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. 4

Conclusions and remarks. 5



Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) was an economist who wrote in 1956 about applying general system theory to “management science”.

He described social systems at two levels, populations and individuals.

He said behaviors performed by an individual include:

·         joining or leaving a population

·         processing information and communicating meaning to others

·         remembering and acting on mental images (internal state data)

·         transcribing mental images into historical records and

·         restoring system state to some kind of norm.


Boulding’s society might be described as group of humans fitting the definition in this table.


General system description

Boulding’s social system

A collection of active structures

that interact in regular behaviors

that maintain system state and/or

consume/deliver inputs/outputs

from/to the wider environment.

A population of individuals that interact by

processing information in the light of

mental images they remember, and

exchange messages to communicate meanings

to others and related populations.



Boulding’s essay prompts the question: What is a society?

How does an individual actor join or leave it?

How many societies can one individual be a member of?

(See earlier observations on Durkheim for more.)


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.


Boulding on individuals as deterministic

Like many early systems thinkers, Boulding was concerned with how systems maintain their state.

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 with applying classical system theory is that an actor’s state data (their “mental images”) is unknowable.

And since you cannot know the state of an actor, you cannot predict an actor’s response to an event.



Boulding didn’t mention that the state of a society is distributed between its individual members – which creates both theoretical and practical difficulties.

It makes it hard to maintain the integrity of a population, and difficult to collect management information about it.

Just as distributing a software system’s state data between objects makes it hard to maintain the integrity of the system, and collect management information.


Boulding on roles and actors

A human actor is not dedicated to one system; we all act in many roles in many systems.

So like Weber before him, Boulding suggested the essential parts of a social system might be roles rather than actors.



Boulding didn’t dwell on it, but role-centric and actor-centric views of a business are dramatically different.

And ever since Boulding, social systems thinking have tended to fudge the differences

In an abstract system description, the parts of the system are roles and rules.

In a social network that realises the description, the parts are performances of roles by actors.


Boulding 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.


Boulding 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).


Boulding classified systems into nine kinds, on a scale rising from “simple” to “complex”.

He placed social systems at level eight, below “transcendental” systems at level nine.



Boulding’s hierarchical classification is highly questionable.


It confuses entities with systems.

Entities in the real world are often more complex than systems they play roles in.

Consider these socio-technical systems: a game of chess, a game of tennis, an ATM or cash dispenser.

The human and computer entities who play roles in these systems are more complex than the systems.


It confuses composition with complication.

A system relates atomic structures/actors in larger structures, and atomic behaviors/actions in longer processes.

The complexity of the system lies in the complexity of those structures and processes.

We must, necessarily, ignore the internal structure of the “atomic elements”.


And by the way, there is no recognised way to measure the complexity of a thing.

“In dealing with complexes of 'elements', three different kinds of distinction may be made:

according to their number; their species; the relations of elements.” von Bertalanffy

Should we count the element and relationship types in the abstract system description?

Should we count the instances of those types in the concrete or operational system?

And then, how to combine those numbers in a measure of complexity? There is no agreed answer to that question.


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.”


As Kenneth Boulding postulated, for management science, the unit of a social system is not such much an actor as a role.

A manager does not own a worker; the worker is not a part of a system.

A manager requires only that portion of a worker’s time and ability that is necessary to the performance of a role in the system of interest..


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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