Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2”, edited by F. E. Emery (1981)

The selection of readings in the “Introduction” to Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2, Penguin (1981), edited by Fred E. Emery, reflects a turn from 1969 when a general systems theory was more fully entertained, towards an urgency towards changes in the world that were present in 1981. Systems thinking was again emphasized in contrast to causal analysis, citing Andris Angyal.

— begin paste —


Apart from the first two introductory readings this volume tries to track some of the major fields of application of systems thinking.

They are instances, the editor believes, where old problems have been fruitfully cast in a new light by a new approach. In each instance insight has been achieved by connecting together what the disciplinary approach had rendered asunder, and by repositioning data within a newly identified superordinate system. These efforts meet Angyal’s distinction between systems thinking and causal analysis (see, in Volume 1, the Introduction to Volumes 1 and 2).

What is noticeably absent is any apparent urge towards a general systems theory. The question these studies raise appears to be ‘How many substantive systems (assembly lines, forms of subsistence agriculture, living languages) share the characteristics identified in a particular instance?’ and not, ‘How many characteristics can we find that are common to all living systems?’ (e.g. Miller, 1965). The latter pursuit seems inevitably to lead us into abstractions and back to the library. The former, as in this volume, do not bypass the libraries but must lead us to closer contact with the practical involvements of people.

What does this portend for the future of systems thinking? [p. 9]

Each of the lines of thought expounded in the first seven parts seems very likely to be a stepping-stone to further development. The problems they tackle may not be traditional problems but they are certainly ones that we now find pressing. They arise from broad changes in our world that are not likely to go away. The most general explanation for the extent and nature of this change is that western societies, at least, are shifting remorselessly from what Feibleman and Friend (Reading 2, Vol. 1) described as ‘participative, subjective’ systems where ‘the governing relation is asymmetrical dependence’ towards ‘participative, complemental’ systems where the governing relation is symmetrical dependence’. Angyal (Reading 8 herein) gives some useful criteria for following such a system change. His key point is that the conflict between system principles does not stabilize at some point of compromise. If we take a broad view of our societies it certainly seems that the new problem areas are commonly concerned with how we live, learn and communicate outside the traditional framework of dominant hierarchies. [pp. 9-10]

Why this question should now be so prominent on the human agenda is another matter (Emery, 1977). Given that it is we must expect a temporary disarray in systems thinking as each turns his mind to the task nearest to hand in his traditional part of the vineyard.

Perhaps this volume will make some contribution to a greater awareness and appreciation of the theoretical innovations of those others in diverse fields who are essentially co-workers.

Reading 26 (in Part Eight) requires some comment.

As Ackoff and I pointed out in 1972, at the end of our first attempt to define ideal-seeking systems, ‘Understanding of this aspect of system behaviour, however, seems to be essential if we are to solve the problems of adapting to the increasingly turbulent environments we are producing for ourselves’ (p. 247). We were well aware that we were doing no more than push the door ajar. The ideals themselves that we identified, as distinct from the theoretical characterization of ideal-seeking systems, seemed to have a peculiar musty flavour in a world listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the like. We had, I think, been too influenced by the centuries of philosophical and theological discourse that served the myth that people’s institutions can be ideal-seeking. [p. 10]

The second reading in Part Eight could as easily have gone in with the planning papers in Part One or the governance papers in Part Seven. I chose to put it in Part Eight because the need to operationalize the pursuit of ideals is the most pressing of all of these problems and existing methodologies for this are extremely inadequate. [pp. 10-11]


Ackoff, R. L., and Emery, F. E. (1972), On Purposeful Systems, London, Tavistock.

Emery, F. E. (1977), Youth Victims, Vanguard or Vandals, Melbourne, National Youth Council.

Miller, J. G. (1965), ‘Living systems: cross level hypotheses’, Behavioral Science, vol. 10, pp. 380-411.

— end paste —


Emery, Fred E., ed. 1981. “Introduction.” In Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, 2:9–11. Penguin Modern Management Texts. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

The tables of contents (disambiguating various editions) were previously listed as 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings.

1981 Systems Thinking, Selected Readings, volume 2, editor Fred E. Emery, Penguin

#fred-e-emery, #penguin, #systems-thinking