Systems Theory


Systems theory, at it’s origins, was proposed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (a biologist) in 1928. Until that point the scientific method had suggested that any system could be broken down into its component parts, and each piece could be analyzed on its own in a vacuum. These parts could then be placed in order to create the system which one was studying. Bertalanffy claimed this approach was wrong – his theory was that these components take on their meaning due to their place in the system, definition by context – they were defined by their meaning in relation to the rest of the system and could not accurately be studied alone.

The study of systems can follow two general approaches:

  1. A cross-sectional approach – with a focus on the  interactions that take place between two systems
  2. A developmental approach – with a focus on the changes in a system over time (or you know… the development of the system, hence the name)


There are 3 ways to understand subsystems:

  1. Holistic approach – examine the system as a complete functioning unit
  2. Functionalist approach – evaluate the role the subsystem fulfills in the larger system
  3. Reductionist approach – inverse of the functionalist approach – examines the subsystems within the system

Talcott Parsons, drawing on research from Norbert Weiner (the father of systems theory) among others, theorized a sociological systems theory. Suggesting that systems in society are related to either: 1) the internal environment of other social systems or 2) the external non-social environments (biological, cultural, etc. environments).

Through his research he developed that there are 4 distinctions in systems:

  • Adaptive systems: Those relying on an external reference and oriented toward the future (the economy, financial markets, advertising, etc.)
  • Goal Attainment systems: these systems have an internal orientation and a focus on the future (the political system in the United States, career path, etc.)
  • Integration systems: thirdly systems focused on integration of system elements or disparate systems (societal institutions, church groups, etc.)
  • Maintenance systems: systems that maintain long-term patterns (the military-industrail complex, etc.)

All of these systems are part of each other and create a massive venn diagram. You can’t silo a specific system into one of these classifications – it’s all in the definition and paradigm from which you approach the system you’re studying.

Open vs. Closed Systems

All systems have boundaries that isolate that system from its environment depending on the type of systems these can be closed boundaries or a loose concept of the edge of the system. A system is often influenced by its environment and in turn may be influenced it.

The system’s relationship with the environment is often used a point of definition. Systems, on a high level, are divided into two broad categories – open systems + closed systems. At the very base level – an open system interacts in some way with its environment while a closed system does not – it is closed to the environment. In social science there are obviously no systems that are absolutely closed – there is always some level of interactions with the environment. In mass communication systems that have a relatively limited set of interactions with their environments are often terms as closed systems. While those with a high level of interdependence with their environment are considered open systems.

Systems theory, as we know it today has two variants. I call them:

  • Scientific Systems Theory: Mainly used among biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians – these systems contain much more easily measurable systems that operate in the physical universe.
  • Societal Systems Theory: A way of looking at sociological research (via Parsons and Luhmann) as to make sense of social systems from the same viewpoint as biological systems – systems within systems, looking at the object/action/communication/person within the context of the system in which it operates.

Systems Theory Summary

On the most basic level as system can be diagrammed as follows:

Source: Principia Cybernetica Web

The deeper one goes into the theory-craft of it, the more complex layers can be added to the understanding of systems. But at their core systems theorists study the interaction of an input through a system to its output, anything influencing this that isn’t part of the system can either be termed “environment” or “noise” depending on the operational definition of the system.