances.
Systems theory is an interdisciplinary field. It was founded by Ludwig Bertalanffy (1968) in the 1950s and soon attracted other scholars, notably the economist Kenneth Boulding, mathematician Anatol Rapoport, biologist James Grier Miller, architect Russell Ackoff, management scientist West Churchman, and the sociologist Talcott Parsons, to name only a few. The early dream of finding a general theory of all systems turned out not to be realizable. Now, several specialized systems theories are recognized. What has kept these and many other scholars together is what is increasingly called systems thinking: the use of a common language and principles to address complex issues.
Systems theory and cybernetics, often mentioned together, have radically different epistemologies. According to Ross Ashby (1956, 1981), whereas cybernetics attends to all possible systems and is informed when some of them cannot be built or found in nature, systems theory seeks to generalize from organizations that exist or function in the world.
Bertalanffy was a biologist and, unlike cybernetics, systems theory is steeped in biological metaphors. Bertalanffy noted that scientists traditionally isolate their objects of research, for example, living organisms, economies, media effects on audiences, or mathematical systems – not realizing that none of these exist in isolation. Closed systems are artificial and inadequate constructions. Thermodynamics, for example, theorizes systems as closed to energy. However, treating living organisms as closed systems would violate the second law of thermodynamics: they do not decay into entropy, but grow in complexity while living (Prigogine 1961). Open systems theory, to Bertalanffy, must account for the possibility that systems are more or less open to energy, information, and/or organization. In contemporary systems thinking, therefore, systems are usually conceived of as operating in an environment. This biological conception goes back to Alfred North Whitehead (1929/1979), who, after characterizing European philosophy as a “philosophy of the organism,” suggested that what the organism is not, participates in what it is.
One maxim of systems theory is that all the parts of a system interact with each other directly or indirectly. Changes in one part affect all other parts. Herbert Simon qualified this maxim by suggesting ways to decompose complex systems into subsystems such that interaction within subsystems is strong while interaction between them is weak. The system/environment distinction is seen as convenient because it recognizes this property.
Systems theory is holistic. By definition, systems are wholes composed of parts. For each part, all other parts constitute their respective environments. Parts may be composed of sub-parts, just as any system may be part of a larger super-system. This leads systems theory to acknowledge levels of organization; for example, cells, organs, organism, and species, or individual, family, social group, local government, and the state.
Systems theory privileges wholes over their parts, as in the familiar instruction to “act locally but think globally,” the idea that parts could be replaced to preserve the whole, and the belief that wholes are more than the sum of their parts. However, by most measures, wholes and the sum of their parts merely differ – the difference is explained by their organization, i.e., patterns of interaction or networks of communication. General systems theorists attempt to generalize organizational principles across levels; others consider such generalizations category mistakes or settle this possibility empirically.
Part–whole relationships favor functional explanations. Functions are always assigned to parts in the context of the well-being (purpose, preservation, or identity) of the whole. Functional explanations may well be appropriate in biological or technological systems whose part–whole relations are relatively fixed. In social systems, however, functional explanations favor top-down hierarchies – parts having to be responsible for their whole. They demand consistency, harmony, and efficiency: parts that deviate from these values are considered dysfunctional and undesirable, if not dispensable. And, if levels of organization are not mere observer’s abstractions – as in biology – representing instead what different people are in charge of, functional explanations favor governing elites, for example, the status quo of their power relations. This has been the criticism of Parsons’s sociological systems theory of actions, but it holds for structural– functional explanations more generally.
By celebrating the organismic values of collaboration and integration in larger wholes, conflicts, revolutions, and structural innovation easily escape biological metaphors. Such deviances are typically treated as illnesses in need of curing. Even in ecological systems, where species thrive by successfully competing with each other for scarce resources, including consuming each other, ecological systems theories herald balances, equilibria, and stable distributions of species, sounding alarms in their absence. Similarly, the mathematical or computational representation of systems – networks, linear equations, or nonlinear dynamics – are comprehensible only if the relationships between parts are regular and proceed unchallenged.
Systems theories can be formulated on vastly different levels of abstraction depending on the interests of the theorist or the problems to be addressed. Medical research, for example, is primarily focused on the effects of interventions and, assuming some kind of biological normalcy, systems theory is conservative. Technology tends to be designed for particular purposes, and technical systems can be evaluated accordingly. An aircraft control system, consisting of a vast network of people and equipment, can be evaluated in terms of their capacity and number of air traffic accidents. The sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1984) developed a highly abstract systems theory that avoids the usual conservatism by focusing on how society understands itself. For him, society consists not of individual actors, as in Parsons’ system, but of communications. Whatever complexities might exist outside society, they are reduced to communicable meanings. By selectively reproducing these meanings internally, society defines its own identity relative to what it is not, yet this distinction is always understood from within, as reproducible communications.
Such disembodied abstractions are opposed by what Robert Flood and Norma Romm call critical systems thinking. It entails three commitments: (1) critical awareness – examining taken-for-granted assumptions along with the conditions that give rise to them; (2) emancipation – ensuring that research addresses “improvement,” defined temporarily and locally, accounting for power relations; and (3) methodological pluralism – using a variety of research methods to address a corresponding variety of issues – without becoming entrapped in any one conception (Flood & Romm 1996). This kind of systems thinking does not shy away from abstractions, but regards them as embodied in the lives of the human constituent of the social systems under consideration.
- Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman and Hall.
- Ashby, W. R. (1981). General systems theory as a new discipline. In R. Conant (ed.), Mechanisms of intelligence: Ross Ashby’s writings on cybernetics. Seaside, CA: Intersystems, pp. 219–230.
- Bertalanffy, L. von (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: George Braziller.
- Flood, R. L. (1990). Liberating systems theory. New York: Plenum.
- Flood, R. L., & Romm, N. R. A. (1996). Critical systems thinking. New York: Plenum.
- Luhmann, N. (1995). Social systems (trans. J. Bednarz with D. Baecker). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Prigogine, I. (1961). Thermodynamics of irreversible processes, 2nd edn. New York: John Wiley.
- Whitehead, A. N. (1979). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology, corrected edn (eds. D. Ray & D. W. Sherburne). New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1929).
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