The Education Industry

By W. Kenneth Richmond | Go to book overview

10 · Notes and Queries on
General Systems Theory

Virtually unheard of ten years ago except among the ranks of electronic engineers, systems theory is now well on the way to becoming part of the daily small-talk in academic circles. Still very imperfectly understood, even by the smart set of the intelligentsia, its terminology is fast becoming fashionable; and already its methods colour, if they do not actually characterize, modes of inquiry in a wide range of disciplines. Typical examples of its influence are to be found in Professor W. J. M. Mackenzie’s Politics and Social Science and David L. Clarke’s Analytical Archaeology, both of which seek to apply cybernetic concepts and techniques to their own speciality.

This pervasive influence is perhaps best explained by the diverse origins of the theory – in mathematics, in biology, in psychology, and more recently and most obviously in the field of communication engineering. What happened in the case of biology may be taken as symptomatic of a general trend in the movement of ideas. From Linnaeus on, classificatory schemes for dealing with chaotic masses of observations gave rise to numerical taxonomies in the study of botany and zoology; but once the stage of natural history had been passed, Linnaean-type systematics came to be seen as too static and the need for more dynamic concepts began to make itself felt. More so than in the physical sciences, the method of varying the factors one at a time proved inadequate for dealing with complex systems in which the problem, crudely, was to keep track simultaneously of a host of variables. Physiologists, and neurologists in particular, were among the first to recognize that the behaviour of living organisms could not be accounted for simply in terms of the sum of their parts. In psychology, also, Gestalt, Field, and Behavioural schools of thought have evidenced a similar trend.

The main popularizing impetus, however, has undoubtedly

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