“The emerging consensus in system theory”
Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 06/08/2017 10:02
This paper is a commentary on the book with title above, by Kenneth C. Bausch, published in 2001.
Bausch suggests systems thinkers have a mission to herald a new era of social organisation, of advancing participative democracy.
For compatibility with other papers, we shall use the term Social System Thinking (SST) contrast to General System Theory (GST).
“Nature is creative. Matter/energy spontaneously generates forms of order and organisation.”
“Living things maintain themselves as ever-evolving processes of self-reproduction.”
The meaning of the last proposition is unclear and questionable on three grounds.
· An individual living thing does not “evolve”; it follows a trajectory from birth through maturation and adulthood to decay and death
· A species is not continually evolving; it evolves in a discrete event-driven fashion, on each birth and death event.
· All individuals die and 99% of species have also failed to maintain themselves; they are extinct. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction
“Societies organise themselves.”
Systems thinkers often draw analogies between societies and other things, especially living things.
Ashby pointed out how important it is not to confuse different kinds of change.
· The self-sustaining processes of an individual organism maintain its form (through restorative state changes).
· The organising or self-organising processes of a society can change its form (through generational changes.)
In social situations of rapidly accelerating change, the self-organising processes of a participatory democracy provide the best survival strategy.”
This is a political assertion, beyond the scope of GST.
It may be challenged, and surely would be challenged by Russian or Chinese government leaders.
“We talk about systems in numerous contexts: the solar system, the endocrine system, the system of complex numbers, computer systems, bureaucratic systems, school systems, personality systems, and so on.
True, but using the term “system” in numerous contexts doesn’t mean the concept is the same.
The overriding concept of “system” is “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 1199).
It is not enough for items to be interacting like the bricks in a wall, or interdependent like the words in sentence.
Bausch also promotes process-oriented view in which least some of the system parts must be regularly interacting actors.
“The question arises whether human activity systems are “systems” in the same sense as a computer system or a digestive system.”
GST answers the question by saying an activity system is an entity in which actors perform regular behaviors.
This can be demonstrated by testing actual behaviors against described behaviors.
A social system (of roles) can be a system of this kind, at the same time as being a social entity (of actors).
“In what ways are these systems alike? In what ways do they differ?”
See the conclusions
Bausch on early social systems thinking (SST)
Bausch outline three social system models summarised by Buckley (1967): mechanical, organic and process.
On the mechanical model
“In the 17th century “Social Physics” considered a person to be an elaborate machine.
The focus of sociology is on the machinery of social groups rather than the biology of individual group members.
(Bear in mind that a system may be mechanistic/deterministic yet still behave in an unpredictable, chaotic or non-linear fashion.)
“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 [which was] taken over by many sociologists, especially Parsons”
Social systems are not generally homeostatic in either state or form.
Rather than stay the same, they tend to evolve (incrementally) into different forms.
On the organic model
“Herbert Spencer (1897) dealt with social systems in terms of organic evolution…
“The organic model and homeostasis are basic for many cybernetic explanations of societal functioning…
Evolution by natural selection explains the development of mutually-beneficial social behavior better than the homeostatic biology of an organism.
“Organic analogies are inadequate as models of social systems.”
This work is equally opposed to analogy as explanation.
On the process model
“In this model, “structure” is not “something distinct from the ongoing interactive process but rather a temporary accommodative representation of it at any one time (Buckley, p.18).”
What GST calls “system” imposes a temporary structure on the ever-unfolding processes of the universe.
The structure of the solar system and of any organic entity is a transient side effect of processes that have no goals.
The structure of a business system is what is required to perform the required regular processes (and so meet any goals).
Evolution (which changes the processes inside a system) is process that lies outside of a system instance – in a meta system.
Bausch on Parsons
Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist who developed a general theory for the study of society - called action theory.
He presented a metaphysical context for SST and cybernetics.
“Parsons carefully differentiated social systems theory from personality theory and a theory of culture.
In his conception, these three theories combine in an overall theory of action, in which we can understand how we actually do human (social) activity…
Parson’s evidently believed that his conception of systems theory provided a valuable, if partial, model for understanding social structures and processes.”
Is Parson’s separation of three systems (social, personal and cultural) either testable or logically provable?
Bausch points to Feynman-like criticisms of Parson’s work
“According to Buckley, any critique of the Parsonian framework must contend with its loose conceptual structure” (1967, p23).
Alexendar finds strength as well as confusion in the tension of Parson’s thought, which is “internally contradictory”, and which “provides support for a variety of partial, often mutually antagonistic interpretations” (Alexander, 1983, p309).”
Yes indeed. Bausch points to Parson’s later (1977) work.
“Parsons describes his action theory as having “our generic types of subsystems,” which are the organism, the social system, the cultural system and the personality …
Any cultural activity then results from a combination [of these] activities in these four areas mutually influence, or “interpenetrate” each other.
Is the interpenetration of these four systems (organism, social, cultural and personal) either testable or logically provable?
Parsons uses this idea of interpenetration to explain how two free, and therefore unpredictable, human beings can engage with each other in mutually advantageous behaviors”.
Evolutionary biology explains human cooperation well.
“The idea of concensus plays a major role in Parson’s conception of society, which he conceives as coalescing around accepted values and norms of behavior.
Parson’s deals with how a society maintains its norms and values in the face of deviant behavior and thereby maintains its equilibrium.”
This harks back to Pareto’s “On the Equilibrium of the Social Systems"
During my own life time, the norms and values of society have shifted dramatically.
There has been continual change, not all for the better.
Bausch on Meadows and “The limits to growth”.
This topic is addressed in From Science to Scientism.
Bausch on others
Bausch draws much from Habernas and Luhmann.
He also mentions Beer, Jackson, Haken, Prigoine, Eigen, Maturana and Varela, Csanyi and Kampis, and Goetzel.
Bausch on soft systems
Bausch alluded to Churchman, Ackoff and Checkland as the triumvirate who created the “soft systems” methodology.
“[They] consider hard systems methodology to be a special application of systems theory in situations where the objectives are not in question…
This is naïve, since the objectives of a system (or its sponsors and stakeholders) are well-nigh always questionable.
Even mechanical engineers are taught to manage stakeholders and trade off between conflicting goals.
The paper “Systems thinking approaches” further challenges the hard/soft distinction.
Like Ackoff, Beer and Meadows before him Bausch takes a negative view of institutions.
And paints a dark picture of the way the world is going (for the lack of SST),
Disaappearing shared convictions?
“Habernas concludes his volume on the lifeworld and system by echoing Weber’s musing about the loss of meaning and freedom in the modern world.
“Weber saw the noncoercive, unifying power of collectively shared convictions disappearing along with religion and metaphysics” (Habernas, 1989, p. 301).
Where is the evidence of shared convictions disappearing?
The coercive power of shared religious convictions remains highly evident in terrorist movements around the world.
And despite the number of gun deaths, a shared conviction of a “right to bear arms” remains powerful in the USA.
In 2014 there were 6 gun deaths in the Japan, compared with 33,599 in the US.
On January 1st 2017, in the US, 210 people were shot in 264 separate incidents of gun violence.
“These shared convictions have waned as we have relied on a subjective reason of self-assertion and neglected objective reason with its reliance on truth.
In this process, freedom has succumbed to the domination of technocracy.
These seem to be metaphysical assertions for which there is no the evidence.
Do technocracies neglect objective reason or ignore truth?
A shell of bondage?
“Society is becoming a shell of bondage which men will perhaps be forced to inhabit someday, as powerless as the fellahs of ancient Egypt.” (Weber quoted in Habernas, 1989, p.302)
Where is the evidence?
As Hans Rosling shows, there have been dramatic global increases in health and education, reductions in poverty over the last 50 years..
These improvements are least partly due to the bureaucracies and technocracies that social systems thinkers have denigrated.
Many statistics have moved dramatically and surprisingly in the right direction since the 1970s.
There have been global increases in health and education, and reductions in poverty.
Google anything you can find from Hans Rosling, especially “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Stats”.
A political movement?
Bausch suggests social systems thinkers have a mission to herald a new era of social organisation, of advancing participative democracy.
Having painted a curiously depressing picture of the world today, Bausch is optimistic about the impact social systems thinking will have.
He says Laszlo, Banathy, Warfield, and others propose models and designs for moving into a new era of social organisation.
“If systems theory is applied to social processes in the manner exemplified in this book, it offers practical and ethical methods for advancing participatory democracy.”
A new era of social organisation? Advancing participative democracy? Is that the goal of SST?
Is SST really a political movement?
Is the mission of SST to change society, the way government works, the way commercial organisations work?
If that is the vision, do social systems thinkers offer a coherent view of how this vision will work and how to get there?
And the general population composed of actors who are intelligent, willing and able to play roles they expect?
What about those actors who reject the idea of participating in democracy?
Some social systems thinkers seem to start from an anti-central government, anti-technology, or anti-capitalist standpoint.
Some imply the world would be better place if political power and decision making were more widely distributed
As Richard Feynman said “it may be true, may not be true; where is the demonstration one way or the other?”
A process-based view?
Bausch concludes by promoting a process-based view.
“Systems theory in its coherent view of the social world, offers a process-based understanding that avoids the logical and semantic difficulties that are created by structure-based conceptions of those realities.”
Bausch favours a dynamic or process-oriented view of the universe, life and systems.
And yes, the “primacy of behaviour” is a fundamental principle (even the principal innovation) of GST.
However, Bausch fails to distinguish three kinds of process.
The processes that sustain a system
A biological organism is sustained by the processes of life: sensation, respiration, digestion etc.
GST primarily addresses systems with such regular, repeatable processes.
The process that is the lifetime of a system
A biological organism is transient, it follows a process from birth to death.
Every system described according to GST has a finite life time.
It is a transient island of stability in the ever-unfolding processes of the universe.
The processes that replace one system generation by the next
Biological processes replace one generation of transient organisms by the next (slightly different) generation.
Note that the natural selection process of evolution applies outside of biology, to commercial enterprises for example.
Any system designed according to GST principles may be changed from one generation to the next.
Complexities arise when the three processes above are entangled in the description of a system.
The processes of life in an individual organism are very different from the cross-generational process of evolution.
See the second conclusion below.
Bausch’s book is a thoroughly researched review of social systems thinking (SST).
He is erudite and reviews a long history of thinkers and theories, views and propositions.
This history is rich in theory development, but thinly supported by experimental verification or falsification.
And the use of the term “system” is questionable.
Is systems thinking supposed to be metaphysical?
Much of the work reviewed by Bausch (though using scientific-sounding words like “entropy”) seems more metaphysical than scientific.
In SST discussion, it is often unclear what the system is, or where it is described, or what the word “system” adds to “thinking”.
Some suggest modern social systems thinking (SST) derives from, or is an advanced application of, general system theory (GST). E.g.
“Though it grew out of organismic biology, general system theory soon branched into most of the humanities.” Laszlo and Krippner.
Actually, SST approaches preceded GST, and tend depart from GST in one or more of the ways listed below.
General system theory
Not general system theory
General to all domains of knowledge
Specific to situations in which humans interact
About roles, rules and regular behaviors
About individual actors (purposeful people)
About systems at the base level of interest
About meta systems that define and change roles and rules
Describing testable systems
Solving any problem in any consensual way
Promoting a “participative democracy”
This paper has touched on some of these differences, which are further explored in related papers at avancier.website.
The paper “Systems thinking approaches” addresses the hard/soft distinction.
The paper “From Science to Scientism” addresses the need for prediction and testing of assertions
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