Systems Theory in Anthropology

Systems Theory in Anthropology is an interdisciplinary, non-representative, non-referential, and non-Cartesian approach that brings together natural and social sciences to understand society in its complexity. The basic idea of a system theory in social science is to solve the classical problem of duality; mind-body, subject-object, form-content, signifier-signified, and structure-agency. System theory, therefore, suggests that instead of creating closed categories into binaries (subject-object); the system should stay open so as to allow free flow of process and interactions. In this way the binaries are dissolved.

Complex systems in nature—for example, ecosystems—involve a dynamic interaction of many variables (e.g. animals, plants, insects and bacteria; predators and prey; climate, the seasons and the weather, etc.) These interactions can adapt to changing conditions but maintain a balance both between the various parts and as a whole; this balance is maintained through homeostasis.
Human societies are complex systems, as it were, human ecosystems. Early humans, as hunter-gatherers, recognized and worked within the parameters of the complex systems in nature and their lives were circumscribed by the realities of nature. But they couldn't explain complex systems. Only in recent centuries did the need arise to define complex systems scientifically.
Complex systems theories first developed in math in the late 19th century, then in biology in the 1920s to explain ecosystems, then to deal with artificial intelligence (cybernetics), etc.

Anthropologist, Gregory Bateson is the most influential and earliest founder of system theory in social sciences. In the 1940s, as a result of the Macy conferences, he immediately recognized its application to human societies with their many variables and the flexible but sustainable balance that they maintain. Bateson describes system as “any unit containing feedback structure and therefore competent to process information.” Thus an open system allows interaction between concepts and materiality or subject and the environment or abstract and real. In natural science, systems theory has been a widely used approach. Austrian biologist, Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, developed the idea of the General Systems Theory (GST). The GST is a multidisciplinary approach of system analysis. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari are the two postmodern thinkers who advocate systems theory approach in social sciences.

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