General systems theory

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General systems theory



Alternate name(s)

Systems theory, Open systems theory, Systemic theory

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)


Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

Input, throughput, feedback, control, environment, goals

Concise description of theory

Systems theory was proposed in the 1936 by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and further developed by Ross Ashby. von Bertalanffy was both reacting against reductionism and attempting to revive the unity of science. He emphasized that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.

General systems theory is the skeleton of science which aims to provide framework or structure of systems on which flesh and blood of any stream could be hanged. This will enable to create orderly and coherent group of knowledge. It is used to describe a level of theoretical model building which lies in between highly generalized constructions of pure mathematics and specific theories of different specialized disciplines.

It is the contention of the general system theorists that optimum degree of generality in theory is not always reached by the particular Sciences. The objectives of the general systems theory can be set out to provide optimum degree of generality somewhere in between the specific which has no meaning and the general that has no content.

Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism). This particular organization determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).

Thus, the same concepts and principles of organization underlie the different disciplines (physics, biology, technology, sociology, etc.), providing a basis for their unification. Systems concepts include: system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state, hierarchy, goal-directedness, and information.

An information system is an example of the interaction of multiple elements as envisioned by GST.


Diagram/schematic of theory


Originating author(s)

Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Seminal articles

Bertalanffy, L. von, (1934).Untersuchungen über die Gesetzlichkeit des Wachstums. I. Allgemeine Grundlagen der Theorie; mathematische und physiologische Gesetzlichkeiten des Wachstums bei Wassertieren. Arch. Entwicklungsmech., 131:613-652.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig Von (1962). General system theory - A Critical Review. General Systems 7, 1-20.

Boulding, K. (1956). General Systems Theory – The Skeleton of the Science. Management Science, 2(3), 197-208.

Buckley, W. Sociology and Modem Systems Theory; Prentice-Hall, New York, NY, 1966.

Kast, F. E. and Rosenzweig, J. E. (1972) General systems theory: Applications for organizations and management, Academy of Management Journal, 15, 4, pp. 447-465.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications New York: George Braziller

Simon, H. A. (1962) The architecture of complexity, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106, pp. 467-482.

Gerald M. Weinberg (1975) An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (1975 ed., Wiley-Interscience) (2001 ed. Dorset House).

Originating area

Philosophy, Mathematics, Cybernetics

Level of analysis


IS articles that use the theory

Alter, S. (2001). Are the fundamental concepts of information systems mostly about work systems? Communication of AIS, 5(11) 1-67.

Ackoff, Russell L., (1971). Towards a system of Systems concepts. Management Science, 17(11), 661-71.

Boulding, K. "General Systems Theory -The Skeleton of Science," Management Science, April 1956, pp. 197-208.

Chung, W. Y., Fisher, C. W. and Wang, R. Y. Redefining the Scope and Focus of Information Quality Work: A General Systems Theory Perspective. Advances in Management Information Systems. Advances in Management Information Systems June, 2005. M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, NY

Churchman,C.W. The System Approach and Its Enemies,Basic Books, New York, NY, 1979.

Churchman, C.W., "Management Science: Science of Managing and Managing of Science," Interfaces, Jul/Aug 1994; Vol. 24,Iss. 4; pp. 99-110.

Edward J. Garrity, (2002) "Synthesizing User Centered and Designer Centered IS Development Approaches Using General Systems Theory", IS Frontiers, Vol. 3, No. 1.

Kendall, J.E. and Kendall, K.E. "Metaphors and Methodologies: Living Beyond the Systems Machine," MIS Quarterly, Vol. 17, No.2, 1993, pp. 37-47.

Ives, B., Hamilton, S. & Davis, G. (1980). A Framework for Research in Computer-Based Management Information Systems. Management Science, 26(9), 910-934.

Kling, R. and Scacchi, W. "The Web of Computing: Computer Technology as Social Organization," in Advances in Computers (21), Academic Press, New York, NY, 1982.

Lewis, P. J. (1994) Information Systems Development: Systems Thinking in the Field of Information Systems, (London: Pitman).

Lewis, P. J. (1995) 'New Directions in Data Analysis and Data Modelling', in Stowell, F. (ed.) Information Systems Provision: The Contribution of Soft Systems Methodology (McGraw-Hill), pp. 186-205.

Lewis, P. J. (1992) 'Rich Picture Building in the Soft Systems Methodology', European Journal of Information Systems, 1(5), xx, pp. 351-360.

Lewis, P. J. (1993) 'Linking Soft Systems Methodology with Data-Focused Information Systems Development', Journal of Information Systems, 3(3), xx, pp. 169-186. [*0]

Lewis, P. J. (1993) 'Identifying Cognitive Categories: The Basis for Interpretative Data Analysis Within Soft Systems Methodology', International Journal of Information Management, 13(5), xx, pp. 373-386

M.L. Markus, A. Majchrzak, L. Gasser, A design theory for systems that support emergent knowledge processes, MIS Quarterly 26 (3) (2002).

Mora, M., Gelman, O., Cervantes, F., Mejía, M., and Weitzenfeld, A. 2003. A systemic approach for the formalization of the information systems concept: why information systems are systems?. In Critical Reflections on information Systems: A Systemic Approach, J. J. Cano, Ed. Idea Group Publishing, Hershey, PA, 1-29.

Mora, M.; Gelman, O.; Forgionne, G.; Petkov, D.; Cano, J. (2007). Integrating the Fragmented Pieces of IS research Paradigms and Frameworks: A systems Approach. Information Resources Management Journal, 20(2), pp.1-22.

McKeen, J.D., "Successful Development Strategies for Business Application Systems," MIS Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 3, September 1983, pp. 47-65.

Nolan, R. & Wetherbe J. (1980). Toward a comprehensive framework for MIS research. MIS Quarterly, June, 1, 1-20.Porra, J., "Colonial Systems," Information Systems Research, 10, 1 (March), 1999, pp. 38-69.

Sabherwal, Rajiv, Hirschheim, Rudy, and Goles, Tim, “The Dynamics of Alignment: A Punctuated Equilibrium Model” , Organization Science, Vol.12, No.2, 2001, pp. 179-197.

Silver, Mark S., Markus, M. Lynne, and Beath, Cynthia M., "The Information Technology Interaction Model: A Foundation for the MBA Core Course," Management Information Systems Quarterly, volume 19, no. 3, September 1995, pp. 361-390.

Wand, Y., Storey, V. C. and Weber, R. (1999) An ontological analysis of the relationship construct in conceptual modeling, ACM Transactions on Database Systems, 24, 4, pp. 494-528.

Links from this theory to other theories

Social network theory, Chaos theory, Complexity theory, Contingency theory, Socio-technical theory, Soft systems theory, Work systems theory, Change theory

External links, Wikipedia entry on GST, Brief explanation of GST, History of von Bertalanffy, Provides links from GST to other theories

In addition, AMCIS regularly includes a minitrack on The Philosophical Foundations of IS research. This minitrack calls for papers with a focus on GST.

Original Contributor(s)

Mike Wade

Deepak Srivastav, Doctoral Student at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India

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