Also termed ‘systems analysis’.
Theory of politics and government as a system associated with American political scientist David Easton (1917- ).
Government and politics constitute a system of inputs and outputs, with ‘gatekeepers’ who filter demands upon the system in order to avoid overload.
Systems analysis like structural functionalism is contrasted with conflict theory.
Geoffrey Roberts and Alistair Edwards, A New Dictionary of Political Analysis (London, 1991)
- System: An entity made up of interrelated, interdependent parts.
- Boundaries: Barriers that define a system and distinguish it from other systems in an environment.
- Homeostasis: The tendency of a system to be resilient with respect to external disruption and to maintain its key characteristics.
- Adaptation: The tendency of a system to make the internal changes to protect itself and keep fulfilling its purpose.
- Reciprocal transactions: Circular or cyclical interactions that systems engage in such that they influence one another.
- Feedback loop: The process by which systems self-correct based on reactions from other systems in the environment.
- Throughput: Rate of energy transfer between a system and its environment over time.
- Microsystem: The system closest to the client.
- Mesosystem: Relationships among systems in an environment.
- Exosystem: A relationship between two systems that has an indirect effect on a third system.
- Macrosystem: A larger system that influences clients, such as policies, administration of entitlement programs, and culture.
- Chronosystem: A system composed of significant life events affecting adaptation.
Origin of the term
The term “general systems theory” originates from Bertalanffy’s general systems theory (GST). His ideas were adopted by others including Kenneth E. Boulding, William Ross Ashby and Anatol Rapoport working in mathematics, psychology, biology, game theory, and social network analysis.
In sociology, systems thinking started earlier, in the 20th century. Stichweh states: “… Since its beginnings the social sciences were an important part of the establishment of systems theory… the two most influential suggestions were the comprehensive sociological versions of systems theory which were proposed by Talcott Parsons since the 1950s and by Niklas Luhmann since the 1970s.” References include Parsons’ action theory and Luhmann’s social systems theory.
Elements of systems thinking can also be seen in the work of James Clerk Maxwell, in particular control theory.
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Systems theory is manifest in the work of practitioners in many disciplines, for example the works of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, linguist Béla H. Bánáthy, sociologist Talcott Parsons, and in the study of ecological systems by Howard T. Odum, Eugene Odum and is Fritjof Capra’s study of organizational theory, and in the study of management by Peter Senge, in interdisciplinary areas such as Human Resource Development in the works of Richard A. Swanson, and in the works of educators Debora Hammond and Alfonso Montuori.
As a transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multiperspectival endeavor, systems theory brings together principles and concepts from ontology, the philosophy of science, physics, computer science, biology and engineering as well as geography, sociology, political science, psychotherapy (especially family systems therapy), and economics. Systems theory promotes dialogue between autonomous areas of study as well as within systems science itself.
In this respect, with the possibility of misinterpretations, von Bertalanffy believed a general theory of systems “should be an important regulative device in science”, to guard against superficial analogies that “are useless in science and harmful in their practical consequences”. Others remain closer to the direct systems concepts developed by the original theorists. For example, Ilya Prigogine, of the Center for Complex Quantum Systems at the University of Texas, Austin, has studied emergent properties, suggesting that they offer analogues for living systems. The theories of autopoiesis of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana represent further developments in this field. Important names in contemporary systems science include Russell Ackoff, Ruzena Bajcsy, Béla H. Bánáthy, Gregory Bateson, Anthony Stafford Beer, Peter Checkland, Barbara Grosz, Brian Wilson, Robert L. Flood, Allenna Leonard, Radhika Nagpal, Fritjof Capra, Warren McCulloch, Kathleen Carley, Michael C. Jackson, Katia Sycara, and Edgar Morin among others.
With the modern foundations for a general theory of systems following World War I, Ervin Laszlo, in the preface for Bertalanffy’s book: Perspectives on General System Theory, points out that the translation of “general system theory” from German into English has “wrought a certain amount of havoc”:
It (General System Theory) was criticized as pseudoscience and said to be nothing more than an admonishment to attend to things in a holistic way. Such criticisms would have lost their point had it been recognized that von Bertalanffy’s general system theory is a perspective or paradigm, and that such basic conceptual frameworks play a key role in the development of exact scientific theory. .. Allgemeine Systemtheorie is not directly consistent with an interpretation often put on ‘general system theory,’ to wit, that it is a (scientific) “theory of general systems.” To criticize it as such is to shoot at straw men. Von Bertalanffy opened up something much broader and of much greater significance than a single theory (which, as we now know, can always be falsified and has usually an ephemeral existence): he created a new paradigm for the development of theories.
“Theorie” (or “Lehre”), just as “Wissenschaft” (translated Science), “has a much broader meaning in German than the closest English words ‘theory’ and ‘science'”. These ideas refer to an organized body of knowledge and “any systematically presented set of concepts, whether empirically, axiomatically, or philosophically” represented, while many associate “Lehre” with theory and science in the etymology of general systems, though it also does not translate from the German very well; its “closest equivalent” translates as “teaching”, but “sounds dogmatic and off the mark”. While the idea of a “general systems theory” might have lost many of its root meanings in the translation, by defining a new way of thinking about science and scientific paradigms, Systems theory became a widespread term used for instance to describe the interdependence of relationships created in organizations.
A system in this frame of reference can contain 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”, some theorists recognize that organizations have complex social systems; separating the parts from the whole reduces the overall effectiveness of organizations. This difference, from conventional models that center on individuals, structures, departments and units, separates 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” which reduced the parts from the whole, or understood the whole without relation to the parts. The relationship between organisations and their environments can be seen 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. Béla H. Bánáthy, who argued—along with the founders of the systems society—that “the benefit of humankind” is the purpose of science, has made significant and far-reaching contributions to the area of systems theory. For the Primer Group at ISSS, Bánáthy defines a perspective that iterates this view:[full citation needed]
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.”
Similar ideas are found in learning theories that developed from the same fundamental concepts, emphasising how understanding results from knowing concepts both in part and as a whole. In fact, Bertalanffy’s organismic psychology paralleled the learning theory of Jean Piaget. Some consider interdisciplinary perspectives critical in breaking away from industrial age models and thinking, wherein history represents history and math represents math, while the arts and sciences specialization remain separate and many treat teaching as behaviorist conditioning. The contemporary work of Peter Senge provides detailed discussion of the commonplace critique of educational systems grounded in conventional assumptions about learning, including the problems with fragmented knowledge and lack of holistic learning from the “machine-age thinking” that became a “model of school separated from daily life”. In this way some systems theorists attempt to provide alternatives to, and evolved ideation from orthodox theories which have grounds in classical assumptions, including individuals such as Max Weber and Émile Durkheim in sociology and Frederick Winslow Taylor in scientific management. The theorists sought holistic methods by developing systems concepts that could integrate with different areas.
Some may view the contradiction of reductionism in conventional theory (which has as its subject a single part) as simply an example of changing assumptions. The emphasis with systems theory shifts from parts to the organization of parts, recognizing interactions of the parts as not static and constant but dynamic processes. Some questioned the conventional closed systems with the development of open systems perspectives. The shift originated from absolute and universal authoritative principles and knowledge to relative and general conceptual and perceptual knowledge and still remains in the tradition of theorists that sought to provide means to organize human life. In other words, theorists rethought the preceding history of ideas; they did not lose them. Mechanistic thinking was particularly critiqued, especially the industrial-age mechanistic metaphor for 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.
Examples of applications
System dynamics is an approach to understanding the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, and time delays.
Systems biology is a movement that draws on several trends in bioscience research. Proponents describe systems biology as a biology-based inter-disciplinary study field that focuses on complex interactions in biological systems, claiming that it uses a new perspective (holism instead of reduction). Particularly from the year 2000 onwards, the biosciences use the term widely and in a variety of contexts. An often stated ambition of systems biology is the modelling and discovery of emergent properties which represents properties of a system whose theoretical description requires the only possible useful techniques to fall under the remit of systems biology. It is thought that Ludwig von Bertalanffy may have created the term systems biology in 1928.
Systems chemistry is the science of studying networks of interacting molecules, to create new functions from a set (or library) of molecules with different hierarchical levels and emergent properties. Systems chemistry is also related to the origin of life (abiogenesis).
Systems ecology is an interdisciplinary field of ecology, a subset of Earth system science, that takes a holistic approach to the study of ecological systems, especially ecosystems. Systems ecology can be seen as an application of general systems theory to ecology. Central to the systems ecology approach is the idea that an ecosystem is a complex system exhibiting emergent properties. Systems ecology focuses on interactions and transactions within and between biological and ecological systems, and is especially concerned with the way the functioning of ecosystems can be influenced by human interventions. It uses and extends concepts from thermodynamics and develops other macroscopic descriptions of complex systems.
Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means for enabling the realisation 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’s needs.
Systems psychology is a branch of psychology that studies human behaviour and experience in complex systems. It received inspiration from systems theory and systems thinking, as well as the basics of theoretical work from Roger Barker, Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana and others. It makes an approach in psychology in which groups and individuals receive consideration as systems in homeostasis. Systems psychology “includes the domain of engineering psychology, but in addition seems more concerned with societal systems and with the study of motivational, affective, cognitive and group behavior that holds the name engineering psychology.” In systems psychology, “characteristics of organizational behaviour, for example individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people interacting with the systems, considers this process in order to create an effective system”.
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