Historical Roots of Systems Theory

Systems theory has been mentioned in a wide variety of disciplines that range from clinical psychology (Bowen, 1966; Plas, 1986) to chaos (Lorenz, 2005). The mention of systems theory, without a firm definition or construct, in such a wide variety of disciplines, has contributed to both inconsistent interpretation and misunderstanding in its application. Our classification of the historical development of systems theory, in six streams of thought (and their principal contributors), is presented in Table 4.1.

Each of the streams of thought from Table 4.1 is briefly discussed in the following sections.

General Systems Theory

The proponents of what is classified as general systems theory (GST) were Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Anatol Rapport, and Ralph Gerard. In 1954, they founded the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR). The purpose of the society was outlined in its original bylaws as follows (Hammond, 2002):

  • 1. To investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models from various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another;
  • 2. To encourage development of adequate theoretical models in fields which lack them;
  • 3. To minimize the duplication of theoretical effort in different fields; and
  • 4. To promote the unity of science through improving communications among specialists.
  • (pp. 435, 436)

Table 4.1 Historical classifications for systems theory (Adams, Hester, & Bradley, 2013, p. 4102)

Stream of thought

Major contributor(s) with selected references

1. General systems theory

Bertalanffy (1949, 1950, 1968), Boulding (1956)

2. Living systems theory

Miller (1978)

3. Mathematical systems theory

Mesarovic (1967), Wymore (1967, 1993), Klir (1968)

4. Cybernetics

Rosenblueth, Wiener & Bigelow (1943), Wiener (1965), Ashby (1947, 1952, 1956), Forrester (1961, 1969, 1971)

5. Social systems theory

Parsons (1970, 1979, 1991), Buckley (1967, 1998), Luhmann (1995, 2012)

6. Philosophical systems theory

Laszlo (1972, 1973, 1996), Bunge (1979, 1997, 1999, 2004)

For a more detailed discussion of these streams of thought and their relationship with systems theory, the reader is encouraged to review Adams (2012), Adams et al. (2013)

The SGSR bylaws were modified to include the practical application of systems concepts and models in planning and decision making processes (Hammond, 2002). However, founders and members of the SGSR had significant differences and the stated goals and objectives for the SGSR and GST diverged to the point where their unified theory for general systems became muddled and of reduced utility as a theory for systems practitioners.

GST received a cool reception from the established sciences. It was criticized for dealing in metaphors, for being philosophical speculation, and for being incapable of falsification. As a result, the claims of GST were not taken seriously in the courts of academia and public opinion. (Bela Banathy in the foreward to Bausch, 2001, pp. vii, viii)

Due to these circumstances, and the need to reflect its broadening scope, in 1988 the SGSR was renamed the International Society for Systems Science. Today, general systems theory is spoken of in the past tense and it serves as a guide for the improved understanding of systems.

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