Systems in the Social Sciences

Finally, we should look for the application of the systems con- ception to the widest perspective, i.e., human groups, societies, and humanity as a whole.

For purposes of discussion, let us understand “social science” in a broad sense, including sociology, economics, political science, social psychology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, a good part of history and the humanities, etc. Let us understand “science” as a nomothetic endeavor, i.e. not a description of singularities but an ordering of facts and elaboration of generalities.

Presupposing these definitions, it may, in my opinion, be stated quite confidently: Social science is the science of social systems. For this’ reason, it will have to use the approach of general systems science.

This appears to be an almost trivial statement, and it can hardly be denied that “contemporary sociological theories” (Sorokin, 1928, 1966) and even their development through history, followed this program. However, proper study of social systems contrasts with two widespread conceptions: first, with atomistic conceptions which neglect study of “relations”; secondly, with conceptions neglecting the specificity of the systems concerned, such as a “social physics” as was often attempted in a reductionist spirit. This requires some comment.

Research into systems of organisms is extensive. It forms an important part of biology, in the study of communities and societies of animals and plants, their growth, competition, struggle for existence, etc., both in the ecological and genetic aspects. Certain aspects of human societies offer themselves for similar considerations; not only aspects so obvious as the growth of human populations but also armament races and warlike conflicts which, according to Richardson and others, can be elaborated in differential equations similar to those used in ecology and, though oversimplified, provide an amount of explanation and even prediction. The spread of rumors can be described by generalized diffusion equations; the flow of automobile traffic can be analyzed in considerations formally corresponding to kinetics and thermodynamics. Such cases are rather typical and straightforward applications of general system theory. However, this is only part of the problem.

Sociology with its allied fields is essentially the study of human groups or systems, from small groups like the family or working crew, over innumerable intermediates of informal and formal organizations to the largest units like nations, power blocks and international relations. The many attempts to provide theoretical formulations are all elaborations of the concept of system or some synonym in this realm. Ultimately the problem of human history looms as the widest possible application of the systems idea.

Concepts and theories provided by the modern systems approach are being increasingly introduced into sociology, such as the concept of general system, of feedback, information, communication, etc.

Present sociological theory largely consists in attempts to define the sociocultural “system,” and in discussion of functionalism, i.e., consideration of social phenomena with respect to the “whole” they serve. In the first respect, Sorokin’s characterization of sociocultural system as causal-logical-meaningful (as the present author would loosely transcribe it, the biological, the symbolic and value levels) seems best to express the various complexly interconnected aspects.

Functionalist theory has found various expressions as represented by Parsons, Merton, and many others; the recent book by Demerath and Peterson (1968) gives excellent insight into the various currents. The main critique of functionalism, particularly in Parsons’ version, is that it overemphasizes maintenance, equilibrium, adjustment, homeostasis, stable institutional structures, and so on, with the result that history, process, sociocultural change, inner-directed development, etc., are underplayed and, at most, appear as “deviants” with a negative value connotation. The theory therefore appears to be one of conservatism and conformism, defending the “system” (or the megamachine of present society, to use Mumford’s term) as is, conceptually neglecting and hence obstructing social change. Obviously, general system theory in the form here presented is free of this objection as it incorporates equally maintenance and change, preservation of system and internal conflict; it may therefore be apt to serve as logical skeleton for improved sociological theory (cf. Buckley, 1967).

The practical application, in systems analysis and engineering, of systems theory to problems arising in business, government, international politics, demonstrates that the approach “works” and leads to both understanding and predictions. It especially shows that the systems approach is not limited to material entities in physics, biology and other natural sciences, but is applicable to entities which are partly immaterial and highly heterogeneous. Systems analysis, for example, of a business enterprise encompasses men, machines, buildings, inflow of raw material, outflow of products, monetary values, good will and other imponderables; it may give definite answers and practical advice.

The difficulties are not only in the complexity of phenomena but in the definition of entities under consideration.

At least part of the difficulty is expressed by the fact that the social sciences are concerned with “socio-cultural” systems. Human groups, from the smallest of personal friendships and family to the largest of nations and civilizations, are not only an outcome of social “forces” found, at least in primitive form, in subhuman organisms; they are part of a man-created universe called culture.

Natural science has to do with physical entities in time and space, particles, atoms and molecules, living systems at various levels, as the case may be. Social science has to do with human beings in their self- created universe of culture. The cultural universe is essentially a symbolic universe. Animals are surrounded by a physical universe with which they have to cope: physical environment, prey to catch, predators to avoid, and so forth. Man, in contrast, is surrounded by a universe of symbols. Starting from language which is the prerequisite of culture, to symbolic relationships with his fellows, social status, laws, science, art, morals, religion and innumerable other things, human behavior, except for the basic aspects of the biological needs of hunger and sex, is governed by symbolic entities.

We may also say that man has values which are more than biological and transcend the sphere of the physical world. These cultural values may be biologically irrelevant or even deleterious: It is hard to see that music, say, has any adaptive or survival value; the values of nation and state become biologically nefarious when they lead to war and to the killing of innumerable human beings.

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

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