Why is General Systems worth a student's time? General Systems principles are truly useful for understanding all types of systems, so they provide practical benefits for students. Students become better able to follow (and generate) scientific analysis of any system.
On a more philosophical level, they relate to a world-view that emphasizes evidence-based thinking. They relate to a worldview in which things make sense and are coherent. General Systems is all about the underlying regularities in the world.
Who is the target audience? This material should be accessible to college students and maybe younger students if they are analytic types. For people leaning strongly toward a holistic cognitive style (see below), third and fourth year college students were best at tackling this unfamiliar way of thinking.
How might this toolkit be used? A professor teaching Cognitive Psychology might find a week on General Systems useful to begin a course. Schools with special short courses between terms or during the summer could use this toolkit as a free textbook on Complex Systems.
Last but not least, auto-didacts (self-learners) can teach themselves General Systems using this toolkit, much the way I did as an undergraduate browsing the General Systems Yearbook: the story below.
My personal experience with General Systems FWIW
This section describes how I encountered General Systems and why I emphasize the distinctive Anatol Rapoport approach. You can skip directly to Beginnings of General System Theory if this type of background material is not relevant to you. For experts on General Systems it will explain a lot about my personal approach to the topic.
My enthusiasm for General Systems derives from my personal experience with its usefulness. I discovered General Systems around 1970 while browsing in the library at the University of Michigan's Mental Health Research Institute (MHRI).
The MHRI library had the entire set of General Systems Yearbook from volume 1 (1956) onward. I never saw such a collection again; the Yearbook is rather obscure. The MHRI had them because it was the headquarters of the Society for General Systems Research.
Anatol Rapoport, the editor of the Yearbook, assembled each annual volume with a few original articles but mostly reprinted articles from other scientific journals. This made the Yearbook like a "Best of" collection, featuring the articles most relevant to General Systems from the previous year or two.
After reading a few issues of the Yearbook, I was hooked. Soon I was seeing the patterns described in Yearbook articles in other systems. Almost every time a complex system was brought up in one of my college classes, I could analyze it. This was eye opening to a young college student. I had never experienced such powerful ideas.
A year later I was lured into the psychology major by Ulric Neisser's 1967 book Cognitive Psychology. That book also reaffirmed the importance of General Systems principles, as they often helped me understand Neisser's explanations of cognitive processes (see, for example, the page on Top-Down and Bottom-Up Processes).
In a Human Physiology course under Art Vander the same thing happened. The course had a reputation for being difficult, but it was easy to understand after encountering General Systems because nearly every physiological process used familiar processes such as feedback and equilibrium-seeking. It helped to have a clearly written textbook (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano, 1970).
Miller vs Rapoport style General Systems
Despite my enthusiasm for General Systems, and despite the fact that General Systems reached its peak of popularity around that time (1974), few people on the Michigan campus were aware of it. They might know something by that name was studied at the MHRI, but that was about it.
When I became a graduate student at Michigan, I found a single course based explicitly upon General Systems: Organizational Psychology (under Rob Cooke). It used a textbook by Katz and Kahn (1978), The Social Psychology of Organizations. I signed up for it.
The professor was good, but the book was disappointing. Katz and Kahn emphasized that organizations were built up from energetic inputs and outputs, and also personnel inputs and outputs, and on they went from there, but none of it seemed very insightful.
I learned later that the emphasis on energetic inputs and outputs was a telltale sign of the James G. Miller approach. For Miller, General Systems was about features all systems had in common, so he always started with inputs and outputs.
Miller and Rapoport had very different approaches to General Systems. Rapoport was looking for unexpected and interesting resemblances between systems.
The Rapoport approach was to use general system principles where they fit, which meant using them when and if they solved important problems. I discuss this more on the pages Different Approaches to General Systemsand What Is a General System Principle?.
When I taught at Georgia Southern University, General Systems proved to be most helpful in a Cognitive Psychology course for 3rd and 4th year college students. I started the term with it, explaining how it would acquaint students with basic patterns of organization we encountered throughout the term.
As we went from one cognitive system to another (perception, language, motor behavior, problem solving) the same principles came into play again and again. Knowing the General Systems principles really seemed to help the students.
Analytic vs. Holistic Types
With General Systems a regular part of the Cognitive Psychology course, I could not help but noticed a bipolar response to it from my students. About half the students found it interesting and easy to understand. The other half found it abstract and difficult. Few were in between.
I gave out a short questionnaire to find out of the students who found General Systems hard or easy came from different majors. The differences were just what you might expect from self-sorting.
Students attracted to General Systems were in technical majors like experimental psychology, technology, engineering, or natural science majors like Biology. All of them had to deal with analyzing systems in their majors.
The other half of the students, who found General Systems challenging, tended to be majors in English, Art, Literature, History, and Education. Some were Psychology majors attracted to the clinical side of the discipline.
This type of individual difference has been discussed since the 1960s in the cognitive styles literature. The distinction is between analytic and holistic cognitive styles.
A person inclined to be analytic is already performing the type of activity described in General Systems literature. That person takes a system apart into its components, mentally, with the goal of understanding how the parts interact to produce organized behavior. These students tend to be attracted to majors in engineering and the sciences.
The holistic person, by contrast, generates an evaluation of the system as a whole. Such a person may develop fine abilities to discriminate artistically worthy productions from junk, without "taking things apart."
However, the analytic approach can be life affirming, too. By understanding how a system works, we become able to understand it, repair it, and (if it is a living system) nurture it.
A college classroom usually contains both analytic and holistic types. At an engineering school the population would be heavily tilted toward the analytic type, but at our school, the ratio was closer to a 50-50 split.
The way I see it, both groups can benefit from a general review of general system principles. People who are already strong in their analytic skills have them reaffirmed. Those weak in analytic schools gain new insights.
If this toolkit is encountered in a classroom, I hope students will benefit the way I did. General Systems principles carry over easily to a variety of other classes (basically whenever systems need analyzing).
If this toolkit is encountered through web browsing, without an assignment, some students will study it on their own. If they do, great; auto-didacticism, self-
Katz, D. & Kahn, R. (1978) The Social Psychology of Organizations. New York: Wiley.
Rapoport, A. (1986) General System Theory: Essential Concepts and Applications. Wilks, UK: Abacus Press.
Vander, A. J., Sherman, J, & Luciano, D. (1970) Human Physiology: Mechanisms of Body Function (First Edition). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
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Copyright © 2017 Russ Dewey