Outlining the Terrain of Autopoietic Theory

Although Maturana and Varela’s idea of autopoiesis is not new to organization studies — it has hovered around the margins of the field for several decades — it has yet to enter the mainstream of organizational thinking. One can debate the reasons for this; however, it is almost certainly the case that the complexity and scope of the idea has been one of the main impediments to its wider take-up. The basic concept of autopoiesis is straightforward enough; it refers to the idea that some systems arise through a circular process in which they ‘‘self-produce’’ their own components. If these components are molecular, the result is a particular class of system that we describe as ‘‘biological’’ or ‘‘living.’’ Beyond this relatively simple idea, for example when the domain of application extends from biological to social systems, or from molecular to abstract components, and when one adds into the mix the broader set of ideas and concepts that people tend to associate with the term autopoiesis, the terrain becomes infinitely more challenging and complex. Here the extended concept, i.e., what is often referred to as ‘‘autopoietic theory (Whitaker, 1996),’’ spans a broad range of topics as diverse as cognition, language, epistemology, emotion, social organizations, culture, human relationships, and ethics, to name but a few. Given this breadth, gaining a sense of what the theory, in its developed form, really is, and where one might best start in trying to understand it, presents a significant challenge. This is especially so for those scholars who are accustomed to thinking in reductionist terms and who prefer to develop specialist expertise or understanding in one or two key areas. Even for those who take a more holistic approach, understanding the complete set of ideas at once, in all its finery, is a daunting prospect.

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About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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