g. Social Systems Theory in Practice - An Example (Part 1)

Social Systems Theory in Practice – An Example (Part1)


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.

c. 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.

b. 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.