My answer to "Why is General Systems worth a student's time?" 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 copies of a publication called the General Systems Yearbook, edited by Anatol Rapoport. Rapoport was a co-founder of the Mental Health Research Institute, now known as the Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute (MBNI).
The MHRI library was hidden away on the second floor of the MHRI building. I became aware of it while trying to track down a journal called Kybernetica. The master catalog in the graduate library (literally a card system in those days) showed only the MHRI library had it.
As it turned out, the MHRI library was packed with enticing volumes (to somebody interested in systems and cybernetics). Few of the volumes were checked out, very much unlike the main Michigan libraries where desirable volumes were usually unavailable.
The MHRI library had the entire set of General Systems Yearbook from volume 1 (1956) onward. I never saw that at another library. 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.
As a sophomore at the Residential College, a small experimental school within the University of Michigan, I had to complete a requirement called "Precise Thought." Typically that was satisfied by taking a few math classes beyond one's current level of proficiency.
I drew up a proposal to satisfy the requirement with an independent study about General Systems. The administrators agreed, so I spent a term reading all the General Systems material I could find: all the books Michigan's libraries had about it, plus all the issues of the Yearbook.
I took extensive notes and wrote up the results as a term paper summarizing my independent study. It was approved as fulfillment of the Precise Thought requirement.
A year later (as a junior) I discovered Ulric Neisser's 1967 book Cognitive Psychology, and that drew me into the psychology major. It also reaffirmed the importance of General Systems principles, as they frequently 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 that I took as a senior (under Art Vander) something very similar happened. The course had a reputation for being meaty, but it was easy to understand because of a clearly written textbook (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano, 1970) and because the General Systems ideas came in handy again.
All physiological systems used feedback and equilibrium-seeking processes. Those concepts were already familiar to me from my review of General Systems principles three or four years earlier.
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.
Only much later did I realize Miller and Rapoport had quite different approaches to General Systems. Rapoport was looking for unexpected and interesting resemblances between systems.
That was much less restrictive than looking for things all dynamic systems had in common. It was better, I thought, to use Rapoport's approach.
The Rapoport approach, as I understood it, 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 Systems and What Is a General System Principle?.
After receiving my PhD in psychology from The University of Michigan and spending a single year at a branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh, I was hired by Georgia Southern University. I included units on Rapoport-style General Systems in several classes.
I tried a chapter-sized unit on General Systems in several introductory psychology courses, but it was too much to add to an already crowded course. Covering all of psychology in one term was almost impossible anyway, and General Systems was not specifically about psychology, so I stopped using it in the course.
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 would encounter 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. We referred back to the general principles learned earlier in the course, and this worked.
Once I was teaching General Systems on a regular basis, in the Cognitive Psychology course, I noticed that students had a bipolar response to it. About half the students found General Systems interesting and easy to understand. The other half found it abstract and hard to understand. Few were in between.
From that point onward, I never assumed a principle was obvious, because I knew half the class would not find it obvious. Instead, I looked for multiple, simple examples of each concept, so even students not already acquainted with these ideas might understand them.
This approach seemed to be optimal. Students who found the system principles easy or obvious did not mind a quick review. Students encountering the ideas for the first time appreciated multiple examples and simple explanations.
I was seeing a type of individual difference long discussed in the cognitive styles literature. Psychology researchers distinguish between analytic and holistic cognitive styles.
After completing an earlier draft of this toolkit, I came across a 1986 book by Anatol Rapoport titled General System Theory: Essential Concepts and Applications. The first topic in its Introduction was, "The Analytic and the Holistic Approaches to Cognition." So I was not the first to see this distinction as germane to General Systems.
A person inclined to be analytic is already performing the type of activity described in General Systems literature. A system is mentally taken apart into its components, with the goal of understanding how the parts interact to produce organized behavior.
To a holistic person, insisting on analysis can seem a tad sinister. Analysis, after all, means taking something apart. It is reminiscent of dissecting animals. Do we really want to take everything apart?
But the analytic approach can be life affirming. By understanding how a system works, we become able to understand it, repair it, and (if it is a living system) nurture it. Analysis is not a bad thing. I had to do some missionary work to make this case to holistic students.
I gave out a short questionnaire in Cognitive Psychology class, to find out of the students who found General Systems hard or easy came from different majors. It revealed what I suspected.
Students attracted to General Systems were usually those majoring in 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, or else they were Psychology majors attracted to the clinical side of the discipline. These were intelligent students, but General Systems played to their weakest skill set: analyzing systems into components and their interactions.
I accepted this as a starting point. A college classroom is likely to contain both 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.
That was OK. People who were already strong in their analytic skills could have them reinforced. Those weak in analytic schools could gain new insights. There were benefits for both.
Now I can answer the four questions posed at the beginning of this Preface.
I also hope some students discover this toolkit and study it on their own. That was the way I encountered the Yearbook many years ago. 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