VII. Systems Analysis

Systems Analysis in the Social Sciences


A system is a group of individual components (whether officials in a government, trees in a forest, parts in a machine, or modules in a software application) functioning as a unit. For example, both the misinterpretation of the durability of the Soviet system and the misinterpretation of the role of fire in maintaining the Yellowstone forest system were exacerbated by an overemphasis on the trees rather than the forest. That is, people so focused on the individual components that they failed to understand the system. Compounding the difficulty of performing an accurate analysis in both cases was the emotion that inevitably accompanies the involvement of humans in specific events.

In the article “Forest or Trees,” I identify a set of dimensions common to all social systems. Using this set of dimensions enables one to ask the generic question: “How well is the entity I wish to analyze performing in comparison to any other system?” In other words, before discussing Kremlin factionalism or the regenerative capacity of a burned forest, generic questions at the system level should be asked. Such questions should include:

  • 1. How effectively is the system functioning?
  • 2. How well does the system adapt to changing conditions?
  • 3. How effectively does the system defend itself?

Phrasing these questions in systemic terms offers at least three fundamental advantages:

  • First, it facilitates rational analysis by removing the debate a step from our emotions and prejudices. “How well does the system adapt?” is easier to discuss dispassionately than “Should we trade with the Evil Empire?” or “Should we let Bambi burn?”.
  • Second, phrasing questions at the systemic level facilitates cross-system comparisons. Indeed, these questions rest on the assumption that many, if not all, systems share certain fundamental properties at a high level (e.g., adaptability, learning ability). Given that assumption, the answers to these questions should permit widely differing systems – an empire, family, forest, company, or even a nonbiological system such as a machine – to be compared. Such a comparison is likely to promote the process of achieving insights concerning the true nature of the system in question.
  • Third, the problem of deciding what constitutes “the system” evaporates. Any entity can be considered a system for the purposes of comparison. It does not matter if the systems are at different levels (e.g., the Cold War world or the NATO alliance) or of different types (e.g., the Soviet empire or Yellowstone forest). Regardless, we can classify and compare those systems on the basis of our generic dimensions.

Moreover, asking these questions in regard not to the system as a whole but in regard to generic or abstract features of systems provides a route to modeling. Modeling is the art of simplification for the purpose of illuminating critical features. If we can identify features that must be possessed by all systems, then it follows that a model focused on one of those features might be a reasonable way to begin studying the system. “Forest or Trees” proposes just such a set of features: a set designed to permit the high-level description and comparison of systems. It further defines a measurement scheme and describes software to implement the comparison. Accompanying software “[System 101],” for performing cross-system analysis includes a test dataset of a sampling of highly disparate systems.

The chart below outlines the high-level variables explained in Forest or Trees and applied in System 101 for comparative analysis of human social–and other biological–systems.

Variables for Comparative Systems Analysis
Variable…………………………………..Definition
Functionality how well it functions
Budget budget adequacy
Reserves both physical and psychological reserves to be used in emergency
Defense an estimate of the defensive capacity of the system relative to current external threats and, crucially, the ability to defend itself from current threats without exacerbating long-term threats
Growth either absolute growth or, more ambitiously, the degree to which growth is occurring in a healthy direction and at a healthy rate
Feedback feedback requires both the sending of information and the ability to receive what is sent
Learning the ability to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past
Leadership Cohesiveness coherence and a sense of collective responsibility within the leadership
Mass Solidarity the counterpart of leadership cohesiveness is the solidarity of the rest of the system; that is, one cannot accurately assess a self-aware system simply by examining current performance characteristics; one must also consider such factors as patriotism, company spirit, religion, nationalism, cultural attitudes, and political belief that impact the solidarity of the individual members of the system
Vision clearly enunciated view of the system’s future that will guide its behavior. NB: the relationship between vision and success is neither linear nor covarying; vision can distort as well as reveal.

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