Possibilities on the Use of General Systems Theory and Thermodynamic
Theory in the Development of Local Communities
Social work is analyzed from the view of general system
theory as presented in works of J.G. Miller and thermodynamics
theory, particularly the second axiom. Thermodynamics theory
helps explain some life experiences in local communities
from a wider prospective and provides a more complex understanding
of dimensions of social work.
for a universal idea to encompass the complexity of being
and the environment in which we would like to live, as well
as the one we are forced to live in, is a never-ending constant
in human intellectual creativity. No theoretical trend, nor
serious and comprehensive theory, whether of natural or social
sciences, has such an aspiration, at its base. Religion is
the only area of human intellectual endeavor in which this
ideal has completely succeeded. Religion has come close to
the struggle by recognizing the imperfections of human experience
and of the infinite nature and completeness of the divine.
That the soul is universal is deeply rooted in religious teachings,
is a significant inspiration for many theoretical approaches
and is a sociological factor for scholars both directly and
indirectly through culture. General systems theory is another
attempt by human thinkers to find some kind of general answer
to inherent reality. General systems theory emerged as a response
to a branch of research about Cartesians fear, an expression
coined by Richard Bernstein denoting a situation where nothing
exists except for two possibilities--to either create a theory
based on a solid foundation or to not create any theory of
any kind. Some of the proponents of systems theory emphasize
that it originated from a need to bridge the enormous amount
of scientific material that is increasing at such a rate that
it is fast becoming unserviceable. The world catalog of scientific
magazines has redoubled every 15 years (Miller, 1978). This
led George Miller to call the world scientific periodicals
the catalog of spare parts for the machine which has
never been built (Miller, 1978, p.5).
A second, more
substantial, reason for the development of general systems
theory was opposition to the Darwinian way of thinking, that
points out the differences in the entities to be found in
nature. Systems theoreticians, in contrast to Darwinists,
are more impressed by the many similarities in the entities
which surround us than with their differences. From this flows
the desire for one sufficiently general theory, which is implicit
about the unity of science as a general and universal characteristic
of humans. Such unity will encompass all natural and social
processes and enable researchers and thinkers to consider
the widest areas of life.
may also make possible the development of a uniform and generally
understood scientific language for researchers from a variety
of disciplines. The intention of theoreticians of general
systems theory is not a new or a specific philosophical monism,
according to which all essentially phenomena, both social
and natural, are the normal consequence of methodological
unity. Rather, theoreticians of general systems theory warn
that the use of some methodological, as well as
concepts, from for example, the area of natural sciences,
in the area of social sciences are as metaphors and not as
a direct methodological arsenal (Khalil & Boulding, 1996).
They warn that care must be taken when these various constructs
(metaphors) are employed so that mistakes will not be made
in their identification.
OF LIVING SYSTEMS
Grier Miller (1978) emphasizes seven basic characteristics
of living systems:
- They are open,
with the entrance, passage and exit of matter, energy, and
information clearly identifiable.
- They maintain
a stable condition of negtropy; that is, they are able to
maintain this condition even when entropic changes occur.
- They contain
specific schematic messages relating to the organization
and its operation.
- They have regulatory
mechanisms, or mechanism for the management of the system.
- They are composed
of a specific number of necessary sub-systems.
- These sub-systems
are integrated into one whole.
- They can only
survive in an adequate environment.
are all the exchanges of energy matter and information which
occur in the course of time and through the structure of a
system. Entropy is a process in which energy is transformed
from a higher into a lower from of utilization. Entropy in
a closed system functions at maximum disorder to the system,
until it leads to complete self-destruction.
The essence of
the second thermodynamics axiom is Transformation of
energy is nothing else but destruction of one difference to
create another difference (Progogine, 1982, p. 121).
For dust thou are and unto dust shalt thou remain
in light of thermodynamics theory is not only a Bible proverb
for death, but a scientific meaningful reality. It explains
that an energy unit has changed from one form into another
which, in that condition, can not be used any longer. It does
not rule out the new energy potential to be used within a
new system. And certainly it does not get used.
The term entropy
is often used for a disorder. The term often bears negative
connotations, and becomes unacceptable in presentations of
system development and dynamics. Organized or structured systems
exchange energy potentials within themselves as well as with
their environments. This is a condition for the systems
survival. Order is also a condition for systems existence,
at least speaking of its existence in form, purpose and goal;
but disorder is also a necessary condition for system development,
including structure differentiation. It is necessary to spend
energy for a system to develop a differentiated structure;
after this the world will not be the same as before (Knezevic,
1992, p. 39). Order, in thermodynamics theory, does not mean
perfection, and disorder does not mean a bugaboo of evil.
These are simply manifestations of motion, development, and
An example in
social work is the family with a so-called overprotected child.
A system with rigid and solid boundaries is not a system in
disorder, but, on the contrary, is a system in perfect order
(if order means orderliness). The parents of the overprotected
child use the childs energy for their own growth. Marginal
social groups which gather around themselves solid, impermeable
social boundaries succeed in their own activity by drawing
potential and energy from each member.
of a system relates to the position of its sub-systems and
components in a three-dimensional space and at a concrete
moment in time. A system is a hierarchy composed of sub-systems
of greater and lesser levels. Differences between the particular
levels of the system are based on:
of components within a specific system level;
vicinity and relationship of the individual components;
of those components; and
differences in components behavior on various system
levels. (Miller, 1978, p. 125).
the next highest hierarchical level comprising a number of
system components or sub-systems. Sub-systems are integral
structures found within a system; sub-systems are defined
by function. Miller identifies several types of sub-systems
and their relations (1978, pp. 31-32):
A system in which the borders of the system and borders of
the components are congruent. The system in this case is dependent
on one component. If we consider social work, as a process
or component, then, in the local subsystem, social work as
the process and social work as the subsystem coincide as part
of the system structure. In this case social work would be
an institution which in a community that carries out social
The borders of a sub-system are not congruent with the borders
of components; the sub-system is located in a space smaller
that the component. The sub-system shares the component with
other sub-systems. This type of sub-system depends on only
one part of the component in its activities. A component of
the system is wider than the subsystem and covers a larger
field than a subsystem. This means that more subsystems will
use social work. For example, old peoples homes, police
stations, hospitals, all use social work activity as a component
of their work. Of course implementation of social work with
combined subsystems is more complex than in a local subsystem.
The activities of social work must meet far more diversified
demands, therefore input as well as information challenges
are bigger and more complex.
Sub-System. A sub-system is laterally dispersed if it is greater
than its component; that is, its activities include more than
one subsystem component. This type of activity demands a satisfactory
level of communication between the various parts. The subsystem
covers a larger space than the space of a component, thus
it requires application of several components to fulfill its
functions. This is frequent in social work practice; it is
often necessary to coordinate the activity of many different,
often specialized elements. The process of specialization
of some forms of social work requires application of diverse
components. Coordination of various parts is the most important
condition for a successful functioning laterally dispersed
subsystem. Thus social work planning in a local community
is an important condition.
(1981) dilemma on explanation of the organizational purpose
into means bears theoretical and practical significance. If,
for example, the structure and process of some organization
was taken out from the purpose of the organization, it would
lead to an unavoidable functional conflict, which reflects
degradation of material-energetic resources. The dilemma is
illustrated by laterally dispersed subsystems.
Expansion of different
methodological approaches in the social work, as well as organizational
structures, was not motivated exclusively by a developing
social work network and by increasing diversity of the services
for different categories of dependents. We observe a very
high service role in the national economy if societies where
the number of techniques has increased enormously. To enter
the market and maintain a position, it is necessary to produce
more updated services of their latest forms. Therefore, the
purpose of survival in the market is found in clients, concrete
persons. One has to produce clients to survive in the service
market. The approach is supported by claiming that purposes
have an advantage before means (Luhmann, 1981, p. 59). We
can not identify extreme forms of such phenomena in social
work probably because we have never dealt explicitly with
the subject. In some other fields, such as medicine, this
process is dramatically visible. For example, plastic surgery
has to find clients, to make a profit form those unhappy with
the shape of their nose to those unhappy with the size of
their penis. Awareness of this process in social work and
of equipping people for social work is as important as awareness
that some social groups have been deprived and need help.
Sub-System. In this situation a sub-system shares part
of or a whole component with other sub-systems. The sub-system
is, at the same time, a part of more than one particular local
system. A subsystem of social work may carry a role in two
or more subsystems, but only performs simultaneously in one
of them as a constituent part. Social work may, for example,
provide services to a system in some local community where
production takes place (such as solving problems of employed
in an industrial plant), but performs the duties in a part
of the health system of some other systems or subsystems,
which require social work services. The system in this case
shares the social work component with other systems.
Sub-System. The process proceeds in such a way that it
establishes a system at a
higher level of the hierarchy. The
sub-system is dependent upon the supra-system for its activities.
In the case of an upwardly dispersed subsystem, a local community
as far as function of the social work in concerned, is dependent
on the system that is positioned on the higher level. In bigger
cities, for example, it is possible for social work to be
functionally organized on the city level but services are
to be provided according to particular local communities.
Such a situation is frequent in centralized state functions,
when social work is organized as a state institution. Social
work has an important control function in the society, whether
we liked or not; the state will attempt to assure some functions
of control via social work. Through the organization structure
one can control material and energy resources which the state
has had on its disposal and which is distributed to the lower
level via local communities.
Dispersed Sub-System. The process proceeds in such a way
that it establishes a system at a lower level of the hierarchy.
The sub-system is dependent upon other sub-systems in its
activities. Systems theory is built on the idea of a hierarchical
structuring in relationship between systems and subsystems.
In this case, the system is dependent through the social work
activity on a subsystem which is on the lower position. An
example is the regulatory sub-system, called decider by Miller
(Miller, 1978). It is unlikely, within complex structures,
for social work to be positioned in the decider position in
a local community. When more complex communities are considered,
it is more likely that social work will be positioned on lower
levels of the system, and not those which have regulatory
functions. If the function is understood as a regulatory one,
however, then the social work can be regarded as a regulatory
sub-system. The process proceeds in such a way that it
is executed by some other system. When the social work system
is positioned outside the local community system, the local
community must address an outside system to use the services
of social work.
to structure, subsystems can also be classified by functions.
There are critical sub-systems which process energy and information.
This sub-system is concerned with the production of energy
or resources necessary for maintaining a system or of products
which the system sends to another system for the purposes
A sub-system which serves as storage for energy potential.
Social work does not participate in production, not even in
storage within the system, but it is very important for social
work to identify elements of production as well as places
and forms for storage of the material-energy resources of
a community. Having such information available will help social
work to determine its activities, as well as to plan requirements
for the future. Incomplete and incorrect information on places
of production, as well as places and capacity of storage,
will lead to poor social work performance.
The reproductive basis of communities, males and females who
make possible the communitys growth and development
or who render it impossible, is rarely considered as an independent
sub-system. Human reproduction is very often connected to
mythology and the functions of love, Gods will, and
other types of spiritual concepts. It is almost immoral to
consider men and women who produce new members of the community
as a sub-system of reproduction. Another part of this sub-system
are those social mechanisms which enable population increase
through entry of new members, or which introduce restrictive
measures making the entry of new members into the community
Because the biological roles of men and women are different
and because the gestation period in the human species is relatively
long, different social mechanisms exist to balance the number
of males (of which there are a surplus) through various forms
of celibacy. In modern urbanized communities, legalized homosexuality
and the struggle for homosexual rights is a social mechanism
which compensates for the surplus males in local communities.
function is significantly dependent on energy resources; thus,
a variety of mechanisms control the amount and intensity of
reproduction and try to adapt reproduction to the available
economic resources (demographic stimulant or restrictive measures).
This link between economic resources and reproduction feeds
a variety of dynamic structures. The community, whose material
resources are relatively poor, will behave toward its own
environment with relative rigidity; it
will form strong links
between individual constituents of the system and will not
enable them to have a significant level of local variability.
This type of structure is relatively insensitive to stimuli
from the environment and must establish relatively firm boundaries
around this sub-system. However, it remains directed in the
long-term towards its inner energy resources and its rigidity
increases the level of entropy.
This subsystem is on the edge of the community, protects the
community from external stresses, keeps the elements of the
structure together, and allows or prevents the entry of matter-energy
and information into or out of the system. Territoriality
is a biological characteristic of humans. We have a need to
construct boundaries between ourselves and others. One of
the most important reasons for conflict in public transport
vehicles is the unease we feel when somebody steps over the
boundary and enters our personal field. Local communities,
besides the sometimes physical borders which they establish,
have boundaries around some members of the community. Some
social groups have special rituals which constitute a boundary
between themselves and non-members of the group. Boundaries
are very important in the evaluation of the dynamics of social
groups. Strong boundaries, which firmly prevent the entry
and exit of matter-energy and information, isolate the social
group from its environment. They increase the level of the
systems entropy; as the strength of boundaries increases,
the system becomes more closed. A totally closed and isolated
group would most probably be a system which, according to
the second law of thermodynamics, creates a maximum self-entropy.
This is the case with some extreme religious sects whose absolute
exclusivity leads to personal and collective destruction.
A similar case
concerns families with overprotected children. What is the
situation with this child from a thermodynamic position? This
kind of child is located in a closed system and is of low
rank. The child is the lowest level of the family structure.
The entropic process flows so that in equalizing the energetic
potential, the childs energy sources are exhausted first.
The child invests the most in the family. We can no longer
talk about an overprotected child, but rather of an unprotected
child. That is one type of child abuse.
This part of the system enables matter-energy to pass through
the boundary of a system. In larger, more complex social groups,
this function is highly specialized; in smaller communities
it is executed alongside other functions. It is important
to observe investors in a local community analysis because
the energy supply is controlled through the function of investor.
The investor control function is carried out from the higher
system level. Input control into a local community creates
a possibility to subordinate the community to a part of the
system which is executing control. In a social crisis (for
example, a refugee crisis), it is necessary to organize fast
and efficient catering for a large number of people. Authorities
in such cases choose the most efficient way, by centrally
organized catering on the location as well as distribution
of food. If authorities wanted, however, to keep a group of
people under control, they would postpone the possibility
of families taking over their own meal preparation. One could
control such a group of people via centralized catering. The
organization of centralized catering for socially imperiled
people may have resulted from a desire to carry out some forms
of efficient social control rather than to help them in the
most efficient way.
This sub-system conveys matter-energy which has entered the
system to individual parts of the systems structure.
This is done in accordance with the regulations which exist
inside the system. Distribution may depend on the social groups
position inside the wider social system. Just as hierarchical
systems are largely structured according to the principles
of objective and resources (Luhmann, 1981), the objective
determines the dynamics and quality of the distribution, and
not moral order. In other words, those parts of the structure
of a social system which are considered important for that
system have priority in distribution. Non-privileged social
groups in a community have continually weaker prospects in
the distribution process.
This sub-system enables the input of matter-energy to be processed
into a form which is useful to the system. Matter-energy,
in the immediate environs of the system, does not always come
in a shape which the system can use. Thus, it is necessary
to transform it into a useful form. Social work helps communities
to realize this function. Social work alone is not an immediate
converter of energetic resources of the social community but
it has an active role in offering information, to other parts
of the system on how and for which segments to convert material
resources. Entire categories of population would be in more
difficult situations, if social work did not assist the system
to convert products from environment in an adequate way. For
example, the struggle of social workers to make public premises,
transport and public institutions accessible to handicapped
person is an important function that social work bears as
A sub-system which serves to eliminate waste matter from sub-systems.
Social processes have their own by-product, which is named
social pathology. By linking thermodynamic theory and systems
theory, by-products of social processes can be considered
all those parts of the sub-system whose energy levels are
useless on the level at which the system operates. These are,
in short, all those people as well as parts of a system which
have equalized their energy potential. The system thus invests
its energy into maintaining them. This includes persons and
social groups which enter the system (newborns, newly introduced)
with reduced energy potential and for which the system thus
must invest its own energy potential. (This terminology is
used as a metaphor; its eventual placement into a context
of values is unnecessary and damaging.)
of social work are concerned with by-products or even waste
products resulting from the operation of the social system.
Retirees, with very small incomes which are insufficient for
a dignified lifestyle, are a by-product of the functioning
of the social system. Children who, due to a nonfunctioning
social system, become subjects of soulless exploitation and
hired workers are also a by-product of the functioning of
a social system. Social work, when used in the function of
social control, is concerned with the elimination of by-products
resulting from the functioning of a social system.
This sub-system serves to move a sub-system or its parts across
a fixed space. By this is meant movement where parts of a
sub-system draw closer to other sub-systems, or parts of sub-system
draw closer to one another during their activities. The motor
structure element of a community is frequently omitted in
analysis. In the modern world, however, distances are time-costing;
analysis of each local community has to discover this component
even when speaking of social work as the subsystem. Insufficient
potentials of social workers to access their clients in the
field diminishes possibility for action.
This sub-system insures an adequate distance between components
of a sub-system enabling them to function orderly. Complex
sub-systems need a normal space to be able to function. The
banging of one element into another would make this impossible.
In social systems there are very different forms keeping distance.
Even though social distance is sometimes considered in a negative
context, as, for example, the class struggle in Marxist literature,
it is a necessary element of social organization at all levels.
Distance determined by age, for example, helps community members
from functions which are not appropriate for their age.
also execute the role of the social distance. When, for example,
we prevent clients from performing a function, which could
be dangerous in their situation, we are carrying out a justified
and useful function of keeping distances. When, on the other
hand, social work is used as a function of social control
from higher mechanisms, it could create social distances which
become unjustified or even malignant.
The role of these parts of the sub-system is to introduce
information which is important for system-functioning. They
then convey this information to other parts of the sub-system.
Incorrect and delayed information in an extremely disturbed
time period, such as the war in Croatia and Bosnia/Herzegovina
were noxious for lives of many young people. Development and
access to information channels and networks was impressive
in the war. People who belonged to the upper social class
managed, before the war broke out in their area, to secure
their property by physically moving it to a safer place. Even
more important, they had an opportunity to protect themselves
and their families by moving to a safer place long enough
before fighting had started. The lower social class members,
who either did not have access to information channels or
were not involved in the networks, were affected the worst
both by material or human standards. Both, their material
as well as human losses, were the greatest.
This sub-system transcribes information into information codes
which are understandable and useful. This subsystem is practically
a condition for existence. These elements of the structure
make possible understanding of different cultural documents
in social systems of complex cultures. Social workers frequently
act as decoders. Sometimes, information from the higher system
level is indistinct, especially administrative procedures
and legislation related to local communities and citizens
rights. Signal decoding from other elements of the system
has an important cultural dimension. Various culture groups
may code information in different ways; correct coding and
decoding is a necessary condition for understand processes
taking place in the local community. On the other hand, in
disturbed circumstances, information gets decoded in compliance
with the system condition. During the war in Croatia and Bosnia/Herzegovina,
warring systems often did not understand codes which came
from local communities.
This enables joint activity of individual parts of the sub-system
structure in those situations where joint activity is necessary.
Common community activities may develop in a way that each
community member, or at least an active community member,
is aware that common activity of community members is necessary
for goal accomplishment. Complicated local communities develop
in different ways, often through sophisticated forms of this
subsystem. Successful local communities are careful when organizing
local activities so that their implementation connects all
elements of the community.
This operating mechanism of social structures insures the
activity of the whole structure of a sub-system. The structure
of a decider, like every other sub-system, depends on many
factors. It may be concentrated at one point of the subsystem,
or it may be a part of the authority transported to another
section. In larger, more clearly structured local communities,
the decider is the most formally determined part of the system.
In smaller communities, it may be necessary to find out with
careful analysis where the decider is located. Social workers,
working in local communities, need to pinpoint the decision
making source to be able to carry out their duties within
the system. By identifying the decider, social workers avoid
competition which might occur between them and the decider
unless it was clearly identified.
This part of the sub-system is necessary for conveying information
from individual parts of the system to its environment. Social
work often plays the role of informing outside elements about
the situation in a local community. The worse the situation
in a local community, the more important is the role of social
work as the information carrier to the outside. Communication
to other system levels is necessary if a local community is
not able to solve social problems alone. Information on the
system condition is a crucial issue for the community.
This part of the sub-system stores information of the sub-system.
Memory is not a precisely limited and defined sub-system on
the local community level, except for larger and more complicated
communities. Different archives and other forms of information
storage are seldom at the local community level. This sub-system
is often dispersed to large number of local community members
who are perceived as the collective memory. The collective
memory is a very important element of each community. Some
traumatizing experiences can lead to a disturbance in community
functioning. Cultural patterns can be very important. Social
work pays attention to the past, but usually at individual
rather than at local community level. Social work is often
less aware of collective memory, which is always present to
many elements of the local community.
THEORY AND SOCIAL WORK
system is an organized system spatially and temporally. It
must comprise energy, matter, and information, which are then
exchanged with its environment. It is an organized being containing
sub-systems and components (Miller, 1978). Many forms of social
organization can be regarded as systems and in every day communication
have been called systems. In the seventies, systems theory
was very popular in social work practice; the term became
very common in everyday professional communication so almost
every complex issue was described as a system. However, this
may not be correct since some forms of social organization
do not meet the condition of 19 necessary sub-systems.
enables the successful and effective linkage of the relatively
separate theoretical approaches in the large body of social
work theory. It enables a consistent development of social
work theory. Concepts in the framework of systems theory are
applicable to the broad spectrum of people and phenomena which
emerge in the practice of social work. As a result, this theory
allows both a broader conceptualization as well as greater
freedom. The role of the social worker is liberated from the
context of the institution, which undertakes the most basic
activities, and at the same time is integrated more actively
into it. The principles of general systems theory enable conceptualizing
the social worker as a dynamic part of the social system,
who is in a never-ending exchange with all sub-systems, at
both higher and lower levels.
The social worker
is not placed in the role of somebody who needs to change
parts of the complex whole, but rather as somebody who ensures
the possibility of transaction in this process. The theory
enables activity to be directed both at the individual and
at larger systems. The scale of values becomes significantly
more relative (not including, for example, the question of
guilt) and directs itself to communication as a whole, and
not its characteristics. The theory must be directed to the
systems objectives and all its components, as in this
way all of its functions will become clearer.
a local community, its subsystems and components, is crucial
for social work in a community setting. If, for example, an
input transducer was missing, information directed to a local
community system would neither become an integral part of
the community nor be distributed in the system. Therefore
the local community would not be able to take advantage of
many available dimensions of the social work. Failing to observe
that the dimension of system characteristics is absent will
result in the loss of time or financial resources.
On the other hand,
social work is a profession that engages in very dynamic social
activities. New techniques are rapidly being developed or
adopted from other scientific disciplines. It is very important
to consider whether a new technique is to be applied within
a social structure regarded as a system or in some other sort
of structure which does not have system features. Social work
can contribute to the growth and development of a social structure
that is the process of transformation from a condition which
can not be regarded as a system to a condition which has the
features of the system.
Knezevic, M. (1992). Obsojenec: sapor in odtujitev.
Khalil, E. L.
& Boulding, K. E. (Eds.) (1996). Evolution, order,
and complexity. London: Routledge
Luhmann, N. (1981).
Teorija sistems. Zagreb: Globus.
Miller, G. J.
(1978). Living systems. New York: McGrawHill.
& Stengers, I. (1982). Novi savez. Zagreb: Globus.
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