Social networks versus social systems

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of several hundred papers at Last updated 06/11/2018 22:14


System Theory Tutorial in London Saturday March 2nd 2019


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

The biggest 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.


This paper is central to the discussion in and conclusions of several other papers.

It distinguishes complex from chaotic, and distinguishes social networks from social systems.


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 (part 1) 5

Restoring the system concept to systems thinking. 6



Often, a society or business entity is called a “complex adaptive system”.

Which begs three questions: What do “complex”, “adaptive” and “system” mean?

This paper primarily addresses what “system” means.

Here are brief definitions of terms to be explored.


A system exhibits regular or repeatable activities, it behaves in orderly or deterministic way.

An abstract system is a description or model that conforms to the principles of cybernetics or system dynamics.

A concrete system is a network in which actors realise the roles and rules of an abstract system.

A network is a structure in which actors are related and communicate with each other.


This table recasts these terms for discussion of societies.

Abstract social system



Concrete social system

Actors playing roles

Activities conforming to rules.

Social network

Actors who communicate

Activities chosen by the actors


Where the term social network is used, the term society, social entity or social group might be used instead.

And 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 here, 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.


To be regarded as a persistent entity, 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.

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


Some draw an analogy between social networks and human brains, which is misleading.
Brain cells cannot join and leave brains; actors can join and leave social networks.

Brains cells realise a system of regular and repeatable behaviors; the actors in a social network may do as they choose.


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 (part 1)

Often, a society or business entity is called a “complex adaptive system”.

Yet often, one or more of the following are true.

·         No measure of complexity has been agreed.

·         No quantifiable properties are described, which makes any measure of complexity impossible.

·         No description is possible, because the entity changes continually, rather than generationally.

·         No description of it as a system has been agreed, or even made.


The term gives rise to three possible ambiguities or confusions.


What does “system” mean?

Systems thinkers often mean a social network.

This paper separates the concept of a social network from that of a social system.

A social network can realise several social systems.


What does “complex” mean?

There is no agreed measure of complexity.

Which is more complex, IBM or a hen’s egg?

To measure the complexity of anything, you need a description of its parts.

In a description of IBM’s organisation structure at the topmost level, IBM appears simple.

But a description of IBM at the bottommost level of decomposition would be complex beyond imagination.

The description of an egg at the bottommost level of decomposition (sub atomic particles) would also be complex beyond imagination.

To compare the complexity of two things their parts must described at the same level of abstraction.


Moreover, one should measure the complexity of behaviors as well as structures.

By complex, systems thinkers often mean the system’s behavior changes the state of world in a non-linear or chaotic fashion.

But we should separate the concepts of complexity and chaos.

The roles and rules of a system may be very simple or very complex

A complex system can behave in a linear or predictable way over time.

A simple system can behave in a non-linear of chaotic way over time. (See the papers on System Dynamics.)

A system’s behavior may switch from linear change to non-linear change or vice-versa.


What does “adaptive” mean?

Systems thinkers usually mean the system is self-organising.

We should separate the concept of system state change (as in thermostatic control of a heating system) from system mutation.

Read the next paper for more about “self-organising systems”.

Restoring the system concept to systems thinking

Some use the terms system, component, process and service interchangeably.

Some use them with different (and sometimes contradictory) meanings.


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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