More sociological perspectives: in contrast to classical system theory

Copyright Graham Berrisford 2017. Last updated 13/01/2019 13:54

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On the aims of a system.. 1

Is every social group a social system?. 1

Is every enterprise a system?. 2

On social system classification. 3

On “critical realism”. 3

On Bronfenbremner’s Ecological System theory. 3

On the social impact of the "sound system" (after Handy) 4

References. 4


On the aims of a system

Here, the term "aim" refers to a result or outcome that is envisaged and intended by one or more human actors.

An aim is an outcome (envisaged by a purposeful actor, or agreed by a group of them) for activities to be performed.


Inorganic systems (a hurricane, the solar system) evolve by chance with no aims.

The aims of a virus, bacterium or amoeba are biological imperatives.

The aims of actors in some animal societies (a shoal of fish, a beehive) are also biological imperatives.

Eventually, evolution created some biological actors that are what Ackoff called “purposeful”.

Human social entities feature actors that have individual and flexible aims.

Human actors are self-aware and self-willed enough to:

·         envisage the future

·         predict the outcome of activities that might be performed, then

·         choose a course of action with outcomes in mind.


Given a human social group of interest, two kinds of aim can be identified.


Directors' aims.

Sponsors, stakeholders or directors may give aims to a social entity.

Just as in designing mechanical entities, the designers of a social system may have to trade off between conflicting directors' aims.


Actors' aims

Systems actors may have aims of their own

In a beehive, the aims of actors playing roles have evolved to match those of the social entity as a whole.

In a business, where human actors are purposeful, actors’ aims may conflict with directors' aims.


When management scientists speak of a corporation as a system, they may be thinking of its directors' aims.

Directors declare aims; managers cascade them down the management structure to people working in the “operational system”.


However, directors' aims may be incomplete, inconsistent or ineffective.

What workers do may be more determined by other things – local procedures, actors' aims and market forces.

A hierarchical management structure and aim cascade is only one way to describe how enterprises work in reality.


Yes, we can name a social entity and encapsulate it by giving it some aims.

Then (without ever describing its internal actors and activities) test that the social entity meets those aims.

But different people will ascribe different aims to the same entity.

So, even considering only its aims, the entity is different systems to different people.

And to describe external aims without internal activities is to eviscerate the concept of a system.

Is every social group a social system?

A social entity is a group of actors who exchange information.

The information can include descriptions, directions and decisions - and requests for them.

The actors act according to information in messages received and memories retained.

But not necessarily in a way that is regular, repeated or predictable.


A social system is a social entity in which actors do interact in some regular or repeatable behaviors.

The actors play certain roles and communicate certain types of information.

Think of the bees in a beehive.

Or the roles and rules of a hunting party in an early human society.

Humans have evolved more complex legal, religious and political systems.

Each has its own “domain-specific” language for communicating information.

Sociologists debate the best design for a political system: centralised totalitarianism, a participatory democracy, or anarchy?


When applied to a human society, classical system theory is sometimes called “structuralism”.

Structuralists analyse a human society in terms of relationships between elements in a conceptual or theoretical system.

Human actors do often play pre-determined roles and communicate pre-determined types of information

And when something out-of-ordinary happens, they may invoke some kind of exception-handling procedure.


However, many systems thinkers are concerned with societies that are less systematic.

Their focus is on social groups in which the actors are self-aware and regarded as having free will.

Obviously humans can create new information, communicate it to others, and respond in ad hoc ways.

The question arises: if little or no behavior of the group can be tested against a description, in what useful sense is it a system?


David Seidl (2001) said a social system theorist has to choose the basic elements of a system.

“The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons or actions.”

The trouble is, taking the former view tends to eviscerate the concept of a system.


E.g. A street gang is a set of actors who perform activities as they choose.

Such an incoherent group - doing things that are not regular or repeated - is not well-called a system.

Russell Ackoff considered such entities to be out of scope of his systems thinking.

Any group of people, in communication with each other, may agree to cooperate in some way, for some time.
The trouble is, group members may come and go, they may change their mind about their aims and/or their activities.

Some members may obstruct or even undermine what other group members want to do.


Surely a social system is more than a group of people doing things they choose?

And to call a social entity a system - in a useful sense - is to imply the entity exhibits some orderly behavior?

Else, if its activities or aims are in continual flux, then they are not describable and testable.

Is every enterprise a system?

What does it mean to call a church, a government or IBM “a system”?

Does it mean merely that it contains things that are interrelated in some way or another (which may be said of the entire universe)?

Or it is a social entity in which people receive some directions from above and communicate with each other?

Or it is has an agreed set of aims, inputs and outputs?


IBM (like the universe) is an ever changing entity in which stuff happens.

If there is no description of the entity as a system, there is no agreed or testable system, just stuff happening.

Different people will define the aims, inputs and outputs of IBM differently, each expressing their own perspective of “the whole.”

In other words, IBM can be (can manifest, instantiate, realise) many different systems.

And in any week of the year, some of those systems will be changed.


Some would call IBM a complex adaptive system of systems.

Does this have a meaningful, useful and testable meaning?

Being self-aware and self-willed human actors, employees’ behaviour is at least somewhat unpredictable.

Does that make IBM a more complex system? Or merely less systematic, less describable as a system?

Read complex adaptive systems for discussion.


To what extent can IBM meaningfully be described as a system of systems?

von Bertalanffy wrote of a concept he called organicism.

He meant not only that larger systems can be decomposed into smaller ones, and vice-versa.

But also that the whole system depends on integration and cooperation between its subsystems.

Imagine trying to describe all the actors and activities in IBM.

It contains many thousands of actors who perform countless activities – often in ad hoc ways

It contains countless disparate systems, many of which are loosely or not at all coupled.

Do those systems join up efficiently and effectively in one holistic whole as Bertalanffy would expect of a system?

We don’t know how well IBM’s systems cooperate; we don’t even know they are all necessary to the whole.

Its many systems may be nested, overlapping, disparate, duplicative, cooperative, redundant to the whole, or even antagonistic.

IBM is so vast and complex that it is beyond any one holistic description.

And without reference to a holistic description, to call the whole of IBM one system has no useful meaning.



Today’s business probably differs from the institution Ackoff, Beer, Checkland etc. had in mind.

But, then and now, to say "the enterprise is a system" is meaningless unless you have a specific system description in mind. 

Because the enterprise is as many different systems as you can describe and test.


We might say IBM is a complex adaptive system, but only in a circular sense.

Because the term “complex adaptive system” is merely a label for a large and complicated entity like IBM.


We might say "enterprise architecture regards the enterprise as a system, or a system of systems."

But that is vision rather than a reality, since large businesses suffer the diseconomies of scale.

The countless identifiable systems in a business may be disparate and even antagonistic.

To change and improve those systems does mean applying classical system theory and cybernetics.


The term “system” has a clear and useful meaning in classical system theory and cybernetics.

That meaning may be dismissed by “systems thinkers” as “engineering”.

Yet today’s business relies more than ever on the “engineering” of digitised business systems.


To be sure, culture of an enterprise has a huge impact on what systems can be changed or introduced at an operational level.

Culture also has a huge impact on the ability of enterprise architects to propose change in the first place.

Enterprise architects must be sensitive to cultures at both operational and strategic levels, and are influenced by them.

That does not mean that enterprise architects are employed to propose or design cultural change.

The social impacts of changes to activity systems are usually addressed in parallel, by a business change team.

On social system classification

Systems thinkers have devised an astonishing profusion of classifications.

The classifications are sometimes used to explain things in retrospect.

It is often unclear how the classification helps you predict something in future, or design it.


Sociologists have classified people into types.

E.g. the categories defined by Belbin, Myers-Briggs, and in DISC behavior assessment.

Such schemes are open to abuse by managers who pigeon hole people and then limit their opportunities.


Social systems thinkers have also classified systems in many ways.

Typically, a clock is placed near the bottom of a scale, and a human society is placed near the top (Boulding).

Or a human being is at the bottom, and each higher level is a successively wider social entity or context


Most system classifications are questionable and/or incoherent for one or more of these reasons.

·         the categories overlap

·         the categories are incomparable, not of the same nature.

·         the categories are placed on a questionable scale, or ranked in a questionable hierarchy

·         there is confusion between a type/subtype hierarchy and a composite/part hierarchy..

On “critical realism”

Critical realism is philosophical approach associated with Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014).

It combines a general philosophy of science (transcendental realism) with a philosophy of social science (critical naturalism).

It describes an interface between the natural and social worlds.

Note that all philosophical positions have interpretations and variations.

And this section is written with reference to “The positive and the negative” (see references).


Like philosophers, socio-cultural essayists like comparing, contrasting and criticising past approaches.

Bhaskar (1998) criticizes structuralist positions for determinism, and individualist positions for failing to account for the social context,

with the consequence being that for him the task is to link structure and agency.” (Cruickshank)

Obviously, the human actors in a society have some agency to shape its aims, activities and outcomes.

The question is to what extent that society is meaningfully called one system.


Inventing classifications and neologisms

“To do this [Bhaskar] turns to his natural scientific ontology to argue that social reality is a stratified open system”.  (Cruickshank)

I presume one stratum is a social structure (whatever “structure” means) and the other is human actors who have a life and aims outside that structure.

The term “stratified open system” seem unrelated to the meaning of “open system” in classic system theory.


Borrowing words from classiical system theory

“It is stratified because social structures are held to be emergent properties that exist in interaction with agents who are conditioned but not determined by structures.”

Here, term emergent property seems unrelated to emergent properties in the classic sense.

Are capitalism and religions emergent properties, or systems in their own right?

Does Bhaskar mean a whole system, one that has evolved and stabilised inside a society or social entity?


Focusing on people as human rather than role players

“Archer (1995) argues that culture is an emergent property.”

A property of what? How is the existence of a culture detected, measured or tested?


Presenting classifications as though they are scientific theories.

“[Archer’s critical realism discusses] the interplay of

·         structural emergent properties (SEP) such as capitalism;

·         cultural emergent properties (CEPs) such as religion; and

·         people’s emergent properties (PEPs), such as religious groups, political groups or trades’ union groups.”


Again this is to use the term emergent properties differently from in classical system theory.

How does this three-way classification help?

Surely the classes overlap, since people defined capitalism and all religions (bar your own if you insist)

And one person can influence SEP and CEP – depending on how big those systems are – and what their own role is.


Grand-sounding statements to cover a weakness.

“Given that the outcome of this interaction is contingent and given that SEPs and PEPs can interact in contingent ways, the social system has to be an open system characterized by change at the level of observable events.”

Here, contingent seems to mean that chance plays such a large role in what happens we can’t use our theory to predict anything.

“The role of theory in social science therefore is to interpret empirical phenomenon in terms of how observed events are the contingent outcomes of the interaction of unobservable processes.”

Meaning, we cannot see or define the processes of the system, or predict their outcomes.

So, all we can do is explain history in terms of a classification or theory we made up? Like Marxists do?


In short, it is difficult in sociology to conduct experiments to test a theory.

Consequently, much systems thinking is the stuff of a socio-cultural essayist rather than a scientist.

On Bronfenbremner’s Ecological System theory

Bronfenbremner’s five "systems" are a questionable way to classify things that influence a human's behavior.

Do the five categories represent steps on a scale?

No, categories 1, 2 and 3 suggest a widening of the social context; whereas categories 4 and 5 are of a different nature.


The following definitions and examples are edited from <>.


System class




1 "Micro system

the setting in which you have direct social interactions.

family, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors

and others you contact directly."

Is that one micro system or several?

In what sense do the people who contact you form a system?

2 "Meso system

the relationships between microenvironments in your life.

your family experience related to your school experience."

There are relationships both within and between micro systems.

How does 2 differ from 1?

3 "Exo system

the setting that links the context you have no active role in

to the context you participate in."


Surely the context you have no role in is the rest of universe?

4 "Macro system

the actual culture of an individual.

being born to a poor family makes a person work harder every day."

Culture is a vague concept; the example suggests a social prejudice.

5 "Chron system

the transitions and shifts in one's life.

divorce may affect not only your marital relationship

but also your children's behavior."

Surely such events are continuous in all the systems above?


What does Bronfenbremner’s hypothesis predict?

Does it predict an influential person or event fits in only one category? No, a person or event may appear in more than category.

Does it predict each category has a different influence on us? No, there seems no correspondence between categories and influences.

Does it explain things - influences on us, or interactions within or between categories? No, it only classifies them.


Are the five categories well-called "systems"?

No, you could replace "system" by "context" or "environment", with no effect on the meaning of the categories.

There is no testable system description, no definition of roles and rules.

There is only the notion of people making contact with each other, and unpredictable events happening.


Yes, the classification does predict that people, their habits and events in the world (both near and far) have an influence on our lives.

But this is more a statement of the obvious than a theory of scientific value.

Again, this is the stuff of a socio-cultural essayist rather than a scientist.

On the social impact of the "sound system" (after Handy)

This example was suggested to me by Rick Anderson.


Consider the discrete entity known as a Sound System.

At the heart of it is a set of equipment for the reproduction and amplification of sound

When people switch it on and listen to it, it becomes an activity system.

The system boundary can be expanded to embrace the roles of equipment controller and sound receiver.

The regular behaviors of actors playing these roles in the system can be defined, predicted and tested.


However, in Charles Handy’s discussion of the topic, the Sound System took on a cultural aspect.

In Jamaican dance halls, the Notting Hill carnival and elsewhere, the "system" evolved to include the role of the DJ as a superstar with social influence.

This become a worldwide phenomenon, and businesses grew up around it.

Thus, Handy buried the original Sound System inside an entirely different, large and diffuse, social entity


Many well-respected social systems thinkers (e.g. Ackoff and Meadows) make the kind of leap Handy did.

Within a few sentences, they leap from speaking of a discrete, describable and testable system to making assertions about a large and diffuse social entity, cultural phenomenon or ecology.

In doing this, they eviscerate the meaning of "system" to the point it conveys no particular meaning beyond "the entity contains things that are interrelated in some way or another".

Again, this is the stuff of a socio-cultural essayist rather than a scientist.


“The positive and the negative”

(Assessing critical realism and social constructionism as post-positivist approaches to empirical research in the social sciences.)

Working Papers Paper 42, August 2011, Justin Cruickshank

Published by the International Migration Institute (IMI), University of Oxford


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