World Complexity Science Academy

Systemic Approach in Sociology: Reflections on its Development, Current Status and Possibilities

Jiří Šubrt1,*
1Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague, CZ
*Corresponding author: Jiří Šubrt, email:

Article information:
Volume 1, issue 1, article number 9
Article first published online: May 15, 2020
Research Article


This article reflects on developments in the field of system theory, explains its origin, characterizes its history and considers the possibilities of further utilization. Development in this area is associated with the contributions and ideas of a number of personalities, including H. Spencer, L. Bertalanffy, N. Wiener, T. Parsons, N. Luhmann, and many others. The author describes the dominant ideas that have been applied in this area and considers the perspectives and goals to which this approach could currently be directed. He concludes that the main tasks of a systemic approach in sociology should be to analyze systemic processes at the macro-social level, especially those resulting from the specific cumulative effects that lead to certain latent phenomena.

Keywords: sociological theory; methodology; system; systemic approach; cybernetics; structure; function; self-reference;  differentiation; holism; complexity,  mikro/ makro- social reality.


The germs of sociological thinking existed even before sociology emerged as an autonomous scientific field. Both in its early and later stages, this type of thinking often developed under the influence of certain metaphors that served as a source of meaningful inspiration and acted as an important heuristic tool. Since the time of Aristotle, for example, we have come across the attributes of living organisms being projected onto the world and its various parts. This can also be observed in the approach taken to society, which has been interpreted as a living creature. In mediaeval thought, analogies were made between the individual components of society and various parts of the human body. As well as physical metaphors, in early literature we also find society being likened to a building, a city, or a castle. Later the metaphor of the machine also emerged.

At the end of the 19th century Herbert Spencer [1896] came up with a concept that gained influence, in which he linked the analogy between biological and social organisms to the idea of an evolutionary process in which these two types of organisms both become more and more internally differentiated and complex over time. The term organism was then replaced over the course of the 20th century with the term system. An instrumental role in this was played by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who was the first to describe biological organisms as open systems. He then gradually elaborated systems thinking into a general theory of systems, a theory that made it possible to view the biological body, a machine, or even society and its individual components as systems.

Analogically, sociology deals with the social structure by breaking down society (the system) into parts, which create an entity that is whole out of their reciprocal ties, connections, and interactions. The usual explanation for how these structures are formed is that it is through processes of differentiation (social differentiation in Herbert Spencer’s case, functional differentiation in the cases of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann, which occur as a result of a spontaneous process of evolution that occurs in similar (though not identical) ways in both nature and society. This type of explanation is typical for positivism in particular, but we also come across it in functionalism, the development of which is linked to positivism.

The early stages of functionalism tend to be associated with the ideas of August Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Emil Durkheim [1997 (1893)]. However, an instrumental role was played in the formation and spread of functionalism in the social sciences by British cultural anthropology and two of its most prominent figures, Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, whose theoretical approaches draw an analogy between social functions and human needs [Malinowski 1990 (1939): 5-7, Radcliffe-Brown 1990 (1935): 30]. Just as humans, if they are to survive, must ensure that certain needs are met, there are certain functions in society that must be executed and are essential if a society is to continue to exist, work well, and evolve; a function is understood here as the contribution of one part of a system to the maintenance of the system as a whole. Applying functionalist methodology thus involves examining the individual parts of a system (subsystems) from the perspective of their specific contributions (i.e. functions) to maintaining the whole. The emphasis here is on integrity and equilibrium.

Developing a systemic approach after World War II

It was in the 20th century, however, that use of the term ‘system’ truly took off with the development of a general systems theory, cybernetics, and mathematical modelling, all of which examine systems as complex, dynamic entities cybernetics. General systems theory, the origin of which is associated with the name of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, began developing in the 1930s, initially in the field of biology. Shortly after, however, it grew into a universal scientific concept and methodology that could be utilised not just in the natural sciences but also in those sciences that took humans and society as their focus. After the Second World War, there emerged references to social systems, this concept being primarily influenced by the sociology of Talcott Parsons [1966b (1951)]. Niklas Luhmann [1984] elaborated and developed the concept further and popularised it in many of his writings.[1]

The founder of general systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, was a biologist who specialised in physiology and was especially interested in the general characteristics of living organisms. At the start of his career, he attempted to develop a general theory of biological organisms, which he conceived of as organised entities. From that idea he then proceeded to envision each living organism as an open system – that is, a system that is in a constant process of exchange with its environment.

Bertalanffy gradually progressed from this viewpoint towards a more general goal, which was to create a general theory of systems [Bertalanffy 1984 (1968)]. A general theory of systems was first developed as a branch of mathematical logic and focused on deducting and formulating principles that apply to systems in general. The pages of the studies that Bertalanffy wrote on this subject are for this reason full of mathematical symbols, equations, and formulae. Conceived in this way, this subfield was supposed to become a kind of transdisciplinary super-concept that could serve as a theoretical and methodological starting point not just for biology but for a whole range of scientific fields – the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural sciences.

Bertalanffy’s concept of general systems theory was relatively well received in its day. It came to be invested with great hopes and expectations and many other researchers tried to build on it, the most famous of whom were Kenneth Ewart Boulding, who focused on economic and social development [Boulding 1969], and Russell L. Ackoff, who dealt with operational research [Churchman – Ackoff – Ackoff 1957] and systems theory’s applications in relation to state institutions and political objectives. In the 1960s there was widespread talk about the spread of systems thinking into the natural sciences/in science, and more than a few believed that the systems approach could become the foundation for a kind of re-unification of the sciences.

This interest was given a further boost by the popularity of another new discipline that was also born after the Second World War, and that was cybernetics, founded by the American mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener [1965 [1948); 1989 (1950)]. Cybernetics meant to be a science concerned with the principles behind the transmission and processing of information and especially then with the self-organisation and self-regulation of complex dynamic systems. The two disciplines – general systems theory and cybernetics – began to be viewed as compatible and capable of being employed together to solve a very broad field of scientific and practical problems (see, e.g., the study by William Ross Ashby [1952; 1956]).

The optimism and enthusiasm that initially accompanied the systems approach have cooled considerably today, but the systems approaches that were inspired by Bertalanffy’s ideas have not disappeared, and they still survive and continue to develop in various areas of scientific inquiry. An important successor to these ideas today is the theory of networks [Barabási 2016; Estrada – Knight 2015]. Other, similar approaches include concepts that work with the concepts of synergetics, entropy, and chaos.

The type of research referred to as network analysis has been developing in the United States since approximately the 1960s. It follows from a certain intellectual tradition that extends back to social psychology, sociometry (Jakob Moreno), and graph theory in mathematics. The analysis of social networks was popularised on a broad scale by Mark Granovetter in his study Getting a Job [Granovetter 1974].

As the theory of cooperative and coactive development, synergetics,  in reference to the pioneering ideas of German physicist Hermann Haaken [2004], deals with the issue of self-organisation or more specifically the creation, stability, and demise of organised temporal and spatial structures that emerge spontaneously, as a joint effect of synergy, or the interaction and reciprocal effects of the processes occurring within systems.

Theories of social entropy form part of efforts to apply the basic principles of thermodynamics to study the dynamics of social systems. This problem was addressed in the past in two different theories put forth by Michel Forsé [1989] and Kenneth Bailey [1990].

Chaos theory is a mathematical discipline that studies the behaviour of non-linear dynamic systems in which there occur phenomena that can be called turbulence (dynamics with the greatest complexity) and deterministic chaos (phenomena of this type are observed in the natural sciences, especially climatology, but also, for instance, in price activity in the stock market or in population dynamics). Deterministic chaos is in this light viewed not as the absence of order but as order marked by a very high degree of complexity.

The authorities that systems researchers look to today include mainly Ilya Prigorine, a scientist and philosopher who specialised in the problem of self-organisation and what are known as dissipative structures [Kondepudi – Prigogine 1998]; Austro-American physicist, mathematician, and cybernetician Heinz von Foerster [2002]; Anglo-American anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson [1979], who studied communication and learning; American philosopher and psychologist Ernst von Glasersfeld [1995], founder of radical constructivism; Chilean biologists and cognitive science experts Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela [1992]; Austro-American communications expert Paul Watzlawick [1984]; Hungarian philosopher of science and systems theorist Ervin Lázsló [1996]; French philosopher Edgar Morin [2008]; and British sociologist Johnn R. Urry  [2003].

There are also several international associations that are devoted to research in this area. Within the field of sociology, the primary association that warrants mentioning is the World Complexity Science Academy (WCSA), which has been headed for many years by Italian sociologist Andrea Pitasi, and which has produced a number of academic publications [Pitasi – Mancini 2012; Mancini – Angrisani 2014; Bonazzi – Di Simone2015; Fabó – Ferone – Chen; 2017; Narro – Folloni – Pitasi – Ruzzeddu 2017].

Outside the frame of these approaches to studying systems, for decades it has also been possible to encounter the term ‘system’ in the historical-sociological research of Immanuel Walerstein, who focuses on analysing the development of the global capitalist system. He published a four-volume work [Wallerstein 1974, 1980, 1989, 2011] inspired by Marxism and the dependency theory that emerged out of Marxism.

Conception of Niklas Luhmann

For the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), modern society is a society that is functionally differentiated. This means, besides other things, that it is made up of non-homogeneous but equivalent parts with relatively separate characters, referred to as societal subsystems (Teilsysteme, sub-systems, systems within systems). Luhmann nowhere gave any comprehensive list of these subsystems, although it is clear that their number exceeds at least a dozen. These include, in particular, economy, politics, law, army, science, art, religion, mass media, education, health, sports, family and intimate relationships.

Societal systems are self-referential, which means that, while consisting of elements, operations and structures, they refer to themselves. A prerequisite for this “self-reference” is the ability of the system to observe and describe itself, to provide self-evidence. In contradiction to Parsons’ concept of systems, which are open (in the form of Input / Output) to their surroundings, Luhmann [1984: 25, 1997: 92] emphasizes the self-reference of social systems, their self-referentiality and operative closure (selbstreferentiele Geschlossenheit, operative Geschlossenheit); he moves the focus of his reflections from  open to operationally closed systems. Self-referential closure, however, cannot be considered a form of solipsism or autism. Even though systems in their construction and reproduction are closed, it does not mean that they cannot and do not create contact with their environment; on the contrary, without these contacts, the dynamics of operationally closed systems would come to an end.

First of all, it is important that each system belongs only to its own functional specialization in a specific area of action; what take place in it (economic behaviour is something other than religion or intimate relations, etc.; to each of these types of behaviour a different significance is attributed and another goal is followed). Each subsystem contributes, due to its functional specialization, in a different way to the reproduction of society. Despite their heterogeneity, subsystems are equivalent because they are all necessary for this reproduction. It can even be said that they are irreplaceable if society is to retain its character.

The mutual unity of these subsystems is formed by relationships based on a combination of their functional closure and their openness towards the environment. This means that the modern society represents a differentiated unity, i.e., a whole consisting of functionally dependent (i.e., on functions of other dependent systems) and at the same time autonomous partial systems.  Autonomy and dependence are here in a mutually potentiated, graduated ratio; even though partial systems have the relative independence, the collapse of one of them can have fatal consequences for the societal system as a whole.

The condition of the existence of social systems is communication. For this reason, systems create mechanisms to stabilize communication processes. Luhmann, in this context (inspired by Parsons), uses the concept of symbolically generalized communication media, which, however, cannot be narrowed down to commonly understood means of mass communication, as they concern such media such as power, money, law, faith, or knowledge.  Luhmann considers the differentiation of individual communication areas, such as politics, economy, law, religion, science, but also education, art, or intimate relationships, as one of the main features of the social evolution, along with the appropriate communication media.

The communication mediated by these media within the individual subsystems always takes place in the framework of a certain binary code (e.g. in the political system: to  have power –not to have power, in the economic system: payment – non-payment, in the legal system: law – injustice, in science: truth – untruth, in religion: immanence – transcendence).

Thanks to these binary codes, which express a certain type of leading difference, sub-system-specific semantics are created, in which the autonomy of individual sub-systems is based on the application of its systematic leading difference. For example, the differentiation of the economy as an autonomous societal sub-system begins with the establishment of a symbolically generalized communication medium – money [Luhmann 1988: 230]. Unit acts are payments, the binary code is payment / non-payment, language is represented by prices, which are conditioned and reconditioned by payments.

As a whole, the operational logic of individual systems is narrowed and one-sided, based on the highly specialized binary code that controls the operations in the respective system. The problem lies in the fact that each sub-system, on the basis of its own observations, creates a picture of society itself (what the legal system observes, for example, is nothing other than society, but society seen through the application of the distinction law – lawlessness). As a result of accepted binary schematisations, therefore, individual systems can only see what their schematisations allow them to see. The unified picture of society fragments into these partial observations and, instead of a centrally conceived world, a multi-centric world emerges [Luhmann 1984: 284].

Despite the self-referential communication closure of individual social sub-systems, it cannot be said that these sub-systems operate only in their own world, independent of each other. On the contrary, there are various structural links between them (strukturelle Kopplungen). At the same time, however, self-referential closure means that the modern society can no longer represent asubstantially graspable unity; it is no longer possible to consider sub-system functions from the perspective of the whole (as, for example, it was for f Parsons).

According to Luhmann, the character of contemporary society is quite simply created by the  existence next to each other of many different sub-systems, among which arise various structural links; however, to think of some (whole) system integration in in terms of the coordination or management of this complex network from a control centre is pointless and unjustified.

Generally speaking then, systemic differentiation represents a successful strategy of  modern life that has brought many communication benefits, but it has problematic consequences as well. These include not only very limited options for controlling the individual (mutually dependent) functional subsystems in their interaction with each other, or the question of the relation of these systems to their environment, but above all the absence of integration mechanisms. Society, in attempting to respond “as a society” to these problems, is hindered by the principles of functional differentiation; it can respond, but only in a partial, system-specific way.

How to further orientate system research?

In contemporary sociological thinking, we can find that many members of the sociological community silently share certain simplified assumptions that were derived (the question is, whether correctly) from certain widely accepted and respected individualist-type paradigms. These simplified and simplifying assumptions are not usually articulated explicitly in sociological writings, but they nevertheless make their presence known, most notably in that they are embedded – usually implicitly rather than transparently – within the framework of discussions relating to various sociological issues.

One such popular and widespread assumption is the belief that it is human nature that people have in their mind (seemingly from the very start) their own individual plans, intentions, and goals, and as soon as they come into contact with other people they start to pursue them and try to make them a reality. Another simplifying assumption is that social reality begins to form as soon as any two individuals randomly come together and start a conversation, from which there emerges, incidentally, something greater than them, that in nature represents a single element of the larger whole that we call the social order. A third popular assumption, consistent with the previous two, is that all social entities, even the most complex ones, can be viewed as though they were assembled and pieced together out of individual micro-situations, and these micro-situations are usually regarded as conversations in whose course take place the negotiations by which social reality is constructed.

The problem with the approach described above is, to put it simply, that in social reality we come across all sorts of phenomena (as long as we want and are willing to see them) that cannot be easily captured and explained using this perspective. Such phenomena include cities, roads, civilisation(s), stratification, armies, industrial enterprises, states, and regions, phenomena usually captured in holistically oriented sociology, which often uses the term ‘social system’ to describe them. These are entities that are usually tied to the macro level (or sometimes the mezzo level), and which it would be absurd to conceive of as just a never-ending chain of conversations.

            If a concept is to find its own indisputable place in sociological thought, then what it signifies needs to correspond to something that cannot be aptly captured by any other concept in the social sciences. The use of the term ‘system’ usually tends to suggests itself when we encounter in social reality phenomena of a holistic nature above the level of the individual, that is, phenomena whose specific systems attributes cannot be explained on the basis of the attributes of individuals and the individual parts they are comprised of.

Among the other characteristics of such phenomena is that we mainly encounter them on the macro-social level. This means that what we are dealing with here are not the kinds of issues that emerge out of relations between the ego and the alter ego or between a handful of individuals within small social groups. Rather, they are phenomena that are the outcome of certain complex relations, which over the course of time and space draw in larger numbers of individuals who in most cases could not even possibly know each other.

The third characteristic of systems processes is their latency. It is latency that is the most distinctively characteristic feature of systems-type phenomena. There are mechanisms that manifest themselves through the existence of these phenomena that in most cases were not consciously constructed by people – at least not in the form we encounter them – and that are instead something that has its own particular nature, independent of the wishes of any individuals, and that is formed by latent means as an unintentional and unplanned consequence of deliberate human actions.

Although we can quite legitimately question and criticise aspects of systems theory in the work of its main representatives, especially Luhmann and Parsons, at a minimum we must recognise systems theory as a to-date irreplaceable contribution to the analysis of macrosocial phenomena. In vain would current sociology seek a comparably productive theoretical approach, capable of theoretical description and analysing macrosocial phenomena, to passably substitute what is offered by the concepts of system, structure and function.

We proceed from the assumption that macrosocial reality has its own principles – holistic and supra-individual in character – and is therefore not explicable from the analysis of individuals. Furthermore, we confess that we hold that many phenomena at the microsocial level are significantly influenced by factors formed at the macro level.

                                The systems approach is suited above all to social phenomena of a holistic character, whose features and communications not only cannot be arrived at from individual characteristics, but are latent in nature.

We would add that the term system may be understood, and is used in sociological literature, ordinarily in two senses. In the first case, it simply refers to a certain social entity – most frequently society itself, or its individual parts (subsystems) – as a whole, with everything that belongs to it (within its system boundaries). This sense of the concept can be found in authors who otherwise do not work with the systems approach and endorse a wholly different paradigmatic perspective. In the second case under the term system, we understand entities with a certain way of working, whether operating, communicating or autopoetic; this approach is characteristic of systems analysis. Systemic processes:

  • They are of a holistic nature, the result of effects arising from the cumulation of certain types of action and interaction, and the outcomes founded on them.
  • Arising as a result of these effects are phenomena with the character of short-, medium- and long-term processes.
  • These system processes have their own logic, their own principles and rules, which cannot be derived from the actions of individuals because they introduce certain qualities which lie with the whole rather than with individuals.
  • These are principles and rules thanks to which social reality obtains its character, which may to observers resemble occurrences in nature, possessing the character of natural phenomena.
  • Discovery of these principles and rules in the current development of sociology is above all attempted by structuralism, functionalism, and system theory.

One of the typical efforts made to date in the development of system theory concerns finding some universal interpretative principle to explain multiple distinctive types of system in the various areas and levels of reality in which lives take place. For Luhmann, this universal key was the concept of communication and the related concepts of communication media and system semantics. Unfortunately it must be stated that this theory of Luhmann’s, like other approaches endeavouring within the system paradigm to find a single interpretative principle, has been none too successful so far, and has not convincingly contributed to uncovering the mechanisms that trigger systemic processes at the macrosocial level of social reality.

We consider the basic forces of human history – like Ernst Gellner – to be work, war and productive knowledge. The knowledge was retained by people (first only in oral style, later with the help of symbols and letters) and passed from generation to generation, gradually broadening and transforming. This original system of knowledge in the course of centuries gradually differentiated into a range of sub-systems, including religion, morality, law, social categories, values and norms, philosophy, science, arts etc.

Work and production are themes which are usually associated with materialistic doctrines, elaborated especially in Marxist discourse. System processes which can be connected with this field include the discovery, development and transformation of various working procedures, manufacturing technology (what Marxists called productive power), and their influence on the character of society. The relationship between technological change and the social sphere is significant not only in the area of production, but also in the military and science, affecting even the means of interpersonal communication.

Alongside the technological aspects of production there is the social significance, and, it can be said, the key question of the production, distribution and exchange of value created by work (for Marx this was the area of productive relations).  In the economic area of the life of society there are a whole range of processes to be discovered and examined which are of highly systemic nature. These are processes of a holistic character, which play out on a macrosocial level and take latent form.

The politics is area which the system theorists like Parsons or Luhmann had the tendency to see this area as the subsystem of politics, with its directing medium that of power. A problem nevertheless remains in the fact that we encounter various types of power relations in different areas of society, not only in politics; we discover them in economics, production, religion, science and arts, but also in ordinary interpersonal relations on a micro and organisational level. From the perspective of historical development too, worked on by authors such as N. Elias [1983], M. Foucault [1979], S. N. Eisenstadt [1963], Tilly [1990] and M. Mann [2012 (1986)], among others, the formation of the political system is much more complex than can be found within the scheme of current system theory.

What has so far not been elucidated about social systems and social processes are the latent mechanisms which arise from the effects of the cumulation of individual acts and interactions.  The latent level may frequently reveal a certain interior logic which was not devised by humans, or anyone else. This logic makes itself known by representing some kind of sorting principles and rules. The logic, or principles and rules, which thus – one might say autopoetically – arises, is visibly applied in reaction to problems when something new suddenly emerges, when in a given area some new situation or event is discovered, frequently of such nature as to interrupt certain hitherto standing expectations, customs, proportions or event balance. We will try now to identify certain basic situations in which these latent mechanisms may be manifested.

The basic phenomena that lead us to the trail of latent manifestations are unwanted and unplanned declines or increases in phenomena or values that on a mathematical level may be considered dependent variables[2]. A dependent variable may be a) phenomena of a natural character expressing natural powers (for example loss of water resources), b) phenomena of a natural character caused by previous human activities of our own or another people group (for example soil erosion), c) phenomena of a social or cultural nature caused by the preceding manifest or latent activities of our own people group or society (eg. an increase in crime), d) phenomena of a social or cultural nature caused by the manifest or latent activities of another people group or society (for example the growth of a hostile approach). When these phenomena are perceived as new events, we speak of their emergence.

The processes that appear to be triggered by such events may vary in terms of the space they take, they time they run for (long term, short term), and their rapidity. Individual courses of change through time may take linear or non-linear form, which can be recognised and expressed as a certain trend. These trends may be expressed as rises or falls, strengthening or weakening, widening or narrowing, growth or decline, profit or loss. A specific phenomenon of social dynamics is the periodic cyclicity which is manifested in the economic system (the economy) as alternating rises and falls. Different processes can vary in their speed, can speed up and slow down, encounter various obstacles and even cease to be. Each such trend requires for its duration certain energy and resources, which in the case of system mechanisms of a social nature can feed various types of human activity (work, battle, the products of science).

The growth or decline of one or another variable in a certain system area may cause change to the hitherto existing proportions – or disproportions – between variables which previously existed in some stable interrelation, which, having been erased, may stimulate further development (even in unexpected directions); for example when another element notably strengthens, thus changing the character of the whole system (as a result of the weakening of one branch of the economy, it may lead to growth in other branches, and with this a structural transformation of the interior of the whole economy). These changes of proportion may be connected not only with crisis phenomena, but with effects of a substitutionary character (replacing something with something), or implementing new knowledge, technology and discoveries.

Alongside changes of a quantitative nature it’s also necessary to take into account qualitative ones. However, in modern times a fundamental role in the emergence of qualitative change has been played by human ingenuity and invention, especially through the development of the subsystem of science.

All these types of phenomena may represent causes for subsequent phenomena and processes, which may also have their consequence, at the same time on a latent level (a decrease in water resources, for example, may make way not only for migration but changes in the organisational structure of society). In practice, however, we encounter the fact that a range of phenomena are of a much more complex character because a certain variable may temporarily increase their force (interaction caused by migration processes may have at the same time geographic, demographic, military, economic and cultural dimensions), and also because in a whole variety of ways their interconnections and interrelations (via eg. the so-called domino effect) may be affected. When the development of two or more processes is conditionally related we may speak of their interdependency. If these simultaneously running processes are mutually supportive we may speak of their synergy. Social wholes, which we may designate as social or societal systems, are mostly not held together due to one type of feedback, communication or exchange, but rather the multifaceted connectivity of their individual elements. However, this might not always prevent such wholes – due for example to a severe imbalance in a key factor – ending up in disintegration and collapse.

Many processes of a systemic nature take place spontaneously in society, but many also require there to be someone – some human actors as leaders or experts – to control or regulate them. This relates especially to a wide range of processes on the macrosocial level, characterised by inclusion and exclusion, and ultimately connection and division (also differentiation or bifurcation).

Social systems and social processes exist in time, and have a duration in which individual events take place so that partial phases of historical movement can be distinguished – both for the whole system and for subsystems – by such terms as stability and change, rise and decline, continuity and discontinuity. For systems associated with some form of self-reflection (and not just systems of knowledge), an important role is played by processes connected with memory and the reorganisation of horizons of past, present and future. The future is not – as of supposed by modernist philosophy of history – wholly determined in advance by historical laws, but rather to some degree open to the free actions of individuals, their discoveries and innovations, and furthermore to emergent events which may arise, not least as a result of the latent mechanisms described above.

The important thing is that the system  approach can be aimed not only at investigating (characterising) specific system mechanisms, but also at describing and analysing the functioning of whole societies at the scale of the nation state, and ultimately even at the issues of international relations and globalisation.


In the preceding text we have attempted to show that the systems perspective is important, one could say irreplaceable, for sociology, above all for the analysis of phenomena of a latent sort on a macrosocial level – that is, system mechanisms. The goal of research should accordingly be to reveal and analyse the hidden principles taking place as a backdrop to individual actors, which bring unintentional, unplanned and often unwanted effects, which can often in serious ways alter or even wipe out what people set out to create. The attempt – as many concepts of a systemic character have endeavoured – to reveal certain universal principles applicable to all types of social system (some system variant of a theory of everything) is certainly desirable but only a dream which current sociology cannot recognize a real and realisable.

One of the key premises of system thinking is the complexity of social reality and social theory, and the need to reduce this complexity. This reduction should not mean, in our opinion, inadequate simplification in the area of theory. One such simplifying and widely held assumption is that phenomena on a macrosocial level can be explained by principles revealed at a microsocial level by examining individual action and interpersonal interaction. By contrast in this work we have defended the assumption that phenomena at the macrosocial level have their own inherent logic, unguided by microsocial phenomena.

The author of this article is aware that the opinions published in particular in the second part of his text are of a polemical nature. It is his aim to develop a debate in this way on how the systemic approach should be further developed and towards what aims it should oriented. For this reason, it welcomes any reactions – including critical arguments – that this article will

The author of this article is aware that the opinions published in particular in the second part of his text are of a polemical nature. It is his aim to initiate a debate in this way on how the systemic approach should be further developed and towards what aims it should oriented. For this reason, it welcomes any – including critical – reactions that this article will trigger.


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[1] In Germany, Parsons’ ideas were taken up not just by Luhmann, but most notably by Richard Münch [1987], who was more faithful to Parsons’ theoretical legacy and did not depart from it as markedly as Luhmann did.
[2] Relationships between dependent and independent quantities can be of direct or indirect proportions and can be linear or non-linear in nature.


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