Social networks versus social systems

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

One of a hundred papers on the System Theory page at

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General system theory was supposed to unify the sciences.

Today, much systems thinking discussion is not general – it is unique to human society

This paper argues that to call every problem, situation or society “a system” is unhelpful.

And that the biggest single issue in systems thinking is the confusion between:

·         A social network in which people communicate

·         A social system in which people realise role and rules.


Note: This paper is not about social network analysis (SNA) or the problems that it solves.

Here the term social network is used more generally, to mean any society, social entity or social group.


A few terms. 1

Social networks are structures. 2

Concrete systems are social networks that realise abstract systems. 2

The relationship between social networks and social systems. 3

Complex adaptive systems. 5

Conclusions. 5


A few terms (recap)

The term system is widely used, but loosely, and with a variety of meanings.

At its most vacuous, it means only "a set of things that are related to each other, if only by their relationship to something else.”


The concept was defined more purposefully, in his introduction to cybernetics, by Ross Ashby.

The question is not so much "what is this system?" as ''what does it do?"

General system theory is mostly about systems that exhibit regular or repeatable behaviors.


A concrete system contains actors and their actions on objects or variables.

An abstract system contains the roles and rules that actors and their activities are supposed to adhere to.

The latter is abstraction from the infinite complexity of any entity that realises it.

E.g. The roles and rules of the stickleback mating ritual are realised by countless pairs of sticklebacks.

In discussion and testing of the mating ritual, no attention is paid to the complexity of a stickleback’s internal biochemistry.


Today, general system theory concepts are ubiquitous in the systems analysis and design methods.

This table presents them in a way that can be used in discussion of social entities.


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


By the way, a social cell is a social network in which actors find that realising the roles and rules of a particular social system is so attractive they resist any change to it.

Social networks are structures

Social networks are concrete entities that exist in space and time.


A social network is a structure whose parts are distributed in space

Every part in the structure may be decomposed into smaller parts (all the way down to the level of sub-atomic particles).

But in discussion of a network, the decomposition stops at the level where parts are actors that communicate with each other.


The parts of the structure persist for a time.

But a social network may gain, lose or replace actors over time.

So it is not well defined in terms of its parts or actors at any particular moment.


A social network must have continuity of identity over time.

·         A biological organism (a society of cells) has continuity of identity both to observers and in its DNA.

·         A choir, or a marriage, is a social network we can identify and observe over time.

·         A legally-constituted business (say IBM) is a social network we can identify and observe over time.


The sometimes-drawn analogy between human social networks and brains is misleading in that.

·         A brain cell cannot belong to several brains; a human actor can belong to several social networks.

·         A brain cell cannot move between brains; a human actor can move between social networks.

·         Brain cells cooperate in regular and repeatable behaviors; human actors may cooperate (and compete) in ad hoc ways.


How is social network bounded?

How do actors join or leave a social network?

Who decides whether an actor is a member of a social network?

And are their different degrees of membership?


The boundary of a social network may be loosely defined or ambiguous.

But for the sake of simplicity, we have to ignore this difficulty in this paper.

Let us assume it is clear how actors join and leave a social network

It may help to imagine the social network is a businesses in which every member has an employee number.

Concrete systems are social networks that realise abstract systems

Simply pointing to a social network and calling it a system doesn’t help us.

System theorists distinguish

·         abstract system descriptions (types)

·         concrete entities that realise (instantiate) systems


W Ross Ashby stressed that systems are (must be) abstracted from concrete entities.

“At this point we must be clear about how a "system" is to be defined.

Our first impulse is to point at [a concrete entity] and to say "the system is that thing there".

This method, however, has a fundamental disadvantage: every [concrete entity] no less than an infinity of variables and therefore of possible systems.

Any suggestion that we should study "all" the facts is unrealistic, and actually the attempt is never made.

What is necessary is that we should pick out and study the facts that are relevant to some main interest that is already given.” Ashby 1956


Similarly, Russell Ackoff differentiated abstract and concrete systems.

He defined an abstract system as a system description in which the elements are concepts.

And defined a concrete system as a real-world system that has two or more related objects or parts.

The triangular graphic below captures the relationship between the two concepts.


Systems thinking

Abstract (theoretical) social systems

<create and use>                    <are realised by>

System thinkers <observe & envisage>  Concrete (empirical) social systems


To be called a system, a social network must exhibit (manifest, instantiate, realise) the properties in an abstract system description.

A social network is a system where and in so far as it realises an abstract system description.

The match of a social network to an abstract system may be fuzzy.

It only needs to be close enough to pass whatever system tests we consider to be decisive.

The relationship between social networks and social systems

Imagine there is only one social network and one social system.

The actors in the network realise the system in so far as they realise its roles and rules.


With respect to a system, social networks might be classified into three kinds.

In a formal social network, actors are wholly constrained by the roles and rules of the system.

In an informal social network, actors are somewhat constrained by the roles and rules.

In a chaotic social network, actors completely ignore the roles and rules.


With respect to a system, a human social network is rarely 100% formal.

In an army, a call centre, or a game of tennis, actors may strive to stick to the rules.

Commonly, actors may follow only some of the rules, some of the time.


Actors may do only what is expected of their roles in systems.

People play roles in business systems.

In a "work to rule" actors choose to do nothing but play roles in defined systems.

They refuse to use the many other abilities the business requires of human beings in their social network


Actors in a social network usually do much more than is expected of their roles in systems.

Of course, human flexibility is essential to all societies and businesses.

People are much more than components in business systems.

They also communicate in a social network, and act independently of those systems.


Social systems thinkers presume this makes the system more complex.

But it doesn’t; the system is what it is – be it simple or complex.

Rather, it makes the social network more anarchic and unpredictable (or chaotic if you prefer).


One system can be realised by many social networks

Several social networks can realise one system over time.

E.g. One bus company may replace another; different actors run the same buses to the same timetable.

The human actors change, but the roles and rules of the system remain the same.


Several social networks can realise one system at the same time.

E.g. Different orchestras can play the same symphony.

The different players and instruments in each orchestra follow the same roles and rules.


One social network can realise many systems

A business, like IBM, is a social network that depends on many systems.

Pointing to IBM and calling it a system has no useful meaning.

Because IBM realises as many systems as we can describe and test it as realising.

And some of those systems may be in conflict with each other.


As Ashby would have said, one social network may realise infinite social systems.

The actors in a human social network are somewhat constrained not only by one set of roles and rules, but by many.

They have to choose not only how to act in one system, but which system to act in.

At every moment, actors have to choose which set of roles and rules takes priority.


Human actors often switch from a role in one system to a role in another.

They leave the office to go home, then go out to play a game of tennis (in a different social network).

And sometimes they “helicopter” from acting in system A into acting in the meta system that defines system A.

More on this later.

Complex adaptive systems

Today, some systems thinking discussions give science a bad name.

This is perhaps most often the case in discussions of so-called “complex systems”.


IBM may reasonably be described as a complex, adaptive, self-organising social network.

But IBM realises countless describable and testable systems, some social, some technological, some socio-technical.

And if its actors may change a system continually, this undermines the very concept of a system.


A critique of this field needs more space, and is now presented in a separate paper.

Read Complex adaptive systems for more.



How to restore the system concept to systems thinking?

It is commonly said that “enterprise architecture views the enterprise as a system, or system of systems”.

But there are profound misunderstandings of what this means.

To call every problem, situation or business “a system” is unhelpful.

It is important to distinguish:

·         a social network in which people communicate

·         a social system in which people realise role and rules.


An enterprise is one social network that realises many social and technological systems.

Architects may find some systems overlap, duplicate or even conflict with each other.


Changing the roles or rules of a system makes a new system or system version.

Enterprise architects apply some change control to large-scale, generational, system change.


How to extend system theory to embrace “self-organisation”?

Read System stability and change for the answer to that question.



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