System Theory Revisited

In the middle of the twentieth century, a number of scientists from heterogeneous disciplines promoted a holistic approach under the label of (General) System Theory (see von Bertalanffy 1950). Taking on ideas from cybernetics, i.e. a scientific stream dealing with regulation and control of machines, living organisms and social organizations (Wiener 1948), system theory centres around the notion that any “complex of interacting elements” (von Bertalanffy 1950, p. 143) can be defined as a “system.” A system is, therefore, any social, biological, technical, political, economic, psychological, or other kind of entity that consists of a number of connected parts. It is important to note that system theory also operates with the similarly abstract notion of “environment” to describe the fact that systems have borders and (usually) interact with and are influenced by their surroundings. Obvious differences between mice and men, organisms and organizations are deliberately neglected for the benefit of discovering general laws, abstract similarities, and analytical analogies.

System theory thus considers a country as a system as well as a large dam, or any other kind of MWEP. They are embedded in a specific environment, e.g. neighboring countries or the political and geographical circumstances they are placed in. By applying this general analytic framework on all kinds of objects, the theory claims that irrespective of their nature, systems are characterised by common features: foremost, the systemic view is fuelled by the conviction that “the operation of no one part can be fully understood without reference to the way in which the whole itself operates” (Easton 1957; see Easton 1965) and that, vice versa, the system in general depends on the interaction of all its parts. This view of a system and its elements is substantiated by further ideas about the ways the elements and the system are connected with each other and how they are embedded in their environment. Attention is directed to the complexity, i.e. the number of relations between the elements of a system as well as to its relations to its environment (Hill et al 1994,

p. 22f.). The dynamic of a system is expressed as the intensity of changes the system undergoes in a certain amount of time. By stressing the complexity and dynamics of both the system and its environment, system theory also rejects simplified ideas about causes and effects and enhances the idea of multiple interdependencies instead. Advocates of system theory also point out the fact that isomorphic laws – such as the law of exponential growth – operate in as differing fields as e.g. biology and sociology. System theory should therefore enable methodological advancements throughout different scientific fields as “an important means of controlling and instigating the transfer of principles from one field to another” (von Bertalanffy 1950, p. 142).

With its core concern of understanding the wholeness of something (i.e. any “system”) in terms of the interaction, interrelatedness, and interdependence of all its components within a changing environment, system theory seems to be well capable of addressing generally acknowledged growing complexities; something which holds true in the field of water in general, and MWEPs in particular. Nonetheless, system theory findings cannot be easily applied to them: firstly, system theory itself provides a major obstacle by employing relatively idiosyncratic terminology and alienating concepts such as “autopoiesis” (Varela et al. 1974), “recursivity,” or “emergence.” While system theory has spread some marks throughout scientific terminology, e.g. we refer to ecological or political “systems,” this often does not go beyond the mere usage of the term “system” without further acknowledging the ambitious theoretical programme associated with it. Secondly, a systemic approach is inevitably complex and, therefore, naturally adverse to specialization and expertise in a distinct field. Thirdly, system theory's critics complain about the vagueness of the concept; the uncertainty, or arbitrariness in defining the line between system and environment, and the inherent conservatism of a theory dealing with structures and patterns, thus not leaving much room for action, active revolution, or at least change.

For all the above reasons, system theory has never succeeded as a widely accepted theoretical framework for the analysis of complex realities. Regardless of the correctness of these denouncements, there are two good reasons for a renewed interest in systemic thinking with respect to water issues: their complexity is undebatable and despite great efforts utilizing single disciplines, political and technical approaches, water related problems are persistent and will probably grow into one of the most challenging problems for the third millennium without coming close to any substantial and sustainable solution. Both reasons render it worthwhile to test the application of system theory's findings on the subject matter.

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