Classic social entity thinking

Copyright 2020 Graham Berrisford. A chapter in “the book” at Last updated 01/09/2021 19:42


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This chapter is one of two that distil ideas from the history of systems thinking, with references to the thinkers. The first looked at activity systems as they are modelled using cybernetics, system dynamics and soft systems methodology. This one looks at ideas about social entities that have emerged in more sociological thinking.



Sociological viewpoints. 2

Organization as an organism.. 2

Social entity as a tribe. 3

Social entity as a homeostat 3

Social entity as a knowledge builder 4

Social entity as autopoietic (self-sustaining) 4

Social entity as a self-organizing cooperative. 5

Society as an ecology of trustworthy organizations. 6

Management science viewpoints. 6

Business entity as a rule-bound machine. 6

Business as a power/delegation structure. 7

Business entity as a network structure. 8

Business as a self-organizing network. 9

Business a "learning organization" (Senge) 9

Conclusions and remarks. 11

Structures of actors and activities. 11

Relevance to enterprise architecture?. 11

Michael Jackson’s review of system thinking approaches. 12

Is systems thinking a movement for social change?. 12




Sociological viewpoints

There is a substantial overlap between sociology and management science. This first section focuses on more purely sociological ideas.


The first sociological thinkers included:

·       Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) on social systems as organic systems.

·       Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) on collective consciousness and culture;

·       Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) on social systems as emerging from the actions of individual actors (cf. autonomous agents);

·       Max Weber (1864-1920) on bureaucracy, hierarchy, roles and rules.

·       Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) on group dynamics; and

·       Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878-1942) on meaning in communication.


For a distillation of ideas attributed to the nineteenth century thinkers above, you could read my sketchy notes here thinkers who foreshadowed system theory. When system theory became established as a topic in its own right is debatable. Some suggest that social system thinking is branch of general system theory; others suggest the reverse.

“Systems theory, also called social systems theory...

Organization as an organism

Theme: organization as organism. Thinkers: several early systems thinkers. Idea: a human organization is like a biological organism (plant or animal).


The idea of decomposing a system into subsystems applies to all kinds of activity system - designed and evolved - mechanical and electrical as well as biological. It applies to a steam engine, a motor car, a computer or software system as well to an organism. The entity is a coherent assembly of parts that have been designed or evolved to play their role in the whole, without needless duplication of, or conflict between, the parts.


By contrast, a large business or enterprise is not a coherent activity system of the kind in which all parts are coordinated and pull together, and none is missing. Rather, it is a social entity that employs and participates in countless activity systems, which can be poorly or not at all coordinated, which can duplicate or compete with each other.


The absence in a business organization of overall coherence led to the emergence of EA. Still, the enterprise will always rely on the creative ability of its employees to act outside of any activity system, to make ad hoc decisions and do ad hoc things, in ways that the parts of an organism or a steam engine cannot.


Like many metaphors, the organism/organisation analogy made in 19th century sociology was misleading. An organisms' cells cannot (bottom up) choose or redefine how they act, nor can the organism be changed by top-down design.


In a biological organism

In a business organization

A cell or organ’s response to an input is determined by biochemistry

A human actor’s response to an input may be unpredictable, and purposefully innovative.

Organisms cycle around processes that maintain their state.

Organizations progressively advance their state, and change how they operate.

A cell has its role and cannot be repurposed.

A human actor can play various roles, and change those roles.

An organism does not choose or change its inherited mechanisms.

An organization (or rather people in it) choose and change the mechanisms it employs and deploys.

Organisms evolve by whole-scale replication, with tiny mutations;

the young replace the old

Organizations evolve well-nigh continually,

adding and discarding parts, replacing parts by different ones.


A beehive is more machine-like than a human social entity. The bees in a beehive are – near enough – subsystems of a regular activity system, with little or no self-determination. By contrast, the employees in a business organization are actors in a less formal social entity. Russell Ackoff spoke of human actors and organizations as being able to choose their activities, and even their aims. In other words, the purposeful choices of individual actors in a human social entity can be filtered through group decision-making mechanisms (democratic or authoritarian) to appear as though the whole social entity makes purposeful choices in a creative way.

Social entity as a tribe

Theme: how tribes behave. Thinkers: Margaret Mead and others. Idea: modern societies emerged from a world dominated by tribes and clans. We inherit our culture and mores from the societies of hunter-gatherer communities 10,000 years ago.


How big is a tribe? Some anthropologists concluded about 25 people is optimal, that includes children, elders and only 7-8 productive foragers. "The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways." (Robert J. Kelly ,2007).


What principles apply? Loyalty to kin usually overrides other considerations. (See discussion of the selfish gene below.) And as in other animal communities, there is usually a dominance hierarchy. "Social hierarchy is a key element in the organization of many human and nonhuman groups that undertake collective and cooperative activities.” Kelly, (See discussion of organization hierarchies below.)


While people still have the instincts of tribe members, it is difficult to apply the tribal model to modern society. Complicating factors include

·       the geographical distribution of family members

·       the physical co-location of people, en masse, in cities

·       the logical membership by one individual of several social and business entities,

·       the ad hoc connectivity of people enabled by the "information age".


To the extent one can identify tribes at all, they are nested, overlapping and fluid. They are volatile, they continually merge and divide. Questions for the social entity thinker include: How does an actor join or leave a group? Who determines membership? Are there degrees of membership? Is it full time or part time? Can actors align their individual aims with the declared aims of all (potentially conflicting) groups they belong to?

Social entity as a homeostat

Theme: homeostasis. Thinkers: Spencer and others. Idea: a society has an equilibrium.


The biologist Claude Bernard introduced the idea that a homeostatic organism, maintains its state in equilibrium. Spencer declared three principles for a “social system”.





creates and changes a system


maintains a system in a stable state


destroys a system


Remember there is ambiguity in the concepts of stability and change

·       An activity system can be stable in the sense of a) hovering around an attractor state, or b) repeatedly performing the same activities according to the same rules.

·       An activity system can change in the sense of a) state changes and b) evolutionary changes that modify the system itself.


Ashby’s cybernetics explains how a homeostatic state can be maintained in an activity system by a feedback loop between control and target subsystems. (Stafford Beer applied this idea to business organizations.) And today, the idea that a society resists changes and repeatedly performs the same activities according to the same rules appears in the form of the "social cell". (The Japanese tea ceremony has been presented as an example.)


However, it is surely more accurate to say that most social entities evolve continually, partly through the acquisition and loss of members with different aims and interests, and partly in response to their ever-changing environment.


To call a social entity “organized” is to imply some orderliness, that its members play roles in some stable activity system(s). In business, both regular processes and changes to them are managed. Activity systems are changed in response to requests for change that trigger a change management process.

Social entity as a knowledge builder

Theme: knowledge acquisition. Thinkers: Herbert George Blumer (1900 to 1987). Idea: knowledge comes from social interaction.


In 1956, Boulding wrote of general system theory.

“Another aspect… which might singled out for special treatment is the theory of information and communication. The information concept as developed by Shannon has had interesting applications… It is not adequate, of course, to deal with problems involving the semantic level of communication.”

And then of socio-cultural systems.

“At this level we must concern ourselves with the content and meaning of messages, the nature and dimensions of value systems, the transcription of images into a historical record, the subtle symbolizations of art, music and poetry, and the complex gut of human emotion. The empirical universe here is human life and society in all its complexity and richness.”


Blumer’s “symbolic interactionism” rests on the premises that actors create and find information in social interactions. The information is encoded in symbols, in the data structures of messages and memories. Actors handle and modify meanings by interpreting messages as they see fit.


(By contrast, in activity systems thinkers focus on the activities performed by actors. Successful communication requires actors to share a language - to share the meanings of symbols. Between discrete generations of a system, its language may be changed.)


Blumer's thinking is a variety of social constructivism, which sees human development and knowledge as constructed through interactions. Clearly, animals did acquire knowledge of the world eons before they communicated more than mating intentions to each other. And humans acquire knowledge in other ways, not the least being a process of trial and error.  So, social constructivism can be only a partial explanation of knowledge acquisition. And social verification is a weak way of verifying knowledge.


For a wider psycho-biological perspective of knowledge acquisition and verification read the second half of this book.

Social entity as autopoietic (self-sustaining)

Theme: social communication. Thinkers: Nicklas Luhmann. Idea: a “social system” is composed of messages about a theme.


The biologist, Maturana, proposed autopoiesis to be the unique and defining feature of a life form. It is the self-sustaining process by which a biological organism manufactures its own structures from primitive chemicals - and those structures perform the same self-sustaining processes.


The sociologist, Luhmann, stole the term rather than the concept. In his theory of "autopoietic social systems", he “deontologised” (deconstructed) the biological concept. The idea is that for every particular topic or theme, there is a self-sustaining system of communication events.  Hmm.. Who defines the themes?


Luhmann's system is purely conceptual. There is no way to capture or record his communication events about a theme. So, his theory is abstract to the point of being metaphysical, and not testable in the real world. For my analysis of Luhmann's theory, read this article.


Note that Luhmann and some other sociologists hold to the (hermeneutic?) idea that the meaning of a message is determined only by its receiver(s). So, not only may different receivers may associate one message with different themes, but what the sender meant to say doesn’t matter. Nowadays, this dreadful idea can make innocent people guilty of a crime.

Social entity as a self-organizing cooperative

Theme: the evolution of cooperation between organisms, especially humans. Thinkers: Lynn Margulis, Boehm, Elinor Ostrom. Idea: cooperation confers an evolutionary advantage on independent agents, and groups of them.


Yes, philosophers argue about what the scientific method is or should be, but the objectivity that comes from predicting outcomes then measuring them is the best method for testing any theory of the world that we have. Yes, all sciences stumble forward, refining and sometimes replacing previously accepted theories. But that open-minded evolution is exactly why science has proved so much more effective in improving people's lives than any of the religious tracts written in the middle east between one and two thousand years ago. The proof that science works is all around us. Our lives, our health and welfare, our economies, all depend on its results. Have you watched any of Hans Rosling's videos?


Yes, much in sociology and economics, and some in psychology, falls short of the standard expected in harder sciences. But the fact that people are wired for both cooperation and conflict is more Darwinian biology than psychology, and is evident from studying other primates. In fact, it is evident in all social animals throughout the animal kingdom. To imagine we are unique in that regard would be foolish.


In the 1960s, Political scientist Robert Axelrod explained why cooperation, rather than unfettered competition, turns out to be our best chance for survival. A cooperative can achieve things (like kill a mammoth) that individuals cannot on their own. And given competition between groups for a resource (as in “the tragedy of the commons”), a cooperative can agree rules that prevent those groups from exhausting the resource.


Biologists have long seen unselfish altruism as a result of Darwinian evolution and the "selfish gene". Although genes are selfish, the actors that carry them are not. The emotions that motivate animals to cooperate - and define rules for doing so - are genuine as well as useful. The selfish gene may also explain why people support their tribe, village, state or nation in competition with others – which is to say people are wired for conflict as well as for cooperation.


Note what while individuals can act to their mutual benefit by sharing lessons learned and agreeing laws to be followed, and while people are nice to each other when they anticipate future interactions, they are not so nice when they don’t.

Here are two references for you to explore



Society as an ecology of trustworthy organizations

Theme: self-organization. Thinkers: Hayek and others. Idea: human health and welfare are advanced more by an ecology of trading relationships between autonomous tribes or organizations than by warfare or central planning.


Free trade and fair competition between autonomous agents is not only a complex system in itself, but has produced amazingly complex systems. Did you know that a toaster may have 400 interacting components, a Boeing 747 has six million components, and Google has two billion lines of code?


"It’s easy to forget how systems of free exchange miraculously assemble complex systems. The minute division of skills required for the manufacture of each component, the role of prices in signaling scarcity, the supply chains linking sub-providers - all this happens spontaneously and rather beautifully. In a system of free exchange, individuals succeed not by favoring kin over strangers, but by cultivating a reputation for impartial fairness and co-operation, because these qualities will help them attract the most customers and the best business partners. People in market societies tend to score higher on trustworthiness. Other societies lie at significantly higher rates" Matthew Syed in “Join me in a toast to capitalism

Management science viewpoints

There is a substantial overlap between sociology and management science. Management science is concerned with how people are motivated and organized to cooperate in groups to achieve aims, and improve the way they work. A business of interest to management science can be seen as a social entity, a group of human actors employed to work toward some agreed purpose(s). Moreover, each business cooperates in a wider ecosystem with other social entities.

Business entity as a rule-bound machine

Theme: bureaucracy. Thinkers: Max Weber and others. Idea: a business organizes how actors cooperate to meet the aims of the business, using hierarchical management, roles and rules. The actors are employed to play roles and follow rules in the performance of business operations.


In his famous 1956 article, applying general system theory to management science, Boulding questioned whether the “parts” of a social or business system are actors or the roles they play. “The unit of such [social] systems is not perhaps the person – the individual human – but the role - that part of the person which is concerned with the organization or situation in question.” Similarly, in his 2001 article n Luhmann’s social autopoiesis, David Seidl pointed out that: "The first decision is what to treat as the basic elements of the social system. The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons or actions."


For discussion of systems to be coherent, it is necessary to distinguish the social entities we call "organizations" from the activity systems they participate in, and to recognize there is many-to-many relationship between them. A business organization is neither an organism nor a machine; it is a social entity that employs and participates in many machine-like business activity systems, in which human and computer actors play roles.


As Boulding said in 1956: “We must ever quite forget that… in dealing with human personalities and organizations we are dealing with systems in the empirical world beyond our ability to formulate.” While EA focuses attention on business roles and processes that can be modelled, it must not forget the less formal and human aspects of a business. For that reason, EAs must work with business managers, human resources and business change consultants who are employed to focus on those things.


Aside: Stafford Beer focused on modellable roles and processes when he applied Ashby’s cybernetic principles to the state-run businesses in Chile. Later, in "The Brain of the Firm", he used the structure of the central nervous system as a metaphor for the structure of a business organization. For my discussion of how Beer applied cybernetic ideas to management science, and the metaphor he used, read this chapter.

Business as a power/delegation structure

Theme: delegation. Thinkers: various. Idea: a society is a hierarchical structure in which aims are cascaded from the top down, though activities to meet those aims may be determined at a lower level.


On power, control, direction and dictation

The cybernetic branch of system theory is much about monitoring and controlling the state of mechanical and biological organisms. Stafford Beer and others talk of "management cybernetics" in the context of monitoring and directing business operations. In architecture frameworks for the armed forces, there is talk of "command and control". In more sociological systems thinking there is much talk of "power" relationships, in society in general and in "organisations" in particular. In all these contexts, the presumption is that some actors – to some extent - direct others as to what activities they perform and when.


In real-world businesses, the extent to which managers "dictate" the activities of employees varies hugely. Some employees have a wide degree of freedom to choose what they do and when. Today, sociologically-inclined systems thinkers often promote decentralization of human institutions, delegation of responsibility to local agents, and flexibility of action in the light of changing conditions and lessons learned. Still, there is (surely always?) some kind of authority with the power to assign and withdraw work."


On decentralization and flexibility

By “system”, today’s systems thinkers usually mean a structured social entity in which people are given some broad aims and assigned to perform some actions.


Is decentralization a new idea? It may surprise you to learn that, since the middle of the 19th century, basic principles for army operations have included decentralization, adaptation to feedback and individual initiative.


This source says the idea of decentralization appeared as “Auftragstaktik” in the Prussian and German armies. It was further developed by general Moltke and became fundamental to German military theory.


“In general, one does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situations one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution. . . The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority”. Helmut von Moltke, Instructions for Large Unit Commanders (1869)


And here is how Wikipedia characterizes Moltke's "Theory of War".


"Subordinates would have to use initiative and independent judgment for the forces to be effective in battle. Therefore, overall campaign and battle plans should encourage and take advantage of the decentralization. In this new concept, commanders of distant detachments were required to exercise initiative in their decision-making and von Moltke emphasized the benefits of developing officers who could do this within the limits of the senior commander's intent."


To this end, there should be a professional ethos of “aptitude and eagerness for independent action”, and the development of leaders who, given broad aims, adapt to feedback and “exercise disciplined initiative [to] create opportunity by taking action to develop the situation”.


The idea of flexibility in army operations was developed by Meir Finkel. He argues that attempts properly to identify future threats caused by a potential adversary’s efforts to gain an advantage routinely fail. So, a solution to countering technological and doctrinal surprise lies in the ability to react flexibly to the initial surprise.


To this end, there should be:

1.     “Conceptual and doctrinal flexibility, an atmosphere that encourages lower-ranking [employees] to challenge concepts and doctrine,

2.     Organizational and technological flexibility, diversity and redundancy as well as technological versatility and changeability,

3.     Flexibility in command and cognitive skills, and

4.     Fast learning, including a rapid circulation of lessons.”


(On Flexibility, Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

Business entity as a network structure

Theme: connectivity. Thinkers: various. Idea: a society is a network structure that connects people in communication relationships. We’re not talking here about the hierarchical management/reporting structure; we’re talking about the structure(s) in which people connect to complete the required work.


Graph theory is a field of mathematics (well introduced by Robin Wilson) concerned with how things connect in structures: networks, hierarchies, chains, circles, whatever. It is questionable how far graph theory is well applied to social entities.


Seems to me the application of graph theory and the like to human interactions requires us to think about several different kinds of network that exist in parallel.


A.    A communication technology network used by networks of kind B and/or C and/or D to exchange messages. E.g. The telephone network, or the internet, or Facebook.

B.    A social network whose membership is constrained by a technology network of kind above. E.g. a Whats App Group, or Linkedin Discussion Group.

C.    A social network whose members interact in ad hoc ways - in person and/or using one or more technology networks of kind above. E.g. a family, a group of friends, or the employees of a company.

D.    An activity system whose network of activities is performed by actors playing defined roles - in person and/or using one or more of technology networks of kind above. E,g, a game of poker, or a software development project.


Some seem to presume the members of a social entity are related in structure that is either a network or a hierarchy. In practice, in most human institutions, people connect in both kinds of structure at once. And one person may report on different matters to different directors.


Is a person well-described as a "part" of a structure? Each individual plays roles, now and then, in many social structures, some of which are in conflict or competition with each other. And the commitment of a person to any social structure in which they participate may vary from high to low.


Over a period of time, you might monitor electronic communications between the employees of a business. You may well find actors group themselves into more or less cohesive clusters. (Meaning that actors interact frequently within a group, and less frequently with other actors in other groups.)


What to conclude from such analysis? Actors may be discussing their lunch arrangements rather than business operations. Over time, clusters will grow and shrink. And it may be difficult to say whether different clustering pattens are desirable or not, correlated with particular outcomes or not, are causes or side-effects of success or failure.


Having said that, anthropologists have studied the structures of societies in the real world.

"Although humans are capable of living in structurally diverse societies, our communities, even in the digital world, have a distinctive layered structure, with successive cumulative layer sizes of 15, 50, 150, 500 and 1500."

Business as a self-organizing network


·       In activity systems thinking, self-organization can mean a) organization that emerges from interactions between actors, as in a shoal of fish, or b) self-assembly, as in the growth of a crystal.

·       In social entity thinking, self-organization relates to the ability of human actors to purposefully a) change an activity system they work in, or b) act outside of any definable activity system.

·       In activity systems thinking, the word adaptation is used with reference to both a) state changes and b) evolutionary modifications.

·       Social entity thinkers apply adaptation to the ability of human actors to a) evolve an activity system they participate in, or b) act outside of any definable activity system.


>> Insert Morning Star example.

Business a "Learning Organization" (Senge)

You could say this is the management science version of Blumer (earlier). Peter Senge prescribed practical ways to build a business of that kind.


Can we model a "Learning Organization" as a system composed of variables connected by feedback loops that cause each variable to change state in a non-linear line of behavior? Or is it, rather, a social entity in which the actors are empowered to change the variables of interest, and change the flows between them, to suit the purposes of the business? In other words, not a modellable activity system but rather, an evolving social entity?


The graphic below nice in its way.



Senge’s work is more human social entity thinking than general activity systems thinking of kind Forrester's system. Senge sees a human institution or business as an evolving social entity rather than a particular activity system.


In general, learning can mean learning a fact or rule, or learning to perform a particular process. Here, learning means people in a human institution – given some shared aim(s) or vision - changing what they do in response to the outcome of past experience or events.


The thought bubble description of systems thinking contains one of several widespread misunderstandings of systems thinking. Holism is not wholeism! A system model is always an abstraction that tell us little about the whole. It is holistic in the sense it joins up the elements of a "system of interest". But the boundary of the system, and the selection of the elements, are always selected with some given interest in mind.


Senge’s work contains advice on how actors should cooperate to the benefit of a business they work in. This cooperation may lead to changes of various kinds. Including but not only, changing or replacing activity systems employed by that business (which is more meta systems thinking than systems thinking).

Conclusions and remarks

This chapter is one of two that distil ideas from the history of systems thinking, with reference to the thinkers. The first looked at activity systems as they are modelled using cybernetics, system dynamics and soft systems methodology. This chapter looked at ideas that have emerged in more sociological “systems thinking”.


Management scientists and authors like Ackoff, Senge and Jackson offer good advice to managers. However, their use of term “system” in this context is questionable.

Structures of actors and activities

"The first decision is what to treat as the basic elements of the social system. The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons or actions." Seidl 2001


Much confusion in systems thinking discussion stems from people over-generalizing different schools of thought. To make better sense of the systems thinking field it is necessary differentiate social entity thinking from activity systems thinking. One is not an evolution of the other; they are not competitors; both are needed. Drawing this distinction helps us recognize and resolve ambiguities and confusions in modern systems thinking.


A social entity – focus on people

A social activity system – focus on actions

A set of actors who communicate and act as they choose.

A set of activities performed by actors.

A physical entity in the real world.

A performance of abstract roles and rules by actors

May evolve continually

May be changed under change control


The actors in a social entity may not only act in an activity system, but also behave in ad hoc, impromptu, creative ways. These ad hoc activities lie outside of any activity system employed or deployed by that business. In a real-world business, the social entity exists over and above any activity systems it employs.

Relevance to enterprise architecture?

Enterprise architecture (EA) is largely about the design of activity systems (human and computer) which are employed by a social entity (a business).


Organization as an organism? In EA, the aim is rarely to transform a whole business all at once. It is to optimize the activity systems of a business, to standardize and integrate them. And to plan changes that increase the efficiency and effective of the business.


Social entity as a tribe? In EA, a business organization may be seen as a tribe in which loyalty to the aims of the directors is a strong influence on employee behavior, and conformance to the rules of specific activity systems can reasonably be expected. However, allowances must be made for exceptions.

Social entity as a homeostat? In EA, a major concern is the information a business needs and uses to maintain its current state data, and monitor and direct actors in its environment.


Social entity as a knowledge builder? In EA, how a business acquires knowledge about entities and events of interest is an important strand of analysis and design.


Social entity as autopoietic (self-sustaining): In EA, data architects are concerned with memories and messages that monitor or direct business entities and events of interest. Meaning is not found in a message alone; it is found in both the intent of the sender on encoding a message and the actions of a receiver on decoding that message. Those two meanings may match or differ. EA usually presumes they match, because senders and receivers share a language. There is a domain-specific language that defines the meanings of business terms such as "order", "invoice" and "payment".


Social entity as a self-organizing cooperative? In EA, it is presumed that actors are involved in the definition of changes to activity systems that play roles in.


Business as a network? In EA, extensive use is made of hierarchical structures to classify things (actors, activities, abilities and aims) that are in reality connected in networks.

Michael Jackson’s review of system thinking approaches

The book ”Creative Holism”  (2003, Michael C Jackson) is well researched and recommended here for further reading. Jackson makes clear that his focus is on social entities rather than activity systems of the kind modelled in cybernetics and system dynamics.


"Social systems are not just ‘complex adaptive systems’ bound by the fixed rules of interaction of their parts. Rather, they are ‘complex evolving systems’ that can change the rules of their development as they evolve over time." Jackson


Though many use the term adaptation to mean evolution or mutation, Jackson uses adaptation to mean system state change, and evolution to mean system mutation.


Jackson refers to a human organization/institution as a "system" regardless of any model or perspective of it. (This book distinguishes social entities from activity systems.) Jackson relates “complexity” to disorder, which implies the absence of any system, and refers to "complex adaptive systems" without a measure of complexity or adaptivity. (See the chapter on complexity science). 


Jackson draws a debatable distinction between hard and soft systems thinking. He suggests "hard systems thinking" is reductionist (contrary to the goal or service-oriented approach normally taken in defining a socio-technical system) and produces only one view of a business. (Whereas even software design methods suggest producing many partial views and stakeholder perspectives).

Is systems thinking a movement for social change?

Karl Marx referred to Darwinian evolution as though it provided a rationale for political revolution. Some now speak of systems thinking as though it is a movement that will solve problems they see in education, government or the biosphere. They

·       draw what looks like a Causal Loop Diagram but is not, to express some prejudices or beliefs

·       use that other "systems thinking" terms to convey socio-political positions that are relativist (there is no objective truth or authority) or naïve

·       see systems thinking as a socio-cultural mission statement of the kind “everything is connected, and we've all got to work together” or “decentralization is preferable to centralization”

·       imagine all our problems would disappear if there was no central government, all actors were equal and independent agents who collaborate in activities to achieve shared aims.


This kind of thinker tends to promote the ideas to the left of this table over the ones the right.


Should we value these?

Over these?



Individuals and interactions

Following processes

Network structures


Bottom up

Top down




Client-server relationships

Self-determination of actions

Direction and coordination of action


This book does not favor either side of the table. As Clemson said in his 1984 book on “management cybernetics” a systems thinker looks to find the optimal balance between centralization and decentralization. System design is a process that involves making trade-offs between alternative design patterns. The designer’s role is to understand the trade-offs and fit the pattern to the situation. And to prioritise what is achievable over what some might promote as an ideal.


Our ability to solve the world's problems by promoting "holistic thinking" and "self-organization" is limited. Moreover, to solve some problems (like climate change) we may need central authorities to agree a set of goals, rules and measures for all. To me, the biggest Wicked Problem today is simply too many people on one planet. Much else is a consequence of that, or an attempt to alleviate its effects.