Boulding’s ideas (GST 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 applied general system theory (GST) ideas to social entities.

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


Boulding: the first to apply general system theory to management science?. 1

Identification of features common to systems in different disciplines. 2

Arrangement of system types into a hierarchy of complexity. 3

Conclusions and remarks. 4


Boulding: the first to apply general system theory to management science?

Boulding (1956) suggested applying 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 taking a general system theory approach, or rather, by taking the two approaches discussed later.

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

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


Boulding pitched general system theory as giving disparate sciences a common language and means of understanding each other, and so enabling of cross-disciplinary thinking.

He suggested the development of specific hybrid disciplines is a symptom of a more general “inter-disciplinary movement”.

He outlined two approaches to general system theory, first, identification of system features, second, system classification.

Identification of features common to systems in different disciplines

Boulding considered the features of “higher level” 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.


In general system theory, it is assumed a system can be described as a set of roles and rules of this kind.

·         Given a stimulus, an actor will play a role in the system by performing an action.

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


Boulding said the difficulty of predicting social system behaviour arises because the state (mental images) of individual actors intervene between stimulus and response.

Boulding suggested the unit of a social organisation is not the individual actor, but the role (that part of the actor concerned with the organisation in question).

He said the concept of information flow must be added to the concepts of material flow and energy flow found 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.


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.



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.

To correct him: that is true of human roles (types), but not of human actors (individuals in a social system).

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



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.

Arrangement of system types into a hierarchy of complexity

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

His classification is unsatisfactory, partly because it confuses the complexity of system descriptions (which is measurable) with the complexity of operational systems (which is not).

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

Conclusions and remarks

Kenneth Boulding 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 that is dedicated to performing activities 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.


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.”

Boulding might have replaced “persons or actions” by “actors or roles”.


Still today, systems thinking discussion often confuses the two view points Boulding and Seidl tried to distinguish.

From the actor-oriented viewpoint: a social group 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, which need actors.


Table 1 presents the view points distinguished by Seidl and Boulding.

Table 1: Theory viewpoints

A set of

Who act

Form a



As they choose

Social Group


Actors paying Roles

According to rules

Social System


One social system can be realised by different social groups – there are many beehives, football teams and choirs.

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


Whenever a social group’s actors follow given roles and rules, then that group acts as a social system.

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

If you could persuade the same bees to follow different rules, the same social group would act as a different social system.


Read Social Groups and Social Systems for more.


After Boulding, systems thinkers took off in various directions.

Return to this page Sense and nonsense in system theory for more.



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