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.
‘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.
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.