The big schism in thinking about social systems

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Preface. 1

The schism in concepts. 1

The schism in terminology. 3

Conclusions and remarks. 4

Footnotes leading to later papers. 5



TOGAF says “An architecture defines a system” and “Enterprise architecture regards as the enterprise as a system...”

What does it mean?

Business systems are formalised social systems; but that doesn’t mean sociology is best-placed to answer the question.

A touchstone for enterprise architects is general system theory, rather than socio-cultural systems thinking.


Enterprise architecture started when general system theory and cybernetics were more widely recognised.

“Systems concepts include: system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state….”  Principia Cybernetica

Today, when sociologically-inclined gurus speak of systems, their perspective is usually human actor-centric.


What this paper calls actor-centric thinking can be useful to enterprise architects in the course of their work.

But the management and motivation of human actors is not their responsibility.

Their mission is to design and change business systems that conform to the principles of a role-centric systems theory.

The difference between actor and role-centric viewpoints is explained and explored below.

The two schools of thought are different; and they use the same words (like “adaptive”) to mean different things.

The schism in concepts

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 that is dedicated to performing activities needed in the system of interest.

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

And a role is defined by the actions to be performed in the role, not by the people chosen to perform those actions.


Similarly, 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 [think actors] or actions [think roles].”


Still today, discussion of systems often confuses the two viewpoints that Boulding and Seidl tried to distinguish.

This table is one attempt to contrast the viewpoints.


A social set

is a group of physical actors (who communicate with each other)


A social system

is a group of logical roles (which need actors to play them)


This table distils the two viewpoints in another way.


A group of actors who act as they choose is

A social set


A group of inter-related roles is

A social system


A choir or a poker school can be seen from both actor and role-centric perspectives.

Does a choir exist to do what its choristers choose? Including perhaps, playing poker?

Or does a choir exist to perform defined actions in defined roles in choral concerts?


Does a poker school exist to do what its members choose? Including perhaps, singing in choir?

Or does a poker school exist to perform defined actions in defined roles in playing cards?


Actor-centric social set thinking

Gabriel Tarde (1843 to 1904) was a French sociologist, who conceived sociology as based on small interactions among individuals.

In the actor-centric school of systems thinking, the essential elements are the actors.

It is usually assumed that actors perform activities to sustain themselves (as bees in a beehive) or meet their higher level goals.

It is sometimes assumed that systems are homogeneous, meaning all actors of a kind follow same rules (like a flight of geese).

A special interest of this school is how interactions between actors generate so-called “complex” or “chaotic” behavior at a group level.


Role-centric social system theory

Max Weber (1864 to 1920) was a German sociologist who profoundly influenced social theory and social research.

He set out three essential principles for bureaucratic organisations, be they public or private:

1.      Roles: labour is divided between roles – defined by the required activities.

2.      Assignment of actors to roles: roles are performed by actors qualified and hired to play those roles.

3.      Hierarchy: there are chains of command, both the roles and capacity to coerce others to perform roles, is described by regulation.


In the role-centric school of systems thinking, the essential elements are the activities assigned to roles.

The activities are not chosen by the actors; they are determined by regulations and rules.

Weber’s other principles included the supremacy of abstract rules in a social system.

His view of a role and rule-driven organisation fits the notion here of a social system (rather than a social set).


The relationship between social sets and social systems

Social sets and social systems are related in a many-to-many association.

One social system can be realised by different social sets (e.g. there are many beehives, choirs and football teams).

One social set can act as several social systems (e.g. its member actors can play unrelated roles a choir and a poker school).


Whenever a social set’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 set would act as a different social system.

The schism in terminology

This table shows some terms used in discussion of systems have alternative meanings.

System term

One meaning

Alternative meaning


A logical boundary chosen by observers

A physical, spatial boundary (e.g. of a farm, or human being).


A state change made by system processes

A rule change made to a system description by a designer


The self-sustaining nature of a biological entity

The self-organising nature of human groups


The table below shows some of the words commonly used in a discussion of systems that can mean different things.

System term

In describing social systems

In describing social sets


A named collection of roles and rules.

A named group of interacting actors.


A role which is constrained by definition

An individual who may act outside any defined role.


A structure connecting roles in processes

A structure connecting actors in a command hierarchy


Actors perform activities.

Actors change their roles and rules.


Unpredictable (meaning the opposite of linear)

Random (meaning the opposite of orderly)


The measurable complexity of a system description.

The un-measurable complexity of a system’s operation.


Changing state to achieve “homeostatis”

Changing its own roles and rules (“continual evolution”)


Conclusions and remarks

The universe and human existence are ever-unfolding processes in which we perceive discrete entities.

We regard some of those entities as systems; but what makes an entity a system?


The terms “systems thinking” and “system theory” sound as though they refer to the same thing.

But not far down the road, one reaches a fork between what this paper calls social sets and social systems.

The thinking may be divided between socio-cultural systems thinking and general system theory.


Much casual discussion of systems boils down to: "It is useful to think of some part of the world as a set of inter-connected things.”

General system theory says more; it asserts that different sciences share many more general ideas about “systems”.

Read system properties for a list of properties generally ascribed to systems, with links to explanations of them.

How far does socio-cultural systems thinking share these general system theory ideas?


It turns out that the two schools have different views of what named system properties mean.

Both are about whole-to-part thinking and part-to-whole thinking, connecting parts so they work together.

But after that, they have divergent views of what a system is, and what its elements and its properties are.

Giles Dalton suggests you might think of the two schools as wave theory versus particle theory.

The table below draws some contrasts between them.

Social system thinking

Social set thinking

A system is a collection of roles and rules.

Actors are assigned to roles

Activities are ordered to given ends.

Discrete state changes.

Discrete generation changes.

A system has a name and generation number.

A system is a group of actors (usually human).

Actors choose their roles.

Activities may be ad hoc, to ad hoc ends.

Continuous state changes.

Continuous role and rule changes.

A system has a name only; there are no discrete versions


Socio-cultural systems thinkers use terms differently from how “harder” scientists do

Terms like “chaos”, “choice”, “complex”, “adaptive” and “entropy” are used with various meanings.

This casual use of words undermines the notion of a general system theory.


In 1974, Friedrich von Hayek gave an Economic Sciences Nobel prize acceptance speech entitled The Pretence of Knowledge.

“An attempt which in our field may lead to outright error… is an approach which has come to be described as the ‘scientistic’ attitude.

An attitude which… ‘is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.’"


In short, the uncritical application of terms drawn from one field in another field leads to outright error.

Taking a word from one science to mean something else in another science can give the appearance of knowledge without the substance.

Footnotes leading to later papers

The schism runs deep; consider for example “emergent properties”.

These are properties of whole system that cannot be found in a part of it.

E.g. bicycle transportation requires both bicycle and rider, neither part has the bicycle transportation property of the combination.


One socio-cultural systems thinker told me he tried to explain emergent properties to some engineers.

The engineers couldn’t understand what he was banging on about; and he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand.

He spoke of emergent behaviour as being unpredictable, surprising or mysterious (perhaps also “non-linear” or “chaotic”).

The engineers were thinking that emergent properties are the very purpose of their system design efforts!


There is an anti-determinism streak in some socio-cultural systems thinking.

Later papers argue that the critical property of human social systems is not whether humans behave deterministically or not.

It is that actors can choose to switch between social sets, and switch between playing different roles in social systems.

Further, they can step outside any system they play a role in, and step up to a meta system in which they change the roles of the first system.

(As software developers do in agile system development.)


Later papers include analysis of thinking about systems by Boulding, Beer, Ackoff, Maturana, Luhmann and Snowden.

Their observations, opinions and models cannot be merged into a consistent body of knowledge.

It is often difficult-to-impossible to use their models as predictor of social system behaviour.

At the extreme, some systems thinkers (notably Luhmann) turn general system theory on its head.


Read social sets and social systems for more on the schism.



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