World Systems and General Systems Thought

Tue, 22 Apr 1997 12:54:10 +1000
Bruce McFarling (

What are the relationships, if any, between the more general
approaches to studying concrete systems such a general systems theory
and "world" systems theory?

The question re-occurs to me as I finish Sanderson's "Social
Transformations" book, in which Sanderson forcefully argues, contra
the GS perspective, that all macroevolutionary change is simply the
aggregate of microevolutionary change in individual behavior. If this
means what is says, this is a strongly reductionist stance, opposed to
most system perspectives (not just GST). On the other hand, I find reason
to doubt that this *does* mean what it says, since further on Sanderson
argues in a way that seems to imply that macroevolutionary change is
*constituted by*, but *not* reducible to, microevolutionary change: that
is, that macroevolutionary change is *more* than a mere aggregate of
microevolutionary change, even if it is obviously constituted by
microevolutionary change.

On the other extreme, there has been a suggestion (though of
what merit, it is difficult to say, as it comes from a source who also
appears to feel that selecting participants in list discussion for mockery
is a contribution worth posting to the list) that WS thought has a tendency
to reify the systems it describes -- that is, to ignore the side of GST
represented in the standard definition of a system as a collection of
interacting elements, and treat the system as a primitive entity in its
own right.

Questions of "what qualifies to be a world system" can always
be answered by coining a new term for the type of system that someone
wishes to discuss (e.g., "world-system" vs. "world system"). But
whether WST adopts a system perspective, or treats "the system" as a
primitive, or treats "the system" as a mere aggregate of individual
members of a population, is fairly fundamental in determining the dialogue
with other approachs and/or other disciplines that WST can fruitfully
pursue. Of course, it seems likely that there are fuzzy boundaries
between these stereotyped positions rather than crisp boundaries, and
this question might have to be addressed in terms of positions of
individual WST thinkers rather than in terms of "WST" as a whole.[1]


Bruce McFarling, Newcastle

[1] Elaboration of the recursive character of this last observation
within the context of this question is left as an exercise for the reader.