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Systems Theory

Systems Theory

Systems science emerged as a response to the need for finding ways of understanding and dealing with complexity. The expanding orientation of systems thinking enables a quest for connections and meaning that can expand the boundaries of what traditionally has been considered science. Systems thinking has been compared to Buddhism, and evolutionary systems thinking can be appreciated as the integration of the sciences with the works of mystical and transpersonal thinkers such as Sri Aurobindo (18721950) in the East and Carl G. Jung (18751961) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (18811955) in the West. This convergence of science, philosophy, and religion is manifested in the systemic inquiry on conscious evolution and its underlying ethic.

This entry reviews the core ideas within systems science, and in particular the development of General Systems Theory (GST) as a cornerstone of the systems movement. General Evolution Theory (GET) is introduced as the natural unfolding of GST in the study of complex dynamic systems. The emergent view of evolution has implications for the understanding and guidance of human systems and can become the basis for the integration of critical insights for science, philosophy, and religion to surface a new global ethic. Having become conscious of the evolutionary processes of which human beings are a part, and with a sense of awe and responsibility, the challenge is to learn to "dance to the rhythms of evolution" for the purposeful creation of a sustainable and evolutionary future.

The emergence of systems science

In the 1920s,a handful of scientists from different fields became aware of the potential to develop a general theory of organized complexity. The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (19011972) formulated the fullest expression of the emerging systems field in his General System Theory (GST). According to Fritjof Capra, Bertalanffy's work "established systems thinking as a major scientific movement (p. 46)" that responded to the limitations of modern analytical science and enabled a broader conception of science.

Analytical (as opposed to holistic) reductionism prevailed as the most central principle of scientific inquiry during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Reductionism involves analysis of the isolated elements of the phenomena under study and seeks objectivity, repeatability of results, and refutation of hypotheses in order "to provide explanations for the new unknown, in terms of the known" (Checkland, p. 64). However, "the emergence of new phenomena at higher levels of complexity is itself a major problem for the method of science, and one which reductionist thinking has not been able to solve" (p. 65).

Systems science emerged from interdisciplinary studies and is characterized by a diversity of perspectives, foci, and approaches. Systems science is not a discipline, per se, but a meta-discipline or field whose subject matterorganized complexitycan be applied within virtually any particular discipline. Systems science has become the broader scientific area that embodies all the thinking and practices derived from, and related to, advances in systems theory, methodology, and philosophy. The main professional association dedicated to the study and the advancement of this area is the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). When established in 1954 by von Bertalanffy, Ralph Gerard, Anatol Rapoport, James G. Miller, and Kenneth Boulding, it was originally called the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory.

General system theory

A system is a set of interconnected components that form a whole and show properties that are properties of the whole rather than of the individual components. This definition is valid for a cell, an organism, a society, or a galaxy. Therefore, as Joanna Macy expressed it, a system is less a thing than a pattern. Systems thinking uses the concept of system to apprehend the world. It "is a framework of thought that helps us to deal with complex things in a holistic way" (Flood and Carson, p. 4). When formalized in explicit, conventional and definite form, it can be termed systems theory.

Systems theory provides a knowledge base that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries; it seeks isomorphism between and among concepts, principles, laws, and models in various realms of experience; it provides a framework for the transfer and integration of insights relevant to particular domains of research; and it promotes the unity of science through improving communication among disciplines. Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST) is "a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general" (Bertalanffy, p. 32). GST "aims to provide a framework or structure of systems on which to hang the flesh and blood of particular disciplines and particular subject matters in an orderly and coherent corpus of knowledge" (Boulding, p. 248).

General systems theorists acknowledge that specialized knowledge is as important as a general and integrative framework. Specific systems theories have emerged and include cybernetics, autopoietic systems theory, dynamical systems theory, chaos theory, organizational systems theory, and living systems theory, among others. Considered together, these specific systems theories comprise the systems sciences, many of which have become known as the so called new sciences or sciences of complexity.

General evolution theory

Following the systems tradition, General Evolution Theory (GET) looks for isomorphisms in the patterns of irreversible change over time at different systems levels. GET postulates that the evolutionary trend in the universe constitutes a "cosmic process" specified by a fundamental universal flow toward ever increasing complexity.

Evolution manifests itself through particular events and sequences of events that are not limited to the domain of biological phenomena but extend to include all aspects of change in open dynamic systems with a throughput of information and energy. In other words, evolution relates to the formation of stars from atoms, of Homo sapiens from the anthropoid apes, as much as to the formation of complex societies from rudimentary social systems. The process involves periods of dynamic stability (homeostasis), and when this stability can no longer be maintained, the system enters a period of turbulenceor bifurcationwhen it self-organizes into a higher level of organization, structural complexity, dynamism and autonomyor else, it devolves. In this way, complex open systems become more dynamic, more in control of themselves and of their environment, moving further and further away from the inert state of equilibrium.

The understanding of dynamic complexity, emergence, and self-organization manifested in general evolutionary processes has important implications for human activity systems. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers reflect on the social threats and possibilities implied by an understanding of nonlinearity by recognizing that in "our universe the security of stable, permanent rules are gone forever. We are living in a dangerous and uncertain world that inspires no blind confidence. Our hope arises from the knowledge that even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As a result, individual activity is not doomed to insignificance" (Prigogine and Stengers, p. 313).

Human science and conscious evolution

Human science makes reference to an inclusive approach to the study of human phenomena that uses multiple systems of inquiry, including descriptive studies and prospective interventions. According to Marcia Salner, discussion about human science "was once conducted on the grounds of philosophy, professional researchers who must face up to practical problems of social survival are pragmatically moving toward what will work to provide answers where no reliable guides exist. . . . How we understand our world, how we learn about it, how we teach the young about their place in it, have consequences for our survival in it" (p. 8). Only a science that is both humanistic and systemic can deal effectively with complex human challenges and create evolutionary opportunities for human development in partnership with Earth.

Human science involves both systems (within the systems field) and systemic (outside the systems field) approaches. On the one hand, it involves the application of systems theories and methodologies in order to understand, ameliorate, and transform social systems. On the other hand, human science also incorporates systemic and holistic approaches, beyond the systems field, that challenge traditional assumptions about knowledge and science. For instance, critical theory seeks to combine philosophy and science, idealism and realism, and concepts and experiences to confront social injustice. Feminism seeks the emancipation of women for the betterment of humanity as a whole through the promotion of issues such as sexual equality, development, and peace. Scholars interested in qualitative research are articulating a comprehensive epistemology for a participatory paradigm that involves different ways of knowing. What is common to all these alternative approaches is their holistic character and their commitment to bridge theory and practice for understanding and transforming social realities.

Following the trend in systems science of looking for theoretical and methodological complementarity, there are approaches that seek to integrate the knowledge base of systems thinking, general evolutionary processes, and human science. Evolution, both as a scientific theory and as a universal myth, is a powerful story for the transformation of consciousness and society. The implications of this knowledge base provide rich opportunities for manifold inferences for social action and research. First, humans do not need to be the victims of changechange can happen through humans, not to humans. Second, the future is not probabilistic, but rather, possibilistic: Humans can influence the direction of change through their intentions and actions. Third, for the first time in human history, human beings can experience joy "while working for the most ambitious goal available to the human imagination: To blend our individual voice in the cosmic harmony, to join our unique consciousness with the emerging consciousness of the universe, to fold our momentary center of psychic energy into the current that tends toward increasing complexity and order" (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 293). Indeed, science and spirituality are coming together in the ultimate exploration of the meaning and purpose of human existence: Conscious evolutionthe evolutionary phase in which a developing being becomes conscious of itself, aware of the processes of which it is a participant, and begins voluntarily to co-create with evolution.

A new global ethic

"If our society is not working well," Lester Milbrath reflects, "we get the message that we need to rethink our value structure" (Milbrath, p. 67). Scientists and religious leaders agree: A new global ethic is required if human misery and irreversible damage to the planet is to be avoided.

Regardless of postmodernist or relativist positions, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi reflects on how similar are the world's major moral systems. He believes that "we have to find an appropriate moral code to guide our choices. It should be a code that takes into account the wisdom of tradition, yet is inspired by the future rather than the past; it should specify right as being the unfolding of the maximum individual potential joined with the achievement of the greatest social and environmental harmony" (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 162). From a systemic and evolutionary perspective, a multilevel ethic would promote:

  1. Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) the individualit must promote personal freedom;
  2. Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) societyit must promote social justice;
  3. Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) the planetit must promote ecological harmony.

To focus exclusively on one level corresponds to what Carolyn Merchant has called egocentric, homocentric, or ecocentric ethics, respectively. The challenge is to strive for the ideal of a multi-level ethical approach that promotes what is good for the whole of individual humans, societies, ecosystems, and future generations at the same time, in order to promote sustainability in an evolutionary sense. In other words, as Evrin Laszlo proposes, to live simply and meaningfully allowing other people and other species to live with dignity as well, so that a favorable dynamic equilibrium in the evolution of the biosphere can be reached and sustained.

An important aspect of this new emerging ethic is its process orientation. Rather than considering morality as a set of static norms and rules, it should be embraced as an ongoing inquiring process, a conversation as suggested by West C. Churchman, in which human values are neither relative nor absolute. In the past, philosophy and moral inquiry have been restricted to a privileged minority of mainly white men. An ethical society requires that every member of society become a lifelong learner engaged in the ongoing ethical conversation that purposefully informs the actions and decisions that shape the present and the future.

Science is evolving. The convergence between systems views and mystical views allow a more comprehensive and meaningful articulation of the human-as-part-and-process-of-cosmos story. This "New Story," as theologian Thomas Berry calls it, can guide people in the adventure of ethically evolving human systems.

See also Complexity; Evolution; Value, Value Theory


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"Systems Theory." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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systems theory

systems theory, systems analysis The concept of a system is not peculiar to sociology: it is used in any scientific analysis where a researcher is concerned to understand the pattern or structure between any set of parts or units. A system is thus any structured or patterned relationship between any number of elements, where this system forms a whole or unity. It is assumed that a system has an environment and thus there is the requirement of boundary maintenance. There is an interchange between a system and its environment. Systems theory which employs a cybernetic approach considers these interchanges in terms of the storage and control of information. It is further assumed that systems will tend towards an equilibrium state or homeostasis. Finally, systems change by becoming more internally differentiated. The concept of system has been influential in the natural sciences, especially in biology.

In sociology, the concept of social system was developed by writers like Herbert Spencer and Vilfredo Pareto, but its modern usage was heavily shaped by the social philosophy of Lawrence J. Henderson, who was inspired by Pareto (see Henderson 's Pareto's General Sociology, 1935
), and by the biologist Walter B. Cannon (see The Wisdom of the Body, 1932
). Talcott Parsons, who was influenced at Harvard by Henderson's interpretation of Pareto, is the sociologist who, through the development of the theory of structural functionalism, is most generally associated with the elaboration of systems theory.

Parsons argued (in The Structure of Social Action, 1937) that the basic analytical component of a sociological theory of an action system is the unit act, which involves an actor, an end or goal, a situation composed of conditions and means, and norms and values by which ends and means are selected. An action system is a structured collection of unit acts. He then defined a social system as ‘a mode of organization of action elements relative to the persistence or ordered processes of change of the interactive patterns of a plurality of individual actors’ (The Social System, 1951). Parsons argued that a social system is faced by two major problems. One is the (external) problem of the production and allocation of scarce resources; the other is the (internal) problem of achieving social order or integration. This notion gave rise to Parsons's famous development of four sub-systems, which respond to the external and internal ‘functional prerequisites of a system of action’, namely adaptation (economy), goal-attainment (polity), integration (societal community), and latency (socialization). This was defined as the AGIL model of the social system. These subsystems are connected by flows of inputs and outputs, which Parsons called ‘media of exchange’ (Economy and Society, 1956). These are money (A), power (G), influence (I), and commitments (L). The equilibrium of a social system depends on these complex exchanges between the various subsystems.

Social systems theory has been much criticized, because it involves an organic analogy which is inappropriate; entails a conservative bias towards the study of social order rather than social conflict; does not provide a satisfactory theory of social change, since it merely describes the process of differentiation; has not generated an adequate explanation of social stratification, especially of social class; is tautological, because the concept of function cannot be given any substantive content; has developed a formal terminology which obscures rather than clarifies social phenomena; and, finally, because the assumptions of the theory cannot be operationalized.

Although these criticisms have been generally accepted by sociologists, in the 1980s there has been a revival of interest in systems theory. The American neofunctionalists (see J. C. Alexander , Neo-functionalism, 1985
) have argued that it is possible to develop Parsonsian sociology as a perspective which can explain social change and conflict. There has also been a major development of social systems approaches in Germany. For example, Niklas Luhmann has rejected the idea that human individuals are aspects of social systems, which he defines as a system of communicative acts. Systems, according to Luhmann, function to reduce the complexity of meaning. Consequently, he has been interested in the system problems of successful communication on the basis of the development of codes. For him, the principal media of communication are truth, love, money, and power. Luhmann has applied these ideas to such diverse topics as law (A Sociological Theory of Law, 1985), differentiation (The Differentiation of Society, 1982), love (Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, 1986), and religion (Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies, 1977).

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Systems Theory

Systems Theory


Systems theory is a philosophy and worldview arising from the belief that aspects of the world are not independent of each other but interdependent on one another. This results in a research view and approach that it is difficult if not impossible to separate components of a question from logically related material in the world at large. Logically related depends on the question under examination and changes as the research question changes. Systems theory is sometimes called structural functionalism or holism.

Systems theory approaches understanding a problem as understanding a set of relationships among disparate factors. This contrasts to classic scientific analysis, where a set of independent variables is compared to dependent variables. Examining interactions among the independent variables approaches but is not systems theory. Systems theory requires two things. First, there must be a web of interactions among all the elements under study. Second, there are complex patterns as a result of these interactions. Sometimes systems theory includes such concepts as feedback systems and chaos theory. However, not all systems theorists include these research approaches within systems theory. Organizational and social network research is included in systems theory.

Because of the interactions among components, systems analysis tends to involve more complex analytical techniques. For example, instead of least squares analysis, systems theory might employ computer modeling and simultaneous equations techniques. System theorys strength and weakness arises from this. The methodology is harder to learn and understand, but the explanatory power can be greater. Also systems theory tends to be interdisciplinary, especially in the social sciences. A planetary system can be isolated for study and still be a system. The reasons behind results in a particular election can involve individual and group psychology, economics and market analysis, history, religion, and communications theory because all of these are known electoral factors.

This can lead to the complaint that systems theory overcomplicates problems and research. This complaint is not without some validity. In certain analysis situations systems theory can be overkill. In other situations systems theory can be necessary for understanding the problem.

The basic concept of systems theory can be traced back to philosophers in ancient Greece and China. As a research approach, systems theory is much more recent. Modern systems theory dates to just after World War II and such researchers as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Their work is based on concepts developed by Rudolf Virchow, Adolf Bastian, and Franz Boas. In turn this work is based on the philosophic concepts of G. W. von Leibniz in the 1600s. Modern systems researchers include Niklas Lehmann and Robert Axelrod.

Simple systems in modern use include such things as the feedback concept of a household thermostat that turns on or off a heating or cooling unit depending on the temperature inside, the temperature outside, and the desired temperature. Complex systems include chaos theory and its applied forms in different disciplines.

SEE ALSO Boas, Franz; Mead, Margaret; Social Science; Social System; System Analysis


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Harrison, Neil E., ed. 2006. Complexity in World Politics: Concepts and Methods of a New Paradigm. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sebeok, Thomas A., and Marcel Danesi. 2000. The Forms of Meaning: Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Smith, John, and Chris Jenks. 2006. Qualitative Complexity: Ecology, Cognitive Processes, and the Re-Emergence of Structures in Post-Humanist Social Theory. New York: Routledge.

David Conklin

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systems theory

systems theory The study of systems in themselves, usually to find characteristics common to all systems or to classes of systems. Systems theorists may be most concerned with the development of theory for its own sake (most often called general systems theory), or they may be more concerned with the applications of systems ideas within particular disciplines or problem areas in order to solve problems that are not amenable to traditional “reductionist” approaches. Systems theory has been called the study of organized complexity.

There have been a number of attempts to categorize systems. Perhaps the simplest and most useful is by P. Checkland, who proposes four categories: natural systems, designed physical systems, designed abstract systems, and human activity systems. He also proposes four concepts that are central to systems thinking:

“the notion of whole entities which have properties as entities (emergent properties …); the idea that the entities are themselves parts of larger similar entities, while possibly containing smaller similar entities within themselves (hierarchy …); the idea that such entities are characterized by processes which maintain the entity and its activity in being (control …); and the idea that, whatever other processes are necessary in the entity, there will certainly be processes in which information is communicated from one part to another, at the very minimum this being entailed in the idea `control'.”

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