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Systems theory is a philosophy and worldview arising from the belief that aspects of the world are not independent of each other but interdependent on one another. This results in a research view and approach that it is difficult if not impossible to separate components of a question from logically related material in the world at large. “Logically related” depends on the question under examination and changes as the research question changes. Systems theory is sometimes called structural functional-ism or holism.
Systems theory approaches understanding a problem as understanding a set of relationships among disparate factors. This contrasts to classic scientific analysis, where a set of independent variables is compared to dependent variables. Examining interactions among the independent variables approaches but is not systems theory. Systems theory requires two things. First, there must be a web of interactions among all the elements under study. Second, there are complex patterns as a result of these interactions. Sometimes systems theory includes such concepts as feedback systems and chaos theory. However, not all systems theorists include these research approaches within systems theory. Organizational and social network research is included in systems theory.
Because of the interactions among components, systems analysis tends to involve more complex analytical techniques. For example, instead of least squares analysis, systems theory might employ computer modeling and simultaneous equations techniques. System theory’s strength and weakness arises from this. The methodology is harder to learn and understand, but the explanatory power can be greater. Also systems theory tends to be interdisciplinary, especially in the social sciences. A planetary system can be isolated for study and still be a system. The reasons behind results in a particular election can involve individual and group psychology, economics and market analysis, history, religion, and communications theory because all of these are known electoral factors.
This can lead to the complaint that systems theory overcomplicates problems and research. This complaint is not without some validity. In certain analysis situations systems theory can be overkill. In other situations systems theory can be necessary for understanding the problem.
The basic concept of systems theory can be traced back to philosophers in ancient Greece and China. As a research approach, systems theory is much more recent. Modern systems theory dates to just after World War II and such researchers as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Their work is based on concepts developed by Rudolf Virchow, Adolf Bastian, and Franz Boas. In turn this work is based on the philosophic concepts of G. W. von Leibniz in the 1600s. Modern systems researchers include Niklas Lehmann and Robert Axelrod.
Simple systems in modern use include such things as the feedback concept of a household thermostat that turns on or off a heating or cooling unit depending on the temperature inside, the temperature outside, and the desired temperature. Complex systems include chaos theory and its applied forms in different disciplines.
- Eve, Raymond A., Sara Horsfall, and Mary E. Lee, eds. 1997.Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology: Myths, Models, and Theories. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Harrison, Neil E., ed. 2006. Complexity in World Politics: Concepts and Methods of a New Paradigm. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Sebeok, Thomas A., and Marcel Danesi. 2000. The Forms ofMeaning: Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Smith, John, and Chris Jenks. 2006. Qualitative Complexity: Ecology, Cognitive Processes, and the Re-Emergence of Structures in Post-Humanist Social Theory. New York: Routledge.
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