Society as a Complex Adaptive System | Walter Buckley | 1968 | Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist

Sociocultural systems described by Walter Buckley in 1968 were later cited as information-bonded (c.f. energy-bonded) systems by Gharajedaghi 1999, and in 2011.  This reading deserves some more thought, so I’m getting into motion to lead a workshop at ISSS Hai Phong City 2013.

We have argued at some length in another place [1] that the mechanical equilibrium model and the organismic homeostasis models of society that have underlain most modern sociological theory have outlived their usefulness. A more viable model, one much more faithful to the kind of system that society is more and more recognized to be, is in process of developing out of, or is in keeping with, the modern systems perspective (which we use loosely here to refer to general systems research, cybernetics, information and communication theory, and related fields). Society, or the sociocultural system, is not, then, principally an equilibrium system or a homeostatic system, but what we shall simply refer to as a complex adaptive system.

[1]. Sociology and Modern System Theory (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967)

To summarize the argument in overly simplified form: Equilibrial systems are relatively closed and entropic. In going to equilibrium they

  • typically lose structure and have a minimum of free energy;
  • they are affected only by external “disturbances” and have no internal or endogenous sources of change;
  • their component elements are relatively simple and linked directly via energy exchange (rather than information interchange); and
  • since they are relatively closed they have no feedback or other systematic self-regulating or adaptive capabilities.

The homeostatic system (for example, the organism, apart from higher cortical functioning) is open and negentropic, maintaining a moderate energy level within controlled limits.  But for our purposes here, the system’s main characteristic is its functioning to maintain the given structure of the system within pre-established limits. It involves feedback loops with its environment, and possibly information as well as pure energy interchanges, but these are geared principally to self-regulation (structure maintenance) rather than adaptation (change of system structure).

The complex adaptive systems (species, psychological and socio-cultural systems) are also open and negentropic. But

  • they are open “internally” us well as externally in that the interchanges among their components may result in significant changes in the nature of the components themselves with important consequences for the system as a whole.
  • And the energy level that may be mobilized by the system is subject to relatively wide fluctuation.
  • Internal as well as external interchanges are mediated characteristically by information flows (via chemical, cortical, or cultural encoding and decoding), although pure energy interchange occurs also.
  • True feedback control loops make possible not only self-regulation, but self-direction or at least adaptation to a changing environment, such that the system may change or elaborate its structure as a condition of survival or viability. [p. 490, editorial paragraphing added]

We argue, then, that the sociocultural system is fundamentally of the latter type, and requisite for analysis a theoretical model or perspective built on the kinds of characteristics mentioned. In what follows we draw on many of the concepts and principles presented throughout this sourcebook to sketch out aspects of a complex adaptive system model or analytical framework for the sociocultural system. It is further argued that a number of recent sociological and social psychological theories and theoretical orientations articulate well with this modern systems perspective and we outline some of these to suggest in addition that modern systems research is not as remote from the social scientists’ interests and endeavors as many appear to believe.  [pp. 490-491]

Buckley, Walter. 1968. “Society as a Complex Adaptive System.” In Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook, edited by Walter Buckley, 490–513. Chicago: Aldine.

Gharajedaghi provides the tie from his writing to Buckley (1967) book — from which the 1968 chapter excerpts.  In chapter 4, on “Sociocultural Model: Information-Bonded Systems”:

Buckley (1967) explains this structural characteristic of sociocultural systems by focusing on the organization and its dynamics based on the effect of the information, as opposed to energy transmission. The sociocultural system is viewed as a set of elements linked almost entirely by intercommunication of information. It is an organization of meanings emerging from a network of interactions among individuals. [pp. 83-84]

Gharajedaghi, Jamshid. 1999. Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity : a Platform for Designing Business Architecture. Elsevier.

The Buckley article was republished in 2008 with an introduction by David Schwandt & Jeffrey A. Goldstein in E:CO Emergence: Complexity & Organization.

Although the phrase “complex adaptive system” is one usually thought to have been coined at the Santa Fe Institute sometime during the 1990s, we can see by the title of this classic paper that the systems-oriented social thinker Walter Buckley had already been using the phrase “complex adaptive system” as early as 1968 and with pretty much the same connotations as it is used today. Thus, similar to how the phrase is contemporarily employed, Buckley explicitly crafted “complex adaptive system” to counter an equilibrium-based, “closed” view of systems which he felt was endemic at the time of his writing this paper.  [p. 86]

Buckley, Walter, David Schwandt, and Jeffrey A. Goldstein. 2008. “Society as a Complex Adaptive System.” E:CO Emergence: Complexity & Organization 10 (3): 86–112.

Systems Research For Behavioral Science - Buckley - Google Books


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