systems approach

systems approach

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Systems Approach


a trend in the methodology used in specialized sciences and in broader, practical applications in society based on studying objects as systems. The systems approach permits an adequate formulation of problems in applied sciences and the development of an effective strategy for studying the problems. The specific methodological nature of the systems approach is determined by directing the investigation toward uncovering the integrity of the object and its mechanisms, identifying the many types of relations within a complex object, and reducing the relations to a single theoretical picture.

Science has always tried to treat the object of study as a whole and to organize knowledge in systems; this was already a problem in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and science. Until the mid-19th century, explanation of the phenomenon of integrity was limited to the level of concrete objects, such as living organisms, whose internal integrity was perfectly obvious and did not demand special proof, or else such explanation was transferred to the sphere of speculative natural philosophical constructions. The notion of organization by systems was considered only in application to knowledge. In this area, a rich tradition accumulated beginning with the Stoics and linked to the identification of the principles of logical organization of systems of knowledge. This approach to interpreting the systematic quality corresponded to the leading cognitive principles of classical science, particularly elementarism, which proceeded from the necessity of seeking the simple, elementary foundation of each object and, thus, demanded the reduction of the complex to the simple. Another leading tendency of classical science was mechanism, which relied on the postulate of a single principle of explanation for all spheres of reality and proposed complete determinism as that principle.

The problems of adequate reproduction of the complex social and biological objects of reality in knowledge were first put forth in a scientific form by K. Marx and C. Darwin. Marx’ Das Kapital provided the classical model of a systems investigation of society as a whole and of different spheres of social life. The principles of studying an organic whole, demonstrated in Das Kapital, were an important component in the dialectical materialist methodology of scientific knowledge. Such principles included the ascent from the abstract to the concrete, the unity of analysis and synthesis, the unity of the logical and the historical, the identification of qualitatively different relations in an object and their interaction, and the synthesis of structural-functional and genetic conceptions of the object. The theory of biological evolution created by Darwin not only introduced the notion of development into natural science but also confirmed the notion that there are levels of organization of life above the organism level, a very important premise for systems thinking in biology.

In the 20th century, the systems approach occupies one of the leading positions in science. The primary prerequisite for its incorporation into science was the transition to a new type of scientific problem. In many branches of science, problems concerning the organization and functioning of complex objects are now occupying a central position. Knowledge now extends over systems whose boundaries and composition are by no means obvious, requiring special investigation in each particular case. In the second half of the 20th century, similar problems are arising in society. Technology is increasingly becoming the technology of complex systems, where multifaceted technical and other means are closely related in the solving of a single major problem, for example, in space projects and various types of man-machine systems. In social administration, local and smaller-scale problems and principles, which formerly predominated, have been supplanted by large-scale, composite problems that demand a close interweaving of economic, social, and other aspects of human reality, for example, in the problems of building modern production complexes, developing cities, and finding ways to protect nature.

A change in the types of scientific and practical problems is accompanied by the appearance of general and special scientific conceptions, which typically use the basic ideas of the systems approach in one form or another. Thus V. I. Vernadskii’s doctrine of the biosphere and the noosphere proposed a new type of object for scientific knowledge—the global system. A. A. Bogdanov and many other investigators are working to develop an organization theory with a wide area of application. The identification of a special class of systems—information and control systems—was the basis for the emergence of cybernetics. In biology, systems ideas are used in ecological research, in the study of the activity of the higher nervous system, in the analysis of biological organization, and in taxonomy. The same ideas are also employed in certain psychological conceptions. A specific example is Gestalt psychology, which introduces the useful idea of psychological structures characterizing activity in decision-making. The cultural-historical conception introduced by L. S. Vygotskii and developed by his students bases psychological explanation on the concept of activity interpreted on the systems level. The idea of a system of operations of the intellect plays a fundamental role in J. Piaget’s conception. In economic science, the principles of the systems approach are especially applied in connection with problems of optimum economic planning, which require the construction of multicomponent models of social systems on different levels. In control and management, the ideas of the systems approach are refined, forming the methodological means of systems analysis.

Along with the development of the systems approach “in breadth,” that is, the spread of systems principles to new spheres of scientific knowledge and practice, systems principles have also been developed on the methodological level since the mid-20th century. Methodological investigations were initially grouped around problems of constructing a general systems theory; the first construction of this theory and the term itself were proposed by L. von Bertalanffy. However, the development of research in this area showed that the problems of the methodology of systems research significantly exceed the framework of problems of the general systems theory. The term “systems approach” is used in Russian to designate this broader sphere of methodological problems, and the term has been an established part of the scientific vocabulary since the 1970’s. In the scientific literature of different countries, other terms may also be used to signify this concept, for example, “systems analysis,” “systems methods,” “systems-structuralist approach,” and “general systems theory.” At the same time, the concepts of systems analysis and the general systems theory have also been given a specific, narrower meaning, in view of which the term “systems approach” should be considered more exact. This term is therefore more common in writings in the Russian language.

The systems approach does not exist in the form of a strict methodological conception. It performs its heuristic functions while remaining a loosely bound aggregate of cognitive principles whose basic meaning is the corresponding orientation of specific investigations. This orientation is realized in two ways. First, the substantive principles of the systems approach make it possible to evaluate the inadequacy of the old, traditional subjects of study for formulating and solving new problems. Second, the concepts and principles of the systems approach help significantly in constructing new subjects of study by giving the structural and typological characteristics of the subjects and thus helping shape constructive research programs.

The significance of the critical function of new principles of knowledge was convincingly demonstrated by Marx in Das Kapital, whose subtitle—A Critique of Political Economy—was no accident. It was precisely the consistent critique of the principles of classical political economy that made it possible to reveal the narrowness and inadequacy of its initial substantive-conceptual basis and to clear the way for building a new subject for this science, one adequate to the task of studying the integral functioning and development of the capitalist economy. Solving analogous problems is also an important preliminary condition in constructing modern systems concepts. For example, the transition to designing modern technical systems and the emergence of systems engineering, which has proved to be one of the important concrete forms of the systems approach in the field of modern engineering, were preceded by an awareness and criticism of the approach that predominated in earlier stages of the development of engineering, when the “unit” of design was the isolated technical device, such as a machine, individual implement, or the like, not the entire function, as is now the case. A consistent criticism of the earlier approach to the development of production, which ignored the systems relationship between society and nature, was a prerequisite for developing effective measures to protect the environment. The establishment of systems principles in modern biology was accompanied by a critical analysis of the one-sidedness of the narrowly evolutionist approach to living nature, which failed to fix the important independent role of the factors of biological organization. Thus, this critical function of the systems approach is constructive in nature. It primarily involves discovering the incompleteness of the subjects under study or the inappropriateness of the subjects to new scientific challenges and identifying the inadequacy of the principles of explanation and methods of constructing knowledge being used in the particular branch of science or practice. Conducting this work effectively presumes consistent realization of the principle of succession in the development of systems of knowledge.

The positive role of the systems approach can be reduced to the following basic points. First, the concepts and principles of the systems approach reveal a broader cognitive reality than was shown in earlier knowledge. Examples of this are the concept of the biosphere in Vernadskii’s understanding, the concept of the biogeocenosis in modern ecology, and the optimum approach in economic management and planning.

Second, the systems approach contains a scheme of explanation that differs from earlier ones. This scheme is based on searching for the concrete mechanisms of the object’s integrity and establishing a sufficiently complete typology of the object’s connections. The realization of this function usually involves great difficulties. For truly effective research it is not enough to establish the existence of different types of connections in an object; one must also represent this multiplicity in an operational form, that is, depict the different relationships as logically homogeneous ones that allow direct comparison and juxtaposition. This problem was successfully resolved in ecology, for example, by introducing the notion of food chains in communities, which made it possible to establish measurable connections between different elements of the community.

Third, from the important thesis that an object has within itself a number of different types of connections, it follows that a complex object permits not one but several types of breakdowns. The criterion for a sound choice of the most adequate breakdown for the object under study may be the extent to which the choice permits construction of an operational “unit” of analysis, such as the commodity in Marx’ economic doctrine or the biogeocenosis in ecology. The “unit” of analysis makes it possible to identify the object’s integral properties, structure, and dynamics.

The breadth of the principles and basic concepts of the systems approach tie it closely to other general scientific methodological schools of modern science. In its cognitive orientations, the systems approach has a great deal in common with structuralism and structural-functional analysis. It is related to them not only because it operates with the concepts of structure and function but also because it stresses the study of the diverse connections within the object. At the same time, the principles of the systems approach are broader and more flexible in content and have not been subjected to an excessively rigid conceptualization or absolutization, as has occurred with certain trends in the development of the above mentioned schools.

Because it is in principle a general scientific school of methodology that does not resolve philosophical problems directly, the systems approach needs a philosophical interpretation of its propositions. The history of the development of the systems approach itself shows convincingly that the systems approach is inseparably tied to the fundamental ideas of materialist dialectics, a fact that even many Western scientists often acknowledge. It is dialectic materialism that gives the most adequate philosophical-world view interpretation of the systems approach. By enriching the systems approach methodologically, dialectical materialism thereby enriches its own content. However, relations of subordination always exist between dialectics and the systems approach because the two represent different methodological levels. The systems approach is a concrete application of dialectical principles.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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