Criticism of Systems

According to Debora Hammond*1*,

While systems concepts and models were extremely popular and influential across a broad spectrum of disciplines during the 1960s and 1970s, they came to be viewed with increasing skepticism with the emergence of postmodern critiques of totalizing schemes and growing disillusionment with the promise of technological progress that fueled the countercultural movement of the 1960s. Robert Lillianfeld’s argument in The Rise of Systems Theory (1978) that the societal claims of the systems thinkers served only to justify the claims to power and prestige of the technocratic elite, is characteristic of more recent reactions to systems views among social scientists. Systems thinking has come to be associated with the highly rationalized technological and institutional systems of the late twentieth century, and the concept of system has become synonymous with control and totalization.

Hammond makes two points here. The first is that systems approaches were criticized for being the ideology of planners, managers, and technocratic elites. This is indeed Robert Lillianfeld’s position:

Systems theory as social doctrine may be regarded as a new variant of organic of “organismic” approaches to society. This tradition has a long history and has been traced back to Hindu religious thought in the East and at least as far back as the medieval period in the West.

The image of society as organism appears attractive to intellectuals, who will see themselves as the brain and nerve centers of the organism, dealing as they do with the symbolic and conceptual matters. Recent scientific work appears to offer hope of reviving this image. But regardless of the details of the analogy and of how the details of the new biologism differs from earlier versions, the social impact is always the same in the sense that it tends towards a doctrine of increasing unification and centralization of social functions, with organizations reified and claiming a monopoly of the processes of thought, will, and action, and with human individuals reduced to the role of “cells” in the organism with their functions and sphere of action delimited from outside and from above. The question, of course, is not merely whether this systems-organic image is “true,” but rather: (1) what are its probable social consequences, and (2) what can be done with the image. With respect to the first, the answer has been evident from the beginning: Systems theory appears to be the “natural” ideology of bureaucratic planners and centralizers and both expresses and fosters developments along those lines. In terms of the second question, there is no doubt that systems theory may often be useful and provocative to treat problems in a variety of spheres in system terms, but again, the criterion will remain a pragmatic one: To what now insights and substantive results does it lead? So far there appears to be none. Although the system image of the world may be true, other nonsystemic images may prove equally true. Thus it could be argued that society seen as a totality possesses no intrinsic unity and is a mere aggregate of countless small “communities” continually emerging and dispersing with the interactions of concrete individuals, and that any image of organic “unity” is a myth that remains pure image and is seated nowhere in reality. Such a view may be of equal descriptive value and may prove equally more fruitful in dealing with substantive problems.*2*

As can be seen from the above text, Lillianfeld pegs systems theory as the ideology of the planner and the bureaucrat, but also identifies the systems approach’s fatal flaw as its lack of utility. The systems approach does not work well enough to stand on its own merits. Gerson (2007), Hughes and Hughes (2000), and others have also argued that the systems approach fell out of favor because it didn’t work well enough, especially in the case of solving the problems of the cities in the 1960s.*3* But the insights gained by the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) indicate that this is not a good enough explanation. There must have been other, or at least additional, reasons for the trajectory of the systems approach.

In the early 70s, the sociologist Ida Hoos criticized systems approaches extensively, especially its role in planning, management, and government. Hoos faulted systems for its promiscuous use of quantitative models, that is, for using tools that might not be appropriate for the situation at hand. She also believed that systems left insufficient room for the ‘human factor,’ of real people acting in ways not predicted by the system. In common with New Left criticisms of “the system,” Hoos accused the systems approach of borrowing on the the cultural credit and prestige of operations research (OR) and of military matters generally.*4* Being a favored tool of the rising managerial bureaucracy in government and the private sector, systems analysis was used to displace its rivals; military officers, elected officials, and the public. Finally, Hoos observed that  “…the chameleon-like attributes… render the systems approach all things to all people and, therefore, impervious to criticism on any specific account.”*5*

Thirty-eight years later, and taking a completely different perspective, Andrew Pickering claims that cybernetics (and by this he also means the systems approach) was side-lined and marginalized by a modern world that puts itself in danger through its love affair with Cartesian divisions between Mind and Body, Self and Other, and the One and the Many.*6* This is a very interesting proposition, but it makes it seem as though Pickering does not appreciate the degree to which cybernetics and systems approaches were part and parcel of the economic and political settlement that oversaw what the French call la Trente Glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of growth and stability that faltered and failed in the 1970s.

By 1967 the Keynesian economist and liberal public intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith noticed the pervasiveness of “organization” in government, business, and the academy. His analysis marked the relationship between the “technostructure” (analyst, experts, and technical managers in large firms) and the academy.*7* Galbraith also saw that the watch-word of the post-war economy was planning:

High technology and heavy capital use cannot be subordinate to the ebb and flow of market demand. They require planning; it is the essence of planning that public behavior be made predictable— that it be subject to control.*8*

But Debora Hammond’s second point, that systems “…came to be viewed with increasing skepticism with the emergence of postmodern critiques of totalizing schemes and growing disillusionment with the promise of technological progress…” speaks to the broader social context of why this might be so. In the 1970s the the reliability and virtuousness of scientific knowledge was thrown into question for many who had been its firmest allies. This is, not incidentally, at the same time that science studies began its more critical turn, and when Paul Feyerabend made his strongest interventions in the philosophy of science.*9* Hammond identifies this trend with “postmodernism” in the social sciences, but then we have to ask why postmodernism came about.

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition describes the post-war transition from the metaphor of society as an organic whole to one of society as as self-regulating system.*10* But the observation that there was something fundamentally different about the organization of industrial, commercial— and scientific— life after the second world war was by no means limited to the leftist critics of systems. Daniel Bell’s 1960 The End of Ideology predicted that indispensable and pervasive planning and management would lead to the dissolution of Enlightenment values, and, in a prediction as full of anxiety as it was of grandiosity, even to the death of politics and history as such.*11*

But just as the systems approach did not fall because it did not function well enough, it also did not fall because it had a few critics. Rather, the systems approach, especially the systems-managerial tendency within it, was tied to the fate of the larger social arrangements that made planning, management, and control seem like viable and desirable options for working with complex phenomena in government, in organizations, and in nature. The underpinnings of those assumptions were rocked, beginning in the 1960s, and increasingly in the 1970s until the systems approach was mostly abandoned along with the strategies and institutions that had previously supported it.


*1*Towards a Science of Synthesis: the Hertiage of Systems Theory. Dissertation. 1997.

*2*“ Lillianfeld, Robert. 1978. The Rise of Systems Theory: an Ideological Analysis. John Wiley and Sons.


“By the 1970s, it was clear that systems approaches were not, in general, very effective ways of organizing work either in research or in other institutions. Some applications of industrial engineering ideas in the 1960s failed loudly enough to bring the entire systems approach into question.”

—Gerson Elihu (2007)

For more of this explanation of “systems failure” see

  • Berlinski, David. 1976. On Systems Analysis: An Essay Concerning the Limitations of Some Mathematical Methods in the Social, Political, and Biological Sciences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Hoos, Ida. 1972. Systems Analysis in Public Policy: A Critique. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hughes and Hughes 2000. Systems, Experts, and Computers.

*4*See The Port Huron Statement for more on “The System.”

*5*Hoos, Ida R. Systems Analysis in Public Policy:: a Critique. University of California Press. 1974. p. 59

*6*Pickering, Andrew. The Cybernetic Brain. University of Chicago Press. 2010. pp.390-402.

*7*Galbraith, John Kenneth. The New Industrial State. Houghton Miflin, Boston. 1967. pp. 71, 283-290.

*8*Ibid. pp. 318-319.

*9*Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method: an Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. Verso. 1975.

*10*Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press. 1984.

*11*Bell, Daniel. The End Of Ideology: on the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Harvard University Press. 1960.