Systems in the Social Sciences

In contrast to biological species which have evolved by way of genetic transformation, only mankind shows the phenomenon of history, which is intimately linked with culture, language and tradition. The reign of nature is dominated by laws progressively revealed in science. Are there laws of history? In view of the fact that laws are relations in a conceptual model or theory, this question is identical with another one: apart from description of happenings, is a theoretical history possible? If this is possible at all, it must be an investigation of systems as suitable units of research—of human groups, societies, cultures, civilizations, or whatever the appropriate objects of research may be.

A widespread conviction among historians is that this is not so. Science is essentially a nomothetic endeavor—it establishes laws, based on the fact that events in nature are repeatable and recurrent. In contrast, history does not repeat itself. It has occurred only once, and therefore, history can only be idiographic—i.e., a description of events which have occurred in a near or distant past.

Contrary to this opinion, which is the orthodox one of historians, heretics have appeared who held the opposite view and, in one way or another, tried to construct a theoretical history with laws applying to the historical process. This current started with the Italian philosopher Vico in the early 18th century, and continued in the philosophical systems and the investigations by Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin, Kroeber and others. There are great and obvious differences between these systems. They all agree, however, that the historical process is not completely accidental but follows regularities or laws which can be determined.

As already said, the scientific approach is undisputedly applicable to certain aspects of human society. One such field is statistics. We can, and do, formulate many statistical laws or at least regularities for social entities. Population statistics, mortality statistics—without which insurance companies would go bankrupt —Gallup polls, predictions of voting behavior or of the sale of a product show that statistical methods are applicable to a wide range of social phenomena.

Moreover, there are fields where the possibility of a hypothetico- deductive system is generally accepted. One such field is mathe- matical economics or econometrics. The correct system of economics may be disputed, but such systems exist and, as in every science, it is hoped that they will be improved. Mathematical economics also is a case in point of general systems theory which does not concern physical entities. The many-variables problems, different models and mathematical approaches in economics offer a good example of model building and the general systems approach.

Even for those mysterious entities, human values, scientific theories are emerging. In fact, information theory, game theory, and decision theory provide models to deal with aspects of human and social behavior where the mathematics of classical science is not applicable. Works like Rapoport’s Fights, Games, Debates (I960) and Boulding’s Conflict and Defence (1962) present detailed analyses of phenomena such as armament races, war and war games, competition in the economic and other fields, treated by such comparatively novel methods.

It is of particular interest that these approaches are concerned with aspects of human behavior which were believed to be outside of science: values, rational decisions, information, etc. They are not physicalistic or reductionist. They do not apply physical laws or use the traditional mathematics of the natural sciences. Rather, new developments of mathematics are emerging, intended to deal with phenomena not encountered in the world of physics.

Again there are uncontested laws with respect to certain immaterial aspects of culture. For example, language is not a physical object, but a product or rather aspect of that intangible entity we call human culture. Nevertheless, linguistics tells about laws allowing description, explanation and prediction of observed phenomena. Grimm’s laws of the consonant mutations in the history of Germanic languages is one of the simpler examples.

In somewhat vaguer form, a lawfulness of cultural events is generally accepted. For example, it appears to be a quite general phenomenon that art goes through a number of stages of archaism, maturity, baroque, and dissolution found in the evolution of art in far- away places and times.

Thus statistical regularities and laws can be found in social phenomena; certain specific aspects can be approached by recent approaches, models and techniques which are outside and different from those of the natural sciences; and we have some ideas about intrinsic, specific and organizational laws of social systems. This is no matter of dispute.

The’ bone of contention comes in with “theoretical history,” the great visions or constructs of history, as those of Vico, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, to mention only some prominent examples. Regularities in “microhistory,” i.e., happenings in limited spaces, time-spans, and fields of human activity, certainly are vague, needy of exploration, and far from being exact statements; but their existence is hardly disputable. The attempts at finding regularities in “macrohistory” are almost unequivocally rejected by official history.

Taking away romanticism, metaphysics and moralizing, the “great systems” appear as models of the historical process, as Toynbee, somewhat belatedly, recognized in the last volume of his Study. Conceptual models which, in simplified and therefore comprehensible form, try to represent certain aspects of reality, are basic in any attempt at theory; whether we apply the Newtonian model in mechanics, the model of corpuscle or wave in atomic physics, use simplified models to describe the growth of a population, or the model of a game to describe political decisions. The advantages and dangers of models are well known. The advantage is in the fact that this is the way to create a theory —i.e., the model permits deductions from premises, explanation and prediction, with often unexpected results. The danger is oversimplification: to make it conceptually controllable, we have to reduce reality to a conceptual skeleton—the question remaining whether, in doing so, we have not cut out vital parts of the anatomy. The danger of oversimplification is the greater, the more multifarious and complex the phenomenon is. This applies not only to “grand theories” of culture and history but to models we find in any psychological or sociological journal.

Obviously, the Great Theories are very imperfect models. Factual errors, misinterpretations, fallacies in conclusion are shown in an enormous critical literature and need not concern us here. But taking this criticism for granted, a number of observations still remain.

One thing the various systems of “theoretical history” appear to have demonstrated is the nature of the historical process. History is not a process in an amorphous humanity, or in Homo sapiens as a zoological species. Rather it is borne by entities or great systems, called high cultures or civilizations. Their number is uncertain, their delimitations vague, and their interactions complex. But whether Spengler has counted eight great civilizations, Toynbee some 20, Sorokin applies still other categories, or recent research has unveiled so many lost cultures, it appears to be a fact that there was a limited number of cultural entities bearing the historical process, each presenting a sort of life cycle as indeed smaller socio-cultural systems such as businesses, schools in art and even scientific theories certainly do. This course is not a predetermined life span of a thousand years as Spengler maintained (not even individual organisms have a fixed life span but may die earlier or later); nor does it run in splendid isolation. The extent of cultural diffusion became impressive when archae- ologists explored the prehistoric Amber Road or the Silk Road which dated from the beginning of the Christian era or even earlier, or when they found an Indian Lakshmi statuette in Pompeii and Roman trade stations at the Indian coasts. Expansion undreamed of by Spengler and yet by Toynbee, as well as new problems, became apparent in relatively recent years. Certainly the culture of the Khmer, the Etruscans or the preRoman Celts deserve their place in the scheme; what was the megalithic culture expanding over the edges of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Baltic Sea, or the Iberian culture which produced as early as 500 B.C. such astonishing work as the Prado’s Lady of Elche? Nevertheless, there is something like an Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Faustian, Magic, Indian culture (or whatever nomenclature we may prefer), each unique in its “style” (i.e., the unity and whole of its symbolic system), even when absorbing and assimilating culture traits from others and interacting with cultural systems contemporaneous and past.

Furthermore, the ups and downs in history (not exactly cycles or recurrences, but fluctuations) are a matter of public record. As Kroeber (1957) and Sorokin (1950) emphasized, there remains, after subtracting the errors and idiosyncrasies of the philosophers of history, a large area of agreement; and this consists of well- known facts of history. In other words, the disagreements among the theorists of history, and with official history, are not so much a question of data as of interpretation, that is of the models applied. This, after all, is what one would expect according to history of science; for a scientific “revolution,” the introduction of a new “paradigm” of scientific thinking (Kuhn, 1962), usually manifests itself in a gamut of competing theories or models.

In such a dispute, the influence of semantics pure and  simple should not be underrated. The meaning of the concept of culture itself is a matter of dispute. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) collected and discussed some 160 definitions without coming out with a definitive one. In particular, the anthropologist’s and the historian’s notions are different. For example, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture of New Mexico, British Columbia and Australia inhabitants is essentially timeless; these patterns existed since times unrecorded, and if they underwent minor changes in the past, these are outside the scope and methods of the cultural anthropologist. In contrast, the culture or more properly civilization (to follow idiomatic English) with which the historian is concerned, is a process in time: the evolution of the Greco-Roman culture from the Ionian city states to the Roman Empire, of its plastic art from archaic statuary to Hellenism, of German music from Bach to Strauss, of science from Copernicus to Einstein, and so forth. So far as we know, only a limited number of “high cultures” had and made history—i.e., showed major change in time, while the hundreds of cultures of the anthropologist remained stationary at their stone and bronze age levels, as the case may be, before the European impact. In this respect, Spengler is certainly right, with his concept of culture as a dynamic and self-evolving entity, against anthropologists to whom one “culture” —be it of Australian aborigines, of Greece or of the Western world—is as good as the other, all belonging to one stream of amorphous humanity with accidental and environment-caused eddies, rapids and standstills.

Incidentally, such verbal distinctions are more than scholasticism and have political impact. In Canada, we presently have the fight about Biculturalism (or of Two Nations, English and French, in another version). What do we mean? Do we understand culture in the anthropological sense and wish to fight about tribal differences as they exist between savage peoples in Africa or Borneo and cause endless warfare and bloodshed? Or do we mean culture as the French culture and German Kultur—i.e., creative manifestations which still have to be proved, and to be proved as different between English- and French-Canadians? Clearly, political opinions and decisions will largely depend on the definition. The concept of nation in the U.N. has been based on the “anthropological” notion (if not on arbitrary frontiers left from the Colonial period); the result has been somewhat less than encouraging.

Another semantic problem is implied in “organismic” theories of sociology and history. Spengler called the great civilizations organisms with a life cycle including birth, growth, maturity, senescence and death; an enormous host of critics proved the obvious, namely, that cultures are not organisms like animals or plants, individual entities well-bounded in time and space. In contrast, the organismic conception is rather well-treated in sociology because its metaphorical character is understood. A business firm or manufacturing plant is a “system” and therefore shows “organismic” features; but the difference of a “plant” in the botanist’s and industrialist’s sense is too obvious to present a problem. The fight would hardly have been possible in the French language where it is good usage to speak of the organisme of an institution (say the postal service), of a commercial firm or a professional association; the metaphor is understood and, therefore, not a subject of dispute.

Instead of emphasizing the shortcomings of the cyclic historians which are rather natural in an embryonic stage of the science, it seems more profitable to emphasize their agreement in many respects. One point of agreement makes the issue into more than an academic question. This issue has, as it were, touched a raw nerve, and gained for Toynbee and Spengler both popular acclaim and an emotional reaction otherwise uncommon in academic debate. It is the thesis expressed in Spengler’s title, The Decline of the West, the statement that in spite or perhaps because of our magnificent technological achievements, we live in a time of cultural decay and impending catastrophe.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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