The ubiquity of the concept of a system is such, that it suggests adopting a whole systemic worldview. This is centered in the following postulates:
1. Everything, whether concrete or abstract, is a system or
an actual or potential component of a system;
2. systems have systemic (emergent) features that their
components lack, whence
3. all problems should be approached in a systemic rather
than in a sectoral fashion;
4. all ideas should be put together into systems (theories);
5. the testing of anything, whether idea or artifact, assumes
the validity of other items, which are taken as benchmarks,
at least for the time being.
Yet, social individualists resist the systemic approach. They insist on studying only the components of social systems, that is, individuals, while overlooking their structure or set of connections (internal and external). I guess theirs is a defensive strategy: they do not wish to be taken for holists, and they are diffident of the writers who call themselves system theorists although actually they are holists. (Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, and Erwin Laszlo come to mind.) Their opaque and long-winded utterances has given systemism a bad name. I guess this is why most social scientists shun the word ‘system’ even while studying social systems.
Fortunately, few authentic social scientists practice the philosophy they preach. For example, Karl Marx was a holist in epistemology: in fact, he was the grandfather of the now fashionable social constructivism. But when it came to economic and political matters, he insisted that individual action is the source of all social change. Likewise, Max Weber popularized Dilthey’s individualism, subjectivism and antiscientism. But he did not practice these philosophical views: indeed, he proceeded scientifically when tackling sociological and socioeconomic problems. Moreover, Weber studied such systems as the slave society, the caste system, the feudal structure, organized religion, bureaucracy, industrial capitalism, and legal codes.
Closer to us, James S. Coleman (1990) stated that, in his own variant of methodological individualism, “[t]he interaction among individuals is seen to result in emergent phenomena at the system level” (p. 5). Moreover, he criticized the “fiction that society consists of a set of independent individuals, each of whom acts to achieve goals that are independently arrived at, and that the functioning of society consists of the combination of these actions of independent individuals” (p. 300). And he stated that “the correct path for social theory is […] to maintain a single conception of what individuals are like and to generate the varying systemic functioning not from different kinds of creatures, but from different structures of relations within which these creatures find themselves” (p. 197). In other words, once a social system is in place, individuals become replaceable to some extent: their roles can be enacted by different persons. When I told Coleman that his views were not individualist but systemist, he replied that maybe he was a closet systemist.
Moreover, Coleman, Boudon, and others have performed plenty of micro-macro analyses. These can be condensed in what may be called Boudon-Coleman diagrams (Bunge 1996, 1998). Here is a self-explanatory example:
Macrolevel Economic growth right arrow Population stagnation
down arrow up arrow
Microlevel Old-age security right arrow Decline in fertility
A holist is likely to be baffled by the information that, in our time, economic growth is bound to be accompanied by population stagnation; and the individualist must take old-age security as a given–even if it depends partly upon a macrosystem, namely government. The systemist dissolves the paradox by linking the system and individual levels. In doing so he unveils the mechanism that mediates two macrovariables.
Second example: There are two main currents in the study of ideas, the individualist or internalist, and the holist or externalist. Internalists focuse on conceptual problems and solutions, whereas holists focuse on networks and formal organizations. The internalists tend to deal in disembodied ideas, whereas the externalists tend to study groups while minimizing the importance of ideas. The two parties do not talk to each other. And yet it should be obvious that each of them sheds light on only one of the sides of the coin, and that neither captures the complexity of the micro-macro links. For example, internalists cannot explain why science was born only once, in ancient Greece, and why it whithered a couple of centuries later. Externalists are equally at a loss to explain these processes, because they cannot even distinguish science from magic, religion, or philosophy, all of them allegedly being “social constructions” contrived by groups or networks (see, e.g., Collins, 1998).
By contrast, the systemist is likely to look at the problem this way. Every thinker is born into a pre-existing tradition, which he either follows or rebels against. He inherits some findings and problems and, if original, invents or discovers new ones. The solutions he proposes to the problems he tackles are born in his brain, not in society: social groups are brainless, hence they cannot think. Of course, social groups and circumstances can stimulate or inhibit thought. But their influence is not such that every idea has a social content, let alone a political purpose.
Obviously, the ideas in social studies have a social content. Hence, they must be judged by their adequacy to social facts or their efficiency in promoting social change. By contrast, the validity of mathematical proofs, and the truth of physical or biological theories, have nothing to do with social class, political power, or economic growth. These social factors are relevant only to the ability of individual researchers to conduct their work without distorting political or ideological pressures. For example, the cultural policy of liberalism, which is based on individualism, is one of benign neglect. By contrast, the totalitarian cultural policy, which is based on holism, is one of censorship. (For the holism-Nazism connection, see Harrington, 1996.)
My third example is Tocqueville’s ( 1998) explanation of the backwardness of French agriculture compared with the English in the eighteenth century. The mechanism was landlord absenteeism, far more common in France than in England. Whereas the typical French aristocrat left the administration of his land in the hands of a steward, and took up a position as a civil servant or a courtier, his English counterpart was typically a gentleman-farmer who lived on his estate and saw personally to it that his land was well cultivated, his tenants paid punctually their rent, and his neighbors observed law and custom. In sum, whereas the typical squire remained at the center of his rural web, his French counterpart was marginalized.
In turn, the root of this difference is macrosocial, namely the political organization, which was centralist in France and decentralized in England. A French aristocrat gained more power and prestige from shuffling papers, socializing and scheming in Paris, than from pottering in his grounds, learning new cultivation methods, and acting as local magistrate. In this case, individual choice, and its consequence for rural life, were ultimately determined by the political system. As Tocqueville himself wrote, “the chief and permanent cause of this fact was […] the slow and constant actions of institutions” (p. 181).
Boudon (1998) regards this case as confirming what he calls contextual individualism and cognitive rationality. I prefer to think of Tocqueville as a systemist avant la lettre, particularly since he noted the social aspect of the process in addition to its economic and political ones. Indeed, Tocqueville’s main point is that landlord absenteism destroyed the rural web centered in the landlord, in addition to impoverishing landlord and peasant alike. He was thus a socio-econo-politologist. Indeed, his explanation fits the following Boudon-Coleman diagram:
Macrolevel Political centralization right arrow
Impoverishment & alienation
down arrow up arrow
Microlevel Landlord absenteeism right arrow Agricultural
stagnation & weakening of social ties
In this case, like in all other social processes, there are uncounted individual choices, decisions and actions. But all of them occur within or between social systems, and they reinforce or weaken the bonds that keep these systems together. Choice, action, bond, and context go together.
Bunge, Mario, Journal of Socio-Economics