General Systems Theory
and Symbolic Interactionism
Ludwig von Bertalannfy (1968), a German biologist, began work on what eventually would become General Systems Theory “in the early 20’s because I became puzzled about obvious lacunae in the research and theory of biology” (p. 12). Bertalannfy (1962) himself realized that General Systems Theory (“GST”) was not a theory in the usual sense, but, rather, it was “a working hypothesis, the main function of which is to provide a theoretical model for explaining, predicting, and controlling phenomena” (p. 17). According to Bertalannfy (1968), the principles of GST could be applied to a wide variety of fields, including engineering, and both the natural and social sciences.
Bertalannfy (1968) stated that “A system can be defined as a complex of intersecting elements” (p. 55). That systems are dynamic, not static, is an essential feature. Systems have an internal dynamic, as well as external dynamics where a system interacts with its environment. The boundary marks the border between the system and the environment in which it is embedded. Energy flows into and out of the system through interfaces. Energy that flows into the system is input and energy that flows outwards is output. Systems are usually composed of subsystems, and the complexity of systems and subsystems lead to differentiation.
Entropy is the essence of the second law of thermodynamics which asserts that the amount of disorder of any system tends to increase. Negative entropy, then, is a characteristic of organisms that reverses this tendency and leads to an increased amount of order in a system. Homeostasis and feedback are closely related. Bertalannfy (1968) described homeostasis as “those processes through which the material and energetical situation is maintained constant” (p. 78). Homeostasis indicates equilibrium. Bertalannfy (1968) claimed that feedback regulated homeostasis by taking some output from a system and returning it back into the system as input for the purpose of stabilizing or directing the action of the system.
Thus it should be no surprise that GST views the individual as a system. The individual is a complex, dynamic, and ordered system composed of numerous differentiated subsystems. The individual has a boundary separating it from its environment, but it also interacts with its environment and has interfaces through which energy is drawn from the environment, enters the individual as input, is modified, and exits as output. The individual system seeks to achieve a state of equilibrium, and it does so by routing some output back into itself as input to create feedback in order to maintain homeostasis. By maintaining homeostasis, the individual system exhibits negative entropy: the system, rather than developing increased disorder, achieves, instead, greater order.
GST views society in essentially identical terms. Society is viewed as a complex, dynamic, and ordered system composed of numerous differentiated subsystems. The system of the individual is made up of cells, tissues and organs, but society is composed of individuals, organizations, and political units. Society has a boundary separating it from its environment, but society also interacts with the environment, and has interfaces through which energy enters society as input, is modified, and exits as output. Society seeks to achieve a state of equilibrium, and it does so by routing some output back into itself as input to create feedback in order to maintain homeostasis. By maintaining homeostasis, society exhibits negative entropy: society, rather than developing increased disorder, achieves, instead, greater order.
Symbolic interactionism developed from the work of George Herbert Mead, a professor in the University of Chicago philosophy department in the early years of the twentieth century. Symbolic interactionism is now recognized as one of the three major strains of sociological theory along with functionalism and conflict theory. Charon (2010) notes that Mead was influenced both by pragmatism, and by the work of Charles Darwin. Through Darwin, “Mead came to see everything about the human being as a process rather than as stable and fixed. Thus, instead of the individual being a consistent, structured personality, the individual is a dynamic, changing actor” (p. 33).
Herbert Blumer (1969), a student of Mead, stated that “meaning is not intrinsic to the object” (p. 68). Instead, as Charon (2010) described, meaning is socially defined; that is, through social interaction we learn from each other what things are. Charon (2010) asserts that “symbols are social objects. We create and use symbols to communicate and represent something to others and to ourselves” (p. 47). Mead (1934) emphasized that “What is essential to communication is that the symbol should arouse in one’s self what is arouses in the other individual” (p. 149). Symbols also enable us to communicate with ourselves, that is, to think. Mead (1934) asserted that our essence as individuals arises from our use of symbols
Charon (2010) outlined the central role of symbols in human social life: (1) individuals are socialized by means of symbols; (2) culture depends on these socially derived symbols; (3) ongoing symbolic communication is necessary for the perpetuation of human society; (4) symbolic communication is the basis for human cooperation; and (5) the knowledge of the past is accumulated through the use of symbols. These aspects of symbols make human society possible.
Symbolic interactionism holds that the self, too, is a social object. Mead (1934) said “it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of the social experience” (p. 140). Mead (1934) asserted that “the essence of the self … is cognitive: it lies in the internalized conversation of gestures which constitutes thinking” (p. 173). Identity is created through this mechanism. An important aspect of the individual self is mind, which Mead discussed extensively in his pioneering work on symbolic interactionism, Mind, Self and Society. These three concepts – mind, self, and society – are interdependent. However, Mead (1934) described mind as an activity. Charon (2010) wrote that “Mind is not an object like the self or symbols; it is the action the actor takes towards himself or herself” (p. 92). Notwithstanding Mead’s distinction between self (object) and mind (action), Charon (2010) emphasized that “mind action is part of all social interaction” (p. 98). Another significant quality of the individual identified by symbolic interactionism is the individual’s ability to take on the role of another. Charon (2010) says this ability is important because it is necessary for successful symbolic communication.
The symbolic interactionist view of society must begin from social interaction. Charon (2010) stated that “To the symbolic interactionist, society has three important qualities that make it viable: ongoing symbolic interaction, cooperation or interdependence, and culture” (p. 151). Charon (2010) pointed out that “The symbolic interactionists, probably more than any school in sociology, conceptualize society in the dynamic sense: as individuals in interaction with one another, defining and altering the direction of one another’s acts” (p. 152). Blumer (1969) claimed that this does not mean individuals imitate one another or do the same things, but, rather, that each individual’s acts matter to others. Society, however, is not merely interaction; society is symbolic interaction.
Another crucial element in the symbolic interactionist view of society is culture. Charon (2010) described culture as “a shared perspective, a viewpoint from which people in a society see reality” (p. 158). Charon (2010) emphasized the reciprocal relationship between society and the individual: “Society does shape us: it gives us our selves, symbols, mind, our ability to take roles, our social objects, our culture. Yet human beings – possessing self and mind – act back on society and shape it, putting forth ideas, actions, directions that arise from within and that influence the direction of others in the ongoing cooperative order” (p. 167).
GST and symbolic interactionism complement each other in several important ways. Most significant is the systems focus of both theories. Another significant shared concept is the dynamic nature of systems as conceived by both GST and symbolic interactionism. Due to the dynamic nature of systems in symbolic interactionist theory, as in GST, both types of systems return feedback in order to achieve a state of equilibrium or, in GST terminology, homeostasis. Other GST concepts are found in symbolic interactionism. Clearly, in order for equilibrium to be achieved, both input and output through interfaces must be involved in both types of systems. Symbolic interactionist systems also exhibit negative entropy: they resist the tendency to dissipate into states of disorder, and, instead, demonstrate a tendency to develop into more highly organized systems
As Gallant and Thyer (1999) pointed out, to a great degree, GST has become a dormant theory and no longer is an area of active research interest. This dormancy is unfortunate because GST, although extremely abstract, is a powerful theory whose potential has not yet been exhausted. Certainly GST offers ways to think about social work problems, and further clarification of how GST might be applied to social work practice remains an unfinished project. Symbolic interactionist theory has produced an abundance of interesting research findings already, and research utilizing this approach is still an active area. A thorough examination of the literature would be necessary to uncover the areas where symbolic interactionism needs further work, but Charon (2010) points to several exciting recent studies demonstrating the theory’s applicability to social work. Such research should continue.
Symbolic interactionism, even though its conceptualization is somewhat abstract, is considerably more useful than GST in contributing to an understanding of biopsychosocial development. Symbolic interactionism not only presents a micro-level explanation of how selves and minds are formed, it also offers a macro-level explanation of how societies and cultures are formed. These features make symbolic interactionism a far stronger theory for aiding the understanding of biopsychosocial development. The greater level of abstraction in GST does not lend itself quite so well to an understanding of biopsychosocial development. However, the abstraction of GST may actually prove to be a strength. As noted above, many synergies exist between GST and symbolic interactionism. Although GST on its own may have limited usefulness in explaining biopsychosocial development, when it is fleshed out in more specific circumstances as with symbolic interactionism, it explanatory power can be improved.
Symbolic interactionism more successfully contributes to an understanding of social, economic, and political justice. Its description of how societies and cultures are formed, how minds and selves are formed – and how these processes can fail – easily lead to an understanding of social, economic, and political justice. GST, however, being a highly abstract theory, contributes little to help understand social, economic and political justice.
What GST needs most is more intensive application. It already has proven itself as a theory that can be applied in a variety of fields. Moreover, as shown above in the section discussing the complementarity of GST and symbolic interactionism, GST can be used in an area more directly related to social work. Greene (1999) is extremely enthusiastic about the usefulness of GST for social work practice. What is missing, however, are specifics. Why is Greene so impressed with GST and how – specifically – does she see it being applied in social work practice? Her enthusiasm is clear; specific applications are not so clear, and this illustrates one much needed area of improvement. Certainly GST should not be left on a shelf gathering dust; how GST can be put into more specific application in social work practice is less certain.
Although symbolic interactionism is more fleshed out as a theory than GST, it, too, is somewhat skeletal and is in need of more meat on its bones. Mead and Blumer have done significant work in creating an elegant theoretical framework, but, here too, problems with practical applications exist. Charon (2010) himself admits as much: symbolic interactionism “may aid my understanding of human complexity but not necessarily suggest how to change or manipulate others” (p. 199). After all, learning how to become change agents is one of the primary objectives of social work education. However, Charon (2010) broadly hinted that such a goal might be achieved:
I can be a social worker who must try to help a community organize itself, or I can be a family counselor whose job is to help people lead a more cooperative family life. In each case, we are examining a society, and in each case, it is social interaction, symbolic communication, role taking, cooperative problem solving, and culture that must be evaluated and improved for that society to work. (p. 164)
The preceding quote offers good suggestions on how social workers might use symbolic interactionism as a starting point for social work practice; however, more work is needed before these suggestions rise to the level of practice guidance. Charon provides tantalizing ideas, but they lack the substance needed for generalist practice such as that found in Kirst-Ashman and Hull (2009). The basic tenets of symbolic interactionism show a high degree of concordance with the person-in-environment orientation, the gold standard of social work practice. GST, despite its power as an “über-theory” and its usefulness in being applied to less abstract theories such as symbolic interactionism, needs more work before it can be applied to social work practice. It is likely that GST must remain a high level theory used to explicate lower level theories, but this is not sufficient reason to believe GST has no role in social work practice.
Bertalannfy, L. (1968). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York, NY: George Braziller.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
Charon, J. (2010). Symbolic Interactionism: An Introduction, An Interpretation, An Integration (10th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Gallant, J. & Thyer, B. (1999). Usefulness of General Systems Theory in Social Work Practice. In R. Greene (Ed.) Human Behavior Theory and Social Work Practice (2nd ed.) (250-258). New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Greene, R. (1999). General Systems Theory. In R. Greene (Ed.) Human Behavior Theory and Social Work Practice (2nd ed.) (215-249). New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Kirst-Ashman, K & Hull, G. (2009). Understanding Generalist Practice (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Mead, G. (1934). Mind, Self and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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Last revised: June 5, 2015.