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Systems Theory: History and Concepts Essay

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2020

Historical and Theoretical Roots of Systems Theory

Systems theory has a long history with regards to the prerogative of human beings to be self-defining and symbol making entities. The historical features are associated with the coming together of knowledge and understanding of parts concerning their whole. Such comprehension aims to highlight the totality of these parts and wholes in a meaningful manner.

The various historical periods are characterized by different solutions proposed to deal with the systems problem. According to Hammond (2002), when viewed from the context of history and evolution of social thought, it appears that the science related to unified systems theory is a product of 20th-century thinking. However, rudiments of this concept are evident across the entire historical continuum of self-conscious human beings (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith & Dutton, 2012).

Hammond (2003) postulates that general systems theory is the solution to age-old questions regarding human existence in the 20th century. The roots of such thinking can also be traced far back in history, depending on one’s definition of system and systems thinking. Hammond (2002) poses that the definition of systems theory as a new and unique world reflects the 20th-century trappings of this concept. However, as a concept, the theory has its roots in classical times.

According to Bertalanffy (2004), general systems theory is defined as the new perspective of human knowledge about the self. Also, the theory is a response to four scientific inquiry problems of the middle 20th century. The first question is that of duplication with regards to scientific investigations and discoveries (Bertalanffy, 2004). Some scientists who were unaware of previous investigations duplicated them. The second question entails the need for a universal theory of knowledge that can deal with various constructs. Such a construct includes directiveness, wholeness, differentiation, self-control, teleology, and regulation (Bertalanffy, 2004). The third question involves the need for the development of mechanics to expose various isomorphic (Bertalanffy, 2004). The isomorphic arose from the fact that under certain circumstances, corresponding abstractions and conceptual models can be used on different phenomena. The fourth question entails the development of a substitute path of inquiry to the mechanical and analytic pursuit of reductionism.

The System’s Concepts of Interconnectedness, Reinforcing Processes, Causal Loops, and System Archetypes

Systems theory has various underlying concepts that facilitate understanding of phenomena and entities. According to Wolstenholme (2003), all systems’ conceptualizations focus on simplifying reality. As such, dealing with realism becomes more effective. Consequently, systems concepts lead to systems dynamics. They give rise to models that resemble structural reality. The development makes constructs useful and consistent.

According to Senge et al. (2012), interconnectedness advances that problems and solutions in a system are closely bound. Consequently, analyzing a particular phenomenon should consider the intertwined aspect of the system dynamics. Interconnectedness can also be envisaged from the reinforcing processes.

According to Wolstenholme (2003), reinforcing processes or loops form the building blocks of dynamic systems. They facilitate and compound change in one direction. Consequently, the processes generate growth and collapse of systems. Causal loops, on the other hand, exhibit the interrelationships between variables in a system (Wolstenholme, 2003). For instance, a causal loop diagram of a system assumes the shape of a closed network. It depicts the link between cause and effect. Consequently, a reinforcing loop within a causal loop diagram depicts a reinforcing process, otherwise known as virtuous or vicious cycles (Wolstenholme, 2003).

Systems archetypes are essentially closed loop diagram structures. They show intended actions and unintended consequences. They also depict delays in reaction time (Wolstenholme, 2003). As such, systems archetypes reveal behavioral patterns that are usually counter-intuitive. The resulting phenomena can be used as diagnostic tools to provide insight into the underlying system structure.

The various concepts of a system reveal the dynamic nature of this phenomenon. In essence, systems concepts and dynamics provide individuals with ways though which to view ramifications. Also, simplifying ramifications through simulations makes it possible to test advanced hypotheses.


Bertalanffy, L. (2004). The history and status of general systems theory. The Academy of Management Journal, 15(4), 407-426.

Hammond, D. (2002). Exploring the genealogy of systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 19(5), 429-439.

Hammond, D. (2003). The science of synthesis: Exploring the social implications of general systems theory. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., & Dutton, J. (2012). Schools that learn. New York: The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group.

Wolstenholme, E. (2003). Towards the definition and use of a core set of archetypal structures in system dynamics. System Dynamics Review, 19(1), 7-26.

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