Three radical worldviews and research approaches are salient in social studies: individualism, holism, and systemism. Individualism focuses on the composition of social systems, whereas holism focuses on their structure. Neither of them is adequate, one because all individuals are interrelated and two because there are no relations without relata. The only cogent and viable alternative is systemism, according to which everything is either a system or a component of a system, and every system has peculiar (emergent) properties that its components lack. The simplest model of a system, whether concrete or abstract, is the ordered triple composition-environment-structure. Concrete systems, whether physical, biological, or social, are also characterized by their mechanism or modus operandi. This model is more realistic and therefore more useful. A few examples are examined. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Boudon-Coleman diagram; Holism; Individualism; Interdiscipline; Social engineering; Social system; Systemism
When contemporary social scientists hear the word “system,” they are likely to draw their intellectual guns. They seem to feel threatened by a return to the obsolete holism of Hegel, Comte, Marx, Durkheim, or Parsons. They are rightly diffident of imaginary collective entities such as collective memory, national spirit, and nations that allegedly hover above individuals. And so, they take refuge in the equally obsolete individualism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Weber, or the neoclassical microeconomists.
To be sure, social individualists–pardon the oxymoron–do not deny that individual action is now constrained, now stimulated by the social context or situation. But of course they do not and cannot analyze the latter in individualist terms: they leave it as an unanalyzed whole. And they resist the very idea that individuals flock together–or are thrown together–into social systems such as families, tribes, villages, business firms, armies, schools, religious congregations, informal networks, or political parties, all of which are just as real and concrete as their individual constituents. Individualists insist that all these are just collections of individuals: they underrate or even overlook structure.
Hence individualists miss one of the most important and intriguing of all kinds of events in society and nature: the emergence of novelty or, more precisely, the emergence of things with systemic properties, that is, properties that their components or their precursors lack. By the same token, they fail to realize the existence of systemic social problems, such as those of poverty and underdevelopment, that cannot be solved by doing one thing at a time, because they affect several systems at once–the biological, economic, cultural, and political ones.
This situation has no parallel in mathematics, natural science, or technology. Indeed, mathematicians know that all valid reasonings (deductive arguments) are systems of statements, and they value hypothetico-deductive systems (theories) well above unstructured sets of formulas. Systemicity is indeed peculiar to modern mathematics. Just think of the concepts of real number system, system of functions, system of equations, coordinate system, topological space, algebra, and axiomatic system. As Hardy (1967) stated, the importance of a mathematical idea is somehow proportional to its relatedness to other mathematical ideas, that is, to its belonging to different mathematical systems. Hence the centrality of logic, the system that underlies, or is included in, all mathematical theories. One might even say that, in mathematics, to be is to be a component of at least one mathematical system. Strays do not qualify.
Physicists use the concept of a system just as frequently as mathematicians, for they study such systems as atoms, molecules, crystals, stars, laser beams, and weather systems. Likewise, chemists study systems of interacting chemical reactions. And of course biologists study systems at all levels: subcellular (such as chromosomes), cells, organs, multicellular organisms, populations, and ecosystems. Only particle physicists study non-systems, such as quarks, electrons, and photons. But they know that all such simple things are parts of systems or will eventually be absorbed by some system.
Much the same holds for technology. Indeed, technology consists in the design, redesign and testing of artifacts. And all of these are artificial systems. Indeed, even the simplest of machines and the simplest of formal organizations is a system, that is, a complex thing whose components are bound together, as a consequence of which the whole has peculiar properties and behaves as a unit in some respects. Think of pulleys, batteries, engines, or computers; or of schools, clubs, business firms, or governments. All artifacts, whether physical like television networks, biological like cows, or social like corporations, are systems. Hence they should be designed, maintained and repaired in a systemic way rather than bit by bit. That is, they should be examined and handled as wholes, though not as blocs but as systems with a composition, an environment, a structure, and a mechanism.
Bunge, Mario, Journal of Socio-Economics