The Meaning of System: Towards a Complexity Orientation in Systems Thinking

The Meaning of System: Towards a Complexity Orientation in Systems Thinking

Steen Leleur (Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, Denmark)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/ijss.2014010103
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This article reviews the generic meaning of ‘system’ and complements more conventional system notions with a system perception based on recent complexity theory. With system as the core concept of systems theory, its actual meaning is not just of theoretical interest but is highly relevant also for systems practice. It is argued that complexity theory and thinking with reference to Luhmann a.o. ought to be recognised and paid attention to by the systems community. Overall, it is found that a complexity orientation may contribute to extend and enrich the explanatory power of current systems theory when used to complex real-world problems. As regards systems practice it is found that selective use and combination of five presented research approaches (functionalist, interpretive, emancipatory, postmodern and complexity) which function as different but complementing ‘epistemic lenses’ in a process described as constructive circularity, may strengthen the exploration and learning efforts in systems-based intervention.
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The Three Waves Of Systems Science

In recent reviews of the development of systems science, a staged development has been recognised (Midgley, 2000). There seems to be a kind of agreement that a first wave covered by a fifty-year period ending around 1980 can be viewed as an expression of a functionalist approach, while a second wave, among others introduced by researchers such as Ackoff and Checkland, unfolded in the 1980s taking a mainly interpretive research orientation. The period from the 1990s until the present day is characterised by more uncertainty as concerns the wave categorisation. At least, however, what has been termed emancipatory and postmodern approaches candidate as important research orientations to feature a current third wave. Furthermore, recent ideas stemming from complexity research are found to be relevant in this context. Today the approaches are used concurrently when seeking to make sense of complex problems; thus the waves and their approaches have not superseded each other but have successively contributed to expanding and enriching systems thinking, see also (Stowell & Welsh, 2012).

The third wave of systems science is based on the previous functionalist and interpretive orientations, which – quoted from Systems Approaches to Management by Jackson – can be characterised as follows:

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