A set of interdisciplinary contributions aimed at studying the defining characteristics of systems, that is, the entities formed by interrelated and interdependent components, is known as “systems theory”.
One of the first contributions to this field was General theory of systems by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. This model has had a great influence on the scientific perspective and remains a key reference in the analysis of systems, such as families and other human groups.
Bertalanffy systems theory
German biologist Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) proposed in 1928 his general theory of systems as a general tool that could be shared by many different sciences.
This theory has contributed to the emergence of a new scientific paradigm based on the interrelation between the elements that make up systems. It was previously considered that systems as a whole were equal to the sum of the parts and that they could be studied from the individual analysis of their components; Bertalanffy questioned these beliefs.
Since its creation, general systems theory has been applied to biology, psychology, In mathematics, computer science, economics, sociology, politics and other exact and social sciences, in particular within the framework of the analysis of interactions.
Definition of systems
For this author, the concept of “system” can be defined as a set of elements that interact with each other. They are not necessarily humans, not even animals, but they can also be computers, neurons, or cells, among many other possibilities.
Systems are defined by their structural characteristics, such as the relationship between components, and functional; for example, in human systems, the elements of the system pursue a common end. The key aspect of differentiating between systems is whether they are open or closed to the influence of the environment in which they are found.
Bertalanffy and other later authors defined type of system according to structural and functional characteristics. Let’s see which are the most important classifications.
1. System, supersystem and subsystems
Systems can be divided according to their level of complexity. The different levels of a system interact with each other, so they are not independent of each other.
If the term “system” is understood to mean a set of elements, we speak of “subsystems” to designate these components; for example, a family is a system and each individual is a subsystem differentiated. The suprasystem is the means external to the system, in which it is immersed; in human systems, it is identifiable with society.
2. Reals, ideals and models
Based on their entity, systems can be classified into reals, ideals, and models. Real systems these are the ones that exist physically and can be observed, While ideal systems are symbolic constructions derived from thought and language. The models aim to represent real and ideal characteristics.
3. Natural, artificial and compound
When a system depends exclusively on nature, like the human body or galaxies, we call them a “natural system”. In contrast, artificial systems are those which result from human action; in this type of system we can find vehicles and companies, among others.
Composite systems they combine natural and artificial elements. Any physical environment modified by people, such as cities, is considered a composite system; of course, the proportion of natural and artificial elements varies in each particular case.
4. Closed and open
For Bertalanffy, the basic criterion that defines a system is the degree of interaction with the supersystem and other systems. Open systems exchange matter, energy and / or information with the environment around them, adapting to and influencing it.
In contrast, closed systems are theoretically isolated from environmental influences; in practice, we speak of closed systems when they are very structured and the feedback is minimal, because no system is completely independent of its supersystem.
Properties of open systems
Although the properties of closed systems have also been described, those of the open are more relevant for the social sciences because human groups form open systems. This is the case, for example, in families, in organizations and in nations.
1. Totality or synergy
According to the principle of synergy, the operation of the system it can only be understood from the sum of the elements that compose itBut the interaction between these generates a qualitatively different result.
2. Circular causality or reciprocal co-determination
The action of different members of a system influences that of others, so that the behavior of none of them is independent of the system as a whole. In addition, there is a tendency for repetition (or redundancy) of operating modes.
The term “equifinalidad” refers to the fact that several systems can reach the same end stage even if their conditions are initially different. Therefore, it is inappropriate to look for a single cause to explain this development.
Equality is opposed to equifinality: Systems that start out on an equal footing can develop differently depending on the influences they receive and the behavior of their members. Thus, Bertalanffy considered that when analyzing a system, it is necessary to focus on the current situation and not so much on the initial conditions.
5. Limitation or stochastic process
Systems tend to develop certain sequences of functioning and interaction between members. When this happens, it decreases the likelihood that different answers will be given to those that are already consolidated; this is called “limitation”.
6. Relationship rule
The rules of the relationship they determine which are the priority interactions between system components and which should be avoided. In human groups, the rules of relationship are usually implicit.
7. Hierarchical arrangement
The principle of hierarchical order applies both to members of the system and to certain behaviors. It is made up of certain elements and operations having more weight than others, following a vertical logic.
The development and adaptation of the system, or teleological process, occurs opposition from homeostatic forces (I.e. focused on maintaining current balance and status) and morphogenetic (focused on growth and change).