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II. The Evolution of Systemism Theory
A. Systemism in Social Science
B. Urban Politics
1. Case Studies
2. Survey Research
C. Systems Analysis
1. Problem Formulation
3. Analysis and Optimization
IV. Policy Implications
Systemism has emerged as an important worldview and methodological approach in social science. This approach is generally against reductionism, and it sees everything either as a system or as part of a system. This view is different from individualism or holism. While individualism emphasizes individuals in society, holism focuses on structure. Systemism can be seen as an alternative way to make sense of a complex world.
This research paper explores the historical and theoretical development of the systemism approach in social science by addressing its applications and policy implications. Systemism contributes to methodological issues such as systems analysis, modeling, case study, and survey research, and it may have significant policy implications in the fields of environmental politics, administrative decision making, and urban politics and development.
II. The Evolution of Systemism Theory
In social science studies, there are generally three different broad perspectives to understanding behavior: individualism, holism, and systemism. Systemism can be seen as being situated between individualism and holism.
Individualism emphasizes the important role of an individual in society. It claims that society exists for the benefit of the individual, and the individual must not be constrained by government interventions or made subordinate to collective interests. Ayn Rand, who was a philosopher of the early 20th century, wrote that humans are ultimate ends in themselves, not means to the ends of others. The pursuit of one’s own self-interest and happiness is the highest moral purpose of life. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Max Weber used similar ideas to describe the world in the philosophical tradition of individualism. Social systems are collections of individuals.
In sum, individualism focuses on (a) protecting natural freedoms and rights, (b) pursuing the development of society for the benefit of the individual, and (c) supporting capitalism with minimum government. However, it fails to recognize the causes of social problems and the importance of government intervention.
While individualism is an important way of thinking about individual choices and behaviors in everyday life, holism emerged to address some of the limitations of individualism. Individualism argues that individuals maintain a primary influence over society. It may embody a degree of validity in explaining society, but it fails to credit the influence that the social environment maintains over our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. Thus, holism asserts that society must be analyzed as a whole system rather than simply in terms of its individual components.
Holism emphasizes that the primary focus of society should be on the collective unity or greater good of the whole. It may support big government and government intervention for the greatest common good. Thus, holism focuses more on political institutions, and its applications may tend toward totalitarianism. The works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim support holism with an emphasis on social or class structure (Bunge, 2000).
Systemism tries to synthesize individualism and holism. It seeks a common ground to view the world from a systems perspective, including micro- and macrolevels. Both individualism and holism have some pitfalls. First, individualists fail to realize the existence of systemic social problems such as poverty, discrimination, and underdevelopment. Second, holism may not see individual actions as the source of social change. Systemism is a moderate approach between these two extremes, and it extracts elements from both approaches. The concept of the system is a key aspect of this worldview. Systems are everywhere, and they have diverse sizes and forms over time and space. Political processes and administrative units are systems, and society, community, and neighborhood are also systems. Systemism is more realistic and therefore more useful than individualism or holism.
According to systemism, everything is either a system or a component of a system. Mario Bunge (2000) described the following postulates of systemism:
- Everything, whether concrete or abstract, is a system or an actual or potential component of a system.
- Systems have systemic (emergent) features.
- All problems should be approached in a system rather than in a sectoral fashion.
- All ideas should be put together in systems (theories).
- The testing of anything, whether idea or artifact, assumes the validity of other items, which are taken as benchmarks, at least for the time being.
These rules may imply that nothing should be evaluated as an the end itself, but rather as a component of something larger or more meaningful. Systemism analyzes individuals and structures in society dynamically, whereas individualism and holism fail to recognize that there is a middle ground between individual and collective agency and to recognize the interrelatedness of both agency and structure in studying micro-macro questions.
In the real world, system is everywhere. With the broad definition of system, systemism offers practical applications in diverse fields. Those applications can reduce tensions between centralism and laissez-faire in politics and government interventions.
A. Systemism in Social Science
We may think of systemism as a spider and a web. When a spider weaves a web, the spider spins and maintains the web and so creates a structure to help itself survive and prosper. The web shows how agency and structure are intertwined and interdependent. In this way, the differences between systemism and individualism or holism can be understood. Systemism blends two incomplete explanations of the relationships of humans with each other and their environment (Denis, 2003). While people interact with different entities, they deal with large amounts of information in the context of every other interaction. Just like the example of spider and web, people are having diverse interactions based on previous perceptions and interactions. This is an illustration of the interdependent nature of structure and agency that is identified by and explored through systemism.
Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory is another good example of systemism. Smith’s thesis is dependent on an individual’s interpretation of collective agency, and therefore the invisible hand is a feature of both human agency and structure. The interrelationship of structure and agency thus occurs within the context of a system. The invisible hand theory aggregates individual agency into a macrolevel benefit. Poverty, for instance, is not necessarily solely the result of individual action or structural malfunction. It may be a combination of different factors from individual bad behavior, coupled with the features of a social structure. While any one person may not experience all poverty-related factors, including contributing factors such as access to quality housing, education, or health care; individual behaviors such as wasteful spending; or unfortunate circumstances such as death, disability, sickness, or chronic unemployment, all those issues occur within the system and have unanticipated consequences.
B. Urban Politics
Urban politics is an interesting example of the systemism approach. Many scholars have used the systems approach as a framework for the analysis of city politics and policy. David Easton (1965) was one of the first researchers to develop an influential theoretical framework that facilitated an understanding of politics, including urban politics. He applied the open system models of natural science to political science. In this view, political systems are open to influences from their environments. The environment of a political system has inputs and changes that can shape the political process. Political and administrative decision makers need to respond to the environment, and the political system transforms inputs into political and policy outputs.
The political process decides allocations of resources. The result of the decision-makers’ processing of inputs yields outputs. The impact of these concrete decision outputs of political actors produces a set of outcomes that send information back into the environment. The process is best viewed as a continuous stream of feedback to the environment that may result in the alteration and creation of inputs that keep cycling into the system (Pelissero, 2003). The systems approach has proved to be a useful way of thinking about the interrelationships of actors, institutions, and the environment of cities.
1. Case Studies
In studies of urban politics, researchers can focus on one city and employ structured methods of data collection and interpretation to develop and test theories of urban politics. Intensive or ethnographic observations have been used in some classic case studies of cities. For example, the early studies of community power were case studies in which researchers often lived in a community, interviewed residents and experts, analyzed data on local government, and observed the play of local politics. The first-generation urban studies tend to focus on single cities.
The case study method has developed into a comparative method, in which multiple cities are studied or independent case studies are launched in several cities, employing similar methods and research questions. One of the early examples of comparative case studies is Williams and Adrian’s (1963) classic study, Four Cities. Williams and Adrian studied community power and political process in four cities over time. Another example is the Bay Area research projects that examined multiple cities in the San Francisco area. This study reveals the importance of institutions to the political process. The comparative case study approach has been used to advance theories on city politics, including citizen participation in policy making, political parties, urban regimes, racial and ethnic politics, schools, and moral controversies in cities.
2. Survey Research
Another approach in systemism is survey research for comparative cross-sectional studies of cities. Researchers began collecting data on a large number of cities and used statistical techniques to assess the determinants of politics or public policies in those cities. In more recent years, the development of new statistical methods and the greater availability of data sets on cities have led to more analysis conducted over time. Computers, advanced statistical software programs, and web-based data sets have increased the opportunities for performing comparative time-series analysis of urban political and policy changes. An example is David R. Morgan and John P. Pelissero’s (1980) study of the impact of municipal reform; research on mayors; bureaucratic policy changes; and studies of city councils, including structural evolution and electoral campaign changes.
C. Systems Analysis
Systems analysis is a mosaic methodology in decision making. It integrates elements from a variety of disciplines— engineering, sociology, biology, philosophy, psychology, economics, and computer science. Broadly, system analysis makes us look at problems as assemblies of interdependent components. For example, in the context of sewage treatment, if organic sewage is being dumped into a river or lake, it generates an inordinate demand for oxygen. However, oxygen is also needed for bacterial decay, which uses the oxygen-converting organic matter to break down inorganic products. Consequently, dumping tends to deplete the oxygen supply of surface waters. By killing off the bacteria of decay, dumping brings a halt to the aquatic cycle of self-purification. Environmental or sanitation engineers may simply try to domesticate the decay bacteria in a treatment plant, artificially supplying them with sufficient oxygen to accommodate the entering organic materials. Inorganic residues are released, and because they have no oxygen demands, the engineers think the problem is solved.
However, this treatment does not consider the river or lake as a system in nature. The treated sewage becomes rich in inorganic residues of decay—carbon dioxide, nitrates, and phosphates—that support the growth of algae. This chain reaction brings more environmental problems into the natural system. Thus, it is important to take a systemism approach when dealing with these kinds of management and environment issues. There are four basic steps in system analysis: problem formulation, modeling, analysis and optimization, and implementation.
1. Problem Formulation
This first step may be the most difficult one in analyzing a system where we live and work. This step includes a detailed description of the task and identification of the important variables and their relationships. For instance, in the case of an urban transportation system, one using the systemism approach begins by deciding whether the prime objective is better service, lower cost, less pollution, or something else. Then it is necessary to decide what data are necessary: travel times with different transportation modes; passenger miles by gender, age, race, and income; passenger miles by time and place; and so forth. Last, one must identify key decision makers in the urban area and their motivations.
A model is a simpler representation of the real-world problem, designed to help researchers. Models can be physical reconstructions of the real thing, with constants and variables. The modeler’s task is probably more artistic than rigorous, more creative than systematic. Model development needs to find a balance between including all relevant aspects of reality and keeping the model simple enough so that it is in line with current theoretical discussions, computation time, and data availability. Ultimately, the test of a model’s quality is how effective it is in helping to solve the original problem. In a model, all components are interconnected. Sometimes, it is necessary to develop a quantified model—a set of mathematical relationships.
3. Analysis and Optimization
If a model finds the best strategy for resolving a given problem, simulation and sensitivity analysis are important tools for determining the best course of action. These techniques are closely related to the development of computer technology. Simulation allows replicating the actual operation and events of any program in an organization. For example, when one studies patrol-deployment strategy in a police department, police administrators can find simulation models valuable for the following purposes: (a) They facilitate detailed investigation of operations throughout the city, (b) they provide a consistent framework for estimating the value of new technologies, (c) they serve as training tools to increase awareness of the system interaction and consequences resulting from everyday policy decisions, and (d) they suggest new criteria for monitoring and evaluating actual operating systems. When one simulates the dispatch and patrol operations of most urban police departments, incidents are generated throughout the city and distributed randomly in time and space according to observed statistical patterns. Simulation provides a tool to assist in answering a wide range of allocation questions.
Sensitivity analysis helps modelers find the best strategy for solving the original problem. Sensitivity analysis consists of making very small changes in a model to show the extent to which results may be altered because of change in one or a few factors. For example, in real practice, sensitivity analysis can use a small change, such as an 8% decrease in judges or prosecutors or a 3% decrease in police.
The last step refers to the procedure by which the results from the model are translated into a set of actions in the real world. However, these four steps seldom occur in perfect sequence, and the systems approach is highly interactive. For instance, the sequence might work out in the following way: formulating the problem, selecting objectives, designing alternatives, collecting data, building models, weighing cost against effectiveness, testing for sensitivity, questioning assumptions, reexamining objectives, looking at new alternatives, reformulating the problem, selecting different or modified objectives, and so forth.
IV. Policy Implications
How do we define the appropriate role of government? Systemism may have a new way of thinking of government’s role in the 21st century. For centuries, people have argued whether the proper focus of society should be on the community or the individual. Individualism and holism may be seen as the two extreme views in the real policy world. In the United States, liberal and conservative views have battled over the role of government. Generally, conservatives argue, based on the perspective of individualism, that we must preserve morals and increase personal responsibility instead of the social welfare system. Liberals may argue that government needs to involve itself more in social problems and regulate big business to change government systems. Both views may have good arguments for their points. However, these two views have hardly any common ground. Systemism may offer an alternative way for politics and policy. It can offer a framework to connect the concerns of individualism and holism in order for us to reach our future goals.
What are the policy implications of this approach? One interesting issue is environmental policy and climate change. In national and international politics, climate change is an inevitable issue for the 21st century. Already in the United States, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are battling over this global environmental issue. The result has been gridlock on the issue for more than 10 years now. Can systemism offer some common ground for understanding climate change?
In the climate change debate, some argue that human action is the cause. Others postulate that while humans may have some responsibility for climate change, this phenomenon is based in a natural cycle of warming and cooling that has occurred for thousands of years. The crux of the climate change problem is that global warming has both known and unknown ramifications that impact individuals, regions, governments, and continents differently. The scale of the natural hazards that could be unleashed by continuing global warming trends does not fit current climate models. In spite of all our greatest efforts, predicting the intensity or location of the consequences of global warming is nearly impossible at this point.
In the past, most research has ignored the complex interrelationships among individual human groups, their environment, their social constructions, and the myriad different organisms and structures that interact with them each day. Because of this oversight, much information about climate changes and their impact has not been gathered. How does society address a problem whose scope is unfathomable at our current level of understanding? By addressing all known aspects of the problem, implementing policy to mitigate all known impacts, and preparing for all unknown impacts simultaneously. Systemism may provide an important framework to address the climate change issue through its systematic and climatological aspects for 21st-century global public policy.
This research paper distinguishes two main methodological approaches, holism and individualism, and associates with them policy prescriptions of centralism and laissez-faire. Between these two perspectives, systemism offers a moderate way and common ground for reduction of political and social conflicts. Because of the nature of systems, the systemism approach may be more a mosaic than a single approach. It includes bits and pieces from a variety of disciplines. At the same time, interdisciplinary efforts can increase systemism’s applicability to diverse fields. Systemism has influenced our current research methods in the areas of system analysis, case study, survey research, simulation, and sensitivity analysis. For political science in the 21st century, systemism will continue to contribute to our discussion of the political process, policy making, and management issues.
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- Bunge, M. (2000). Systemism: The alternative to individualism and holism. Journal of Socio-Economics, 29, 147 157.
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- Denis, A. (2003). Methodology and policy in economic thought: A response to Mario Bunge. Journal of Socio-Economics, 32, 219 226.
- Easton, D. (1965). A systems analysis of political life. New York: Wiley.
- Morgan, D. R., & Pelissero, J. P. (1980). Urban policy: Does political structure matter? American Political Science Review, 74(4), 999 1006.
- Pelissero, J. P. (Ed.). (2003). Cities, politics, and policy. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Starling, G. (2007). Managing the public sector (8th ed.). New York: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Williams, O. P., & Adrian, C. R. (1963). Four cities: A study in comparative policy making. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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