Szasz, Thomas Stephen

Szasz, Thomas Stephen

The view of general systems theorists is that the general concept of a 'system’ can be applied to naturally occurring systems of many types, including SOCIAL SYSTEMS as well as biological and mechanical systems. The basic model is of mechanical systems (especially servomechanisms) and biological systems, which display such features as negative feedback, in which INFORMATION about the current state of the system feeds back to influence adjustment towards HOMEOSTASIS, correcting deviations from its basic goals.

The concept can be wider than this, however. It also incorporates ideas of knock-on effects spreading through a system, of entropy and negantropy. Entropy describes the natural state of a closed system in that it tends to use up its energy and run down (even if over a very long period). However, social systems are not closed, they can import energy, they have a transaction with the external environment and so can avoid entropy. Such open systems can survive to attain new steady states, adapting to changing conditions, achieving negantropy. Thus a crucial feature of general systems theory as applied to social systems is exchange with an environment, and ADAPTATION.

In sociology specifically, influenced by the systems thinking of Vilfredo PARETO, Parsons in particular worked with a number of theorists drawn from the physical as well as the social sciences, including L. Henderson. It is on this basis that Parsons produced a model of the 'social system’ and of’action systems’ in general (see SUBSYSTEMS MODEL (OF ACTION SYSTEMS AND SOCIAL SYSTEMS)) which constituted the core of his STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALISM. The further objective was to integrate the study of different social sciences (ANTHROPOLOGY, PSYCHOLOGY, POLITICAL SCIENCE, ECONOMICS) under the umbrella of general systems theory. Although hugely influential at the time, the attempt of Parsons and the many theorists associated with his work to found a new general theory of action systems and social systems is now adjudged a relative failure.

The approach has been accused of making ‘conservative’ assumptions about the integration of social systems (see GOULDNER, LOCKWOOD), of too high levels of abstraction and propositions at times verging on tautology (see Black, 1961; MILLS, 1956), and a relative neglect of the independent influence of individual actors’ agency, reflexivity, etc. (compare SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM, SOCIAL PHENOMENOLOGY, ETHNOMETHODOLOGY).

For all this, general systems theory, and systems thinking in related forms, remains an important influence in sociology and within the social sciences generally (e.g. see SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEMS APPROACH). Parsons’ general approach has also been taken up recently by radical theorists such as C. Offe and Jurgen HABERMAS, for example, in the latter's analysis of the tendency to LEGITIMATION CRISIS in advanced capitalist societies, a model in which the four main tendencies examined correspond to the four subsystems in Parsons’ earlier model.

Finally, general systems models remain of central importance in analysis of ecosystems, and relations between social systems and the physical environment.

Szasz, Thomas Stephen

(1920-) American psychiatrist, best known for his influence on the ANTIPSYCHIATRY movement through The Myth of Mental Illness (1961). His name is often associated with that of LAING, since both criticized the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia (see PSYCHOSIS) in the 1950s and 60s. He was most critical of the role of psychiatrists in labelling as mad those people who do not conform to society's norms, and using their power to have them locked up. This meant that psychiatrists were primarily agents of social control, while patients were having their human freedoms denied.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000