d. Social Interactions Part 1

Social Interactions (Part 1)


Any organisation, when treated as a system, comprises inputs, internal processes, and outputs. Inputs are external interactions that comprise the passing of space/place, matter, energy, and information from some unspecified source to the organisation. It is a causal relationship, but the cause is not specified. Outputs comprise the passage of the same from the organisation to an unspecified recipient. It is a causal relationship in which the effect is not stated. Finally, the organisation’s processes comprise internal systems, some of which are child organisations such as departments, others of which are physical processes such as production machinery, and the relationships between them. The latter are also causal relationships.

Although this system concept is helpful in focusing on the internal behaviour of an organisation, it does have its drawbacks. Typically, for example, it can result in the effects of an organisation’s outputs being neglected, resulting, for example, in social or environmental harms. It can also result in the sources of its inputs not being fully appreciated, resulting, for example, in their loss. A more wholistic approach to the management of an organisation is suggested in the section entitled “Distance” in my next article.

The functioning of an organisation can therefore be regarded as a matter of complex causality. Several inputs, i.e., causes, may be necessary, but only together may they be sufficient for the organisation to function, and thus, persist. If there is only one source of a necessary input, then the organisation is dependent on that source, and the one producing it has power over the one receiving it. A topical example is Europe’s current dependence on Russian gas. However, if there are several sources, then this power is much diminished.

Likewise, an organisation’s outputs can form the inputs of just one organisation, or of several. Clearly, if there is just one, and if the inputs are unnecessary or if there are several suppliers, then the customer has power over the supplier.


Organisations, in a very general sense and including individuals, are the elementary entities in social systems. However, it is their interactions that are important for social systems theory. They are what forms society. These interactions are of three types:

  1. Intra-organisational Interactions or Processes, i.e., interactions between an organisation and a familial organisation. These interactions can be vertical, i.e., parent/child, or horizontal, i.e., sibling/sibling.
  2. Inter-organisational Interactions, i.e., interactions between separate organisations.
  3. Extra-organisational Interactions or Environmental Impacts, i.e.,interactions between organisations and the non-human environment.

They all pass space/place, matter, energy, or information from one place to another and are, therefore, causal relationships.

In a previous article it was explained that organisations can interact with others in their environment in one of three ways: co-operation, positive competition in which each competitor strives to excel, and negative competition in which each competitor strives to prevent the other from achieving their aims. Thus, interactions are two dimensional as follows:

Asymmetrical Interactions

The discussion above assumes that all interactions are symmetrical, i.e., that the attitude of both parties is either co-operative, positively competitive, or negatively competitive. However, asymmetrical interactions are also possible, in the short term at least.

Co-operation or positive competition can deteriorate and become negative via asymmetrical interaction. If one party to co-operation feels under threat, or if one party engaging in positive competition feels they will lose, they may begin to engage in negative competition. If this is overt, then, unless the other party has ethical objections, they will reciprocate. Negative competition can, of course, be carried out covertly, whilst maintaining a façade of co-operation or positive competition. If so, then the interaction becomes asymmetrical, i.e., one party engaging in negative competition and the other in genuine co-operation or positive competition. Usually, however, the interaction becomes symmetrically negative when the deceit is discovered.

Theoretically, the reverse is also possible, i.e., negative competition can become positive or cooperative, but this requires reciprocal de-escalation, whilst the interaction remains symmetrical. If one party de-escalates unilaterally, they will lose.

Organisational Inputs and Outputs

The basis for inter- and intra-organisational interactions is the reciprocal trading of satisfiers, or in some cases contra-satisfiers. Such satisfiers or contra-satisfiers comprise outputs from one organisation, in the form of space/place, matter, energy or information, and inputs to the other.

In a co-operative interaction, satisfiers are exchanged by mutual agreement to the benefit of both parties. In a positively competitive interaction, there is no trade between the two. However, space/place, matter, energy, or information can be passed, inadvertently, from one to the other. Finally, negatively competitive interactions involve the provision of contra-satisfiers by one to the other and vice versa, as in the case of war. This is to the detriment of both, although one party may ultimately prevail. Negatively competitive interactions can also involve the extraction of satisfiers without reciprocation or with the threat of contra-satisfiers, e.g., robbery at gunpoint.

Clearly, feedback loops are involved. For example, organisation A may provide a satisfier for organisation B, which in turn provides a satisfier for organisation A. However, in the modern world, organisational distance is a significant factor. For example, if organisation A provides a satisfier to organisation B, then the latter may be unable to reciprocate with physical satisfiers. A much larger and more complex arrangement of feedback loops, comprising many organisations, may be necessary for the equitable satisfaction of all parties. Clearly, such complexity can become unmanageable, and so, money has been introduced as a token of exchange in markets, thereby forming the basis of economics.

c. Basic Social Systems Theory

Basic Social Systems Theory


The term “Social Systems Theory” has been used to describe the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann’s theory, but the one presented here differs in important respects. In this article I will describe its core principles.

Firstly, we use different terminology in different fields of study, but as can be seen from the table below it is all the same thing really. So, please refer to this table if in any doubt about the meaning of a term.

The Social Systems Concept

The basic framework of social systems theory can be described as follows:

  1. A general system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. Processes, in turn, comprise components and their interactions. These components are also systems.
  2. Humanity is a social system which follows the same structure and rules as a general system. Its components are organisations. The reader may recall that, in these articles, an organisation is defined as any group of people who work together for a common purpose. Thus, an organisation may be a single individual, a club, a nation, or all of humanity.
  3. The interactions between organisations are the trade of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers between them. The satisfiers and contra-satisfiers traded take the form of information, matter, and energy. In more familiar terms, they comprise raw materials, products or artifacts, services and, as a general token of exchange, money.
  4. The satisfiers exchanged are related to the needs of the organisations concerned which, in general terms, are existence, relatedness and growth.

So, organisations are the elementary entities in social systems theory. At the next level of complexity up, i.e., ecology, the elementary entity is the species. Humanity is one such species and its inputs and outputs are those things that it takes from and gives to the natural ecosystem.  At the next level of complexity down, i.e., biology, the elementary entity it is the organ. The domain of social systems theory lies between these two boundaries.

The most notable aspect of organisational behaviour is its similarity to that of individual people. This is not because organisations have a “group mind”, but rather because every organisation is ultimately led by a single individual, and its specialist activities are also carried out by individuals. There are, however, important variations in the behaviour of both individuals and organisations which depend on their time, place, and size. These common features and the ways in which they vary are summarised below.


The following core principles apply to all organisations no matter what their size, location, or era. They are therefore universal and constant. They will be explained in more detail in future articles and only a simplified summary is given below.

  • Agency. All organisations have agency. They have choices available to them, they process information and act on it.
  • Purpose. All organisations have a purpose or function.
  • Needs. All organisations have needs which when prioritised form a hierarchy.
  • Satisfiers, Contra-satisfiers, and Motivators. Every organisation is affected by these and, together with its knowledge and needs, they influence its behaviour.
  • Inputs, Processes and Outputs. All organisations require inputs to carry out their function, which is to produce outputs. These inputs and outputs comprise materials, services, and/or information. However, information must always form a part.
  • Self-maintenance. All organisations are self-maintaining, i.e., they use a proportion of their inputs in self-maintenance as opposed to producing outputs.
  • Recursiveness. All organisations are recursive. Every organisation, except an individual person, comprises a number of component organisations and is a component of larger organisations.
  • Specialisation. All organisations comprise specialised sub-organisations or individuals. This is commonly known as a division of labour.
  • Co-ordination. All organisations require a control component, i.e., leaders, to co-ordinate specialised activities. This is carried out via an internal feedback loop with information passing upwards and instructions downwards.
  • Culture. Every organisation has a culture comprising values, norms, beliefs, operational knowledge, and symbols.
  • Schemata. Every organisation holds knowledge in schemata which are resistant to change. These include a schema for worldview/purpose, an internal ethical schema, external ethical schema, operating schemata, self-image, etc.
  • Misinformation. All organisations are capable of concealing information from others or supplying misinformation to them.
  • Adaptation. In response to both internal and external change, all organisations adapt their processes, attempt to adapt their environment, or both. Without adaptation, an organisation will eventually fail.
  • Evolution. The laws of evolution apply to organisations of all sizes, i.e., random mutation occurs within them, and natural selection occurs through the way in which they and their environment interact.
  • Inter-organisational Distance. Ultimately, every organisation interacts with every other. In some cases, they interact directly. In others there is no direct interaction. Rather any interaction is via a chain of direct connections.
  • Competition/Co-operation. The choice between co-operation, positive competition and negative competition always applies when one organisation interacts with another.

Some relationships between organisations, and thus, social systems theories, change with size, time, and place. These changes are due to:

  • Availability of Resources. The availability of resources varies from time to time and from place to place. This affects culture, which also then varies in the same way. Culture in turn affects knowledge, the relative priorities of needs, satisfiers, motivators, and attitudes towards relationships, i.e., whether co-operation, positive competition, or negative competition is favoured.
  • Knowledge. This, including knowledge of social systems, is part of an organisation’s culture. Because knowledge is one component affecting behaviour, the latter also alters from place to place. Knowledge can also be gained or lost, and so varies with time. If new knowledge is gained this can alter culture, and thus, social theory. However, progress is not inevitable, shocks can occur, and knowledge can be lost, e.g., the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. Loss of knowledge can cause an organisation or society to revert to behaviours similar to those of earlier years.
  • Redundancy. The amount of redundancy, i.e., duplicated capability, in an organisation, and thus its resilience, varies depending on factors such as whether an organisation has been designed or has evolved. This includes redundancy of potential command.
  • Size. As organisations increase in size the following characteristics alter and affect their efficiency. The interaction of efficiencies and inefficiencies of scale usually results in an optimum organisational size.
    • Specialisation, Departmentalisation, and the Formalisation of roles generally increase. Departmentalisation is the collection of specialised tasks into groups under a leader. Formalisation is the specification of tasks and the introduction of rules and regulations regarding the way in which they are carried out.
    • Informal Innovation generally decreases.
    • Hierarchy, i.e., the number of levels of command, generally increases.
    • Distance of Intra-organisational Communication, including Leadership Distance and Peer Distance, i.e., the lengths of chains of communication, generally increase, and along with them, the likelihood of communication errors.
    • Decentralisation, i.e., the delegation of power and control, generally becomes increasingly necessary.
    • The relative amount of Self-maintenance or Administration generally increases.
    • Speed of Decision-making generally decreases.
    • Cultural Entrenchment, i.e., the unchangeability or otherwise of an organisation’s culture, generally increases.
    • Cultural Homogeneity, i.e., whether all members of an organisation share a common culture, generally decreases.
    • Frequency of Restructuring, i.e., reorganisation, generally decreases.
    • Social Traffic, i.e., irrelevant communication, generally increases.


The theory of social systems can be used to explain society, but not to predict it with certainty or to design an ideal system. This is because there are approximately seven and a half billion people in the world. So, the vast number of relationships between organisations, including individuals, leads to great complexity. Added to this is the vast number of relationships with the non-human environment. We do not have the mental capacity to understand such complexity. Even if we were able to model the human social system, then our understanding of it would change, and so too would its behaviour. Furthermore, predictability would diminish due to a build-up of un-anticipatable random events. The best we can do, therefore, is imagine relatively small, closed, sections of society, and make predictions about them, with reasonable confidence but no certainty, a short distance into the future.

a. How We Understand a Complex Universe

How We Understand a Complex Universe


In this article I will describe the way in which we human beings make sense of the world that we inhabit, and the implications of this for the theory of General and Social Systems.


My starting point is the concept of the relationship. Normally, to describe a relationship, we use a diagram showing an arrow, the relationship, between two points, the related entities. However, this image can be misleading. A relationship is not something separate and distinct from other physical entities in the universe. Rather it comprises the two related entities in conjunction for a period of time. Thus, the relationship is also a physical entity, albeit one comprising two parts. The nature of the relationship is the nature of the conjunction of these parts.

A valid scientific theory is a statement of a causal relationship, in which entities of one type, the cause, always result in entities of another type, the effect. In fact, it comprises the cause and the effect for so long as the causal relationship exists between them. These theories are a subset of all relationships, and the same principles apply to them. A causal relationship differs mainly in that several recognised and named causes may be necessary for the effect, but it is their un-named and unrecognised conjunction that is sufficient for it to occur.

Physical Entities

Relationships do, of course, relate two physical entities. Every physical entity can be regarded as lying on a scale of complexity, from the smallest and least complex ones known by us, to the entire universe. The sub-atomic level is the lowest level of complexity at which we know all of the building blocks of the universe. This comprises three particles, i.e., protons, neutrons, and electrons, together with four fundamental interactions, i.e., the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, the electro-magnetic force, and gravity. The latter interactions can be regarded as relationships between the particles. There are, of course, lower levels of complexity, comprising quarks and leptons, but they and their interactions are not yet fully understood. So, for the purpose of this article, protons, neutrons, and electrons will be treated as elementary particles.

Measuring Complexity

Every physical thing or entity can be regarded as lying on a scale of complexity, from a simple sub-atomic particle or interaction to the entire universe. The term “complexity” does not imply that the entity is either ordered or disordered. Rather, it merely refers to the number of sub-atomic particles and interactions that comprise it.

Ultimately, every physical entity, its properties, and its relationships with other entities are the consequence of a complex of sub-atomic particles and their interactions. The more complex an entity, the greater the number of particles and interactions. The same is true of relationships. The complexity of the relationship is the sum of the complexity of its two components.

Meaningful Entities and Relationships

If we draw a boundary around any part of the universe, call everything within it an entity or relationship, and give it our focus of attention, then for the most part its contents will be random, disorganised, and meaningless. However, in some cases the boundary will contain organisation and order. The more ordered an entity, the more likely it is to recur. The entities and relationships which are meaningful to us are those which we recognise as recurring. We then symbolise them by, for example, naming them, or creating an image of them.


However, we lack the ability to store and process the amount of information involved in representing more complex entities via their sub-atomic particles and interactions. There is a threshold of comprehension beyond which we are unable to understand entities in this way.

To overcome this, we simplify at or before this threshold of comprehension is reached. We do so by identifying a new set of elementary entities and relationships from recurrences at that level of complexity. For example, in chemistry, our elementary entities are atoms, and our relationships are atomic bonds. In sociology, our elementary entities are individual people, and our relationships are their social interactions.

We then use these new elementary entities and relationships to deal with greater complexity. They have substantially less information content and, initially, remain within our threshold of comprehension.

Ultimately, however, with further increases in complexity, each simplification reaches the threshold of comprehension once more. To remain within it we must simplify yet further. This leads to several fields of knowledge, each with its own elementary entities, relationships, and theories, each dependant on the speciality below, and each lying on a path of increasing complexity.

Possible Limits to Simplification

With each simplification, information is lost. It is also true that, unless emergent theories are based on careful and accurate observations of the real world, with each simplification comes the introduction of error. There is, therefore, likely to be an upper threshold to complexity beyond which a reliance on pure theory cannot take us. Observation is necessary to progress further.

However, there are difficulties in observing reality at very high levels of complexity. In general, the more ordered the elementary components and relationships within an entity, the greater the likelihood of it recurring and being recognised. However, it is also true that the more complex it is, the greater its size, and the greater its size, the less likely it is that we will be able to perceive it. Furthermore, it is less likely that it will recur within a timeframe that allows us to recognise its recurrence. Thus, there may be an upper threshold to complexity beyond which we are unable to perceive recurrence, and thus, recognise and name entities, including scientific theories.


Because each relationship, and thus, each scientific theory relies on a minimum amount of complexity, it cannot also apply in a less complex field. Thus, it will appear to emerge as complexity increases. However, the reverse is not necessarily the case. A relationship which requires relatively little complexity can, of course, exist within an entity of much greater complexity.


Increases in complexity can follow different paths, e.g., from an elementary particle to the cosmos, or from an elementary particle to an ecosystem. Different valid scientific theories emerge on each path. Those which emerge for life will, for example, differ for those which emerge for astro-physics.

The following path of increasing complexity is relevant to human social systems. At each level new theories emerge:

  1. Logic.
  2. Causality.
  3. Physics.
  4. Chemistry.
  5. Biochemistry.
  6. Evolution.
  7. Social Sciences, i.e., Psychology, Social Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Political Science.
  8. Ecology.

The path for astro-physics is, of course, different.

The Search for Understanding in Practice

In the above article, I have described the process of understanding reality from the elementary particles and their interactions upwards. However, in practice, the starting point in our search for understanding was reality at the human scale, i.e., the world in which we live and its direct impacts upon us. From here, the search has not only been in the upward direction towards ever greater complexity, but also in the downward direction towards ever less complexity. Both processes are ongoing, but the more we understand what underlies the sub-atomic world, the more this increases the complexity above it.

Implications for General Systems Theory

Because systems and entities are essentially the same concept, the implication for General Systems Theory is, of course, that there is no single set of rules applicable to all systems. So, for example, human social systems will have their own set, some of which are shared by less complex levels, and some of which are particular to the field. Any General Systems Theory is therefore likely to be a meta-theory, i.e., a theory of theories, that explains what theories emerge on a particular path of increasing complexity, and why. This would require an explanation of the relationships between simplifying concepts at one level of complexity, and those at the levels above and below.

Implications for the Social Sciences

In the social sciences, the search is for valid macro-causal rules, or theories which emerge at, as yet un-simplified higher levels of complexity. However, in the same way as other entities, their recognition depends on their recurrence. Unfortunately, the greater the level of complexity, the less frequently these recurrences will be observed. Furthermore, the larger the scale at which they operate, the less likely it is that we will recognise them.

To add to these difficulties, human behaviour is caused by emotion, knowledge, and reasoning skills. If we were to recognise a new macro-causal rule, then this would constitute new knowledge, and might alter our behaviour. This, in turn, might invalidate the theory. For example, if it becomes known that an event, x, always causes war, then, whenever x is encountered, effort will be put into avoiding its consequence. So, rather than stating that “x always causes war”, the theory should in fact state that “x, and not knowing that x always causes war, and the absence of any inhibitors always cause war”.

The decreasing likelihood of our recognising causal rules or theories as complexity increases could well mean that there is a maximum level of complexity at which human recognition can occur. If so, then beyond that point, causal rules are unrecognisable, and so, not affected by human agency. However, whilst they are fixed, we are unable to recognise and take advantage of them.

If for example, they could be identified using advanced artificial intelligence, or by a General Systems Meta-theory, then the newly discovered macro-causal rules would no longer be fixed, and the threshold would move upwards. This increased knowledge would, of course, also alter our culture.

Is New Social Knowledge Worth Pursuing?

Given all these difficulties, the reader may question whether new social knowledge is worth pursuing. Personally, I believe that it is, but that an ethical framework is needed to control its use. New knowledge can change human behaviour for the better, for example, by avoiding war. However, it can also change it for the worse. An elite may, for example, keep the knowledge to themselves and use it to manipulate others, as may already be the case in the fields of politics and advertising. To avoid this, it is important that there be open access to any new knowledge in the social sciences, that it be used ethically, and that these requirements are policed.