Sociopoiesis — The Evolution of Social Systems Theory

by Augusto Cuginotti


As I was reading and preparing to explore how social systems have evolved in paradigms over time, I’ve heard that Professor Humberto Maturana passed away. He leaves a legacy.


Social Systems Metaphors

We have been using metaphors to describe social systems for a long time. I was born and raised with the explorations of a paradigmatic change from a mechanistic metaphor to a living systems one.

The divide-and-conquer, black-box systems of input-output, and other mechanical models were not sufficient to respond to society’s complexity.

Everything and everyone in the field would start a book or workshop exploring this fundamental change in perception.

Some would dive into open versus closed systems and the impact on how we look at it all, others would just hold to the feel-good idea that we are not machines, but living beings. (I can see the faces of workshop participants tilting their heads to the side in love with the idea of finally being alive). Others, like Accenture, would not bother to understand it at all.

That made biology the source where all metaphors were derived. And with the rise of cybernetics, complex theory, and self-organising phenomena, a new era began.


From People to Communications as Elements of Society


So, most of what I’ve learned was connected to the living system’s metaphor. Many of my colleagues and working partners still rely on understanding social systems from those eyes. It’s something I felt so part of my history that it was very hard to recognise and unlearn.

All metaphors give us indications and base for theory and practice, so using a Living Systems metaphor eventually generated another way of looking at the world that implied interconnectedness, complexity, and self-referentiality of systems.

Was this the best way of looking at social systems, or would they have another reference that would make more sense?

The challenge for me was that biological parallels were giving space for an extremely abstract and inspirational model, but not something that could bring insights into the increasing complexity of our society. Insights not in terms of offering solutions, but in better models for understanding its evolution.

All that changed when I’ve got in contact with the work of Niklas Luhmann. This man took the operationally closed autopoietic systems from the pioneering biologist Maturana and looked at society from a different lens. From that was born a theory like no other, a theory of sociopoietic social systems.

Why does could change our way of looking at society?

You will find my work has conversation at its centre, from the ontology of language to dialogic relationships. That aligns with Luhmann’s work as communications, not people, are the real elements of society.

It is, in short, an understanding that society (and its subsystems) self-reproduce its communications and then people adapt to those communications. This is a tricky concept and there is an article here if you want to start exploring more.

What I’d like to share here are the possibilities I’ve seen from it and how it informed my work. Here is what I’m looking at:

  1. Stop looking at changing people or elevating people’s consciousness. No more ‘human development’. Systems change means communications’ change, so that’s what we’ll focus on;
  2. Human beings are not the system but part of its environment, so no more anthropocentrism, a shift from humanistic to conversational perspective;
  3. Understand social systems by looking at the communications it produces and then how people resonate with them, not simply designing or storytelling our way;
  4. Organisations reproduce themselves using their decisions as elements. We look at how decisions are made and how they shape culture and execution.

That does not mean other ways of looking at the world are flawed or incomplete, but I believe this is a choice that opens possibilities that are not present in the current paradigm.

That is why my work is about the power of conversation (and communication) to relate to a system, from interventions in a group to complex systems and sensemaking approaches.

A new praxis and different decisions can benefit from different assumptions.