Introducing systems thinkers


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“Though it grew out of organismic biology, general system theory soon branched into most of the humanities.” Laszlo and Krippner.

There is a parallel tradition of systems thinking in sociology that can be traced back to 19th century sociologists.

This paper introduces fourteen systems thinkers.


Preface. 1

Six thinkers before general system theory. 1

Four thinkers alongside general system theory. 4

Five thinkers more remote from general system theory. 7

Conclusions and remarks. 9



Most of the papers on this web site focus on the general system theory that has been discussed since the second world war.

But long before that, sociologists used the term “system” in relation to a social entity or society.

The many schools of sociology address questions about a society and its individual members.

They ask: how does society relate to the individual?

What are the origins of modern law, nation states, organisations and economics?


A theme of sociological discussion has been the contrast between

·         Totalitarianism: centralisation of control (which, to be effective, usually requires a top-down hierarchy)

·         Individualism: distribution of control (ranging from liberalism and participatory democracy to anarchy).


The earliest thinkers took a philosophical and/or political view of society.

Later thinkers have taken a more scientific view, or tried to.

Six thinkers before general system theory

Pareto: social system as homeostatic

Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923) was an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist and philosopher.

He made several contributions to economics, particularly in the study of income distribution and in the analysis of individuals' choices.

He observed that c80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and c20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.

Today, the Pareto principle is usually interpreted as meaning 80% of the effects (or costs) come from 20% of the causes (or requirements).


In “On the Equilibrium of the Social Systems"  Pareto proposed social systems are homeostatic in a different way from an organism.

While the state of a social system continually changes, when a change is made to its form, the system tends to restore its original form.

Pareto [added] the idea of equilibrium.

Any moderate changes in the [system] elements or the interrelationships away from the equilibrium position are counterbalanced by changes tending to restore it.

[This idea was] taken over by many sociologists, especially Parsons” Bausch.


We do presume systems maintain an internal state of some kind.

But do not presume all systems are homeostatic in either state or form.

Rather than stay the same, we expect systems to evolve (incrementally) into different forms.

Durkheim: collective consciousness and culture

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity.

He was eager to promote the acceptance of a society as a meaningfully discrete entity.

So eager that, in his Division of Labour in Society in 1893, he invented idea of collective consciousness

“The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own.

It can be termed the collective or common consciousness.”


Durkheim believed that a collective consciousness acts as a unifying force within society.

And that human beings in a group will interact to form a “society” that is a “determinate system” with its own culture.

He argued that any apparent cultural diversity is overridden by a larger, common, and more generalized cultural system, and the law.

You may wonder how this proposition could be verified or falsified, and how it accounts for law breakers.


The cohesion of individuals employed by a business is important to business success.

However, our main interest is in the cohesion that happens by design.

“Cultural cohesion” is peripheral to our discussion of general system theory principles and their application.

And we do not presume there is a collective consciousness.

Tarde: social system as emergent from the actions of  individual actors

Gabriel Tarde (1843 –1904) was a French sociologist, criminologist and social psychologist.

He was very critical of Durkheim’s methodology and theory.

He viewed a society as micro-level psychological interactions among individuals, the fundamental forces being imitation and innovation.


We presume macro-level systems depend on micro-level interactions between individual subsystems or parts.

Our interest is in the exchange of predefined types of information and material flows between those individuals

Actors may use imitation and innovation when populating individual flows, but system design takes place at the level of types.

Max Weber: a bureaucratic model

Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote widely on religion, politics, economics and bureaucracy.

His principles included the supremacy of abstract rules.

He set out three essential principles for bureaucratic (public and private) organisations:

1.      Roles: labour is divided between roles with identifiable tasks and duties.

2.      Hierarchy: there are chains of command, and rules that describe a role in terms of the duties and the capacity to coerce others.

3.      Assignment of actors to roles: performance of roles is undertaken by hiring actors qualified to play them.


We presume that roles and rules are what distinguishes a social system from a social entity.

But do not presume a hierarchical chain of command; other management structures are viable.

Wittgenstein: the logic of natural language

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is a candidate as the most famous logical positivist.

He considered many philosophical propositions to be poorly formulated, and that debates arose from misunderstandings.

He favoured dissolving philosophical disagreements and confusions by analysing the use and abuse of language, rather than producing new theories.

“Our investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away..” Philosophical Investigations Sect. 90

Rudolf Carnap: the logic of science

Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970) is another candidate as the most famous logical positivist.

He said many philosophical questions (expressed in natural language) were meaningless, and favoured the logic of science.

His “Principle of Tolerance” is that the concern in choosing a linguistic framework is not truth, but the pragmatic considerations of simplicity and usefulness.

We are free to build up our own language or logic as we wish.

Carnap designed the logical syntax used to exactly formulate the results of logical analysis.

It is said that his work foreshadowed the logic used designing software.


We presume a formal language (vocabulary and grammar) is needed to exactly describe system entities, events and processes.

And that the grammars used in programming and data definition languages are useful in business system definition.

Four thinkers alongside general system theory

The thinkers above (Pareto, Tarde, Durkheim and Weber) may be seen in retrospect as systems thinkers.

But given their focus on human society, it is not clear they spent much time analysing what the word “system” means.

The notion of a general system theory, and its specific application to social organisations took off after world war II.


“The systems movement took hold in post-war America with the convergence of ideas drawn from biology, systems engineering, cybernetics and sociology.

·         Biology, with its evolutionary emphasis, contributed the ideas of emergence and hierarchy among and within living systems.

·         Systems engineering contributed the “hard systems” approach to problem solving that grew out of… trying to develop weapons and logistical systems during WWII.

·         Cybernetics introduced the idea of control through information (feedback) in operational systems.” Bausch

Weiner: cybernetics

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) is the founder of cybernetics - about connecting regulators to machines by a feedback loop.

In 1948, he published Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.

The phrase “control and communication” highlights the importance of information flows.

The phrase “the animal and the machine” suggest the principles apply to both animate and inanimate systems.

Cybernetics influenced other systems thinkers.


Our main interest is business systems connected to their wider environments by feedback loops

They monitor and direct entities in their environment; they gather, store and produce information to do this.

Ashby: cybernetics and system theory

W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was interested in cybernetics, and published Introduction to Cybernetics in 1956.

 “Cybernetics does not ask "what is this thing?" but ''what does it do?"

“[It] deals with all forms of behaviour in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible.”


In “Design for a Brain” (1952) Ashby treated the brain as a regulator that maintains a body’s state variables in the ranges suited to life.

Even a primitive brain must hold or have access to an abstract model of the body’s current state.

Ashby saw the brain-body relationship as an information feedback loop.

The brain receives information from sensors and sends instructions to motors and organs.

The aim is homeostasis – to maintain the state of the body - and to produce other desired effects.


The table below is an expression of these ideas.

Generic structure

Ashby’s Design for a Brain

Active structure

A collection of brain cells interact by


playing roles in processes to


maintain body state variables by

I/O Boundary

sending/receiving information


to/from bodily sensors and motors


Our main interest is business systems that encapsulate internal behaviors and state in a similar way.

Bertalanffy: general system theory

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) is regarded as the father of general system theory.

In 1954, Bertalanffy and others including Boulding established the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory.

Eventually, in 1968, Bertalanffy published General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications.

Bertalanffy advanced the notions of holism and organisation – focusing attention on how parts cooperate in a whole.

He wanted to shift the focus away from the parts or persistent components of a system (e.g. brain, heart, lungs and legs).

And towards how they cooperate in repeatable transient processes (e.g. breathing, running).

Read Introducing system theory” for more.


Our main interest is the application of general system theory principles to business systems.

Boulding: system theory in management science

Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) wrote in 1956 about 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.

And if you cannot know the state of a system or subsytem, you cannot predict its response to an event.


Like Weber before him, Boulding suggested the essential business system element might be role rather than actor.

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

Generic structure

Boulding’s essential system elements

Active structure

Individuals perform roles in


repeatable processes according to


remembered mental images, and

I/O Boundary

exchange messages




Boulding’s position in the role-centric versuse actor-centric spectrum was not entirely clear.

And since Boulding, thinkers have tended to confuse those two viewpoints.

Read “Boulding” for more on his thinking.


Our main interest is in systems defined by roles, rather than by the actors who play roles.


Checkland: soft systems methodology

Churchman, Ackoff and Checkland all contributed the “soft systems” methodology.

Peter Checkland is known for formalising the “Soft Systems Methodology” (SSM).
Checkland (1981, p. 102.) wrote:

“Implicit here is the notion that an observer engaged in systems research will give an account “of the world, or part of it, in systems terms;

·         his purpose in so doing;

·         his definition of his system or systems;

·         the principle which makes them coherent entities;

·         the means and mechanisms by which they tend to maintain their integrity;

·         their boundaries, inputs, outputs, and components;  their structure.”


The table below maps these Checkland’s system to a general structure used in these papers.

Generic structure

Peter Checkland’s Soft System

Active structure

Components interact coherently in


activities to meet a purpose by


maintaining their integrity and

I/O boundary

sending/receiving inputs and outputs


to/from each other and external actors


The term “soft system” can be read in Checkland’s works as having two meanings.

1.      An empirical or concrete system in which human actors play roles.

2.      A theoretical or abstract system, the world-view (or Weltenshauung) taken by an individual or group.

A business usually has many soft systems of the first kind.

And Ashby taught us every system description is a soft system in the second sense.


We presume that infinite theoretical or abstract systems may be abstracted from any empirical or concrete entity.

System architects must define “views” and “value propositions” for different stakeholders.

And they must compromise between goals and make “trade offs”.

Five thinkers more remote from general system theory

Beer: the Viable System Model

Stafford Beer (1926- 2002) was a theorist, consultant and professor at the Manchester Business School.

He respected Ashby’s view of cybernetics, but was focused more on what might be called “management science”.

He designed the Viable System Model as a tool for diagnosing human organisation design issues.

ReadAshby’s law and Beer’s use of it” for more.


We presume the Viable System Model can be a useful tool in analysing a business management structure.

But other management structures are viable.

And management structures are peripheral to our discussion of general system theory principles and their application.


Parsons: action theory

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist who developed a general theory for the study of society - called action theory.

Parsons presented a metaphysical (not scientific) context for systems theory and cybernetics.

Parsons saw motives as part of our actions; he considered social science must consider ends, purposes and ideals when looking at actions.

He influenced Luhmann, and perhaps Ackoff also.

Read “The testability of systems thinking” for more on Parsons.


We presume system architects must prioritise the goals and objectives of system sponsors and stakeholders.

The motivations of individual human actors employed to play roles in a business are more peripheral to our main interests.


Ackoff: social entity classification

Russell L Ackoff (1919-2009) was an American organizational theorist, operations researcher, systems thinker and management scientist.

When Russell Ackoff said “All organizations are social systems”, what did he mean?

First, he was thinking of social systems in which the elements are human actors (a narrow view of system element).


Second, Ackoff was not concerned with social entities (a tennis club, pick-pocket gang) that have little or no bureaucracy.

In his narrow view of “organisation”, he meant a bureaucracy that administratively organises actors who need to work together.

His focus was on public and private sector businesses that require a bureaucracy to function.


In 1972 Ackoff wrote a book with Emery about purposeful systems which focused on the question how systems thinking relates to human behaviour.

He defined a human-created system as "purposeful" when its "members are also purposeful individuals who intentionally and collectively formulate objectives and are parts of larger purposeful systems.

He said a purposeful system or individual is also ideal-seeking if it chooses objectives that lead towards as wider and more strategic ideal.


Ackoff promoted a world view in which human actors are special and social groups are discrete entities that make choices

"The capability of seeking ideals may well be a characteristic that distinguishes man from anything he can make, including computers".


We argue that Ackoff (along with others) blurred the concepts of social entity and social system to the point of confusing them.

Read “Ackoff’s ideas” for more.

Luhmann: autopoietic social systems

Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) was a German sociologist and student of Parsons.

Like earlier writers, he presumed a system is homeostatic (or sustains itself), though here in a curious way.

The sociological tradition suggests two alternative system elements: actors or actions.

Luhmann chose actions, and occupied a position in an extreme wing of activity-centric systems thinking

He proposed the basic elements of a social system are communication acts about a code that lead to decisions that sustain the system itself.

Luhmann’s system of transient communication events is radically different from systems as understood by most other system theorists.

Read “Luhmann’s Autopoietic Social System” for more.


We argue that Luhmann’s view of systems is well-nigh diametrically opposed to that of general system theory.

Habernas: universal pragmatics

Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) developed the social theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality.

According to Wikipedia, this distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition, by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of the cosmos.

It rests on the argument called universal pragmatics – that all speech acts have an inherent "purpose" – the goal of mutual understanding.

He presumed human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding.

And hoped that coming to terms with how people understand or misunderstand one another could lead to a reduction of social conflict.

He was a critic of Luhmann’s theory of social systems.


We take a different approach to description theory and information theory.

Conclusions and remarks

The countless thinkers and schools of philosophy, sociology and systems thinking both overlap and conflict with each other.

Later papers contain some explanation and analysis of some positions outlined above.


General system theory doesn’t start from or depend on an analysis of human-specific behaviour, language or motivations.

On the other hand, all reasoning about systems depends on encoding perceptions and mental models in speech and writing.

“As soon as writing made it possible to carry communication beyond the temporally and spatially limited circle if those present at a particular time, one could no longer rely on the force of oral presentation; one needed to argue more strictly about the thing itself.” Luhmann

We also need to consider the goals that humans have, both when designing systems and when acting in systems.



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