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Systems theory and the Problem of Structure and Agency

Goldspink, Chris and Kay, Robert (2007) Systems theory and the Problem of Structure and Agency


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In this paper we reflect on the conference theme „Systemic Development: Local Solutions in a Global Environment‟ noting that this echoes sentiments captured in the slogans „Think global, act local‟ and the complement „Think local, act global‟. We argue that these slogans embrace inherently systemic insights, but insights which current social and organisational theory, including that inspired by systems thinking, cannot adequately underpin. It is argued that a failure to establish an adequate understanding of the interplay between agency and structure is at the heart of the problem. In this paper we outline our theoretical and empirical collaboration exploring this issue. We draw on the theory of autopoetic systems to argue that social systems are complex systems of a particular class and that what distinguishes them as a class is the reflexive capacity of the constituent agents. Reflexivity happens in and through language and provides a capacity to distinguish macro structure and relate it to „self „and thus to change micro behaviour, and in so doing contribute to the generation of new emergent pattern. We explore this through two case examples. The first addresses issues affecting innovation within a senior management team in Westpac Bank. The second addresses self-organising normative processes within the global network institution Wikipedia. Links are drawn between the cases and the theoretical framework advanced in the first section. The cases serve to illustrate how methods which are normally associated with either micro or macro behaviour can be combined to help with research into the interplay between the two.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (UNSPECIFIED)
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Sociology
Authors :
Goldspink, Chris
Kay, Robert
Date : 1 December 2007
Additional Information : Invited Plenary paper, for the ANZSYS07 Conference, Auckland, NZ, December 2-5 2007.
Depositing User : Mr Adam Field
Date Deposited : 27 May 2010 14:42
Last Modified : 31 Oct 2017 14:02

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