7 August 2015

Open System Theory In Sociology

Open system theory was initially developed by Ludwig von Bertanlanffy (1956), a biologist, but it was immediately applicable across all disciplines. It defines the concept of a system, where "all systems are characterized by an assemblage or combination of parts whose relations make them interdependent".

A system is defined by its properties

  • A system is a physical and / or conceptual entity composed of interrelated and interacting parts existing in an environment with which it may also interact
  • The system has a preferred state
  • The parts of the system may in turn be systems themselves

Systems approach is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In nature systems approach examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plant and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization healthy or unhealthy.

A systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems approach is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems approach focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.

The open systems approach to modeling the key variables, both inside the organization and outside it, is an investigative tool that promotes critical examination of an organization (or part thereof.) It enables those using it to more quickly be in a position of understanding these key variables and their interrelationships. The technique is scaleable up and down. That is it can be used to describe situations and systems at both a macro and micro level. For instance, it is quite practical to use the technique for a department (as the system) within an organization (the environment.)

Existing in an environment(with which systems may interact)


An environment surrounds all systems. The environment contains other systems

  • Closed systems do not interact with the environment. A totally closed system is a convenient theoretical abstraction - all systems are affected to some extent by their environment.
  • Open systems interact with their environment. The environment may impose conditions and contingencies on the system.
  • Conditions. One set of circumstances in the environment, which the system encounters. In a dynamic environment the conditions will change with time.
  • Contingency. An unexpected, sharp change in circumstances in the environment, which will disturb the system the system, or place the system under shock.


The analysis of educational systems falls into 2 main areas: process and structure. Processes are the action parts of the system bringing structure alive. Examples of processes include teaching, learning, communication and decision making as well as those formal and informal activities that socialize students into their place in school and later life roles. These are dynamic parts of the education system.

Structure of a system includes the hierarchy or roles people play – administrators, teachers, staff, parents and of course students as well as the organization of learning, classroom and school lay out, types of school and structure of curriculum.

We cannot ignore the schools environment which consists of groups, organizations, other institutions and even the global society outside the school all of which influence school functioning. For example, parents sometimes put pressure on the management to start a co-curricular activity like roller skating or introduce the services of a counselor for the students, communities may provide unequal academic opportunities to different groups of students and the government – political economic structures shape policies and resources available to schools.


The open systems perspective looks at the education system as a whole, integrated entity. This 
  • provides a useful way of visualizing many elements in the system; 
  •  helps to order observations and data 
  • represents a generalized picture of complex interacting elements and sets of relationships
The figure below shows basic components in any social system. These components are the organization, the environment, input, output and feedback


(Schools and Society: A sociological approach to education P. xiv)

Step 1: Organization

Focus your attention at the central box, the organization. This refers to the centre of activity. It represents society (say India), an institution (such as education), an organization (such as a particular school), a subsystem (such as a classroom), or an interaction (such as between a teacher and students or between peers). For purposes of discussion this is referred as ‘the organization‘. It is in the organization that the activities take place, showing that it is more than a structure, positions, roles, and functions. Within its boundaries is a structure consisting of parts and sub-parts, positions and roles. Though it is referred as a structure, it is the personnel here who carry out activities and take decisions. The processes in the system bring it alive.

These processes do not take place in a vacuum. The decision makers holding positions and carrying out roles in the organization are constantly responding to the demands from both inside and outside of the organization. The boundaries remain pliable, flexible in order to respond to the demands of the environment. This is called as open system or open boundaries. Students‘ experiences depend upon their social class boundaries, the responses of the school staff to their behavior within schools and action of students and staff that create school cultures.

Step 2: Environment

The environment refers to everything that surrounds the organization and influences it in some way. Typically environment includes other surrounding systems. For schools an important aspect of environment is financial - from where they get their money. Another critical factor is what rules are imposed on the schools as schools exist in the maze of socio, economic and political expectations such as the recent notification by the government that no child should be detained /failed in any class up to the 8th standard. Another important aspect of environment is employment market and the job skills needed for it.

Organizations depend on environment to get their information and resources. For every school the factors in the environment will differ and change over time. The set of challenges will be different. Interactions with the environment could be desirable or unpleasant. They take place in form of inputs and outputs.

Step 3: Input

An organization receives inputs in terms of information, raw materials, personnel, finances and new ideas from the environment. Persons who belong to an organization are also part of surrounding communities and bring in influences from the environment. For most organizations some inputs are undesirable but unavoidable like new legal restrictions, competition etc. Organizations are able to exert some control over some inputs like selection of teachers, textbooks, and curriculum. They have less control over admissions.

Step 4: output

Output refers to material items and non-material ideas that leave the organization such as products, waste, information, evolving culture and new technology. There may be personnel spanning boundary lines, like salesmen, secretary. Normally speaking for universities and colleges new knowledge is in terms of research papers and articles.

Step 5: Feedback

A key aspect of the systems model is the process of feedback. It implies that the organization‘s leaders are constantly learning about and adapting to changes and demands of the environment through the news it receives. Organizational personnel compare the current affairs with desired goals and environmental feedback to to determine the new course of action.

Uses of Open Systems approach

  • It facilitates analysis of a complex problem by focusing on specific important elements within the system and in the environment. A problem can thus be simplified and outlined more clearly.
  • Interactions among elements or variables in the system and in the environment, and their likely effects on the system can be identified and analyzed.
  • Likely future developments and their implications can be considered in the same way.
  • The tabulating of variables, trends and implications can serve as a useful stimulus to both logical and imaginative thinking, by forcing people to think of various possibilities and changes, and their effects on the problem situation, that is it facilitates brainstorming within a rational framework.
  • This leads to understanding of problems and development of alternative solutions that are essential for sound decision-making.
  • A systematic analysis of a business problem and likely future developments (whether this be a case study or real life situation) promotes:
- better decision-making
- better planning
- better preparedness
- adoption of the system concerned (often the firm) to the environment
- the possibility of adjusting relevant variables in the environment in order to achieve the preferred state of the system
- the recognition and consideration of some of the intangible, unquantifiable and future oriented variables which are often overlooked in business situations because it is difficult to get to grips with them.

This could be particularly useful- in analyzing the economic and political environment and in the development of scenarios for future-oriented planning.