social units: composition and relation with environment

History and Orientation

Hegel developed in the 19th century a theory to explain historical development as a dynamic process. Marx and Darwin used this theory in their work. System theory (as we know it) was used by L. von Bertalanffy, a biologist, as the basis for the field of study known as ‘general system theory’, a multidisciplinary field (1968). Some influences from the contingency approach can be found in system theory.

Core Assumptions and Statements

System theory is the transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena, independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence. It investigates both the principles common to all complex entities, and the (usually mathematical) models which can be used to describe them. A system can be said to consist of four things. The first is objects – the parts, elements, or variables within the system. These may be physical or abstract or both, depending on the nature of the system. Second, a system consists of attributes – the qualities or properties of the system and its objects. Third, a system had internal relationships among its objects. Fourth, systems exist in an environment. A system, then, is a set of things that affect one another within an environment and form a larger pattern that is different from any of the parts. The fundamental systems-interactive paradigm of organizational analysis features the continual stages of input, throughput (processing), and output, which demonstrate the concept of openness/closedness. A closed system does not interact with its environment. It does not take in information and therefore is likely to atrophy, that is to vanish. An open system receives information, which it uses to interact dynamically with its environment. Openness increases its likelihood to survive and prosper. Several system characteristics are: wholeness and interdependence (the whole is more than the sum of all parts), correlations, perceiving causes, chain of influence, hierarchy, suprasystems and subsystems, self-regulation and control, goal-oriented, interchange with the environment, inputs/outputs, the need for balance/homeostasis, change and adaptability (morphogenesis) and equifinality: there are various ways to achieve goals. Different types of networks are: line, commune, hierarchy and dictator networks. Communication in this perspective can be seen as an integrated process – not as an isolated event.

Conceptual Model


Simple System Model.

Source: Littlejohn (1999)


Elaborated system perspective model.

Source: Infante (1997)

Favourite Methods

Network analysis, ECCO analysis. ECCO, Episodic Communication Channels in Organization, analysis is a form of a data collection log-sheet. This method is specially designed to analyze and map communication networks and measure rates of flow, distortion of messages, and redundancy. The ECCO is used to monitor the progress of a specific piece of information through the organization.

Scope and Application

Related fields of system theory are information theory and cybernetics. This group of theories can help us understand a wide variety of physical, biological, social and behavioral processes, including communication (Infante, 1997).


Take for example family relations.


Key publications

  • Bertalanffy, von, L. (1968). General systems theory. New York: Braziller.
  • Laarmans, R. (1999). Communicatie zonder Mensen. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom.
  • Luhmann, N. (1984). Soziale Systeme. Grund einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • Midgley, G. (Ed.) (2003). Systems thinking. London: Sage.
  • Littlejohn, S.W. (2001). Theories of Human Communication. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning.
  • Infante, D.A., Rancer, A.S. & Womack, D.F. (1997). Building communication theory. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.

See also Communication Processes, Organizational Communication