General Systems Theory: Origin, Concepts and Development

Origin of Systems Analysis and Development:

It is not at all difficult to trace the origin of general systems analysis which evoked a good deal of interest and enthusiasm in the minds of large number of political scientists. The chief cause of the emergence of general systems analysis is the wide­spread discontent against the traditional system of political analysis which mainly focused its attention on law, constitution, enactment of legislation, the application of law, the main functions of the three main branches of government and this over­emphasis ultimately resulted in the negligence of the overall responsibility and crucial role of state in the entire milieu of social framework.

It was believed that the social, economic and political activities of men constitute a process and the society as a whole is made up of a series of processes. One type of function cannot be separated from another since they are all interlinked. The traditional way of emphasising the institution was found to neglect this aspect of human behaviour and social character.

In the traditional analysis of earlier epochs there was no place of any compre­hensive investigation of political systems of different countries. This was felt essential during the mid-fifties of the last century. Davies and Lewis are of opinion {Models of Political Systems) that only a proper comparison among various systems can provide a basis for broad-based analysis.

Traditional political scientists did not treat political science in that light and this created a spectacular shortcoming in the entire analytical system of political science and after the Second World War (1939-45) some dedicated students of political science came forward to rectify the incomplete approach to the study of political science.

This opened the way of a new system of analysis commonly known as comparative study of politics. The pioneer of this new approach, among others, is Gabriel Almond. It was felt that only a comparative analysis is free from narrowness in outlook. A down to earth analysis of politics must encompass all its aspects and not alone institutions, parties and the organisations.

Davies and Lewis have observed that four “practical considerations” provided powerful impetus to the emergence of general systems theory. After the S. W. W. it was found that democracy (in Western sense) could not function properly and satisfactorily in some countries of Europe and prominent among them was Germany. The same also failed in Italy. It was felt that this situation was required to be explained. But the traditional method of analysing political phenomena was incapable of explaining it.

In the second place, the traditional political science dealt with the state systems of Europe which fell mainly in the category of democracy and its variants. But after the S. W. W. the colonies of European imperial powers began to achieve political independence and in many cases their political structures and administration provided ample scope for studying political science.

But the traditional method of political science proved quite inadequate and political scientists of the new age went out in search of new methods. The political systems of Britain, France, America, Switzerland proved in one way or other unsuitability for the social, political and economic conditions of the newly independent countries of Europe.

The political scientists of the post-S. W. W. period ardently desired to enter into the depth. This urge was so indomitable that some political scientists founded a new approach to the study, of politics.

In the third place, top ranking researchers and many serious students of political science were determined to construct a scientific foundation for the study of political science so that a theoretical analysis of the political, social and economic institutions of Asia and Africa could be done successfully. In a word, the researchers were eager to form an all-embracing model for analysis of political science.

Finally, towards the end of nineteenth century and in the first few decades of the twentieth century, Marxism and at the same time Marxian study posed a serious threat to liberal political system and the orthodox exponents of liberalism were determined not to pass Marxism unscathed. They decided to counteract Marxism academically and without a new approach and scientific method this could not be performed. This provided a powerful impetus for finding out a new approach to the study of political science.

Impact of Anthropological and Sociological Studies:

Two anthropological studies made by Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and sociological study of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) created a tremendous impact upon the analysis of political science. The anthropo­logical and sociological studies greatly emphasise that the study of society and that of the state cannot be separated from each other. These studies have also pointed out that any society as well as the state must be viewed in their totality.

One aspect of state and society is not different from another aspect. After studying social development Comte arrived at the conclusion that the form of society and the various stages of its development have influenced the functioning and structure of state. Naturally a study of state cannot be done in complete isolation; Comte said that politics and state could not be studied by applying traditional methods of analysis since they were partial in their approach. Naturally a general system approach was necessary.

Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown thought that all the parts of the society are closely connected and these parts could not be separated. This they have called the organismic character of society. The state also possesses the same character. Their opinion runs as follows. Only a general system approach can provide us with a fruitful way of studying political science.

Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown have also demon­strated that the functions of each part of society and of the state are closely linked with each other and these in their turn influence the state and society in their totality. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown have designated it as functionalism. In summary the general system approach stresses the notion that all the parts and aspects of society are linked and a comprehensive approach can reveal true nature of politics.

It is thus obvious that Comte, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown all were seriously concerned with the integration and solidarity of society and state. Society and state are structured in such a way that their functions always contribute to the solidarity and maintenance.

If there were no effective and powerful co-ordination, integrative nature of state or society could survive. French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858- 1914) also drew our attention to the integrative nature of society and state.

All the anthropologists and sociologists have concluded that the functions of the various parts of society and state are performed in such a manner that each function of each part helps in number of ways the functions of other parts. In this process state and society progress. There are also conflicts and these are resolved by the parts of society and state. The parts function keeping the conflict in mind.

Any analysis of the impact of sociology upon the general systems theory will remain incomplete without any mention of Talcott Parsons who has brought about a revolution in the sociological thought system and its relation to the study of politics. His famous work The Social System was published in 1951. He has said that the study of politics cannot be treated in terms of a specifically specialised conceptual scheme. Precisely for the reason that political problems of social system is a focus for integration of all its analytically distinguished components, not of a specially differentiated class of these components.

In The Social System Parsons makes an effort to develop a conceptual scheme that will reflect the systemic interconnectedness of social systems. He further maintains that in the social system there are several actors and among them there are interactions and these interactions are ultimately institutionalised.

Parsons asserts that the interactions and the institutionalisation show the inter-relationship among actors and the inter­connectedness among the various parts of society. How can a social system be explained? A social system, observes Parsons, must have a “Sufficient proportion of its component actors adequately motivated to act in accordance with the requirements of its role system.”

Bagehot and Wallas:

The works of two Englishmen, whose works influenced the General Systems Theory, are Sir Walter Bagehot and Graham Wallas. Bagehot’s famous work The English Constitution, published in 1865 (more particularly end of 1865 and beginning of 1866), contained the ideas, in embryonic form, of the General Systems Theory. What Bagehot said in this book is that the social conditions, which prevailed in Britain during the nineteenth century, influenced the formation of various political institutions. Side by side there were also unseen processes and influences that guided the activities of people—both general and in power.

Sometimes these influences and processes were unavoidable. He has further said that both the political institutions and invisible process and behaviour provided devices for all sorts of security and stability in the arena of politics. Bagehot makes the following observation: “There is a great difficulty in the way of a writer who attempts to sketch a living constitution- constitution that is in actual work and power. The difficulty is the object is in constant change”.

The point is social factors have positive influence upon the political institutions and processes. But they always fluctuate and the fluctuation is unpredictable. From this observation made by Bagehot the political scientists of the second-half of the 20th century have deduced the General Systems Theory.

Graham Wallas’ Human Nature in Politics, published in 1908, may be cited as another example. This book laid the foundation of socio-psychological aspects of political science and this in turn made quite easy the advent of General Systems Theory, Wallas has said that man’s thoughts and ideas are not always influenced by rationality and enlightenment but by social and other factors upon which he has hardly any control. We can thus conclude that human behaviour and sociological factors have positive influences upon the political institutions and organisations.

We can thus; following Wallas hold the view that what we call politics is, in ultimate analysis, a part of whole society. Needless to say that Wallas, attempt to view politics in the context of psychology created ripples in the academic circle and in the world of politics.

In conclusion it may be observed that on the cause of the rise of General Systems Theory and its development sociology and anthropology have positive parts. Walter Bagehot also had an important role to play. But the major part of credit should go to the former.

Some thinkers such as Davies and Lewis feel that the famous German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) devised a thought system for sociological studies and that provided a great clue for the preparation of a foundation of General System Theory. His theory or paradigm was chiefly meant for sociology but it indirectly helped political science in general and General Systems Theory in particular. In fact, this theory is indebted to sociology.

Definitions of Allied Concepts:

The analysis of the General Systems Theory contains certain uses and concepts which are unknown in the traditional political analysis. One such concept is political system. An important definition is to be found in Almond and Coleman’s book. According to Almond “the political system is that system of interaction to be found in all independent societies which perform the functions of integration and adaptation (both internally vis-a-vis other societies) by means of employment or threat of employment, of more or less legitimate physical compulsion.

The political system is the legitimate order maintaining and transforming system in the society”. In another well known book Almond has elaborated the term political system in the following way. “Political systems”, according to Almond are “a particular type of social system—namely one involved in the making of authoritative public decision….. Political system is a set of institutions such as parliaments, bureaucracies and courts that formulate and implement the collective goals of society or groups within it”.

In any society there are numerous institutions and all of them are in one way or other involved in relations and interactions. All these combinedly constitute the political system. From these two definitions we come to know that political system consists of many subsystems which are intrinsically related with each other.

In the opinion of Robert Dahl—political system is a “persistent pattern of human relationship that involves, to a significant extent, control, influences, power or authority”. Associations consist of different types of persons having different professions and occupations and in spite of this all the individuals are members of the association.

Now the association deals with various activities including political. Robert Dahl says that a political system is only a part of association. A political system is concerned with parliament, judiciary and bureaucracy. An association has also other aspects which do not enter into the political system.

Defining political system, Easton makes the following observation: Political system is empirical or concrete. He elaborates this in the following words—”all those kinds of activities involved in the formulation and execution of social policy, in what has come to be called elliptically in political science, the policy making process, constitute the political system.” Easton has offered us two concepts simultaneously.

One is political science and the other is political system. Social policies are adopted and then implemented. It is the responsibility of the political system to adopt and implement the policies. But the implementation of policies is not an automatic process, there is deliberate attempt behind the implementation and this again involves authority.

We shall now turn to a brief analysis of System. Oxford Concise Dictionary defines system as a complex whole or set of things working together as a mechanism or inter-connecting network. Hence a system consists of several parts and they are connected with each other. This makes the parts interdependent of each other. The interdependence or relationship among the parts is complex.

The system consisting of several parts works like a machine. The core idea about system is interconnectedness. If the interconnectedness is lost the system will have no meaning. The concept of interdependence of different parts of political system is derived from other sciences and even from sociology. This aspect is very important.

The term system is generally related with biology in which the concept is seriously used. A human being or an animal body consists of a large number of parts and all of them work combinedly. If one part of the organic body fails to discharge its allotted function that will considerably disturb the functions of other parts.

The noted biologist Ludwig Bertallanfy is of opinion that every organism represents a system by which term we mean complex of elements in mutual interaction. Each part and each individual event depends not only on conditions within itself but also to a greater or lesser extent or conditions within the whole.

We have already mentioned that a part of the organic body cannot work independently upon others. The interdepen­dence is of prime importance. Though the system analysis is compared with human or animal body, the comparison should not be stretched too far. Comparison works within limitation.

General systems theory presents a general ‘theory’ for all the systems. It has developed a set of most abstract generalisations applicable to all systems. For this avowed purpose, the general system theorists try to develop concepts which tend to unify or interconnect various disciplines. They remain in search of highly abstract concepts relevant to all kinds of systems. They feel a need for having a solid foundation in general and abstract theory. For this purpose, they propose broad conceptual guidelines.

Such conceptual framework is likely to reduce:

(i) The rigid compartmentalisation of disciplines,

(ii) Duplication of efforts, and

(iii) Inefficiency due to lack of cross-disciplinary approach.

General systems theory aims at meaningful integration of all knowledge. Its goal is unification of sciences and scientific analysis. The movement in this direction was started in 1920 by Ludwig von Bertallanfy, but it could flourish only after the Second World War.

In moved from Biology to Physics, to Physical Chemistry, to Ecology and then Social Sciences, W.R. Ashby (Design for a Brain, 1952; and An Introduction to Cybernetics, 1956) represents this trend. In 1956, the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Research was constituted which published its year-book regularly. Social sciences took up this perspective through Parsons (1951-58), Homans (1950), Roethlisberger, Dickson, etc.

Scholars, thus, began to looking for the concepts lending unity to studies undertaken in a variety of disciplines. Insights and theoretical contributions from various disciplines were made profusely available. All this was done around the concept of ‘system’.

It is a departure from describing structures composed of units, parts and static conception of equilibrium based on mechanistic assumptions. Its basic principle is organismics with an attitude of ‘open system’. According to Quincy Wright, in a prime sense, it is ‘a way of thinking having the proportion of a world view’. An open system continually exchanges ‘mate­rials’ in its local environment and also with systems range of which is set, presumably, by organisational conditions. Each of these social systems has its own unique non-material characteristics, but all conform to the under­lying character of living open systems.

The emphasis of General Systems Theory is more on uniformities underlying their principles of functioning and processes and less on struc­tural similarities. It is in search of fundamental and highly orienting concepts relevant to all kinds of systems. It seeks isomorphism e.g. one-to-one correspondence between objects in different systems. This theory is closely connected with the Systems Theory/Approach, and can be considered a concrete, logical and methodological expression of its principles and methods.

Some of the principles or limits of General Systems Theory are:

(a) Organismic concepts as against atomistic and isolable concepts;

(b) Components of the open systems are maintained constantly by exchanges in the environment;

(c) Components lower in the hierarchy of organisation enter and leave the general system;

(d) There is dynamism, e.g., within the limits of its organisation, it tends to maintain itself and does not stick to any specific state of equilibrium. It can be viewed as a steady state;

(e) Without any direction from above, its members eliminate disruptions, and try to restore order. This is an inherent, dynamic and unending tendency;

(f) Its innate order is augmented by many other auxiliary components and resources, as part of homeostasis or feedback; and

(g) Its final outcomes are not determined by initial conditions but by condi­tions of outflow and inflow over a period of time, called, ‘equifinality’ or adaptive dynamism.

Its assumption is: the more highly elaborated the system and the more complex its transactions are, the greater is its adjustive ‘power’. Every system – a tribe, a nation or a regional organisation or world system avoids ‘entropy’, death or decay.

The General Systems Theory can also be viewed either as ‘one general systems theory’ or as ‘general theory of systems’. The former is a broad conceptual category, perspective or orientation, seen as a hierarchy of systems and subsystems. The latter is an empirical theory applicable to all systems – common elements and processes found in independent and autonomous systems.

Main Concepts:

‘System’ is the central and guiding concept of this theory. Other concepts relate to (a) description of system, (b) regulation and maintenance of that system, (c) changes occurring in the system, and (d) anomic and radical changes. The main thesis of this theory is to put all disciplines on some fundamental, uniform, and universal basis.

Systems studied by various disciplines may be different in terms of size, time, volume, material etc., but can be similar from the view of their fundamental structure and processes. If basic uniformities found in various systems are discovered, a general theory of systems can come out. But this perspective does not stop with surface or apparent uniformity or analogous appearance. It looks for more than homology rather isomorphism.

Its emphasis is more on uniformity under­lying their principles of functioning and processes, and less on structural similarities. Therefore, general systems theorists explain the concept of ‘system’ at a higher level of abstraction. A system, according to Bertallanfy is ‘a set of elements standing in interaction’. A. Hall and R. Fagen defined it as ‘a set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes’. Colin Cherry found it ‘as a whole which is compounded of many parts – an ensemble of attributes’.

Others find it as ‘a group of objects or elements stemming in some characteristic structural relationships to one another and interacting on the basis of certain charac­teristic processes’. For Easton it is ‘a set of interactions’. There are many other definitions.

These definitions involve two things:

(i) The idea of a group of objects or elements standing in some specific structural relationship, and

(ii) These objects or elements interacting on the basis of certain characteristic processes.

There are two approaches available from the viewpoint of empirical operationality of this generic concept. The first emphasises operationality of the ‘system’. It would make use of the concept ‘system’ only when there are some empirical elements visible to the scholar; when those elements are inter-related in an important manner and the level of interrelatedness is sufficiently high. Such a system (1) should be observable in the context of time and place, (2) it should have its existence recognised by many disci­plines, and (3) its structures and processes should undergo change over a period of time. One must keep analytic and physical systems separate and look into interdependence of their objects and elements.’

The second approach makes use of the concept of ‘system’ for constructivist and heuristic purposes, for data-gathering and analysis. David Easton, in his A Framework for Political Analysis (1965), adopts this perspective. Such scholars decide about the existence of a particular system only at the end of their research. They regard the first approach as unattainable, even false. At the initial stage, ‘system’ is a guiding and directing tool of inquiry. Its reality or existence can be accepted only after verification and reaching certain empirical conclusions.

However, the main emphasis of the general systems theory is on the use of abstract concepts relevant to all systems. It moves around the concepts of isomorphism and interlocking systems. Isomorphism connotes one-to-one correspondence between the systems regarding the relationships existing among their objects.

Interlocking system relates to correspondences across systems, and involves the existence of a subset of a broader system. Subsets of a broader system can be similar to one or more additional systems. There can be some basic similarities in the governing principles or processes of systems. Through these concepts all systems become interconnected: smaller subsystems look parts of a general system.

Other Concepts:

Oran R. Young has divided these concepts into four major groups:

1. Descriptive concepts:

These concepts are used in classifying large collection of data and giving the outline of the basic structure processes of various types of systems. On the basis of their subject matter, various sub-categories are suggested, such as,

(i) Concept that separate different kinds of system, such as, open and closed systems, or organismic and non-organismic systems;

(ii) Concepts concerning hierarchical levels, such as, subsystem, orders of interaction, and scale effects;

(iii) Concepts dealing with internal aspects of the systems, such as, integration, differentiation, interdependence, and centralisation;

(iv) Concepts relating to the interaction of systems with their environment, such as, boundaries, inputs, and outputs, and

(v) Concepts dealing with the various paths which the system may be following over time, such as, state-determinedness, equifinality, etc.

2. Concepts relating to regulation and maintenance:

They relate to the notions of stability, equilibrium and homeostasis. Others concern processes, such as, feedback, repair, reproduction, and entropy. In sum, these concepts connote the ways and means by which systems maintain and regulate their identity over a period of time.

3. Concepts pertaining to non-disruptive change:

They deal with the dynamics of systems. Change occurs either through internally generated processes or through responses to altered environmental conditions. These concepts include adaptation, learning, growth, and reversible or irreversible developments.

4. Concepts pertaining to disruptive change:

These relate to the phenomena of disruption, dissolution, and breakdown. Other relevant notions are crisis, stress, strain, overload and decay. All these concepts make up the body of the general systems theory, and can form the basis of studying each and every type of system – micro or macro. With the unifying umbrella concept of ‘system’, it can analyse all internal, external, regulating, and changing aspects of a concrete or an abstract system. That system can be either UNO or a political party or a club.

As a theory, it is an integrated and generalised set of concepts, hypotheses, and validated propositions (if any). From this viewpoint, it consists of an integrated set of high level principles dealing with all significant elements of a system often pertaining to many disciplines. Greater the number of systems and disciplines involved in it, greater will be the advancement toward its goal.

The second approach, finds system as an apparatus or a set of techniques and a framework of a systematic process of empirical analysis. In place of specific principles and propositions of the theory, the interest is in the framework for analysing and organising data. Its utility lies in the usefulness of the framework for research purposes. There is no interest here in it as a theory; it is an analytic framework more in line with the scientific method. Easton has used it as a framework.

Political System and Environment:

In general system theory environment forms a basic part because in the entire environment there are several systems and sub-systems. In one way or other the sub­systems are interconnected and this interconnection does not depend upon the behaviour of any particular person. Niklas Luhmann is a well-known sociologist. He says that social system is a broad concept and political system is a part of the social system.

As the individuals are interrelated with each other they, in a general way, through their relationship, build up a social system. But social system is limited and is a part of the environment. “All social systems exist in multidimensional environ­ments, which pose potentially endless complexity with which a system must deal.” Thus the chain of relation is quite obvious. Political system, social system and environment all are interconnected. All are connected by a communication network.

The information or idea of a system or sub-system is communicated to another system or sub-system and the latter reacts and the reaction is again communicated to the former or to any other sub-system or any part of the social system. Naturally, the concepts of environment appear in our idea.

Davies and Lewis say that the concepts of system and sub-system invite the entry of environment because sub-system is a part of a larger system. The sub-system may have its separate existence but it cannot remain outside the larger system. Every sub­system and system must have its boundary. But the boundary of a system or sub­system is not fixed, it may change. This makes us to think about environment.

According to Davies and Lewis: “The environment of an object is constituted by anything that surrounds that object”. A political system may be a separate system but it is not detached from other aspects of social system. That is, a political system is a part of environment of society. In any society there are political, economic, cultural and other systems. Naturally political system is never capable of determining everything of society. There are also biological systems and sometimes they influence political system.


From the above analysis we can reasonably frame a view that political system is an open system. Open in the sense that it is influenced by other systems as well as other systems also influence political system. A system analysis is not concerned with individuals as such but with their roles because an individual plays different roles and system analysis or political system mainly deals with the political role of the individuals. Mainly because sometimes political scientists consider the other roles of individuals.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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