The Epistemological Lifeboat

Epistemology and Philosophy of Science for Information Scientists

Birger Hjørland & Jeppe Nicolaisen (eds.)

 Home - Introduction - Science studies - Positions - Concepts - Domains

Systems theory

A system may be defined as a set of social, biological, technological or material partners co-operating on a common purpose. System theory is a philosophical doctrine of describing systems as abstract organizations independent of substance, type, time and space. Systems theories are connected to both ontological and epistemological views. The ontological view imply that the world consist of “systems” or “integrative levels”. The epistemological view implies a holistic perspective emphasizing the interplay between the systems and their elements in determining their respective functions. It is thus opposed to more atomistic approaches in which objects are investigated as individual phenomena. Systems theory developed especially from biology, in which it is difficult to understand the functions of, for example, the sexual reproduction of flowers separate from the functions of the insects. The modern understanding in biology is very much that of ecosystems. 

Systems theory exists in different versions and is related to some other fields. We can mention General Systems Theory (GST); the Systems Approach; Cybernetics and Operational Analysis. In recent years a version of system theory developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has been influential. 

GST is particularly an approach in philosophy of science, aiming at understanding and investigating the world as sets of systems. Systems approach is the name of a methodology or procedure in which problems are solved from a holistic perspective, nut as bundles of small isolated problems, which one then tries to combine. One of the most influential versions of systems theory has been GST developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972). He wrote

"... this shows the existence of a general systems theory which deals with formal characteristics of systems, concrete facts appearing as their special applications by defining variables and parameters. In still other terms, such examples show a formal uniformity of nature.'' Bertalanffy (1962). 

Bertalanffy (1968) and his followers tried to conceive the world as a whole and represent an attempt to oppose the more atomistic and mechanical approaches in science. 

“The English philosopher Herbert Spencer appears to be the first to set out the general idea of increasing complexity in systems (Spencer, 1862). The term itself [the theory of integrative levels] was first used by the English biochemist (and scholar of Chinese science) Joseph Needham (1937). The following quotation from a Web source provides an insight into the fundamentals of the theory:

(a) The structure of integrative levels rests on a physical foundation. The lowest level of scientific observation would appear to be the mechanics of particles. (b) Each level organizes the level below it plus one or more emergent qualities (or unpredictable novelties). The levels are therefore cumulative upwards, and the emergence of qualities marks the degree of complexity of the conditions prevailing at a given level, as well as giving to that level its relative autonomy. (c) The mechanism of an organization is found at the level below, its purpose at the level above. (d) Knowledge of the lower level infers an understanding of matters on the higher level; however, qualities emerging on the higher level have no direct reference to the lower-level organization. (e) The higher the level, the greater its variety of characteristics, but the smaller its population. (f) The higher level cannot be reduced to the lower, since each level has its own characteristic structure and emergent qualities. (g) An organization at any level is a distortion of the level below, the higher-level organization representing the figure which emerges from the previously organized ground. (h) A disturbance introduced into an organization at any one level reverberates at all the levels it covers. The extent and severity of such disturbances are likely to be proportional to the degree of integration of that organization. (i) Every organization, at whatever level it exists, has some sensitivity and responds in kind. (Union of International Associations, 2002).

The idea of integrative levels is widely employed today in comparative psychology, biochemistry, biology, environmental science, and many other areas. The Classification Research Group employed it in the UK as a basis for ideas on the development of a new classification scheme in the 1970s (Wilson, 1972; Foskett, 1978) but it appears to have dropped out of sight in our field since then.

Somewhat related to a systems theoretical approach is activity theory, in which the phylogenesis of psychological processes is seen as adaptations to the environment. (see Hjørland, 2002). The Danish information and media scholar Niels Ole Finnemann (2001) proposed a five stage model for the development of media in human cultures, which may be seen as a kind of systems model in which media must be understood in relation to each other. Finnemann does not speak of an “information society” because information and information processing is important in any society. A society cannot exist in which the production and exchange of information are of only minor significance. His model looks like this: 

1) Oral cultures based mainly on speech. 2) Literate cultures: speech + writing (primarily alphabets and number systems). 3) Print cultures: speech + written texts + print. 4) Mass media cultures: speech + written texts + print + analogue electric media. 5) Second-order alphabetic cultures: speech + written texts + print + analogue electric media + digital media.

What is the relevance of this for the concept of information? Quite simply, 'information' is a concept that takes different forms at different integrative levels. When the computer scientist manipulates information, he or she manipulates units of complexity such as bits and bytes (with the byte having a different level of complexity than the bit). The information retrieval specialist, on the other hand, conceives of information in terms of strings of symbols, matching query strings against indexed strings. The librarian sees information in terms of the macro containers; books, reports, journals and, now, electronic documents of various kinds, and, indeed of a higher level of organization, the library itself. In other words, information itself is not a unitary concept, but has different levels of organization, around which different theories are built and practices evolved. Consequently, there cannot be a unitary information science, but only different approaches to information from the perspective of the integrative level involved. “ (Wilson, 2002)

Luhmann thought that the previous attempts to use systems theory in the social sciences applied cybernetic concepts too directly and suffered from the residual normative orientation. To be rigorous and consistent, systems theory had to drop all reference to actors and their self-interpretations, which were nothing but ‘psychical systems’ that form part of the environment for other systems. In this way systems theory can be generally applicable to every level of social analysis (Luhmann 1976).

Systems theory has influenced many sciences, including technological fields, management science, mathematics, political science, psychology, and sociology – as well as Library and Information Science (LIS). LIS has especially taken over systems theory from computer science, and there have so far not been any attempt to make an overall integration, historical description or evaluation of systems theory in LIS. Today there is a certain interest in Luhmann’s version, e.g. connected to the bibliometric and scientometric communities. (see e.g. Leydesdorff, 2001 and van den Besselaar, 2003).

Critique of systems theory

Systems theory have been debated and criticized. One argument has been that it escapes from reality and not is productive. Thus Weyer (1994) concludes:

"Das Resümee dieser Rezension unterstellt als Ziel der soziologischen Forschung, daß diese zumindest gelegentlich neue Lösungen und nicht nur stets neue Problemformulierungen produzieren sollte. Aus dieser Perspektive wirkt eine soziologische Konzeption unbefriegend, die - im Sinne Luhmanns - nichts erklären will und aucht nichts erklären kann, sondern sich mit der Undurchschaubarkeit der Welt zufriedengibt. Eine Soziologie, für die das Wirkliche derart unaussprechlich ist, daß sie ihre Hauptenergien derauf richtet, besonderes wortreiche Formen des Drumherum-Redens zu entwickeln, die keine Hypothesen entwickelt und keine Heuristiken zur Verfügung stellt, ist soziologish unproduktiv; dies bestätigt sich auch dadurch, daß alle systemtheoretisch inspirierten Versuche, sich der Wircklichkeit anzunähren, notwendigerweise aus der Systemtheotheorie herausführen" (Weyer, 1994, p. 146). A criticism of ideological tendencies in systems theory has been given by Lilienfeld (1978). 

Systems theory is thus a view, that emphasis certain perspectives and relatively ignores other perspectives. It is always imprtant to consider what the consequences are of ignoring certain perspectives. In studying libraries, one can apply a systems perspective and thus ignore the specific attributes and the specific historical circumstances. This may be fruitful for some purposes such as automation and cooperation, but I may be at the cost of loosing, for example, specific experiences in developing special services. 

“Habermas criticizes Luhmann’s systems theory on several levels. Theoretically, Habermas criticizes Luhmann for ignoring the continuing role of institutions, and thus of social integration, in ‘anchoring’ systemic mechanisms in the cultural life-worlds of their members. Because of the interaction of social and systemic integration, systemic mechanisms can have perverse effects, disrupting and ‘colonizing’ the domain of cultural reproduction. Methodologically, Habermas argues that action descriptions from the agents’ point of view remain a necessary condition for any social explanation. Normatively, Luhmann’s ‘methodological anti-humanism’ blinds the theory from the start to the possible influence of a society-wide and critical public sphere on complex, institutional processes.” (Ryan & Bohman, 1998).


Bertalanffy, L. von (1968). General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. Rev. ed. New York: George Braziller. 

Bertalanffy, L. von (1962). General System Theory - A critical review, General Systems, 7:1-20 

Bhagat, N. A.(1977). Information dissemination: a systems viewpoint. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, PC: 20(2), 76-79. 

Christis, J. (2001). Luhmann’s theory of knowledge: beyond realism and constructivism? Soziale Systeme 7(2), 328-349. Available at:

Churchman, C. W. (1968). The Systems Approach. New York: Dell Publ. Co.

Dahlbom, B. & Mathiassen, L. (1991). Struggling with Quality. The Philosophy of Developing Computer Systems. Göteborg: University of Göteborg. (Gothenburg Studies in Information Systems 4) (Chapter 3: Systems thinking). 

Finnemann, N. O. (2001). The Internet—A New Communicational Infrastructure. Manuscript for the 15th Nordic Conference on Media and Communication Research, "New Media, New opportunities, New Societies", University of Iceland in Reykjavik, Iceland, August 11th-13th, 2001. 43 pp. Available at: (Visited February 18., 2005).

Foskett, D. J. (1972). Review: information and general system theory. Journal of Librarianship, 4(3), 205-209. 

Foskett, D.J. (1974). General Systems Theory and the organisation of libraries.(IN: Studies in Library Management, Volume Two London, Clive Bingley, 10-24).

Foskett, D.J. (1978) The theory of integrative levels and its relevance to the design of information systems. ASLIB Proceedings, 30(6): 202-208.

Foskett, D. J. (1980). Systems theory and its relevance to documentary classification International Classification, 7(1), 2-5. 

Fugmann, R. (1973), On the role of subjectivity in establishing, using, operating and evaluating information retrieval systems. Treatise II on retrieval system theory. Information Storage & Retrieval, 9(7), 353-372. 

Habermas, J. (1981). Systemteori om samfundet eller socialkybernetik (IN: Jürgen Habermas: Teorier om samfund og sprog. Artikler 1961-76 udvalgt og med indledninger af Jørgen Dines Johansen og Jens-Glebe-Møller. København: Gyldendal, pp. 97-118).

Hjørland, B. (2002). Principia Informatica. Foundational Theory of Information and Principles of Information Services. IN: Emerging Frameworks and Methods. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS4). Ed. By Harry Bruce, Raya Fidel, Peter Ingwersen, and Pertti Vakkari. Greenwood Village, Colorado, USA: Libraries Unlimited. (Pp. 109-121).

Kirkeby, O. F.(1986). En introduktion til modelbegrebet og systembegrebet.(i: Videnskabsteori og metodelære for erhvervsøkonomer. Redigeret af Heine Andersen. København: Samfundslitteratur, Chapter 9, pp. 267-307).

Kluth, R.(1976). Theoretische Grundlagen der Bibliothekssysteme. (IN: Bibliothek und Buch in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Festgabe für Friedrich-Adolf Schmidt-Kuensemueller zum 65. Geburtstag am 30. Dez. 1975, 151-162. Munich: Verlag Dokumentation). 

Leydesdorff, L. (2001). A sociological theory of communication. The self-organization of the knowledge-based society. USA: Universal Publishers/

Liebscher, H. (1972). System. (IN: Philosophisches Wörterbuch. Hrsg. von Georg Klaus und Manfred Buhr. Leipzig: VEB Bibliographisches Institut). 

Lilienfeld, R. (1978). The Rise of Systems Theory. An Ideological Analysis. New York. 

Luhmann, N. (1976) The Differentiation of Society, translated by Stephen Holmes and Charles Larmore. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Original title (1976): Soziologische Aufklärung, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen. 

Luhmann, N. (1992). "Hvorfor systemteori?" I: Jens Chr. Jacobsen (red.): Autopoesis. Politisk Revys Forlag. 

Mansfield, U. (1982). The systems movement: an overview for information scientists. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 33(6), 375-382. 

Marchant, M. P.(1980). An open system theory approach to library effectiveness. (IN: Library effectiveness. A state of the art 151-159. New York, Library Administration and Management Association). 

Mattessich, R. (1982). The systems approach: its variety of aspects. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 33(6), 383-394. 

Mikhailov, A.I. & Giljarevskij, R. S. (1970). An Introductory Course on Informatics/Documentation. U.s.: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (com/ws/147).

Miller, J. G. (1978). Living Systems". New York: McGraw-Hill.

Needham, J. (1937) Integrative levels: a revaluation of the idea of progress. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

Neelameghan, A.(1974). Systems thinking in the study of the attributes of the universe of subjects (i: Information Science: Search for Identity; edited by Anthony Debons New York, Marcel Dekker, Inc., 139-170).

Orr, J.M. (1977). Libraries as communication systems. Westport, Conn. & London: Greenwood Press. (Contributions in librarianship and information science No. 17). 

Osborne, L. N. (2000). Systems analysis for librarians and information professionals. 2nd ed. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Parker, E.B. (1970). Systems theory analysis of feedback mechanisms for information systems. (i: Users of documentation: FID International Congress on Documentation, Buenos Aires, 21-24 September, 1970. The Hague, FID). 

Ryan, A. & Bohman, J. (1998). Systems theory in social science. IN: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge

Shapiro, E. L. (1979). The functions of information work in the scientific communications system. International Forum for Information and Documentation, 4(2), 1979, 3-6. 

Spencer, H. (1862) First principles. London: Williams and Norgate. (A system of Synthetic Philosophy ; v. 1) 

Steinbacher, K.(1990). System/Systemtheorie (i: Europäische Enzyklopädie zu Philosophie und Wissenschaften. Band 1-4. Herausgegeben von Hans Jörg Sandkühler u.a. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag. 500-506).

Strong, G. W (1982). Adaptive systems: the study of information, pattern and behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 33(6), 400-406. 

Tou, J.T. (Ed.). (1969). Advances in information systems science. Vol. II. New York, London, Plenum Press.

Union of International Associations (2002) Integrative knowledge project: levels of organization. Available at: [Site visited 28th May 2002; Password needed] 

van den Besselaar, P. (2003). Empirical evidence of self-organization? Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Published online: 27 Nov 2002. 

Weyer, J. (1994). Wortreich drumherumgeredet: Systemtheorie ohne Wirklichkeitskontakt. Soziologische Revue, 1994, 17(2), 139-146 ("Sammelbesprechung" Six new German books (especially about Niklas Luhmann’s version of systems theory). 

Wilson, T.D. (1972) The work of the British Classification Research Group. In: Wellisch, H. & Wilson, T.D. (eds.), Subject Retrieval in the Seventies. College Park, MD: University of Maryland and Greenwood Press (pp. 62-71)

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Philosophical foundations and research relevance: issues for information research. Speech held at the Fourth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Emerging Frameworks and Method, University of Washington, Seattle, USA, July 21 to 25, 2002 [CoLIS 4]-.Not in the printed proceedings. Available at: (visited December 21, 2002).


Entry added: February 17, 2005
Last update: March 2, 2005