Social networks versus social systems

Copyright 2019 Graham Berrisford. One of about 100 papers on the System Theory page at Last updated 30/03/2019 12:23


Russell Ackoff wrote about social systems, as he saw them.

In his “System of System Concepts”, he set out concepts including these.

·         An abstract system: a system in which the elements are concepts.

·         A concrete system: a system whose physical objects realise an abstract system.

·         System state: the values of a system’s properties at a particular time.


However, Ackoff was inconsistent; he started off distinguishing abstract systems from concrete systems.

Later, he spoke of a human organisation as being a system regardless of any abstract system description.

This confusion of a human network with a system runs through much systems thinking discussion.

This table is an attempt to separate three concepts that have become entangled.


Abstract social system

A set of roles and rules (the logic or laws actors follow)

Concrete social system

Actors playing the roles and acting according to the rules

Social network

Actors who inter-communicate and act as they choose


Human networks are more than systems

A human network is usually both less and much more than any given system.

Less in that it does not implement the system perfectly, so the concrete system only approximates to the abstract system.

More in that it does very much more than is described by the abstract system.


The actors in one human network may realise several distinct activity systems.

·         Some are complex, others simple.

·         Some are adaptable, others inflexible.

·         Some are purely social, others socio-technical.

·         Some are cooperative, others in conflict.


People are more than actors

Not only can one human network realise several distinct activity systems.

But the people are much more than their roles as “parts”of those systems.

They live, breath, speak and otherwise act outside of any system that could ever be described.

The say and do things that cannot possibly be regarded as systematic, and sometimes defy any given rules.

And one actor can belong to several human networks.


Social cells

A social cell is a human network in which actors find that realising the roles and rules of an abstract system (in a concrete system) is attractive.

So attractive that they resist any change to the abstract system.