This report critically examines systems theory as an interpersonal communications theory. It includes an in-depth analysis of its key concepts and terms. It includes a chronologically organized review of relevant literature, an examination of current research, and provides insight into to the future direction of systems theory studies. The report discusses how systems theory can be applied to business communication, and how the theory provides a perspective that is unique among interpersonal communication theories.
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Unlike those of previous centuries, the trademark of modern society is rapid change. As political, financial, and longstanding social institutions collapse, it is important that our view of organizations and individual relationships be interactional (Dainton & Zelley, 2004). The current trend of movement towards a globalized economy and society creates an increasingly important need to understand individual and organizational environments. To function within an environment of perpetual change, organizations and individuals must be able maintain synergy within their relationships, as well as with their external environment (Dainton & Zelley, 2004; Sias, 2009). By taking an interactional view of relationships, systems theory identifies the connections between individuals and their environments and is interested in the dynamics of those connections.
Systems theory is a relatively new perspective. Until the 1960’s, theorists had not applied principles common to biological systems to organizational systems (Sias, 2009). Unlike many theories, systems theory places the utmost importance on the environment of an organization. The theory postulates that external factors contribute a great deal to the working dynamics of an organization. The systems perspective proposes that, though an organization is an independent entity, it relies on the external environment for “inputs” such as employees, consumers, and materials (Sias, 2009).
This report will critically examine systems theory within the context of interpersonal communication. It will include an in-depth analysis of its key concepts and terms. It will include a chronologically organized review of relevant literature, an examination of current research, and provide insight into the future direction of systems theory studies. The report will discuss how systems theory can be applied to business communication, and how the theory provides a perspective that is unique among interpersonal communication theories.
Though it is primarily examined as an interpersonal communication theory in this paper, systems theory is a much larger heuristic theory. It can be used as the conceptual framework with which to build theory within all disciplines. What is unique about systems theory is that it examines the relationships between the individual monads of a group. Systems theory is also interested in the relationship between the environment and the monad, as well as the environment and the entire system as an entity. To understand the systems perspective, one must have an understanding of the terms that will be explained in the preceding paragraphs.
To understand interpersonal communication from the systems perspective, it is important that the reader understand the term communication in the proper context. Monge said that, “A central assumption of systems approaches is that communication is the means by which systems are created and sustained (Monge, as cited in Dainton & Zelley, 2004). This postulate assumes that interactive behaviors between individuals are the building blocks of systems. This perspective can be illustrated by examining the makeup of a family group. Monge’s postulate says that the fact that there is a mother, father, and child does not inherently yield a system. The ways in which the mother, father, and child communicate are what constitutes the family system.
Of the individuals involved in the communication process, Monge says that “in every communication the participants offer to each other definitions of their relationships, or more forcefully stated, each seeks to determine the nature of the relationship.” (Monge, as cited in Dainton & Zelley, 2004) In examining this postulate, one must notice several important characteristics of individuals in a system. One must note that individual will plays a role in this process. A person will display their conception of their relationships to others within the system. Also important to note is that messages sent by an individual can be misinterpreted or disregarded by others. Though the dynamics of a system, as well as external environmental factors can play a role in defining relationships, the intentions and perceptions of the individual are also prevalent.
It is important that the reader now examine the term “system” within the context of systems theory. The author will provide relevant definitions of the term in the preceding lines. Hall and Fagen define a system as a group of individuals who interrelate to form a whole (Hall, Fagen, as cited in Dainton & Zelley, 2004). One might imagine a group of individual fish that make up a school, or a group of individual antelope that make up a herd. Watzlawick defined a system as “two or more communicants in the process of, or at the level of, defining the nature of their relationships.” (Watzlawick, as cited in Monge, 1977). The relationship between mother and child provide an example of this type of system. In such a relationship, the mother understands herself to be the nurturer of the child and her behaviors reflect her understanding. Through perceiving the behaviors of the mother, the child understands her role as well as his/her own role as the recipient of her nurturing behavior. Through the process of perceiving and communicating relationship roles, a system is created.
To understand systems, it is critical to note that they exist within an external environment with which they interact. Monge (1977) describes systems as “interlinked sets of components hierarchically organized into structural wholes which interact through time and space, are self-regulating, yet capable of structural change” (p. 20). This was demonstrated by Khailov when he said that is does not matter how one thing effects another, but how sets of events function in relation to their environment (Khailov, as cited in Monge, 1977). External environments are essential to systems because they are a requirement of differentiation. Fisher and Hawes define a system as any collection of people who function as a group with a similar goal. They say that that the common goals of individuals are what separate them from their external environment (Fisher & Hawes, 1971).
Now that the terms “communication” and “system” have been defined in context, attention must be turned to the notion of hierarchies within systems. Laszlo defines hierarchies as ordered arrangements of systems that are linked together by differing levels of complexity. Laszlo goes on to say that individual subsystems serve as coordinating interfaces within complex systems (Laszlo, as cited in Monge, 1977). What is important to note about the notion of hierarchy within systems is that subsystems serve dual functions. They preside over their individual sphere of influence as well as acting as a medium to superior complex systems (Monge, 1977). An example of this behavior can be seen if one imagines a large organization. Within the marketing department, there exist subsystems which are the advertising, public relations, and pricing departments. The advertising subsystem maintains all of its advertising functions but ultimately yields its efforts to a higher order system (the marketing department).
After describing the characteristics of a subsystem within a complex system, a conception of a suprasystem must also be formed. As the subsystem is a smaller part of the whole group, a suprasystem is a larger system within which systems operate (Dainton & Zelley, 2004). To illustrate this let us again take the example of a marketing department within an organization. The advertising, public relations, and pricing departments are all subsystems of the marketing system. As a system, the marketing department functions within a suprasystem which is the entire organization. Within that suprasystem are the marketing, production, and customer service systems.
In many ways, the terms external environment and suprasystem are synonymous, as the suprasystem provides the environment in which systems interact. Continuing with the example used in the previous paragraph, one could argue that the organization itself is a system that operates within a larger suprasystem. This suprasystem is composed of multiple organizational systems the together form a national economy. One would also be correct in arguing that the national economy exists within a still larger suprasystem. That suprasystem could be defined as the global economy within which national economies function and interact.
Now that it is understood that systems (and individuals) exist within ordered hierarchies, we must explore the way in which those hierarchies interact and relate. To do this, one must understand the term “nonsummativity”. The idea behind nonsummativity is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Rapoport, as cited in Dainton & Zelley, 2004). To illustrate the concept of nonsummativity, imagine a log cabin. It may have taken 500 logs to construct the cabin, but only after they were arranged in a particular way did they become a cabin. It is obvious that 500 logs lying in an unorganized heap is not a cabin. Only when each log maintains a specific relationship to the others can it be a cabin. This example illustrates the way in which relationships between individuals can form a system that is measurably different from the sum of its parts.
Inherent in the concept of nonsummativity is the idea of interdependence. Within the context of systems theory, interdependence means that each member of a system is dependent on all members in order to achieve their goals. If one individual or subsystem fails to function properly, then other individuals are less likely to function properly. The failure of subsystems also increases the likelihood of overall system failure (Farace & Rogers, as cited in Monge, 1977). A soccer team illustrates the way in which interdependence affects individual group members as well as the system. If the teams goalkeeper is injured and unable to perform well, his inability to function properly affects his relationship to other team members and the team as a whole. Because of his inability to fill his role, other players must compensate by trying to protect the goal. By compensating for the failing subsystem (the goalkeeper), the other players become less effective at fulfilling their own positions. The dynamics of these relationships ultimately renders the team less likely to achieve its goal of winning the match.
Systems theory is interested in relational communication analysis which is unlike the individualistic approach of many analytic methodologies. Relational analysis only focuses on phenomena that occur between two or more individuals or monads. Individualistic analysis focuses on individual phenomena and do not require dyads to collect data. The properties that emerge from the communication of individuals are the basic unit of analysis. The aforementioned properties are not found at the individual level (Monge, 1977). Within the realm of interpersonal communication, the focus is on the way individuals perceive messages and respond to them within the context of a relationship.
It is now important to switch from the micro perspective of nonsummativity and interdependence, to examine systems at a macro level. To do this we must understand the principle of homeostasis (Ashby, as cited in Dainton & Zelley, 2004). Homeostasis can be thought of as the balance or equilibrium that exists within a system. Homeostasis could also be described as a systems resiliency rather than its rigidity. Within a changing environment, homeostasis is a systems ability to maintain itself (Dainton & Zelley, 2004). Change is inherent to systems and when they are unable to maintain homeostatic variables, a new structure or behavior is created (Arditi, 1988). The recent financial crisis in the United States provides an example of homeostasis. When the market became volatile, many financial institutions were unable to maintain solvency and disintegrated. Those institutions that were able to maintain homeostasis remained solvent and survived the crisis.
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Here a distinction must be made between human systems and other biological systems. At the cellular or animal level, homeostasis is reached relatively easily through instinctive reactions. Herds of zebra maintain their system through instinctual reactions to familiar phenomena such as changing seasons and predators. White blood cells instinctively attack foreign bacteria to maintain homeostasis. Characteristic of these non-human systems is a lack of logical reasoning which greatly simplifies reaching homeostasis. At the human level, homeostasis is reached at the individual and group level interacting with, rather than simply reacting to environments. This characteristic provides humans with greater adaptability to more complex environments. The ability of humans to interact with more complex systems renders them more likely to be dissatisfied (Schmertz, 1994). As they have the capacity to interact with systems of ever increasing complexity, they will find it increasingly difficult to achieve homeostasis in complex systems (Schmertz, 1994).
Now that the concept of homeostasis is understood, it is important to explore the principle of Equifinality. Bertalanffy says, Equifinality suggests that there are multiple ways to achieve the same goal (Bertalanffy, as cited in Dainton & Zelley, 2004). Critical to this principle is the idea of closed and open systems. According to Bertalanffy, a closed system is one in which the final sate is determined by the initial conditions (Bertalanffy, 1951). Within the nature vs. nurture paradigm, the naturalist viewpoint is akin to a closed system. A naturalist would argue that a child born into poverty, with abusive parents, and little education is probably destined to remain in poverty because of his/her initial conditions. Conversely, an open system can reach a homeostatic state from various initial conditions, making it equifinal (Bertalanffy, 1951). Again looking at the nature vs. nurture paradigm, the latter viewpoint would argue that a child’s initial circumstances do not determine their final state. This viewpoint resonates with the open system perspective.
The closed and open system paradigm is characterized by reaction and interaction. An open system can maintain time-independent states that are independent of external stimuli and are instead determined by system parameters (Fisher & Hawes, 1971). Again we look at human systems compared to animal systems. Animal systems are relatively closed in that they only react to environmental stimuli. A pack of wolves will devour a freshly expired bison because it is their instinctual reaction. Human systems are open systems and could behave differently based on system parameters. A group of nomadic humans may choose not to eat a dead bison because their group has a strong spiritual belief against this practice. This is an example of how system parameters could override environmental stimuli and constitute an open system.
The ability to generate their own information is inherent to open systems. This allows open systems to adjust themselves and mediate the effects of environmental stimuli (Fisher & Hawes, 1971). This quality illustrates how equifinal systems are able to reach the same goals with varying methods and initial factors. Rapoport says that the ability of open systems to self-determine or take corrective measures is what defines them (Rapoport, as cited in Fisher & Hawes, 1971). Open systems have predetermined goals. They are able to measure their performance in comparison to their goal, and make requisite corrections. An example of this characteristic can be seen in examining a romantic relationship. If a couple has a plan to marry, but lately have had many disagreements, they might realize that their current behavior is not conducive to their system goal. In order to reach their shared goal, they might agree on more effective ways of settling disagreements.
Concisely, systems theory examines the ways in which individuals interact with one another. It specifically focuses on the repeated interactional behaviors that constitute homeostasis and the achievement of systemic goals (Dainton & Zelley, 2004). On a macro level, the systems perspective examines the relationships that exist between subsystems, systems, and suprasystems. The theory recognizes that all types of systems exist within an ordered hierarchy. The postulates of systems theory are quintessential to the paradigm shift seen in modern science from self-actional, to interactional and transactional conceptions (Bertalanffy, 1951).
Now that the key concepts of systems theory have been explained, a brief review of relevant literature will follow. The review will be presented in chronological order so that the reader gains conception of the evolution of systems theory as a theoretical construct in interpersonal communications.
Ludwig Von Bertalanffy was the first theorist to apply the open systems model to psychology. He argued that the current idiographic constructs of psychology would only result in the collection of data and that a nomothetic perspective was also necessary (Bertalanffy, 1951). He argued that the process mechanization models of cybernetics and other closed system perspectives could not account for human creativity. His conclusion was that, “A living organism is a hierarchy of open systems maintaining itself in a steady state due to its inherent system conditions” (p. 37). Bertalanffy (1951) proposed that a model conception for psychology should be, “(a) essentially dynamic, though including structural order, established by progressive mechanization, as a derived yet most important case; (b) molar, though allowing for molecular interpretation of the individual processes, (c) formal, though allowing for future material interpretations” (p. 36).
Though the open system construct began to see use in psychology, its scope was initially limited to informal and family groups. The psychological sciences were still strongly focused on the individual perspective. Katz and Kahn (1966) were first to apply the open systems construct to organized groups. They felt that such an approach was necessary to relate the micro-focused fields of psychology to the macro-focused sociologic and economic fields. They proposed that open systems offered two approaches to organizational problems. First was that, “the problems of organizations could be viewed as a function of the type of structuring in which they occurred” (Katz, 1980, p. 242). Second was that, “the search for social dynamics in the interdependence of organization and environment as the organization relies upon energic and informational input from its surround and processes this input to achieve a product which the larger society needs” (Katz, 1980, p. 242). Katz and Kahn believed that organizations were not self-contained though they seek to control their environments and extend their boundaries (Katz, 1980).
In their 2002 study, Leetiernan, Mischel, and Shoda conceptualized personality as a dynamic system. Their study focused on the variable and invariable characteristics of personality. They proposed that though the external environment and interactions with others can affect personality, there are invariable characteristics that are unique to individuals. After establishing the framework for their personality system, they were able to apply the same principles to interpersonal systems. They were able to demonstrate how personality systems could be applied to interpersonal systems by studying dyadic relationships. Their model demonstrated how the behavior of each partner became the situational input for the other. The results showed that the thoughts, feeling, and behaviors of individuals are not only the product of their personality system, but the interpersonal systems to which they belong.
Now that the evolution of systems theory has been conceptualized within the context of interpersonal communication, the author will examine current trends in systems theory research. The work of Dr. Nicholas Christakis is focused on studying human social networks as a method of predicting phenomena. The theory proposed by Christakis is that by monitoring individuals within interpersonal social networks who have a relatively high number of relationships, researchers will be able to predict phenomena much faster than could be accomplished with classical random sampling techniques. When studying undergraduate social networks at Harvard University, this method provided warning of an H1N1 epidemic 16 days sooner than the randomly selected control group (Christakis, 2010).
Systems theory is extremely applicable in the field of business communication because organizations are inherently open systems (Hickson, 1973). It is difficult to evaluate organizational communication for effectiveness without a valid theoretical construct. Systems theory provides a basis for organizations to quantify knowledge from inputs and thus assess organizational effectiveness. Hickson’s communication model proposes that an organization receives positive and negative input from its environment (internal and external) on the system’s effectiveness. After the source of the input is taken into consideration, the organization can utilize positive input to reinforce the system structure and choose how to respond to negative input (Hickson, 1973).
From its roots in physics, to the biological, and eventually the social sciences, the interactive principles of systems theory seem evermore universal. It’s axioms have been observed at the atomic, cellular, and social levels. Those axioms seem to permeate all levels of perception. By examining the key principles of the systems perspective and delving into its evolution as a theoretical construct, the reader has hopefully caught a glimpse of the importance of the science of systems. Current research has shown that the possibilities of systems theory to aid in the understanding of individuals and humanity as a whole are promising. In 1951 Ludwig Von Bertalanffy wrote that, as an open system, man is the creator of his environment rather than the product, and that capacity inevitably brings the clash of ideologies, goals, and symbols. In his own words, Bertalanffy (1951) said, “Whether the levels of personality can be properly adjusted is the question upon which man’s future depends” (p. 38).
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