Boulding’s ideas: about system theory in management science

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This paper is a commentary on the idea Kenneth Boulding’s expressed in this article.

General System Theory – The Skeleton of Science” 1956, in volume 2 of the journal “Management Science”.

This famous essay was probably the first to apply general system theory ideas to social entities or organisations.

The essay is an easy read; please do read it in parallel with this paper - focusing on pages 197 to 205 of the journal.


Boulding. 1

System features. 2

System classes. 3

Conclusions and remarks. 4



Boulding (1956) suggested applying (the then new) general system theory to “management science”.

Biologists presume that a bodily organ, in a given state, will respond to a stimulus by acting in a predictable way.

Boulding presumed that a human actor, in a given state, will respond to a stimulus by acting in a predictable way.

He said the difficulty is that the state of an actor (their “mental images”) intervene between stimulus and response.

And those mental images are unknowable.


The table below maps these ideas to a general structure used in these papers.


Generic structure

Boulding’s essential system elements

Active structure

Individuals perform


roles in behaviour according to


their remembered mental images and

I/O boundary

exchange messages with each other




Boulding followed on the heels of von Bertalanffy in looking to promote the unity of science by applying general system theory.

He positioned general system theory as lying between the unworldly abstractions of mathematics and the more practical (but disparate) scientific disciplines.

He said it is not a theory of everything, cannot be too abstract, must strive for an optimum degree of generality between sciences.

He pitched it as giving disparate sciences a common language and means of understanding each other, and so enabling of cross-disciplinary thinking.


Boulding outlined two approaches to general system theory:

1.      Identification of system features

2.      Identification of system classes.

System features

Boulding considered the features of social organisations to include:

·         Populations of individuals

·         Relationships (competitive, complementary and parasitic) between populations

·         Individuals: each a structure of parts, who can join and leave the population

·         The behaviour of an individual (often to restore the state of the individual to some kind of norm)

·         The mental images of an individual (their internal state).

·         Growth

·         Communication between and information processing by individuals.

·         Message content and meaning (for which he said Shannon’s information theory is inadequate).

·         The transcription of mental images into historical record

·         And finally, human arts and emotions.


Boulding suggested the unit of a social organisation may seen not as an individual actor, but as a role in that organisation.

He said the concept of information flow must be added to the concepts of material and energy flows in purely physical systems.


The table below maps Boulding’s ideas to the general system theory structure used in these papers.


Generic ideas

Boulding’s ideas

Boulding’s observations

More observations

Active structure

Individuals perform roles in

The units of a system are human roles rather than humans.

A role is a collection of activities performable by an actor.


behaviour according to

The individuals playing roles exhibit behaviour.

An innovation of general system theory was to shift attention from system structure to system behaviour.

Passive structure

their remembered

mental images and

An individual acts according to messages it receives and its current state, a collection of remembered “mental images”.

This is an obscure and fuzzy kind of system state - distributed across the minds of a society’s members and any other records it maintains/



exchange messages

A social system depends on its individuals sending and receiving messages.

Today, information processing is seen as essential in biological and mechanistic systems too.


On state-dependent  behavior

Most general system theorists assumed a system can be described as a set of roles and rules.

The system is deterministic, meaning that given a stimulus, an actor will play a role in the system by performing an action.

The action the actor chooses may depend on what the actor can read of current state information, or remember of past events.

Boulding proposed a reason why it is difficult to predict social system behaviour.

He attributed this to the fact that the state (mental images) of each individual actor intervenes between stimulus and response.

And that state is not accessible to us.

Note that a system whose state is distributed, replicated or inconsistent is a challenge for sociologists and enterprise architects alike.


Boulding proposed two more social system properties, both of which are questionable.


On abstraction

Boulding recognised there are levels of abstraction in system structure and behaviour.

He said that lower-level components and processes are composable into higher level components and processes.

Further, he said an individual can be decomposed – seen as a structure of lower level individuals.

True, individual roles can be composed and decomposed into wider and narrow roles.

But to compose human actors is to form a team or organisation unit

And to decompose a human actor is to leave the domain of sociological management science - and enter the domain of biology.


On growth

Boulding also proposed all social systems have the feature of growth, which is highly questionable

He did not distinguish directed growth and accidental growth.

He did not address the change, decay and death of a social system.

Expanding general system theory to include a "growth theory" seems unconvincing.

The more generally useful concept would be “change” in all its forms, as discussed in other papers.

System classes

Boulding’s second approach to general system theory was to propose a hierarchical classification of systems.

He arranged system types into what he regarded a hierarchy of complexity

His classification is unsatisfactory, partly because it confuses

·         the complexity of system descriptions (which is measurable) with

·         the complexity of concrete realities (which is not, except by reference to a description).


Read Naive system classifications for more on Boulding’s complexity hierarchy.

Conclusions and remarks

David Seidl (2001) said the question facing a social system theorist is what to treat as the basic elements of a social system.

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

In other words, actors or activities.


Kenneth Boulding (1956) suggested that for management science, the unit of a social system is not an actor; it is their assignment to a role

It is that tiny part of an actor’s time and energy dedicated to performing a role in the system of interest.

In other words, a social system is not composed of actors, it is composed of their assignments to the system’s roles.


Still today, much systems thinking discussion confuses the two view points Seidl and Boulding distinguished.

From the actor-oriented viewpoint: a social network is a set of physical actors who communicate with each other.

From the activity-oriented view: a social system (say a tennis club, or choir) is a set of logical roles, to be played by actors.


This table contrasts the two view points distinguished by Seidl and Boulding.


A group of

Who act


Social network


As they choose


Social system

Actors paying roles

According to rules



If the actors in a social network having ever-shifting aims, and act in any way they choose, there is no describable system.

When the actors in a social network play general roles and follow general rules, then that group realises a social system.

Honey bees do this when they follow rules (which they inherit) to watch another bee’s dance, read the message and find the pollen.

The same social system can be realised by different social networks – there are many beehives, football teams and choirs.


Moreover, one social network can act as several social systems – its actors can play unrelated roles in (say) a football team and a choir.

And if you could persuade the same bees to play football, the same social network would act as a different social system.


Read Social networks versions social systems for more on the difference.


After Boulding, systems thinkers took off in various directions.

Return to the Sense and nonsense in system theory to read more.



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