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Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of elucidating principles that can be applied to all types of systems at all nesting levels in all fields of research. The term does not yet have a well-established, precise meaning, but systems theory can reasonably be considered a specialization of systems thinking, a generalization of systems science, a systems approach. The term originates from Bertalanffy's general system theory (GST) and is used in later efforts in other fields, such as the action theory of Talcott Parsons and the social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann.
In this context the word systems is used to refer specifically to self-regulating systems, i.e. that are self-correcting through feedback. Self-regulating systems are found in nature, including the physiological systems of our body, in local and global ecosystems, and in climate—and in human learning processes.
Contemporary ideas from systems theory have grown with diverse areas, exemplified by the work of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, linguist Béla H. Bánáthy, ecological systems with Howard T. Odum, Eugene Odum and Fritjof Capra, organizational theory and management with individuals such as Peter Senge, interdisciplinary study with areas like Human Resource Development from the work of Richard A. Swanson, and insights from educators such as Debora Hammond and Alfonso Montuori. As a transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multiperspectival domain, the area brings together principles and concepts from ontology, philosophy of science, physics, computer science, biology, and engineering as well as geography, sociology, political science, psychotherapy (within family systems therapy) and economics among others. Systems theory thus serves as a bridge for interdisciplinary dialogue between autonomous areas of study as well as within the area of systems science itself.
In this respect, with the possibility of misinterpretations, von Bertalanffy believed a general theory of systems "should be an important regulative device in science," to guard against superficial analogies that "are useless in science and harmful in their practical consequences." Others remain closer to the direct systems concepts developed by the original theorists. For example, Ilya Prigogine, of the Center for Complex Quantum Systems at the University of Texas, Austin, has studied emergent properties, suggesting that they offer analogues for living systems. The theories of autopoiesis of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana are a further development in this field. Important names in contemporary systems science include Russell Ackoff, Béla H. Bánáthy, Anthony Stafford Beer, Peter Checkland, Robert L. Flood, Fritjof Capra, Michael C. Jackson, Edgar Morin and Werner Ulrich, among others.
With the modern foundations for a general theory of systems following the World War, Ervin Laszlo, in the preface for Bertalanffy's book Perspectives on General System Theory, maintains that the translation of "general system theory" from German into English has "wrought a certain amount of havoc". The preface explains that the original concept of a general system theory was "Allgemeine Systemtheorie (or Lehre)", pointing out the fact that "Theorie" (or "Lehre") just as "Wissenschaft" (translated Scholarship), "has a much broader meaning in German than the closest English words ‘theory’ and ‘science'". With these ideas referring to an organized body of knowledge and "any systematically presented set of concepts, whether they are empirical, axiomatic, or philosophical", "Lehre" is associated with theory and science in the etymology of general systems, but also does not translate from the German very well; "teaching" is the "closest equivalent", but "sounds dogmatic and off the mark". While many of the root meanings for the idea of a "general systems theory" might have been lost in the translation and many[who?] were led to believe that the systems theorists had articulated nothing but a pseudoscience, systems theory became the name used by early investigators for the interdependence of relationships created in organizations by defining a new way of thinking about science and scientific paradigms.
A system in this frame of reference is composed of regularly interacting or interrelating groups of activities. For example, in noting the influence in organizational psychology as the field evolved from "an individually oriented industrial psychology to a systems and developmentally oriented organizational psychology", it was recognized that organizations are complex social systems; separating the parts from the whole reduces the overall effectiveness of organizations. This is different from conventional models that center on individuals, structures, departments and units separate in part from the whole, instead of recognizing the interdependence between groups of individuals, structures and processes that enable an organization to function. Laszlo explains that the new systems view of organized complexity went "one step beyond the Newtonian view of organized simplicity" which reduced the parts from the whole, or understood the whole without relation to the parts. The relationship between organizations and their environments became recognized as the foremost source of complexity and interdependence. In most cases, the whole has properties that cannot be known from analysis of the constituent elements in isolation. Béla H. Bánáthy, who argued — along with the founders of the systems society — that "the benefit of humankind" is the purpose of science, has made significant and far-reaching contributions to the area of systems theory. For the Primer Group at ISSS, Bánáthy defines a perspective that iterates this view:
The systems view is a world-view that is based on the discipline of SYSTEM INQUIRY. Central to systems inquiry is the concept of SYSTEM. In the most general sense, system means a configuration of parts connected and joined together by a web of relationships. The Primer group defines system as a family of relationships among the members acting as a whole. Von Bertalanffy defined system as "elements in standing relationship".—
Similar ideas are found in learning theories that developed from the same fundamental concepts, emphasizing how understanding results from knowing concepts both in part and as a whole. In fact, Bertalanffy’s organismic psychology paralleled the learning theory of Jean Piaget. Interdisciplinary perspectives are considered critical in breaking away from industrial age models and thinking, wherein history is history and math is math, the arts and sciences specialized are separate, and wherein teaching is treated as behaviorist conditioning. The influential contemporary work of Peter Senge provides detailed discussion of the commonplace critique of educational systems grounded in conventional assumptions about learning, including the problems with fragmented knowledge and lack of holistic learning from the "machine-age thinking" that became a "model of school separated from daily life." It is in this way that systems theorists attempted to provide alternatives to, and an evolved ideation from, orthodox theories which were grounded in classical assumptions, including individuals such as Max Weber and Émile Durkheim in sociology and Frederick Winslow Taylor in scientific management. The theorists sought holistic methods by developing systems concepts that could be integrated with different areas.
The contradiction of reductionism in conventional theory (which has as its subject a single part) is simply an example of changing assumptions. The emphasis with systems theory shifts from parts to the organization of parts, recognizing interactions of the parts as not static and constant but dynamic processes. Conventional closed systems were questioned with the development of open systems perspectives. The shift was from absolute and universal authoritative principles and knowledge to relative and general conceptual and perceptual knowledge, still in the tradition of theorists that sought to provide means to organize human life. In other words, the history of ideas that preceded were rethought; not lost. Mechanistic thinking was particularly critiqued, especially the industrial-age mechanistic metaphor for the mind from interpretations of Newtonian mechanics by Enlightenment philosophers and later psychologists that laid the foundations of modern organizational theory and management by the late 19th century. Classical science had not been overthrown, but questions arose over core assumptions that historically influenced organized systems, within both social and technical sciences.
Systems biology is a movement that draws on several trends in bioscience research. Proponents describe systems biology as a biology-based inter-disciplinary study field that focuses on complex interactions in biological systems, claiming that it uses a new perspective (holism instead of reduction). Particularly from year 2000 onwards, the term is used widely in the biosciences, and in a variety of contexts. An often stated ambition of systems biology is the modeling and discovery of emergent properties, properties of a system whose theoretical description is only possible using techniques that fall under the remit of systems biology. The term systems biology is thought to have been created by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1928.
Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means for enabling the realization and deployment of successful systems. It can be viewed as the application of engineering techniques to the engineering of systems, as well as the application of a systems approach to engineering efforts. Systems engineering integrates other disciplines and specialty groups into a team effort, forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation and disposal. Systems engineering considers both the business and the technical needs of all customers, with the goal of providing a quality product that meets the user needs.
Systems psychology is a branch of psychology that studies human behaviour and experience in complex systems. It is inspired by systems theory and systems thinking, and based on the theoretical work of Roger Barker, Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana and others. It is an approach in psychology, in which groups and individuals, are considered as systems in homeostasis. Systems psychology "includes the domain of engineering psychology, but in addition is more concerned with societal systems and with the study of motivational, affective, cognitive and group behavior than is engineering psychology." In systems psychology "characteristics of organizational behaviour for example individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people interacting with the systems are considered in the process in order to create an effective system".
Whether considering the first systems of written communication with Sumerian cuneiform to Mayan numerals, or the feats of engineering with the Egyptian pyramids, systems thinking in essence dates back to antiquity. Differentiated from Western rationalist traditions of philosophy, C. West Churchman often identified with the I Ching as a systems approach sharing a frame of reference similar to pre-Socratic philosophy and Heraclitus. Von Bertalanffy traced systems concepts to the philosophy of G.W. Leibniz and Nicholas of Cusa's coincidentia oppositorum. While modern systems are considerably more complicated, today's systems are embedded in history.
An important step to introduce the systems approach into the (rationalist) hard sciences of the 19th century, was the energy transformation, by figures like James Joule and Sadi Carnot. Then, the thermodynamics of this century, by Rudolf Clausius, Josiah Gibbs and others, established the system reference model as a formal scientific object.
Systems theory as an area of study specifically developed following the World Wars from the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Anatol Rapoport, Kenneth E. Boulding, William Ross Ashby, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, C. West Churchman and others in the 1950s, specifically catalyzed by collaboration in the Society for General Systems Research. Cognizant of advances in science that questioned classical assumptions in the organizational sciences, Bertalanffy's idea to develop a theory of systems began as early as the interwar period, publishing "An Outline for General Systems Theory" in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol 1, No. 2, by 1950. Where assumptions in Western science from Greek thought with Plato and Aristotle to Newton's Principia have historically influenced all areas from the hard to social sciences (see David Easton's seminal development of the "political system" as an analytical construct), the original theorists explored the implications of twentieth century advances in terms of systems.
Subjects like complexity, self-organization, connectionism and adaptive systems had already been studied in the 1940s and 1950s. In fields like cybernetics, researchers like Norbert Wiener, William Ross Ashby, John von Neumann and Heinz von Foerster examined complex systems mathematically. John von Neumann discovered cellular automata and self-reproducing systems, again with only pencil and paper. Aleksandr Lyapunov and Jules Henri Poincaré worked on the foundations of chaos theory without any computer at all. At the same time Howard T. Odum, a radiation ecologist, recognised that the study of general systems required a language that could depict energetics, thermodynamics and kinetics at any system scale. Odum developed a general system, or universal language, based on the circuit language of electronics, to fulfill this role, known as the Energy Systems Language. Between 1929-1951, Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago had undertaken efforts to encourage innovation and interdisciplinary research in the social sciences, aided by the Ford Foundation with the interdisciplinary Division of the Social Sciences established in 1931. Numerous scholars had been actively engaged in these ideas before (Tectology by Alexander Bogdanov, published in 1912-1917, is a remarkable example), but in 1937, von Bertalanffy presented the general theory of systems at a conference at the University of Chicago.
The systems view was based on several fundamental ideas. First, all phenomena can be viewed as a web of relationships among elements, or a system. Second, all systems, whether electrical, biological, or social, have common patterns, behaviors, and properties that can be understood and used to develop greater insight into the behavior of complex phenomena and to move closer toward a unity of the sciences. System philosophy, methodology and application are complementary to this science. By 1956, the Society for General Systems Research was established, renamed the International Society for Systems Science in 1988. The Cold War affected the research project for systems theory in ways that sorely disappointed many of the seminal theorists. Some began to recognize that theories defined in association with systems theory had deviated from the initial General Systems Theory (GST) view. The economist Kenneth Boulding, an early researcher in systems theory, had concerns over the manipulation of systems concepts. Boulding concluded from the effects of the Cold War that abuses of power always prove consequential and that systems theory might address such issues. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a renewed interest in systems theory, with efforts to strengthen an ethical view.
Many early systems theorists aimed at finding a general systems theory that could explain all systems in all fields of science. The term goes back to Bertalanffy's book titled "General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications" from 1968. According to Von Bertalanffy, he developed the "allgemeine Systemlehre" (general systems teachings) first via lectures beginning in 1937 and then via publications beginning in 1946.
Von Bertalanffy's objective was to bring together under one heading the organismic science that he had observed in his work as a biologist. His desire was to use the word system for those principles that are common to systems in general. In GST, he writes:
...there exist models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind, the nature of their component elements, and the relationships or "forces" between them. It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general.—
Thus when von Bertalanffy spoke of Allgemeine Systemtheorie it was consistent with his view that he was proposing a new perspective, a new way of doing science. It was not directly consistent with an interpretation often put on "general system theory", to wit, that it is a (scientific) "theory of general systems." To criticize it as such is to shoot at straw men. Von Bertalanffy opened up something much broader and of much greater significance than a single theory (which, as we now know, can always be falsified and has usually an ephemeral existence): he created a new paradigm for the development of theories.
Ludwig von Bertalanffy outlines systems inquiry into three major domains: Philosophy, Science, and Technology. In his work with the Primer Group, Béla H. Bánáthy generalized the domains into four integratable domains of systemic inquiry:
|Philosophy||the ontology, epistemology, and axiology of systems;|
|Theory||a set of interrelated concepts and principles applying to all systems|
|Methodology||the set of models, strategies, methods, and tools that instrumentalize systems theory and philosophy|
|Application||the application and interaction of the domains|
These operate in a recursive relationship, he explained. Integrating Philosophy and Theory as Knowledge, and Method and Application as action, Systems Inquiry then is knowledgeable action.
Cybernetics is the study of feedback and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines, and organisations. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks.
The terms "systems theory" and "cybernetics" have been widely used as synonyms. Some authors use the term cybernetic systems to denote a proper subset of the class of general systems, namely those systems that include feedback loops. However Gordon Pask's differences of eternal interacting actor loops (that produce finite products) makes general systems a proper subset of cybernetics. According to Jackson (2000), von Bertalanffy promoted an embryonic form of general system theory (GST) as early as the 1920s and 1930s but it was not until the early 1950s it became more widely known in scientific circles.
Threads of cybernetics began in the late 1800s that led toward the publishing of seminal works (e.g., Wiener's Cybernetics in 1948 and von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory in 1968). Cybernetics arose more from engineering fields and GST from biology. If anything it appears that although the two probably mutually influenced each other, cybernetics had the greater influence. Von Bertalanffy (1969) specifically makes the point of distinguishing between the areas in noting the influence of cybernetics: "Systems theory is frequently identified with cybernetics and control theory. This again is incorrect. Cybernetics as the theory of control mechanisms in technology and nature is founded on the concepts of information and feedback, but as part of a general theory of systems;" then reiterates: "the model is of wide application but should not be identified with 'systems theory' in general", and that "warning is necessary against its incautious expansion to fields for which its concepts are not made." (17-23). Jackson (2000) also claims von Bertalanffy was informed by Alexander Bogdanov's three volume Tectology that was published in Russia between 1912 and 1917, and was translated into German in 1928. He also states it is clear to Gorelik (1975) that the "conceptual part" of general system theory (GST) had first been put in place by Bogdanov. The similar position is held by Mattessich (1978) and Capra (1996). Ludwig von Bertalanffy never even mentioned Bogdanov in his works, which Capra (1996) finds "surprising".
Cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory and complexity theory have the common goal to explain complex systems that consist of a large number of mutually interacting and interrelated parts in terms of those interactions. Cellular automata (CA), neural networks (NN), artificial intelligence (AI), and artificial life (ALife) are related fields, but they do not try to describe general (universal) complex (singular) systems. The best context to compare the different "C"-Theories about complex systems is historical, which emphasizes different tools and methodologies, from pure mathematics in the beginning to pure computer science now. Since the beginning of chaos theory when Edward Lorenz accidentally discovered a strange attractor with his computer, computers have become an indispensable source of information. One could not imagine the study of complex systems without the use of computers today.
Complex adaptive systems are special cases of complex systems. They are complex in that they are diverse and composed of multiple, interconnected elements; they are adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience. The term complex adaptive system was coined at the interdisciplinary Santa Fe Institute (SFI), by John H. Holland, Murray Gell-Mann and others. An alternative conception of complex adaptive (and learning) systems, methodologically at the interface between natural and social science, has been presented by Kristo Ivanov in terms of hypersystems. This concept intends to offer a theoretical basis for understanding and implementing participation of "users", decisions makers, designers and affected actors, in the development or maintenance of self-learning systems.
During the 1990s, an interdisciplinary team of PhD students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, integrated the key concepts of the systems and related fields, together with their unique theoretical contributions, into a coherent meta-theory called Biomatrix systems theory. The theory is also unique in having a graphic alphabet with which it can be explained visually.
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