The term “Social Systems Theory” is normally used to describe the work of the German social theorist Niklas Luhmann. However, the theory described here differs from Luhmann’s in several ways. In particular, the physicalist perspective holds that everything, including information, exists physically in space-time. This implies that the knowledge of an organisation lies in the neural connections that make up the minds of its members. Thus, contrary to Luhmann’s theory, those members must also be a part of the organisation.
Intuitively, many of us sense that there are intangible “forces” that are beyond our individual control and that shape our society. In this article, I draw together the information provided in my previous articles on evolution, psychology, organisations, and systems theory, to show that these intangible “forces” are, in fact, tangible processes. These processes provide an understanding of why society is as it is. To a limited extent, the processes also provide an understanding of where society is heading unless we intervene.
The social systems theory presented here is not a general theory of society. Rather it comprises an understanding of both human and systems behaviour that can be applied in different social contexts. The explanations that it provides will differ for different cultures and in different eras. Nevertheless, the approach has substantial potential value.
To demonstrate the theory, I have chosen an example from the present-day Western world. The example provides an explanation of why the complexity of our society is increasing at an accelerating rate. Inevitably, this explanation raises many questions about where the process is heading, whether intervention is necessary, and, if so, what it should be. Some of these questions are considered at the end of this section.
Western society comprises many interacting organisations whose number increases day by day. Here the term “organisation” is generic. It includes any group of people who work together for a common purpose. It also includes any individual person. For example, an organisation’s function may be fishing, hunting, steelmaking, takeaway meals, or government. For a new organisation to form, a group of people must share a common need and perceive an opportunity to satisfy it by working together. Alternatively, they can share a common contra-need and perceive a way of avoiding it by working together.
In early simple societies, satisfiers for our needs were taken directly from the natural environment, for example, hunting, fishing, the gathering of vegetables, firewood, etc. To acquire these satisfiers, we formed groups or “organisations” under the leadership of experts. Other groups remained in camp to care for young children. As the size of the tribe increased, specialisation began, and some individuals spent most of their time on a particular activity. Thus, trading between specialist groups became necessary, for example, fish for childcare.
In present day Western society, few people can take their satisfiers directly from the environment. We all trade with others to satisfy our needs, and this is often in the form of employment by an organisation. Even farmers and miners need the goods and services provided by others to carry out their function.
This situation has arisen because of a positive feedback process which continues to this day. Because the process is cyclical and it is impossible to say what stage came first, I could begin its description at any point. So, beginning with increasing organisational efficiency, the process is as follows.
- As the efficiency of an existing organisation increases, fewer people are required to carry out its function. The same is true of an individual, but efficiencies release the individual’s time.
- However, these unattached individuals must still satisfy their needs and are usually unable to do so directly from the natural environment. So, they will seek opportunities to satisfy their needs by trading with established organisations. To that end, the unattached individuals will identify the needs of the established organisations. These needs may be goods or services that established organisations lack, or it may be aspects of the established organisations’ functions that could be carried out more efficiently.
- If a group of unattached individuals share a common interest in providing goods, services, or efficiencies, then to do so more effectively they may form a new organisation and take on employees.
- Not all new organisations are successful. The process is one of trial and error, and so, it is evolutionary.
- The new organisation becomes established if it achieves its objective of trading with existing established organisations. This includes trading with individuals. Any efficiency that the new organisation provides results in the release of more people. Successful trading also satisfies the needs of the new organisation’s members.
- Finally, the cycle is repeated with the new organisation as an established one.
- Thus, the number of organisations in a society and the complexity of their interactions grows as time progresses.
- Without any constraints, this growth would be exponential. However, constraints do exist, some of which are described below.
One constraint is the number of unattached people available to form new organisations. In a subsistence society there are none because everyone is fully engaged in satisfying their basic needs. So, the process may never begin without external intervention such as investment. In Western society, the growth of complexity initially relied on rapid population growth during the industrial revolution. This growth has now slowed to zero, and the release of people from established organisations through increased efficiency drives the process. An additional driver is immigration. However, for unattached people to be effective in forming new organisations, support and retraining is needed. Failing that, many may find themselves unable to satisfy their basic needs without turning to crime or other anti-social activities.
The constraints of natural resources and the problems they cause are well known. The latter include global warming, pollution, and the extinction of species. Although these issues are of enormous importance, I will not repeat here what has already been expressed very eloquently by others.
Our ability to understand complexity may also be a constraint. The more organisations there are, and the more diverse their function, the more complex society becomes. There are limits to the level of complexity that we can comprehend, and this has implications for government, the population, and crime. Can this increasing complexity be managed through technological advances? If not, then at what stage will national governments be incapable of governing effectively? At what stage will decentralisation become desirable? At what stage will citizens cease to be effective members of society and form a counterculture? At what stage will citizens begin to seek simple solutions, and at what stage will populist politicians begin to offer them?
As can be seen, the application of social systems theory to an issue raises many unanswered questions. However, it does begin to identify those that need to be addressed for the wellbeing of humanity and our environment.