Field (system definitions, 2004, plus social)

Systems thinking should include not only thinking about the system, but also its environment. Using the term “field” as the system of interest plus its influences leaves a lot of the world uncovered. From the multiple definitions in the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics , there is variety of ways of understanding “field”. One that is general and useful emphasizes knowing.

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“A knowledge-set which expresses the relationship between the exogenous factors present in the system’s environment and the properties of the system’s parts” (J.W. SUTHERLAND, 1974, p.37).

‘ This concept, thus somewhat fuzzily defined, expresses that it is not possible to understand and explain the system without reference to its environment.

It seems however very difficult to establish precisely such a knowledge-set. Until now we do not have any very reliable method for tracking all the elements and interconnexions that should be integrated in such a field-function. This is, for example, a patent weakness of FORRESTER’S Systems Dynamics, underlined by the controversial character of the famed CLUB of ROME studies.

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That criticism of the “all the elements and interconnexions” is fair, but might be handled as a separate concern from the parties who are privileged to define the boundary of a system of interest (and therefore also the boundary of a field).

The place that I encountered the idea of field comes from Emery and Trist. This happens in a larger context, that are has been explicated by Babüroǵlu as the Emery-Trist Systems Paradigm (ETSP).

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The salience of turbulent environments and the concern about adaptation in turbulent environments lead to concentration on the interdependencies in the environment, L22. The third track was established with the publication of the jointly coauthored book entitled Towards a Social Ecology (Emery and Trist, 1973). In this book, social ecology directs the focus to the interdependencies between human institutions and human culture, both as figure and as ground (Vickers, 1973). The ecological emphasis–that of raising the unit of analysis from the single organization to the population of interdependent organizations and institutions–was further developed with the introduction of the “extended social field” (Emery, 1977) and the “organizational ecology” (Trist, 1977) concepts. Therefore, the third track marks liberation from the single social system referential design.

Societal problems, such as environmental degradation and economic revival, could no longer be dealt with solely by individual organizations. Instead, inter-organizational domains (Trist, 1983), composed of members all concerned with the same set of problems, had to be activated, formed, and managed. This implied that there were some missing institutions which lie somewhere between the “micro and macro social scales” (Wright and Morley, 1989). Innovating organizations interconnecting organizational, industrial, societal, community, and personal development constituted what Trist (1978) called “the new directions of hope.” The design principles for interorganizational domains reemphasized the ETSP essentials of participative democracy and participation, power sharing and complementarity, acknowledgment of multiple interest groups, and a negotiated order between them. The search conference methodology was especially suited for domain creation and planning.

The York University group coined a concept of action learning descriptive of what Emery called the new educational paradigm. This contrasts with action research, which expresses the engagement and intervention mode in the first track of the ETSP. Action learning “focused on the common transactional and contextual environments associated with the set of organizations drawn together around the domain issues” (Morley, 1989), as opposed to focusing on the internal environments of single organizations. Action learning facilitates a pro- cess whereby the participants go through a “subjective and a collective trans-formation of consciousness” (Morley, 1989) regarding the existing boundaries of the systems in question. Furthermore, action learning aims at making it possible for learning to occur at the individual, group, organization, and inter-organizational and societal (public) levels. [Babüroǵlu, 1992, pp. 276-277]

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Another influence, well after the Tavistock years, I was surprised to see in the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, as I read been reading with Pierre Bourdieu.

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FIELD (Social) 4)
“An autonomous microcosm within the social macrocosm”(P. BOURDIEU, 2000)

“Autonomous”is a perfect characterization of such a microcosm, as it means that it possesses (i.e. establishes and maintains) its own definitory norms and rules.

Social fields can be observed in all human institutions and organizations– as for ex. in religious groups of any kind, in business, in politics, in the arts and even in scientific disciplines within academic structures.

It is not proper to any culture, but it offers a wide arc of specific forms in accordance with environmental and historical conditions.

Recent research rises the possibility that some precursor forms of social fields may exist in some insect societies, as beehives and termites mounds.

Social fields could conceivably be related to competition for the occupation of the internal social space, and also to some kinds of age classes or cohorts.

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Finally, a more general sense of field, outside of social systems, is provied by Ashby.

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FIELD of system 2)
“The phase-space containing all the lines of behavior found by releasing the system from all possible initial states in a particular set of surrounding conditions” (W.R. ASHBY, 1960, p.28).

ASHBY states:”The concept of “field”… defines the characteristic behavior of the system, replacing the vague concept of what a system “does” or how it “behaves” (often describable only in words) by the precise construct of a
“field” (Ibid).

It is however debatable whether it is always possible to obtain a full knowledge of “all possible states“, let alone of the full phase-space.

Nevertheless, ASHBY offered very interesting insights into the concept of field in his “Introduction to Cybernetics” (chap.9 “Incessant transmission“, where he describes the set of all the possible transitions of a system by matrixes) (1956).

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In the context of systems definitions, choosing one or more of the above definitions may be appropriate depending on the domain of interest — in particular, with just social systems, or systems more generally.

In the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, The numbers beside the entry mean …

  • The following special markers have been used, in order to enhance the usefulness of the encyclopedia:
  • 1) meaning “systemic on a wide range”, or “general information”
  • 2) meaning “general abstract or mathematical model”, or “methodology”
  • 3) meaning “epistemologica! or ontological aspects”, or “semantics”
  • 4) meaning “practical in human sciences”
  • 5) meaning “more specific or disciplinarian”

In this paper-first encyclopedia, the bolded text is link to other entries.


Babüroǵlu, Oǵuz N. 1992. “Tracking the Development of the Emery-Trist Systems Paradigm (ETSP).” Systems Practice 5 (3): 263–290. .

François, Charles, ed. 2004. International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics | 2nd ed. De Gruyter Saur.

International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

#field, #field-theory