What Is Organization in System Perspective?

Similar considerations apply to the concept of organization.

Organization also was alien to the mechanistic world. The problem did not appear in classical physics, mechanics, electrodynamics, etc. Even more, the second principle of thermodynamics indicated destruction of order as the general direction of events. It is true that this is different in modern physics. An atom, a crystal, or a molecule are organizations, as Whitehead never failed to emphasize. In biology, organisms are, by definition, organized things. But although we have an enormous amount of data on biological organization, from biochemistry to cytology to histology and anatomy, we do not have a theory of biological organization, i.e., a conceptual model which permits explanation of the empirical facts.

Characteristic of organization, whether of a living organism or a society, are notions like those of wholeness, growth, differentiation, hierarchical order, dominance, control, competition, etc. Such notions do not appear in conventional physics. System theory is well capable of dealing with these matters. It is possible to define such notions within the mathematical model of a system; moreover, in some respects, detailed theories can be developed which deduce, from general assumptions, the special cases. A good example is the theory of biological equilibria, cyclic fluctuations, etc., as initiated by Lotka, Volterra, Gause and others. It will certainly be found that Volterra’s biological theory and the theory of quantitative economics are isomorphic in many respects.

There are, however, many aspects of organizations which do not easily lend themselves to quantitative interpretation. This difficulty is not unknown in natural science. Thus, the theory of biological equilibria or that of natural selection are highly developed fields of mathematical biology, and nobody doubts that they are legitimate, essentially correct, and an important part of the theory of evolution and of ecology. It is hard, however, to apply them in the field because the parameters chosen, such as selective value, rate of destruction and generation and the like, cannot easily be measured. So we have to content ourselves with an “explanation in principle,” a qualitative argument which, however, may lead to interesting consequences.

As an example of the application of general system theory to human society, we may quote a recent book by Boulding, entitled The Organizational Revolution. Boulding starts with a general model of organization and states what he calls Iron Laws which hold good for any organization. Such Iron Laws are, for example, the Malthusian law that the increase of a population is, in general, greater than that of its resources. Then there is a law of optimum size of organizations: the larger an organization grows, the longer is the way of communication and this, depending on the nature of the organization, acts as a limiting factor and does not allow an organization to grow beyond a certain critical size. According to the law of instability, many organizations are not in a stable equilibrium but show cyclic fluctuations which result from the interaction of subsystems. This, incidentally, could probably be treated in terms of the Volterra theory, Volterra’s so- called first law being that of periodic cycles in populations of two species, one of which feeds at the expense of the other. The important law of oligopoly states that, if there are competing organizations, the instability of their relations and hence the danger of friction and conflicts increases with the decrease of the number of those organizations. Thus, so long as they are rela-tively small and numerous, they muddle through in some way of coexistence. But if only a few or a competing pair are left, as is the case with the colossal political blocks of the present day, conflicts become devastating to the point of mutual destruction. The number of such general theorems for organization can easily be enlarged. They are well capable of being developed in a mathematical way, as was actually done for certain aspects.

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

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