"General Systems Theory: A Framework for Analysis and Social Change"

Robert J. Gregory, Ph.D.
School of Psychology
Massey University
Palmerston North, NEW ZEALAND

Phone: 64 6 350-5799 ext. 2053
E-Mail: R.J.Gregory@massey.ac.nz


In working with communities on issues involving social change, a theoretical framework can make a difference in perceiving, analysing, and acting in what is often a complex situation. General systems theory is one such framework, and though well known and highly regarded, the use of this approach remains limited. The following account provides a brief description, with some ideas that may be useful to social change agents.

General systems theory at a simple level can be defined as: elements, which are in exchange, and which are bounded. These components constitute a "system", which functions or operates within a field or an environment. Elements can be virtually anything you wish to label as such, the exchanges are any relationships that exist between elements, and the boundary is what you can see, hear, feel, or sense that separates "system" from the background or environment.

Further ideas can be easily added. The boundaries may be permeable or impermeable - this defines the difference between an open or closed system. Most systems display characteristics of both being open and closed, so that a more useful way to think is by seeking to state the extent of openness or closedness. By specifying levels, super or supra-systems and sub-systems can be created. In working with systems, it is useful to specify these levels, and examine both supra- and sub- systems. Many systems are goal directed - that is, interaction with their environment has some purpose or direction or value or goal or design.

Open systems have inputs - energy or matter that enters through the boundaries, and outputs - energy or matter or "waste" that departs through the boundaries. Through puts are those things or energies that pass through without alteration. Systems also have differentiation and specialization - that is, the component parts made up of elements may specialize to accomplish particular functions: boundary maintenance, input or output regulation, decision-making, sensors, and so on.

A system is in exchange with or is related to an environment, that is, there may be mobility or varying types of linkage, including dependence. A system may be in harmony with an environment, such a system may be said to be balanced or homeostatic. Systems may grow and develop, or reproduce as well as remain homeostatic.

Many of the above ideas can be expressed through simple diagrams, whether by drawing, Power Point, chalkboard, or sand paintings. The use of diagrams simplifies these ideas so many audiences can quickly grasp the nature of structure, dynamics, systems, and their components. In fact, that is how and why this author began, in 1968, to draw pictures of social structures and systems for community groups. Since that time, these and related diagrams have been presented to such groups as politicians, lifers in prison, people from other cultures, children, street people, and even academics. All seemed capable of not only following the ideas, but proved able to use similar diagrams to define their own situation within their own social system.

At a more sophisticated level, systems have a mathematical conceptual core, such that further development of these diagrams could take place in a variety of ways. And, systems can be analyzed, modeled, synthesized, and managed. Analysis includes development of understanding, prediction, and control. Modelling includes monitoring, simulation, and answering "what if" questions. Synthesis includes making up a system from component parts. System change may be natural, planned or managed. Management can be said to be an attempt to ensure that a system or element fits in with a super-system in a way that works appropriately to accomplish some end or goal.

How Systems Thinking Developed

Following the intellectual leaps of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1933; Gray and Rizzo, 1973) in the 1930's, a number of strands of thinking and activity came together to create operations research in World War II. This gave a burst of energy to the field, and because it was successful, systems thinking advanced significantly.

The heart of the matter was the typical problem of logistics and supply lines to serve the battlefront. How to get the right numbers and types of soldiers and support forces, plus materials and equipment, arms and weapons, to the right spot at the right time, was a military pre-occupation. Planners found that systems theory gave them concepts, a mathematical base, and a new level of efficiency in solving such problems.

From that experience, systems thinking advanced further with developments in computers. In sociology and related fields, systems thinking made great leaps forward in the 1960's (Buckley, 1967, 1968; Berrien, 1968) and the ideas were applied in many situations. A swing away from systems has more recently been reversed with the advent of greater computer power, and increasing abilities to apply systems to complex and social, as well as more "simple" engineering problems, as with relatively closed systems.

A more likely scenario these days might regard a shopping mall as a system, and monitoring the numbers of people entering, exploring, and purchasing goods would be a task of a systems monitor. Tracking their movement patterns, spending patterns, and difficulties in access, egress, or movement would eventually lead to interventions that could facilitate profits for shop keepers and the mall overall.

Another example might be a two person interaction, whether bonding, communication on verbal and non-verbal levels, or sexual. Regarding families as systems (Satir, 1972, 1983) or interview/counselling situations, or sales pitches between seller and buyer, might all fall under this rubric. Similar scenarios would exist between manager and worker, or teacher and student, and physician and patient.

People and Systems

Systems notions can be used to look at people and their interactions. A human system is a set of people who communicate, and who have goals or directions. Decision-making is an inherent part of the individual (element) and group (sub-system) and community (system). Power is the ability to make decisions that effect the system and/or the ability to access and influence the sources of decision-making.

Social Change

A way to use systems ideas is to apply them to social change through history. Naturally occurring changes take place over time, and history can serve as a useful subject. Immigrants arrived in the 16th and 17th century in the Americas, then largely ignored the culture of the Native American people, and regarded themselves as pioneers. They were few, frequently isolated, very self-reliant, and rural. In the systems paradigm, they were elements. As small towns developed, numbers increased, isolation was reduced, self reliance gave way to skills that could be exchanged, and small communities and towns emerged. The elements were in exchange - via people working and communicating together.

From there, big cities, giant corporations, and conglomerates such as "Boswatch" or the urban sprawl from Boston through to Washington, or the "military-industrial" complex, have taken over. These large and complicated overlapping groups include the growth of hierarchies, some of which have common goals. The hierarchies have elites, who make decisions or influence decision-making.

The politics of decision-making in systems includes two divergent strategies at the top or pinnacle of power. The group in power seeks to develop and maintain a consensus, which serves to increase its hold on power. A group out of power seeks conflict that it can create, magnify, and then use to gain or regain power in opposition to the group in power.

Hierarchies in communities emerge as chains of decision-making based along a power continuum occur. The hierarchy may be shortened when there is a range of values or goals - as in bi- or multi-cultural groupings, or where numerous organizations and parts are in competition with each other, rather than in a monopoly situation. Networks are assemblies of people where the influence of power is reduced or minimal.

Collectively, the organizations and parts typically comprise a community, either of location or of interest. A system can be regarded as a hierarchy distributed over a Maslow type of set of needs (Maslow, 1968, 1970). That is, those located nearest the bottom are more likely to have physiological or physical needs (shelter, food, water). Those at the next level up are more concerned with safety (assurance that they won't fall further down - such as insurance, fire protection, police work, and related safety issues), the next level up see affiliation as important - that is, the need to be accepted, liked, and involved and participating. Those people nearer the top are more likely to be seeking esteem and power, while those at the top presumably have reached "peak experiences."

The generations influenced by the decades and their culture, provide an interesting contrast over time. The generation raised and influenced by the 1920's, is quite different from that hit by the world economic depression of the 1930's. The people who spent their formative years during World War I or World War II were different psychologically socially and politically from others. And similar effects are noted with the conformity generation of the 1950's, the beat and hippie cultures of the 1960's, the "me" and "yuppie" generation of the 1970's and so on.

Social institutions can be seen to be themes running through a community considered as a system. Parallels will be noted in education, families and social arenas, work, politics, economics and finances, recreation and leisure activities. Change agents, individuals with upward or downward mobility, would be entrepreneurs in some ways - that is likely to also include those who travel laterally either away from the system or towards it - centripetal or centrifugal.

Perturbing the system is a means of bringing about changes. It is like throwing darts at an elephant - an individual dart may have little effect, but when and if there is an effect, the reaction may be sudden, massive, and extensive. Still another image is that a system is akin to a huge block of jelly, and any intervention to move or change the block simply gets swallowed up.

Changes in systems may come about in a variety of ways, for example, by accessing and influencing the elite decision-makers. Change can also come about through conflict and setting new goals, directions, and values. Individuals and groups can be upwardly mobile and create change by rising in the hierarchies. Individuals, and occasionally groups or even nations can fall from higher levels, as with the current world-wide economic competition and occasional cooperation. Changes occur as individuals or groups move away from center or towards the center as well, that is, mainstream and deviant locations in a system are possible..

A threat recoil cycle occurs when a system monitors its environment and own boundaries, perceives and recognizes any threats, and takes steps to mobilize energy to recoil against the threat. Those who seek change can become the target of this threat-recoil cycle.

Managing Systems

Human systems management can take place at individual and group levels. It may require monitoring, and identifying decision-making processes. Study of the interaction between decisions made and the system, plus the impact of environmental influences, may be important. Management implies control, and control of systems or sub-systems is essential to organized daily and on-going life. Systems may be centered or decentered or absent in terms of a center for decision-making. Thus power may be located in one central source, or distributed widely, or be even relatively absent.

In designing systems, the architecture is represented by an organizational chart, plus the informal processes that operate as well. In a two-person system, the interaction that takes place could be charted. Typical interactions would constitute scripts (using or borrowing ideas from transactional analysis (Berne, 1966)) and the most common would present in a hierarchy of likelihood of use. Changing the hierarchy could serve to be a second order system of changing behaviour, as opposed to the first order or switching a particular interaction without reference to the underlying hierarchy.


The ideas and concepts of general systems theory can be valuable as ways to understand and conceptualize human beings, communication, their communities and their environment. As an approach useful for working with social change, general systems theory offers a unique perspective and framework.


Berne, Eric (1966) Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, New York: Grove Press.

Berrien, Frederick K. (1968) General and Social Systems, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Buckley, Walter F. (1967) Sociology and Modern Systems Theory, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Buckley, Walter F. (1968) Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook, Chicago: Aldine.

Gray, William and Nicholas D. Rizzo (Eds.) (1973) Unity through Diversity: A Festschrift for Ludwig von Bertalanffy, New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publications.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being, Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1970) Motivation and Personality, New York: Harper and Row.

Satir, Virginia M. (1972) Peoplemaking, Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books.

Satir, Virginia M. (1983) Conjoint Family Therapy, Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Diagrams in bmp format:

Original Concepts and Drawings were by Robert Gregory, Massey University

and translated to bmp format by Luke Rondinaro, Independent Scholar

Systems Theory Diagram 1

Systems Theory Diagram 2

Systems Theory Diagram 3

Systems Theory Diagram 4

Systems Theory Diagram 5

Systems Theory Diagram 6

Systems Theory Diagram 7

Systems Theory Diagram 8

Systems Theory Diagram 9

Systems Theory Diagram 10

Systems Theory Diagram 11