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The General Theory of Systems, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy

The General Theory of Systems, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy

July 14, 2024

It is known as "systems theory" to a set of interdisciplinary contributions that have the objective of studying the characteristics that define systems, that is, entities formed by interrelated and interdependent components.

One of the first contributions to this field was the general systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy . This model has had a great influence on the scientific perspective and continues to be a fundamental reference in the analysis of systems, such as families and other human groups.

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The systems theory of Bertalanffy

The German biologist Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) proposed in 1928 his general theory of systems as a broad tool that could be shared by many different sciences.


This theory contributed to the appearance of a new scientific paradigm based on the interrelation between the elements that make up the systems. Previously it was considered that the systems as a whole were equal to the sum of their parts, and that they could be studied from the individual analysis of their components; Bertalanffy questioned such beliefs.

Since it was created, the general theory of systems has been applied to biology, to psychology , to mathematics, to computational sciences, to economics, to sociology, to politics and to other exact and social sciences, especially in the context of the analysis of interactions.

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Defining the systems

For this author the concept of "system" can be defined as a set of elements that interact with each other . These are not necessarily humans, not even animals, but they can also be computers, neurons or cells, among many other possibilities.


Systems are defined by their structural characteristics, such as the relationship between the components, and functional; for example, in human systems the elements of the system pursue a common purpose. The key aspect of differentiation between systems is whether they are open or closed to the influence of the environment in which they are located.

System types

Bertalanffy and other later authors have defined different System types according to structural and functional characteristics . Let's see which are the most important classifications.

1. System, suprasystem and subsystems

Systems can be divided according to their level of complexity. The different levels of a system interact with each other, so they are not independent of each other.

If we understand by system a set of elements, we speak of "subsystems" to refer to such components; for example, a family is a system and each individual in it is a subsystem differentiated. The suprasystem is the external medium to the system, in which it is immersed; in human systems it is identifiable with society.


2. Reals, ideals and models

Depending on their entitivity, systems can be classified into reais, ideals and models. The real systems are those that exist physically and that can be observed , whereas ideal systems are symbolic constructions derived from thought and language. The models aim to represent real and ideal characteristics.

3. Natural, artificial and compound

When a system depends exclusively on nature, such as the human body or galaxies, we refer to them as a "natural system". By contrast, artificial systems are those that arise as a consequence of human action; Within this type of system we can find vehicles and companies, among many others.

The composite systems combine natural and artificial elements . Any physical environment modified by people, such as towns and cities, is considered a composite system; Of course, the proportion of natural and artificial elements varies in each specific case.

4. Closed and open

For Bertalanffy, the basic criterion that defines a system is the degree of interaction with the suprasystem and other systems . Open systems exchange matter, energy and / or information with the surrounding environment, adapting to it and influencing it.

On the other hand, closed systems are theoretically isolated from environmental influences; in practice we speak of closed systems when they are highly structured and the feedback is minimal, since no system is completely independent of its suprasystem.

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Properties of open systems

Although the properties of closed systems have also been described, those of the open are more relevant to the social sciences because human groups form open systems. This is the case, for example, in families, in organizations and in nations.

1. Totality or synergy

According to the principle of synergy, the functioning of the system can not be understood only from the sum of the elements that make it up , but the interaction between them generates a qualitatively different result.

2. Circular causality or reciprocal codetermination

The action of the different members of a system influences that of the rest, so that the behavior of none of them is independent of the system as a whole . In addition, there is a tendency for repetition (or redundancy) of the operating patterns.

3. Equifinality

The term "equifinality" refers to the fact that several systems can reach the same final stage although initially their conditions are different. Consequently, it is inappropriate to look for a single cause to explain this development.

4. Equicausity

Equicausality opposes equifinality Systems that start being the same can develop differently depending on the influences they receive and the behavior of their members. Thus, Bertalanffy considered that when analyzing a system it is necessary to focus on the present situation and not so much on the initial conditions.

5. Limitation or stochastic process

The systems tend to develop certain sequences of operation and interaction between members. When this happens, the probability of different responses to those that are already consolidated decreases; This is known as "limitation".

6. Relationship rule

The relationship rules determine what are the priority interactions between the components of the system and which ones should be avoided. In human groups, relationship rules are usually implicit.

7. Hierarchical ordering

The principle of hierarchical ordering applies both to members of the system and to certain behaviors. It consists in that some elements and operations have more weight than others, following a vertical logic.

8. Teleology

The development and adaptation of the system, or teleological process, occurs from the opposition of homeostatic forces (ie, focused on the maintenance of current balance and state) and morphogenetic (focused on growth and change).


Systems Theory of Organizations (July 2024).


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