The basic unit of Easton’s system analysis is ‘interaction’. Interaction is generated from the behaviour of the members of the system when they play their role as such. When these myriad interactions, in the perception of the scholar, become a ‘set of interrelations’, they are considered as a ‘system’. Easton’s subject matter of analysis is only the set of political interactions.
There are four major premises or broader concepts of his flow-model or input-output analysis:
(iii) Response; and
In the analysis of politics, one has to make use of these concepts.
His system is a ‘political system’, the basic unit of analysis. It is a ‘system of interactions in any society through which binding or authoritative allocations are made and implemented.’ Easton is interested in studying political life which is seen as a system of behaviour operating within and responding to its social environment while making binding allocations of values. The making of binding and authoritative decisions distinguishes the political system from other systems (existing both within and outside the overall society) that form the environment of that political system.
Within this political system, there are many political groups and organisations, called para-political systems. But he is more concerned with ‘political system’ standing as the most inclusive unit of political life. Political system, as such, is found everywhere. It is the inclusive whole of all political interactions. Easton analyses the nature, conditions, and life processes of political life operating in form of an analytic system.
By adopting the concept of ‘system’, Easton has free Political Science from its traditional, legalistic, institutional, and formal moorings, and proposes to view it as it really is. This ‘system’ is made of interactions of those persons who take part in public life, and are related with making and implementing of public policies.
Easton is not satisfied to see ‘political activity’ merely as ‘direction of man by man’ (de Jouvenel), or as ‘relating to control or will’ (Catlin), or ‘relation between influencer and the influenced’ (Lasswell). It is also not adequate to see politics related to authority, power, government and rule (Dahl). His concept of system is more inclusive.
In a sense, his concept of ‘system’ is integrative involving values, culture, authority, governance, implementation, participation, process, etc. ‘System’ is a very wide term, which includes all forms of formal and informal processes, interactions, functions, structures, values, behaviour, etc. The political system allocates values for the whole society and its decisions stand obligatory. A ‘system’, thus, can be any set of variables, whatever be the form or intensity of interactions or interrelationship operating among them. A political system is a subsystem of the societal system, but it has a binding power of its own. Even within a political system, there are many subsystems.
Easton’s political system is both open and adaptive. Exchanges take place between a political system and its environment which is made of many systems and their subsystems, including even para-political systems. All these, and other various events and influences make up the conditions under which members of a political system act and react.
The latter can find these as favourable or obstructive to its survival. As such, it must have the capacity to face those obstructions, and adapt itself to those conditions. Most often, a political system has a trait or capacity to adapt itself to changing environment. Political systems contrive mechanisms to regulate their own moves, transform internal structures, and even reformulate goals.
A political system, like any other system, has boundaries. These boundaries relate to the formation of political interactions and go on changing. The political system, somehow, tends to maintain its systemic boundaries, and boundary conditions. In other words, it has to carefully look after and protect its life-processes or capacity to respond effectively to external environment or internal influences. It has to operate as an effective transforming process. In case, it is unable to maintain its boundaries, it may lose its identity, even merge into other systems.
It may be reiterated that Eastonian framework of systems theory is conceptual and analytical. His ‘political system’ is born of concepts, and is conceptual or ‘constructivist’, used as a set of variables selected for description, explanation, and research. It is different from, and not, a concrete or natural system. An actual, concrete or natural system, also called as membership-system, consists of human beings or actual individuals. Easton’s analytic system is made of abstractions that focus selected elements of human behaviour.
His system, thus, is a set of particular interactions, which is related to allocation of values that are binding for society and their implementation, within that membership or concrete system, called society. Binding nature of the set of interactions is another quality separating political system from other systems. This abstract analytic system interacts with its environment, converting its inputs into outputs through processes or within puts, and feedback as shown in the following diagram:
Easton’s political system is a complex set of certain processes or interactions which transforms particular inputs into outputs of authoritative policies, decisions, and implementation. This conversion takes place in some environment. As an open system, it must have the resilience to respond to that environment, facing all obstacles, and adjusting itself to conditions.
Only by doing so, it can survive or exist over a period of time.
Analytically, environment can be of two types:
(i) Extra-societal, and
As given in the Diagram above extra-societal environment involves international political systems, like various political systems, alliances, UNO, etc.; international ecological systems; and, international social systems, as cultural, socio-structural, economic, demographic, and other systems. Intra-societal systems include ecological, biological, personality-oriented, social, cultural, socio-structural, and demographic systems operating within the political system.
Conflicts, strains, and changes emerging out of environment can prove functional or dysfunctional to that political system. Therefore, the latter should have, for its survival, persistent capability to respond to that environment. Easton rightly puts more emphasis on the capacity of the system to cope with the environment. Countries of the Third World can find a lot of useful material in Easton’s concept of ‘environment’, and required ‘capacity’ to deal with it.
Easton has pointed out that system theorists have spoken a lot on the first two concepts – ‘system’ and ‘environment’. As regards the third and fourth concepts of ‘response’ and ‘feedback’, he can be said to have made his own contribution to systems theory. In fact, the latter concepts, instead of being singular ones, are clusters of many concepts. So is the case with the first two concepts also.
A political system has to respond to its environment in coping with crises, stresses, and other difficulties. It has also to perform, on its own, some other functions, such as, maintaining order in the society and to uphold its own form and identity amid ever-changing environment. All of them have been put under the generic concept of ‘response’.
Specifically, the political system has to perform three main categories of functions:
(a) Allocation of values for society,
(b) To motivate its members to accept the allocations as binding, and
(c) To cope with stress and challenges coming to the system.
The first two are essential parts of political life. Without them neither can the political system exist nor the society survive without the political system as such. Easton gives the central place to ‘systemic persistence’ which usually remains under ‘stress’ for several factors. The system has to look into the sources of stress and modes or processes of regulating stress. A political system is a set of interacting essential variables which fluctuate within a certain limit or range. It cannot go beyond its ‘critical range’. The system is considered under ‘stress’, if the essential variables push it to cross over the critical range.
The system tries to remain within critical range, but at times, it is compelled to go beyond. For its survival and persistence, it has to respond in many ways – at the level of demands or support, or at output or feedback levels. The political system collapses in case it is unable to cope with coming stresses and crises Therefore, it is always necessary constantly to evaluate the nature of stresses, capacity of the system to cope with, and the means and methods to do so.
The political system is driven by:
(a) ‘Demands’ and challenges made on it, and
(b) ‘Support’, it gets from its members.
It meets the challenge of demands with the help of supports, but it can manipulate and regulate both. It receives them in form of ‘inputs’ from its environment, the society at large. These inputs are converted into ‘outputs’, but the system also keeps a watch over effects and consequences of its outputs through ‘feedback’, which helps it constantly to modify its inputs as well as outputs. Easton’s political system, in a way, is a conversion process in which inputs are transformed into outputs, helped and guided by feedback.
All the systemic responses are broadly divided into two categories:
(a) Inputs, and
Inputs are responses entering into the system.
They consist of:
(1) Demands, and
Demands put strain or stress on the system, whereas support provides energy to sustain it. Though the two are of different nature, still they make up one category of ‘inputs’ to be converted into ‘outputs’ through within-puts or the conversion process. Easton does not discuss the nature or form of within-puts. The political system receives both demands and supports from society or environment. It is driven by demands, and sustained by supports.
Demand is ‘an expression of opinion that an authoritative allocation with regard to a particular subject matter should or should not be made by those responsible for doing so’. It can take the form of stress, effects, demands, agitations, crises etc. all coming from environment. They all intend to influence, move, modify, or change the political system, and can be undifferentiated wants, articulated recognizable demands, or specific issues. Mostly, they are of collective or public nature. Demands are, after their determination, satisfied through ‘allocation of values’.
Demands can take several forms, such as, provision for certain things, services, and conveniences; regulating public behaviour; participating in the political system, for making symbolic expressions, etc. A system may not be in a position to convert all demands into outputs. It looks into quantity, nature of contents, source, kind, volume, intensity, etc. Only a few demands reach the output stage. Excessive demands put stress over the system, and cause ‘overload’. Overload may ‘be due to the volume, intensity, velocity, urgency, and contents of the demand.
In order to deal with the problem of overload or excessive demands, the political system can make use of several ‘regulatory mechanisms’:
(i) Structural mechanism:
It is located at the boundary of the system and regulates the flow of articulation of demands. Unimportant demands are scrutinised and regulated by and through various gate-keeping roles. They may not even be allowed to enter the system.
(ii) Cultural mechanism:
On the basis of prevailing socio-cultural norms, certain demands can be designated as incompatible with them, thus, lessened in considerable manner, if not rejected altogether. Sometimes they become the basis or constraints of political demands.
(iii) Communication channels:
Through the use of TV, radio, correspondence, press, etc. demands may be strengthened or weakened or diluted to a considerable extent.
(iv) Reduction processes:
Demands may be reduced to a limited number through a process-selection, scrutiny, grouping, etc. Some criteria, general or restricted, may be added to it.
A political system also receives support from its environment. After subtracting demands from inputs, we get supports which operate between the system and its environment. They are positive responses towards specific objects or level of a political system. Support can be towards (a) the political community which means the acceptance of political division of labour; (b) the regime which embodies basic values, political structures, and norms underlying the political system; and (c) the political authorities or persons holding power in the given context. Support can be given at some particular or all levels.
Support to political community reflects paying regard to the general form and arrangement of power in the society, and acceptance of the demarcation between the political and non-political. Support to a regime broadly means legitimacy of the system, its constitutionality, basic structure, and inherent values. The last level invokes holding of respect, loyalty, and obedience to the particular persons wielding political authority. It includes administrators and officials.
The support can be rendered in many ways – by paying taxes, obedience to law, participation in the form of voting, discussion, comments, and constructive suggestions, or deference towards public authorities. The form and style of expressing support can be overt or covert, positive or negative, diffuse or specific, and so on. Often the political system obtains support by and through allocation values and implementation thereof, manipulation of outputs, socialisation, and other political means.
Without support at a certain minimum level, no political system can persist. There can be many causes of failure, as is the case with some Third World countries for not getting support from their populace, such as inadequate use of regulatory mechanism, non-generation of support, and neglect of outputs.
Outputs are the decisions and actions of the authorities. They produce effects and consequences which have direct relation with the members’ attitude and behaviour for the system. Easton calls them as ‘authoritative allocation of values’, ‘binding decisions and actions’, or ‘exchange between the system and its environment’. Output is turnout or production made by the political authorities. It is the flow of those responses which go from the system to environment.
Outputs are converted inputs or finished goods prepared from the raw material of inputs. Even the political authorities themselves can also take initiative in the making of outputs. They are the results of the transformation process of the political system.
Outputs reveal many forms – realisation of taxes, regulation of public behaviour and conduct, distribution of honours, goods, and services, allocation of values, display of symbolic outputs, etc. They are reflected in verbal or written statements from the authorities as well as concrete actions. They can be the effects or results of immediately authorised decisions.
If they relate to decisions taken in distant past, they would be called as ‘outcome’. In case they are not binding, they would be named as co-outputs. Outputs can be inter or intra systemic. In all cases, they release support-stress. They can be regarded as a primary source to get specific support, but a satisfactory flow of output over a period of time tends to produce all-out or diffuse support.
Outputs have several aspects – economic, social, cultural, political, etc. From the viewpoint of political system, political aspects of the outputs are more important. They influence the broader society or environment, and also determine the need and form of each succeeding round of inputs. Even the form, need, and quality of support depends on it.
‘Feedback’ is another important concept in Easton’s systems theory. Capacity of a political system to persist over time depends on feedback. It is a dynamic process through which information about the outputs and the environment is communicated to the system which may result in subsequent change or modification of the system. Information about demands and supports may enter the system as inputs in usual manner.
When information relating to converted inputs, or outputs comes in, then there is a kind of re-communication of information, or re-inputation of inputs already converted into outputs. By doing so, the political system gets an opportunity to modify or transform its behaviour conducive to that feedback. In this manner, it can make it more effective or persist in a better way. In the absence of feedback, it is likely to operate in the usual unresponsive manner, and lose support.
Information about environment reaching as inputs in usual manner may enter the system too late. It may reach there in a distorted form, as it happened with Indira Gandhi Government (1977) and the Shah of Iran (1979)- ‘Loop’ means a curve that rejoins the main line farther on. ‘Feedback Loop’ connotes a process wherein information is obtained; actions, reactions or responses are made on it; then to see the result, and re-collect the same; and, to be benefited by it to achieve the goal.
It includes the arrangement and linking of information channels for the aforesaid purpose. Feedback involves a continuity by linking of obtaining information, reacting, and knowing the effects further to improve upon Systems behaviour and responses. It is a ‘output-information-reinputation- recommunication-reoutputation’ process.
Feedback process, in this way, is concerned with input sequence, demands and support emerging out of environment, conversion processes, outputs, and feedback mechanisms. Feedback mechanisms carry effects and consequences of the outputs into the system again as inputs. They make the system dynamic, purposive, and goal-oriented. Interactions and their various forms within a system confront the problems of stress, maintenance, etc., by counter-balancing, by reducing, or by removal. But their interaction-circuits may remain incomplete or breakdown at any point, e.g., stoppage at the level of demands. A demand has to go along with the long conversion process.
Its shape, size and content may considerably change till it reaches the output-stage. Sometimes, the demand dies out by then completely. Similarly, information coming from the environment may not be considered as a ‘demand’ by the authorities. Ultimately, the latter have to decide whether some allocation of values should be made to meet that demand or not. But reaction or response to every such breakdown of the circuit has to be taken into consideration for further action and implementation by the system.
Easton presents the concept of ‘feedback loop’ as the basis of the capacity of the outputs to generate specific support. It connects the consequences of the outputs with the inflow of inputs: demands and supports. Thus, it establishes a circulatory relationship between inputs and outputs. There is all-round impact of this dynamic process – on support, stress, survival and persistence. It completes the political circuit through its input – conversion – output – feedback process. In a political system, several feedback processes operate at various levels. But Easton relates the feedback processes pertaining to the whole political system.
For analytical purposes, there are two forms of feedback:
(i) Negative feedback – it relates to the information regarding the system and the regulation of errors; and
(2) Goal-transforming feedback – it is concerned with the purposeful redirection of the system.
In all conditions, feedback is a regulatory demand of political systems. However, feedback itself can suffer from many pathologies, regarding accuracy, responsiveness, time-lag, etc. Several mistakes can take place in the process of communication. Even delayed information can cause great harm to the survival of a political system.
The feedback loop can be analysed from several angles. From the view of system-maintenance or gaining specific support, its operation can be divided into four stages:
(1) There are situations of feedback, which can come out of authorised direction, associate outputs, or outcomes. They all are part of the political system. But its estimation depends on its perception or observation.
(2) There are feedback-responses which can be in the form of satisfying the demands, or positive or negative support.
(3) In the third stage feedback-responses are communicated to the political authorities.
(4) In the last stage, after completion of the feedback-circuit the authorities deliberate, discuss, and arrive at certain decisions. Much depends on variables like responsiveness of authorities, time-lag, availability of information-resources for decision-making, etc. Here, resources of the system as a whole are involved. The feedback loop, in Easton’s input-output analysis, interlinks authorities and its members in a manner that the former may take steps soon after they get information through the feedback.