Society as a Complex Adaptive System, Buckley (1968)

For those who ascribe “complex adaptive systems” to mathematicians and physicists at the *Santa Fe Institute* (founded in 1984), it’s worth noting the 1968 article published by Walter F. Buckley.

While many in the systems movement either self-identify as part of the “general systems theory” camp, or the “cybernetics” camp, it seems as though Buckley wasn’t fully aligned with either.

Sociologist Walter Buckley publishes the book Sociology and Modern Systems Theory , the first substantial exploration of GST’s application to social systems by a scholar not aligned with the cybernetics or general systems movements. (1967).

From the perspective of 1992 (as an update to prior 1978 books), some of the proponents of Sociocybernetics – R. Felix Geyer and Johannes van der Zouwen – saw their work as advancing beyond Buckley’s 1967 book.


Quite a lot has happened in the field of sociocybernetics since the first two volumes with that title appeared (Geyer and van der Zouwen, 1978). An effort is made to sketch these developments, and to show where we started and where the frontiers of the field are now.

Buckley, as one of the first pioneers to correctly apply systems concepts to the social sciences, reckoning with the specific nature of social systems, stressed already in the 1960s (Buckley, 1967) the as-such hardly surprising fact that social systems are essentially different from biological and technical ones, the most frequently studied systems up till then – and studied largely with the aid of classical first-order cybernetics. It took almost a decade for systems concepts to be applied to the social sciences.

In the introduction to the above volumes, the term “sociocybernetics” was chosen to refer to the interpenetration of general systems theory and the social sciences – not merely to the one-way traffic of applying concepts from general systems theory without further reflection to the social sciences. The authors then were, and still are, convinced that the emergence of the so-called second-order cybernetics was largely due to this increasing focus, within general systems theory, on the social sciences – a field where the inapplicability of first-order cybernetics soon became evident. These were intellectually exciting days, although the systems movement within the social sciences still had to gather steam, and pronouncements still had a defensive ring—toward the social science community, rather than toward the colleagues in systems theory.

Indeed, the themes in these 1978 volumes could still be described as refutations of the frequently voiced objections against the application of systems theory to the social sciences: for example, the reproach of implicit conservatism that was largely caused by the fact that the Parsonian systems approach, with its stress on homeostasis rather than morphogenesis, was virtually the only one known in social science (cf. Buckley, 1967). Other objections voiced against the systems approach were technocratic bias and unwarranted reductionism; in view of the prevalence of the rather mechanistic type of first-order cybernetics then in fashion, these perhaps somewhat stereotypical objections among social scientists only superficially acquainted with the systems approach were certainly understandable (Lilienfeld, 1978).

Less defensively and more positively, we tried to define the main themes of sociocybernetics as aspects of the emerging “new cybernetics,” known in the meantime as second-order cybernetics … [p. 96]

  • Source: Geyer, R. Felix, and Johannes van der Zouwen. 1992. “Sociocybernetics.” In Cybernetics and Applied Systems , edited by Constantin Virgil Negoita, 95–124. CRC Press. [cached at Google Books]

In the 21st century, second-order cybernetics is a conventional wisdom.

In either case, there’s some time alignment placement issues with academics, as their work progresses. In any case, a reader – a collection of articles or excerpted chapters deemed informative to scholars – was published by Buckley in 1968, as Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook.

The last chapter in that 1968 volume is “Society as a Complex Adaptive System”, that refers back to the 1967 book. In a digest blogged in 2013, pointers are given to the influences on Gharjedaghi (1999) and a republishing in 2008 in E:CO Emergence: Complexity & Organization.

Interested readers may find some softcopy versions online via Google Scholar.

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