Systems Theory

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= This is not an attempt to explain systems theory as such, but rather a page with some comments on the relationship between systems theory and more participative epistemologies.



1. From the Wikipedia:

"Systems theory is the transdisciplinary study of systems, i.e. cohesive groups of interrelated, interdependent components that can be natural or artificial. Every system has causal boundaries, is influenced by its context, defined by its structure, function and role, and expressed through its relations with other systems. A system is "more than the sum of its parts" by expressing synergy or emergent behavior.

Changing one component of a system may affect other components or the whole system. It may be possible to predict these changes in patterns of behavior. For systems that learn and adapt, the growth and the degree of adaptation depend upon how well the system is engaged with its environment and other contexts influencing its organization. Some systems support other systems, maintaining the other system to prevent failure. The goals of systems theory are to model a system's dynamics, constraints, conditions, and relations; and to elucidate principles (such as purpose, measure, methods, tools) that can be discerned and applied to other systems at every level of nesting, and in a wide range of fields for achieving optimized equifinality.

General systems theory is about developing broadly applicable concepts and principles, as opposed to concepts and principles specific to one domain of knowledge. It distinguishes dynamic or active systems from static or passive systems. Active systems are activity structures or components that interact in behaviours and processes or interrelate through formal contextual boundary conditions (attractors). Passive systems are structures and components that are being processed. For example, a computer program is passive when it is a file stored on the hardrive and active when it runs in memory. The field is related to systems thinking, machine logic, and systems engineering."


2. OVN Wiki:

"A system is composed of regularly interacting or interrelating groups of activities. For example, in noting the influence in organizational psychology as the field evolved from "an individually oriented industrial psychology to a systems and developmentally oriented organizational psychology," it was recognized that organizations are complex social systems; reducing the parts from the whole reduces the overall effectiveness of organizations. This is different from conventional models that center on individuals, structures, departments and units separate in part from the whole instead of recognizing the interdependence between groups of individuals, structures and processes that enable an organization to function. Laszlo explains that the new systems view of organized complexity went "one step beyond the Newtonian view of organized simplicity" in reducing the parts from the whole, or in understanding the whole without relation to the parts. The relationship between organizations and their environments became recognized as the foremost source of complexity and interdependence. In most cases the whole has properties that cannot be known from analysis of the constituent elements in isolation.

The systems view is a world-view that is based on the discipline of SYSTEM INQUIRY. Central to systems inquiry is the concept of SYSTEM. In the most general sense, system means a configuration of parts connected and joined together by a web of relationships. The Primer group defines system as a family of relationships among the members acting as a whole. Von Bertalanffy defined system as "elements in standing relationship.

The emphasis with systems theory shifts from parts to the organization of parts, recognizing interactions of the parts are not "static" and constant but "dynamic" processes. Conventional closed systems were questioned with the development of open systems perspectives. The shift was from absolute and universal authoritative principles and knowledge to relative and generalconceptual and perceptual knowledge, still in the tradition of theorists that sought to provide means in organizing human life. Meaning, the history of ideas that preceded were rethought not lost. Mechanistic thinking was particularly critiqued, especially the industrial-age mechanistic metaphor of the mind from interpretations of Newtonian mechanics by Enlightenment philosophers and later psychologists that laid the foundations of modern organizational theory and management by the late 19th century. Classical science had not been overthrown, but questions arose over core assumptions that historically influenced organized systems, within both social and technical sciences.

Subjects like complexity, self-organization, connectionism and adaptive systems had already been studied in the 1940s and 1950s. In fields like cybernetics, researchers like Norbert Wiener, William Ross Ashby,John von Neumann and Heinz von Foerster examined complex systems using mathematics. John von Neumann discovered cellular automata and self-reproducing systems, again with only pencil and paper.Aleksandr Lyapunov and Jules Henri Poincaré worked on the foundations of chaos theory without any computer at all.

The systems view was based on several fundamental ideas. First, all phenomena can be viewed as a web of relationships among elements, or a system. Second, all systems, whether electrical, biological, or social, have common patterns, behaviors, and properties that can be understood and used to develop greater insight into the behavior of complex phenomena. The economist Kenneth Boulding, an early researcher in systems theory, had concerns over the manipulation of systems concepts.

Cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory and complexity theory have the common goal to explain complex systems that consist of a large number of mutually interacting and interrelated parts in terms of those interactions. Cellular automata (CA), neural networks (NN), artificial intelligence (AI), and artificial life (ALife) are related fields, but they do not try to describe general (universal) complex (singular) systems.

Complex adaptive systems are special cases of complex systems. They are complex in that they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements and adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience. The term complex adaptive systems was coined at the interdisciplinary Santa Fe Institute (SFI), by John H. Holland, Murray Gell-Mann and others. However, the approach of the complex adaptive systems does not take into account the adoption of information which enables people to use it.

CAS ideas and models are essentially evolutionary. Accordingly, the theory of complex adaptive systems bridges developments of the system theory with the ideas of 'generalized Darwinism', which suggests that Darwinian principles of evolution help explain a wide range of phenomena.

The systems framework is also fundamental to organizational theory as organizations are complex dynamic goal-oriented processes. One of the early thinkers in the field was Alexander Bogdanov, who developed his Tectology, a theory widely considered a precursor of von Bertalanffy's GST, aiming to model and design human organizations (see Mattessich 1978, Capra 1996). Kurt Lewin was particularly influential in developing the systems perspective within organizational theory and coined the term "systems of ideology", from his frustration with behavioral psychologies that became an obstacle to sustainable work in psychology. Jay Forrester with his work in dynamics and management alongside numerous theorists including Edgar Schein that followed in their tradition since the Civil Rights Era have also been influential.

The systems to organizations relies heavily upon achieving negative entropy through openness and feedback. A systemic view on organizations is transdisciplinary and integrative. In other words, it transcends the perspectives of individual disciplines, integrating them on the basis of a common "code", or more exactly, on the basis of the formal apparatus provided by systems theory. The systems approach gives primacy to the interrelationships, not to the elements of the system. It is from these dynamic interrelationships that new properties of the system emerge. In recent years, systems thinking has been developed to provide techniques for studying systems in holistic ways to supplement traditional reductionistic methods. In this more recent tradition, systems theory in organizational studies is considered by some as a humanistic extension of the natural sciences.

Systems theory has also been developed within sociology. An important figure in the sociological systems perspective as developed from GST is Walter Buckley (who from Bertalanffy's theory). Niklas Luhmann (see Luhmann 1994) is also predominant in the literatures for sociology and systems theory. Miller's living systems theory was particularly influential in sociology from the time of the early systems movement. Models for dynamic equilibrium in systems analysis that contrasted classical views from Talcott Parsons and George Homans were influential in integrating concepts with the general movement. With the renewed interest in systems theory on the rise since the 1990s, Bailey (1994) notes the concept of systems in sociology dates back to Auguste Comte in the 19th century, Herbert Spencer and Vilfredo Pareto, and that sociology was readying into its centennial as the new systems theory was emerging following the World Wars. To explore the current inroads of systems theory into sociology (primarily in the form of complexity science) see sociology and complexity science.

In sociology, members of Research Committee 51 of the International Sociological Association (which focuses on sociocybernetics, have sought to identify the sociocybernetic feedback loops which, it is argued, primarily control the operation of society. On the basis of research largely conducted in the area of education, Raven (1995) has, for example, argued that it is these sociocybernetic processes which consistently undermine well intentioned public action and are currently heading our species, at an exponentially increasing rate, toward extinction. See sustainability. He suggests that an understanding of these systems processes will allow us to generate the kind of (non "common-sense") targeted interventions that are required for things to be otherwise - i.e. to halt the destruction of the planet.

Industrial designer, and founder of The Venus Project, Jacque Fresco advocates the utilization of sociocybernetics for the benefits it could bring to society. A major theme of Fresco's is the concept of a resource-based economy that replaces the need for the current monetary economy, which is "scarcity-oriented" or "scarcity-based". Fresco argues that the world is rich in natural resources and energy and that — with modern technology and judicious efficiency — the needs of the global population can be met with abundance, while at the same time removing the current limitations of what is deemed possible due to notions of economic viability.

System Dynamics was founded in the late 1950s by Jay W. Forrester of the MIT Sloan School of Management with the establishment of the MIT System Dynamics Group. At that time, he began applying what he had learned about systems during his work in electrical engineering to everyday kinds of systems. Determining the exact date of the founding of the field of system dynamics is difficult and involves a certain degree of arbitrariness. Jay W. Forrester joined the faculty of the Sloan School at MIT in 1956, where he then developed what is now System Dynamics. The first published article by Jay W. Forrester in the Harvard Business Review on "Industrial Dynamics", was published in 1958. The members of the System Dynamics Society have chosen 1957 to mark the occasion as it is the year in which the work leading to that article, which described the dynamics of a manufacturing supply chain, was done.

As an aspect of systems theory, system dynamics is a method for understanding the dynamic behavior of complex systems. The basis of the method is the recognition that the structure of any system — the many circular, interlocking, sometimes time-delayed relationships among its components — is often just as important in determining its behavior as the individual components themselves. Examples are chaos theory and social dynamics. It is also claimed that, because there are often properties-of-the-whole which cannot be found among the properties-of-the-elements, in some cases the behavior of the whole cannot be explained in terms of the behavior of the parts. An example is the properties of these letters which when considered together can give rise to meaning which does not exist in the letters by themselves. This further explains the integration of tools, like language, as a more parsimoniousprocess in the human application of easiest path adaptability through interconnected systems.

Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means for enabling the realization and deployment of successful systems. It can be viewed as the application of engineering techniques to the engineering of systems, as well as the application of a systems approach to engineering efforts. Systems engineering integrates other disciplines and specialty groups into a team effort, forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation and disposal. Systems engineering considers both the business and the technical needs of all customers, with the goal of providing a quality product that meets the user needs."



Limits of Systems Approaches

Why a systems approach is not enough, by Steve Talbott of the Nature Institute

The following are interspersed excerpts only:

Reductionism. The claim by some complexity researchers to have moved "beyond reductionism" is not justified by the facts. The decisive and damaging act of reduction within conventional science has always been the reduction, in thought, of the qualitative world of phenomena to abstract, machine-like models devoid of qualities. Complexity theorists seem at least as committed to this reduction as any other scientists.

Holism. There can be no holism without the qualities that complexity researchers strip from the world. It is the nature of qualities to interpenetrate one another, and only through such mutual interpenetration can a whole express itself through each of its parts. Without qualities, there are featureless "particles" side by side in changing arrangements, but nothing to make an integral unity of them—nothing to give the assemblage the sort of distinctive, expressive character enabling us to recognize a whole.

Emergence. When your scientific work repeatedly brings you up against vaguely conceived "emergent" phenomena—phenomena that seem to arise from out of nowhere—you might reasonably wonder whether your models and explanatory mechanisms have omitted something important. While most complexity theorists seem undisturbed by this thought, I have been suggesting above that the omission has in fact been as radical as it could possibly be: what the models tend to leave out is the phenomenal world as such, with all its contingencies and with all its causal, or generative, powers. What the situation requires is a fundamental reconsideration of method. Most importantly, this means a reconsideration of the founding decision within science to ignore qualities, since it turns out that to ignore qualities is to ignore the world. There is no way to get from the sheer abstractions of complexity theory back to the world of phenomena, except by re-introducing qualities "through the back door" when no one is looking—and then exclaiming about the "emergent" wonders that arise. It would be much more sound scientifically to face qualities up front, wrestling through to an understanding of their proper place in the scientific enterprise." ( )

More Information

  • Fritjof Capra. The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living
  • Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems: A Primer : Meadows gives a very good basic understanding of systems thinking and how to apply the principles to common problems. The examples she gives range from simple and clear to complex and intricate (with systems within systems). Some of the most poignant parts of the book can also be found online at [1]