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Dynamic systems paradigm: self-organising and self-referential systems

The Belgian Nobel laureate Prigogine (1917-2003) is possibly the single most important contributor to the dynamic systems paradigm. Prigogine was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his theory of dissipative structures. These are physical or chemical systems that appear to develop order out of chaos. Prigogine discovered new laws of nature that could connect the natural sciences to the human sciences, and he maintained that these laws were valid and applicable to social systems as well (Prigogine, 1976, pp. 120—126).

Another perspective on systems self-renewal was opened by Chilean biology professors Humberto Maturana (1928-) and Francisco Varela (1946-2001), who introduced the concept of autopoiesis to describe the self-generating, selfmaintaining structure of living systems. As early as the 1980s, autopoiesis was recognised as part of the new emerging paradigm that addressed issues of selforganisation and spontaneous phenomena in physical, biological, and social systems (Zeleny, 1980). The main contribution of Maturana’s and Varela’s research lies in their addressing the question of cognition and knowledge at cell level: they were not just biologists, but also cognition scientists. The most relevant theoretical expansion of autopoiesis in the field of sociology is attributable to Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) and his theory of self-referential systems. Luh-mann is recognised as one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century (Bechmann & Stehr, 2002).

Self-organising systems

Prigogine (1993) maintains that most systems in the world are liable to proceed to the state of far-from-equilibrium, and therefore are inherently capable of reorganising and transforming themselves. These self-organising systems share some features in common with open systems, including feedback loops and dependence on the environment, but they nonetheless function in a radically different way. Open systems are characterised as self-regulating and as having the ability to maintain stability via continuous feedback processes. Chaos is seen as an end and dispersion. In contrast to this view, Prigogine pointed out that rather than an end, chaos marks a new beginning. Indeed, new structures are created out of chaos. Even though this is by no means rare and most systems are self-organising, there are certain preconditions that must be met. Based on Prigogine’s publications, Stable (1998) lists the following requirements for self-organising systems:

  • State offar front equilibrium: unstable, chaotic state of a system. In social systems this means tolerance to confusion, discrepancies, and disharmony.
  • Production of entropy: information that cannot be used by the system. High entropy means greater disorder, wasted resources, lost information, and uncertainty in the system. For a social system this means abundant communication and production of ideas, different angles of information without any certainty as to whether they will prove useful.
  • Iteration: frequent and sensitive feedback that provides the system with ultimate receptivity. In a social system this means active response to each other’s ideas, opinions and reactions.

• Momentums of bifurcation: there are certain momentums in the system’s life when genuine choices can be made. These choices are irreversible and cannot be predicted in advance. “Bifurcation is a source of innovation and diversification, since it endows a system with a new solution.” (Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989, p. 74)

Autopoiesis and self-referential systems

Maturana and Varela take a very different perspective from Prigogine. While Prigogine emphasises the creation of order out of chaos, the dramatic emergence of a new structure, Maturana and Varela highlight the role of continuity, maintenance, and self-reference in the system’s renewal.

Autopoiesis is based on the idea of self-reference, which means that “what we see is always a reflection of what we are”. In the social realm, this means that whoever prescribes the borders or nature of a system must necessarily be part of the system. Information about a system can only be achieved from within: to understand the system we must be part of it, and being part of the system occurs via interaction and communication. Interaction, in turn, is not possible without self-reference: for instance, a person (or a group, organisation, etc.) who has no reference to it/herself/himself cannot be in authentic interaction with others. Thus, the dynamics of an autopoietic system is described by the system’s boundaries (i.e., to become aware of the system), self-reference (becoming aware of oneself), and interaction (restructuring and strengthening both of the previous) (Varela & Johnson, 1976, p. 31).

The autopoietic system has a special relationship with its environment (see Figure 12.1). On the one hand, it needs the environment to keep up its life, but on the other hand, in an operative sense, the system is autonomic. The environment is

is demonstrated in

A system’s autopoietic nature

FIGURE 12.1 A system’s autopoietic nature (Stahle, 1998, p. 102). Printed with permission. Copyright Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finlanda point of reference for an autopoietic system, a kind of a mirror (Maturana & Varela, 1988, p. 75). It might even be described as a negative mirror, telling the system what it is not. The creation of a core identity' is the main principle and ultimate goal of the system, be it an individual, group, or organisation. All social systems are self-referential, because the system must always define itself in order to be able to exist (Varela & Johnson, 1976, pp. 26-31).

The work of Luhmann represents the most significant application of autopoiesis to a social context. Sociologist Knodt observes that Luhmann’s “Social Systems accomplishes in the social realm what Maturana and Varela have done for cognitive biology and Prigogine’s work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics for physics” (Luhmann, 1995, p. xxii). Luhmann argues that the theory of autopoietic social systems requires a conceptual revolution within sociology, and also contains an understanding of communication as a particular mode of autopoietic reproduction (Luhmann, 1989, pp. 174, 177—178). Luhmann stresses the immutable identity of the system, that is, the system’s capacity to continuously renew its identifiable self, as well as the continuity or the process-like development of a system. Based on Luhmann’s work it is possible to identify the following four vital antecedents for a system’s self-renewal (Stable, 1998, p. Ill):

  • Self-reference means that a system must be in connection with other systems and use them as a point of reference for itself. This is not a process of adaptation, but rather the use of another system as a mirror in order to create self-awareness and strengthen identity: to recognise similarities and differences between others and self, i.e., what it is and what it is not.
  • Double contingency means positive, mutual interdependence, balance of power, and trust within the system. The people who make up the system are of equal value (however, there is no imperative to have similar values).
  • Experiential quality of information. The system’s power of renewal lies in the exchange of information. However, it is important to make a distinction between data and information. The latter is closely linked with experience: the information exchanged influences the people who make up the system and always changes the state of the system, in one way or another. Luhmann describes information as an event more than a fact.
  • Processing meanings. Luhmann says that meanings are created collectively within the system through mutually created events. Meanings are the basic structural elements of a self-referential system and guide its functioning.

Next, we proceed to reflect on how all this ties in with the development of adult thinking by exploring Sinnott’s theory of postformal thought.

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