Systems Theory

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In systems science, systems theory is an interdisciplinary theory about the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science, and is a framework by which one can investigate and/or describe any group of objects that work together to produce some result. This could be a single organism, any organization or society, or any electro-mechanical or informational artifact. Systems theory first originated in biology in the 1920s out of the need to explain the interrelatedness of organisms in ecosystems.[1] As a technical and general academic area of study it predominantly refers to the science of systems that resulted from Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST), among others, in initiating what became a project of systems research and practice. Systems theoretical approaches were later appropriated in other fields, such as in the structural functionalist sociology of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann.[1]


Whether considering the 1st systems of written communication with Phoenician 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 [13]. Von Bertalanffy traced systems concepts to the philosophy of G.W. von Leibniz and Nicholas of Cusa's coincidentia oppositorum. While modern systems are considerably more complicated, today's systems are embedded in history.

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 the cooperation 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 using mathematics. 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, the radiation ecologist, recognised that the study of general systems required a language that could depict energetics and kinetics at any system scale. Odum developed a general systems, 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[14]. Numerous scholars had been actively engaged in ideas before (Tectology of Alexander Bogdanov published in 1912-1917 is a remarkable example), but in 1937 von Bertalanffy presented the general theory of systems for 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 science. System philosophy, methodology and application are complementary to this science [3]. By 1956, the Society for General Systems Research was established, renamed the International Society for Systems Science in 1988. The Cold War had its affects upon the research project for systems theory in ways that sorely disappointed many of the seminal theorists. Some began to recognize theories defined in association with systems theory had deviated from the initial General Systems Theory (GST) view[15]. 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 [16]. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a renewed interest in systems theory with efforts to strengthen an ethical view.

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