Actor-System Dynamics Theory and Its Application to the Analysis of Modern Capitalism *. (Note on the Discipline/Note Sociologique)
Burns, Tom R., Baumgartner, Thomas, DeVille, Philippe, Canadian Journal of Sociology
Actor-system-dynamics (abbreviated as ASD henceforth) emerged in the 1970s out of early social systems analysis (Baumgartner et al, 1986; Burns et al, 1985; Burns et al, 2002). Social relations, groups, organizations, and societies were conceptualized as sets of inter-related parts with internal structures and processes. A key premise was that social systems are open to, and interact with, their environment. Through interaction with their environment - and through internal processes - such systems acquire new properties, and transform themselves, resulting in evolution and development (Burns, 2000, 2001; Bums and Dietz, 1992a, 1992b, Burns et al, 2002; Burns and Carson, 2002).
The common assumption espoused by some system theorists that the same concepts and principles of organization underlie the different disciplines (physics, biology, technology, sociology, economics) was rejected from the outset. It was axiomatic that human human agents should not be conceptualized as equivalent to particles, cells, electronic components, or purely physical systems. There were good empirical but also moral reasons for this. Human beings are creative as well as moral agents. They have intentionality, they are selfreflective and consciously self-organizing beings. They may choose to deviate, oppose, or act in innovative and even perverse ways in relation to norms and values.
The formulation of ASD in such terms was particularly important in light of the fact that system theories in the social sciences, particularly in sociology, were heavily criticized for the excessive abstractness of their theoretical formulations, for their failure to recognize or adequately conceptualize conflict in social life, and for persistent tendencies to overlook the non-optimal, even destructive characteristics of some social systems. Also, many system theorists were taken to task for falling to recognize human agency, the fact that individuals and collectives are purposive beings, have intentions, make choices, demonstrate self-reflectivity, and participate in the construction and destruction of systems. (1)
A major implication of "bringing human agents into the picture" has been the stress on the fact that agents are social and cultural beings. As such, agents and their relationships are constituted and constrained by social rules and rule complexes. These are the basis on which they organize and regulate their interactions, interpret and predict their activities, and develop and articulate accounts of their affairs and carry on critical discourses. Social rule systems are key contextualizing conditions for as well as the products of social interaction.
In the following sections, we provide a brief introduction and up-to-date overview of the theory of ASD. It presents the set of concepts essential to dynamic description and model-building in social system analysis. In the second part of the note, we illustrate several of the key ASD concepts in relation to capitalism as a complex and dynamic social system; also, we consider several of the knowledge problems that arise in accounting and regulating such a system. A number of practical implications are pointed out, in particular: (1) capitalism is a highly dynamic but unstable system - both as an economic system per se and as a force evoking political instability and environmental deterioration; (2) regulation is essential to stabilizing capitalist systems and to facilitating their effective functioning; (3) such regulation depends on political authority to introduce and implement regulative frameworks and on the development of more or less accurate models of capitalist systems as well as information and accoun ting systems to provide data for the models; (4) effective regulation and functioning of capitalism requires not only appropriate institutional arrangements but social agents who have the competence and motivation to lead and put into practice the institutional arrangements under varying circumstances and to effectively adapt and reform them in response to serious operational failures and environmental changes. …