Systems Theory

views updated May 29 2018

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

views updated May 23 2018


note:Although the following article has not been revised for this edition of the Encyclopedia, the substantive coverage is currently appropriate. The editors have provided a list of recent works at the end of the article to facilitate research and exploration of the topic.

Systems theory is much more (or perhaps much less) than a label for a set of constructs or research methods. The term systems is used in many different ways (Boguslaw 1965; 1981, pp. 29–46). Inevitably this creates considerable confusion. For some it is a "way" of looking at problems in science, technology, philosophy, and many other things; for others it is a specific mode of decision making. In the late twentieth-century Western world it has also become a means of referring to skills of various kinds and defining professional elites. Newspaper "want ads" reflect a widespread demand for persons with a variety of "system" skills, for experts in "systems engineering," "systems analysis," "management systems," "urban systems," "welfare systems," and "educational systems."

As a way of looking at things, the "systems approach" in the first place means examining objects or processes, not as isolated phenomena, but as interrelated components or parts of a complex. An automobile may be seen as a system; a car battery is a component of this system. The automobile, however, may also be seen as a component of a community or a national transportation system. Indeed, most systems can be viewed as subsystems of more encompassing systems.

Second, beyond the idea of interrelatedness, systems imply the idea of control. This always includes some more or less explicit set of values. In some systems, the values involved may be as simple as maintaining a given temperature range. The idea of control was implicit in Walter B. Cannon's original formulation of the concept of homeostasis. Cannon suggested (Cannon 1939, p. 22) that the methods used by animals to control their body temperatures within well-established ranges might be adapted for use in connection with other structures including social and industrial organizations. He referred to the body's ability to maintain its temperature equilibrium as homeostasis.

A third idea involved in the system way of looking at things is Ludwig von Bertalannfy's search for a "general systems theory" (von Bertalannfy 1968; Boguslaw 1982, pp. 8–13). This is essentially a call for what many would see as an interdisciplinary approach. Von Bertalannfy noted the tendency toward increased specialization in the modern world and saw entire disciplines—physics, biology, psychology, sociology, and so on—encapsulated in their private universes of discourse, with little communication between any of them. He failed to note, however, that new interdisciplinary disciplines often quickly tend to build their own insulated languages and conceptual cocoons.

A fourth idea in the systems approach to phenomena is in some ways the most pervasive of all. It focuses on the discrepancy between objectives set for a component and those required for the system. In organizations this is illustrated by the difference between goals of individual departments and those of an entire organization. For example, the sales department wants to maximize sales, but the organization finds it more profitable to limit production, for a variety of reasons. If an entire community is viewed as a system, a factory component of this system may decide that short-term profitability is more desirable as an objective than investment in pollution-control devices to protect the health of its workers and community residents. Countless examples of this sort can be found. They all seem to document the idea that system objectives are more important than those of its subsystems. This is a readily understandable notion with respect to exclusively physical systems. When human beings are involved on any level, things become much more complicated.

Physical components or subsystems are not expected to be innovative. Their existence is ideal when it proceeds in a "normal" routine. If they wear out they can be replaced relatively cheaply, and if they are damaged they can be either repaired or discarded. They have no sense of risk and can be required to work in highly dangerous environments twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, if necessary. They do not join unions, never ask for increases in pay, and are completely obedient. They have no requirements for leisure time, cultural activities, or diversions of any kind. They are completely expendable if the system demands sacrifices. They thrive on authoritarian or totalitarian controls and cannot deal with the notion of democracy.

As a specific mode of decision making, it is this top-down authoritarianism that seems to characterize systems theory when it is predicated on a physical systems prototype. Computerization of functions previously performed by human beings ostensibly simplifies the process of converting this aspect of the theory into action. Computer hardware is presumably completely obedient to commands received from the top; software prepared by computer programers is presumably similarly responsive to system objectives. Almost imperceptibly, this has led to a condition in which systems increasingly become seen and treated as identical to the machine in large-scale "man-machine systems." (The language continues to reflect deeply embedded traditions of male chauvinism.)

These systems characteristically have a sizable computerized information-processing subsystem that keeps assuming increasing importance. For example the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) obviously has enormous quantities of information to process. Periodically, IRS officials feel the necessity to increase computer capacity. To accomplish this, the practice has been to obtain bids from computer manufacturers. One bid, accepted years ago at virtually the highest levels of government, proposed a revised system costing between 750 million and one billion dollars.

Examination of the proposal by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment uncovered a range of difficulties. Central to these was the fact that the computer subsystem had been treated as the total system (perhaps understandably since the contractor was a computer corporation). The existing body of IRS procedures, internal regulations, information requirements, and law (all part of the larger system) was accepted as an immutable given. No effort had been made to consider changes in the larger system that could conceivably eliminate a significant portion of the massive computer installation (Office of Technology Assessment 1972).

Almost two decades after attention had been called to these difficulties, system problems at the IRS continued to exist. A proposed Tax System Modernization was formulated to solve them. The General Accounting Office raised questions about whether this proposal, estimated to cost several billion dollars, was in fact "a new way of doing business" or simply intended to lower costs and increase efficiency of current operations. Moreover, the Accounting Office suggested that the lack of a master plan made it difficult to know how or whether the different component subsystems would fit together. Specifically, for example, it asked whether the proposal included a telecommunications subsystem and, if so, why such an item had not been included among the budgeted items (Rhile 1990).

To exclude the larger system from consideration and assume it is equivalent to a subsystem is to engage in a form of fragmentation that has long been criticized in related areas by perceptive sociologists (see Braverman 1974; Kraft 1977). Historically, fragmentation has led to deskilling of workers, that is, replacing craft tasks with large numbers of relatively simpler tasks requiring only semi-skilled or unskilled labor. This shields the larger system from scrutiny and facilitates centralization of control and power. It also facilitates computerization of work processes and even more control.

In the contemporary industrial and political worlds, power is justified largely on the basis of "efficiency." It is exercised largely through monopolization of information. Various forms of social organization and social structure can be used for the exercise of this power. Systems theory focuses not on alternative structures but, rather, on objectives, a subset of what sociologists think of as values. To hold power is to facilitate rapid implementation of the holder's values.

Fragmentation, in the final analysis, is an effort to divide the world of relevant systems into tightly enclosed cubbyholes of thought and practice controlled from the top. This compartmentalization is found in both government and private enterprises. The compartments are filled with those devoid of genuine power and reflect the limitation of decisions available to their occupants. Those at the summit of power pyramids are exempt from these constraints and, accordingly, enjoy considerably more "freedom" (Pelton, Sackmann, and Boguslaw 1990).

An increasingly significant form of fragmentation is found in connection with the operation of many large-scale technological systems. Sociologist Charles Perrow has, in a path-breaking study, examined an enormous variety of such systems. He has reviewed operations in nuclear power, petrochemical, aircraft, marine, and a variety of other systems including those involving dams, mines, space, weapons, and even deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). He developed a rough scale of the potential for catastrophe, assessing the risk of loss of life and property against expected benefits. He concluded that people would be better off learning to live without some, or with greatly modified, complex technological systems (Perrow 1984). A central problem he found involved "externalities," the social costs of an activity not shown in its price, such as pollution, injuries, and anxieties. He notes that these social costs are often borne by those who do not even benefit from the activity or are unaware of the externalities.

This, of course, is another corollary to the fragmentation problem. To consider the technological system in isolation from the larger social system within which it is embedded is to invite enormous difficulties for the larger system while providing spurious profits for those controlling the subsystem.

Another interesting manifestation of the fragmentation problem arises in connection with two relatively new disciplines that address many problems formerly the exclusive province of sociology: operations research and management science. Each of these has its own professional organization and journal.

Operations research traces its ancestry to 1937 in Great Britain when a group of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers was organized to study some military problems. How do you use chaff as a radar countermeasure? What are the most effective bombing patterns? How can destroyers best be deployed if you want to protect a convoy?

The efforts to solve these and related problems gave rise to a body of knowledge initially referred to as Operations Analysis and subsequently referred to as Operations Research. A more or less official definition of the field tells us Operations Research is concerned with scientifically deciding how to best design and operate man-machine systems usually under conditions requiring the allocation of scarce resources. In practice, the work of operations research involved the construction of models of operational activities, initially in the military, subsequently in organizations of all kinds. Management science, a term perhaps more congenial to the American industrial and business ear, emerged officially as a discipline in 1953 with the establishment of the Institute of Management Sciences.

In both cases, the declared impetus of the discipline was to focus on the entire system, rather than on components. One text points out that subdivisions of organizations began to solve problems in ways that were not necessarily in the best interests of the overall organizations. Operations research tries to help management solve problems involving the interactions of objectives. It tries to find the "best" decisions for "as large a portion of the total system as possible" (Whitehouse and Wechsler 1976).

Another text, using the terms management science and operations research, interchangeably defines them (or it) as the "application of scientific procedures, techniques, and tools to operating, strategic, and policy problems in order to develop and help evaluate solutions" (Davis, McKeown, and Rakes 1986, p. 4).

The basic procedure used in operations research/management science work involves defining a problem, constructing a model, and, ultimately, finding a solution. An enormous variety of mathematical, statistical, and simulation models have been developed with more or less predictable consequences. "Many management science specialists were accused of being more interested in manipulating problems to fit techniques than . . . (working) to develop suitable solutions" (Davis, McKeown, and Rakes 1986, p. 5). The entire field often evokes the tale of the fabled inebriate who persisted in looking for his lost key under the lamppost, although he had lost it elsewhere, because "it is light here."

Under the sponsorship of the Systems Theory and Operations Research program of the National Science Foundation, a Committee on the Next Decade in Operations Research (CONDOR) held a workshop in 1987. A report later appeared in the journal Operations Research. The journal subsequently asked operation researchers to comment on the report (Wagner et al. 1989). One of the commentators expressed what appears to be a growing sentiment in the field by pointing out the limitations of conventional modeling techniques for professional work. Criticizing the CONDOR report for appearing to accept the methodological status quo, he emphasized the character of models as "at best abstractions of selected aspects of reality" (Wagner et al. 1989). He quoted approvingly from another publication, "thus while exploiting their strengths, a prudent analyst recognizes realistically the limitations of quantitative methods" (Quade 1988).

This, however, is an unfortunate repetition of an inaccurate statement of the difficulty. It is not the limitations of quantitative methods that is in question but rather the recognition of the character of the situations to which they are applied. Sociologists distinguish between established situations, those whose parameters can be defined precisely and for which valid analytic means exist to describe meaningful relationship within them and emergent situations, whose parameters are known incompletely and for which satisfactory analytic techniques are not available within the time constraints of necessary action (Boguslaw [1965] 1981). In established situations mathematical or statistical models are quite satisfactory, along with other forms of rational analysis. In emergent situations, however, they can yield horrendous distortions. Fifty top U.S. corporation executives, when interviewed, recognized and acted upon this distinction more or less intuitively, although the situations presented to them were referred to as Type 1 and Type 2, respectively (Pelton, Sackmann, and Boguslaw 1990).

Individual persons, organizations, or enterprises may be viewed, on the one hand, as self-contained systems. On the other, they may be viewed as subsystems of larger social systems. Unfortunately, efforts are continually made to gloss over this dichotomy through a form of fragmentation, by treating a subsystem or collection of subsystems as equivalent to a larger system. It is this relationship between system and subsystem that constitutes the core of the dilemma continuing to confront systems theory.

Achieving a satisfactory resolution of the discrepancy between individual needs and objectives of the systems within which individuals find themselves embedded or by which they are affected remains an unsolved problem as the twentieth century draws to a close.

(see also: Decision-Making Theory and Research; Social Dynamics; Social Structure)


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Wagner, Harvey M., Michael H. Rothkopf, Clayton J. Thomas, and Hugh J. Miser 1989 "The Next Decade in Operations Research: Comments on the CONDOR Report," Operations Research 37:664–672.

Warren, Keith, Cynthia Franklin, and Calvin L. Streeter 1998 "New Directions in Systems Theory: Chaos and Complexity." Social-Work 43 (4):357–372.

Whitehouse, Gary E., and Ben L. Wechsler 1976 Applied Operations Research. New York: Wiley.

Robert Boguslaw

systems theory

views updated May 21 2018

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).

Systems Theory

views updated Jun 08 2018

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


Eve, Raymond A., Sara Horsfall, and Mary E. Lee, eds. 1997. Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology: Myths, Models, and Theories. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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

systems theory

views updated May 21 2018

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'.”