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Posts Tagged ‘autopoiesis

Autopoiesis and Critical Social Systems Theory

Maturana and Varela provided the following definition of autopoiesis:

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.”

This definition shows that for Maturana and Varela, autopoietic systems are systems that define, maintain, and reproduce themselves. The notion of machine that they employ in the definition might seem a bit misleading because we tend to think of machines as mechanistic and nonliving, but Maturana and Varela in later publications have preferred to speak of autopoietic organizations. Social systems are systems that are based on the interactions of living systems. Maturana considers them as higher-order systems. The question therefore arises if these systems are also autopoietic systems. The paper at hand will discuss this question and try to give an answer that is critical of the one given by the main representative of the theory of social autopoiesis — Niklas Luhmann.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

August 26, 2015 at 10:00 pm

Modern Society – A Complex, Evolutionary, Self-Organising, Antagonistic System

The aim of this paper is to outline some foundational aspects of a theory of self-organising social change. Synchronous social self-organisation is based on a contradiction between structures and actors that produces emergent results. The cycle of expanded reproduction of capital outlined by Marx can be interpreted as economic type of autopoiesis or self-reproduction. Aspects of Marxist crisis theory can be incorporated consistently into the framework of a theory of social self-organisation. Capitalism is a complex, evolutionary, antagonistic system that is shaped by a dialectic of chance and necessity: In diachronic social self-organisation of capitalism, the evolving economic, political and cultural antagonisms as objective conditions of existence again and again result in phases of crisis and instability where the future development of the system is highly undetermined. The objective structures condition a field of possibilities, it is not pre-determined which alternative will be taken. In such phases of crisis and bifurcation, agency and human intervention play an important role in order to increase the possibility that a certain desirable alternative will be taken. Certainty can’t be achieved, but agency also is not made impossible by the principles of self-organising social change. The whole movement of social self-organisation is based on a dialectic relationship of chance and necessity. Regulation theory sees the development of system shaped by a dialectic of chance and necessity as well as by a dialectic of generality and specificity in the same manner as self-Organisation Theory. Mechanistic, reductionistic, economistic and deterministic arguments that have been characteristic for traditional crisis theories are avoided, a crisis of society is not reduced to economic factors and to a single economic antagonism. Regulation theory rather considers besides economical also political and ideological factors as relatively autonomous ones that influence crises of society. An unity of a regime of accumulation and a mode of regulation that is characteristic for a specific mode of development that is shaped by a specific structure of antagonisms is assumed. There are distinct parallels between the regulation approach and self-organisation theory, but the relationship between general and specific categories as well as between chance and necessity is still largely unsettled in the regulation approach (as well as in systems theory). It seems that the regulation school assumes a development of capitalism that is largely shaped by random evolution of antagonistic structures that is not dialectically related to general categories and antagonisms. Nonetheless regulation theory gives us a detailed analysis of Fordism, its crisis and Postfordism as well as a very useful model of the development of society. Hence my own approach is partly based on this theory.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

August 26, 2015 at 6:00 pm

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Over the past thirty years, a new systemic conception of life has emerged at the forefront of science. New emphasis has been given to complexity, networks, and patterns of organisation leading to a novel kind of ‘systemic’ thinking. This volume integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework. Taking a broad sweep through history and across scientific disciplines, the authors examine the appearance of key concepts such as autopoiesis, dissipative structures, social networks, and a systemic understanding of evolution. The implications of the systems view of life for health care, management, and our global ecological and economic crises are also discussed. Written primarily for undergraduates, it is also essential reading for graduate students and researchers interested in understanding the new systemic conception of life and its implications for a broad range of professions – from economics and politics to medicine, psychology and law.

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Read also: The Systems View of Life: Part One – An Exploration of Themes

The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon

Written by Giorgio Bertini

August 13, 2015 at 10:10 am

Autopoiesis and Knowledge in Self-Sustaining Organizational Systems

Knowledge and the communication of knowledge are critical for self-sustaining organizations comprised of people and the tools and machines that extend peoples’ physical and cognitive capacities. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed the concept of autopoiesis (“self” + “production”) as a definition of life in the 1970s. Nicklas Luhmann extended this concept to establish a theory of social systems, where intangible human social systems were formed by recursive networks of communications. We show here that Luhmann fundamentally misunderstood Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis by thinking that the self-observation necessary for self-maintenance formed a paradoxically vicious circle. Luhmann tried to resolve this apparent paradox by placing the communication networks on an imaginary plane orthogonal to the networked people. However, Karl Popper’s evolutionary epistemology and the theory of hierarchically complex systems turns what Luhmann thought was a vicious circle into a virtuous spiral of organizational learning and knowledge. There is no closed circle that needs to be explained via Luhmann’s extraordinarily paradoxical linguistic contortions.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

July 1, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Self-Organization, Emergence and Multi-Agent Systems

We begin by describing the importance of emergence and the need, in certain situations, to move away from a reduction mind-set to a more holist approach. We define the term emergence in context of self-organizing systems, autopoiesis and chaotic systems. We then examine a field that is commonly used to explore emergence and selforganization, namely agent and multi-agent systems. After an overview of this field, we highlight the most appropriate aspects of agent research used in aiding the understanding of emergence. We conclude with an example of our recent research where we measure agent emergent performance and flexibility and relate it to the make-up of the agent organization.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Emerging Autopoietic Communities – Scalability of Knowledge Transfer in Complex Systems

Knowledge-based communities are important but poorly understood systems for helping enterprises maintain their organizational integrity and address organizational imperatives. Based on an autopoietic theory of organization, we examine the emergence and development of knowledge-based communities at different scales up to large distributed enterprises and industry clusters. Knowledge-based communities are highly complex systems that evolve and mature through the phased emergence of new features and capabilities. Development and support of successfully sustainable communities needs to be based on a better understanding of how these features and capabilities emerge. To comprehend the impact of emergent behavior within and beyond organizational communities requires an understanding of the social or sociological aspects of a system in relation to the explicit formal/physical structures in the organization.

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The Organization of the Living – A Theory of the Living Organization

Humberto Maturana. My purpose in this article is to present a theory of the organization of living systems as autonomous entities, and a theory of the organization of the nervous system as a closed network of interacting neurons structurally coupled to the living system to whose realization it contributes. The fundamental feature that characterizes living systems is autonomy, and any account of their organization as systems that can exist as individual unities must show what autonomy is as a phenomenon proper to them, and how it arises in their operation as such unities. Accordingly the following is proposed. That autonomy in living systems is a feature of self-production (autopoiesis), and that a living system is properly characterized only as a network of processes of production of components that is continuously, and recursively, generated and realized as a concrete entity (unity) in the physical space, by the interactions of the same components that it produces as such a network. This organization I call the autopoietic organization, and any system that exhibits it is an autopoietic system in the space in which its components exist; in this sense living systems are autopoietic systems in the physical space.

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An Autopoietic Understanding of ‘‘Innovative Organization’’

Luhmann’s autopoietic theory offers a theory without a priori defined drivers of novelty. Such assumptions has led to claims  that Luhmann’s theory is relevant only to the study of routines and not to innovative processes, and that it prevents a satisfactory understanding of the phenomenon of innovation. We would argue differently, and say that autopoietic theory offers a way of conceptualizing how systems reproduce themselves in the face of novelty, further that it is the expected possibility of connecting to novelty that drives systems forward. The possibility of novelty is a central part, both of reproducing central features, and producing features for future operations. Possibilities for novelty arise as systems, as part of their recursive reproduction, draw distinctions amid a changing environment. The system reproduces itself recursively, pointing forward to possible connections, and at the same time connecting to previous operations. It is in this sense that a system may be understood as a ‘‘historical machine’’, or a ‘‘system-in-an-environment-with-a-history’’. We would argue that an autopoietic theory of organization is in fact also a theory of innovation. Without the possibility of novelty, autopoietic organization is hardly possible.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 24, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Autopoiesis Theory and Organization – An Overview

We believe that the organization of the future needs an epistemology (i.e., a theory of organizational  knowledge) which is radically different from epistemologies that have guided organizational thinking hitherto, and that autopoiesis theory, with due adaptations, can furnish such an epistemology. In this chapter we begin by providing a brief overview of the key tenets of autopoiesis theory applied to organizational settings. Next, we discuss the organization of the future, starting with the external pressures that are increasingly being exerted on social organizations of all types and inducing them to undertake new kinds of transformations. This chapter identifies important challenges facing organizational thinkers, now and in the foreseeable future, that exist not only as the result of the external pressures, but also as a consequence of internal developments in organization science and theory. The chapter concludes with an overview of the topics addressed by the contributors to this volume.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 24, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Autopoiesis and Organizations: A Biological view of Social System Change and Methods for their Study

For many years we have been concerned with the role that autopoietic theory can play in resolving what is often termed the micro-macro problem in social science. The “micro-to-macro problem” concerns our capacity to explain the relationship between the constitutive elements of social systems (people) and emergent phenomena resulting from their interaction (i.e. organizations, societies, economies). To this end we have argued, for a synthesis of autopoietic and complexity theory, where autopoietic theory provides a basis for understanding the characteristics of the micro-level agents that make up social systems (human individuals), whilst complexity theory provides a basis for understanding how these characteristics influence the range and type of macro-level behaviours that arise from their interaction. Implicit to this view is the assumption that it is biology which specifies the characteristics and qualities of human agents. Therefore it is also biology which constrains the range and type of interactions these agents can generate, and hence the form of structure which emerges from that interaction. This approach differs considerably from the disembodied sociological path taken in Luhmann‘s application of autopoietic systems. The main contribution of Maturana and Varela‘s autopoietic theory has been to provide a concise specification of the defining characteristics of biological agents including humans. It serves therefore to advance our understanding of the micro facet of the micro-macro problem. Before his death, Varela began to explore further the implications of autopoiesis for understanding social macro phenomena drawing increasingly on a complex systems view. We seek to extend this offshoot of the original contribution. In this chapter we attend in particular, to some of the practical implications that result from a social extension of autopoiesis. Principle amongst these is our understanding of the basis for and nature of organizational change. We begin by giving a brief overview of the micro-macro problem and an outline of our approach to its resolution. We then draw on this approach to develop a perspective on stability and change in organizations. We illustrate this using two cases and in so doing also provide examples of methods which can be used to map the interplay of micro and macro behaviour in particular organizational contexts.

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Read also: Organizations as self-organizing and sustaining systems – A Complex and Autopoietic Systems Perspective

Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 24, 2015 at 12:26 pm

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