General Systems Theory

One stream of scientific ideas and concepts relevant to AR comes from a loosely integrated field that is known as “general systems theory” (GST), a field little taught to university students outside of the sciences and engineering. Having its origins in physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering in the 1920s and linked later to the development of self-correcting guidance systems for military use, GST has significantly influenced the world around us. Despite this, GST is not a household word. Partly this is because, like AR, GST is not a single discipline anchored in a particular academic department. It is a set of perspectives shared by a wide array of scientists and social reformers with diverse backgrounds and divergent political ideas.

At the core of GST is a set of holistic concepts about the way the world is organized. Rather than accepting the notion of a particulate universe made up of separate atoms, molecules, and so on that are linked together in higher combinations and structures, GST views the world (inorganic, organic, and sociocultural) as composed of interacting systems whose processes differently integrate the same basic matter of the universe to produce the immense array of things we encounter in the world of experience. The GST view argues that the differences among an i norganic, an organic, and a sociocultural system are to be understood as the product of the differences in the way these systems are organized—the kinds, sequences, and parameters of processes that take place within them.

Though GST contains complexly differentiated concepts, practitioners make a fundamental distinction between “closed” and “open” systems. These two broad classes of systems operate quite differently. Equilibria in a closed and open system are maintained by different kinds of processes, and these systems react very differently to perturbations from the environment. In GST, a system is largely interpreted as a combination of its open or closed properties and then by the history of the processes occurring within it or affecting it from the outside.

This view is radically different from the particulate view of the world that has been central to much of Western thought until recently. No system oper­ates in isolation but is created and bounded by structures and processes linked to other neighboring systems. In GST, the units of analysis are systems, not individuals. Systems, not separate institutions, operate as wholes. Individuals operate within systems that create process environments that affect the out­comes of behavior in complex ways. The world is not a neat stratigraphic map beginning with inorganic matter, passing to organic matter, and then being transcended by sociocultural forces. Rather, the world is a complex, interacting array of systems and system processes, bumping into each other in a variety of ways. Social relationships and processes are impacted by the physical world as the physical world is transformed by social activity. The only hope of under­standing any particular thing is by placing it in the appropriate system context and following the processes by which it acts. This is what Senge ( 1990) argues for as the “fifth discipline”—the ability to understand how elements and sub­systems interact, forming a total situation.

GST has been applied to the ancient riddle of explaining the relationship between inorganic matter and organic matter and the evolution of life. Here the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy ( 1966, 1968) has been fundamental. In applying these perspectives to social systems, a variety of theories of interna­tional conflict (Rapoport, 1974) and a whole tradition in the analysis of orga­nizational behavior (see Argyris, 1985; Argyris & SchOn, 1996; Flood & Romm, 1996) have been built around these notions. Finally, the pathbreaking work of Gregory Bateson (1979) on the relationship between mind and nature relies on this approach. Bateson persuasively shows that the nature-culture problem is radically transformed when we understand the relationship as an expression of processes found everywhere in nature. For Bateson, the mind is part of nature and necessarily works according to a set of organizational processes found in nature but combined in particular ways in mental activity. Thus, mind is both fully part of nature and unique as a system.

^thy is GST relevant to AR? To begin with, the GST account of the world is at odds with much of what is currently called “social science.” Conventional social science is still largely conceptualized in terms of a stratigraphic, particulate world, based on images of social facts that stand on their own. In particular, the recent surge in rational choice theories as some kind of“philosopher’s stone” for social science shows how reductive to radical individualism and free market ide­ologies much mainstream social science has become (Elster, 1986; Scott, 1995). Thus, GST is a profound critique of this view and, therefore, of the scientific pretensions of conventional social researchers who are connected to it.

More important, the systems approach necessarily underlies AR in al its manifestations. Both rely heavily on an interconnected and holistic view of the world. Humans are understood to exist only within social systems, and these systems have properties and processes that condition human behavior and are in turn conditioned by that behavior. Social systems are not mere structures, but are processes in continual motion. They are dynamic and historical. They oper­ate within material boundaries and are capable of transforming material living conditions. They are also interlinked, entwining the individual social structures and the larger ecology of systems into complex interacting macro-systems.

The relevance of GST to AR can be seen because AR is understood as an effort to transform society into ever more open systems, and also because GST identifies the relationships among the parts of a system as critical elements in the way a system as a whole operates. Indeed, some AR practitioners specifi­cally equate increased openness with democratization (Flood & Romm, 1996). So, one thread leading in the direction of or supporting the development of AR is GST. Another is the considerably broader philosophical movements of pragmatism and neopragmatism.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

One thought on “General Systems Theory

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