Category Archives: Sociocybernetics

What is Sociocybernetics?

Socio­cy­ber­net­ics is the appli­ca­tion of sys­tems think­ing and cyber­net­ic prin­ci­ples in soci­ol­o­gy and oth­er social sci­ences in order to analyse social phe­nom­e­na regard­ing their com­plex­i­ty and dynam­ics. Research inter­est focused on han­dling com­plex­i­ty. A sys­temic view is an obser­va­tion attempt­ing to trace the diver­si­ty of inter­ac­tion in real­i­ty instead of ana­lyt­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ing indi­vid­ual causal rela­tions and explor­ing them in their entire depth. Sys­tems are defined by a cer­tain form of dis­tinc­tion from their envi­ron­ment. It is not causal­i­ty but the mutu­al influ­ence of dynam­ic self-reg­u­lat­ing sys­tems that research focus­es on. With a cyber­net­ic approach, one has opt­ed for the exam­i­na­tion of the basic forms from which the inter­nal order of a sys­tem results rather than for observ­ing indi­vid­ual prop­er­ties.

Cybernetic Principles

Opt­ing for a cyber­net­ic approach in research means accept­ing a num­ber of fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples that are not always unam­bigu­ous­ly defined in lit­er­a­ture but can be best described as a par­tic­u­lar mode of thought, as a par­a­digm, or – as Gor­don Pask once put it – as an art, phi­los­o­phy or also a way of life. While math­e­mati­cian Nor­bert Wiener stress­es the aspects of con­trol and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in nat­ur­al sci­ence and human­i­ties con­texts, neu­ro-philoso­pher War­ren McCul­loch defines cyber­net­ics as an epis­te­mol­o­gy deal­ing with the gen­er­a­tion of knowl­edge by com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Man­age­ment con­sul­tant Stafford Beer regards cyber­net­ics as the sci­ence of organ­i­sa­tion. To Lud­wig von Berta­lanffy, cyber­net­ic sys­tems are a spe­cial case of sys­tems dif­fer­ing from oth­er sys­tems by the prin­ci­ple of self-reg­u­la­tion. As a sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­pline, cyber­net­ics dis­tin­guish­es itself by con­cen­trat­ing on the research of con­trol mech­a­nisms, bas­ing its activ­i­ties on infor­ma­tion and feed­back as key con­cepts. Wal­ter Buck­ley for­mu­lates the con­text in a sim­i­lar man­ner by regard­ing con­cepts such as infor­ma­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, cyber­net­ics, self-reg­u­la­tion and self-organ­i­sa­tion as well as adapt­abil­i­ty as sub-areas of gen­er­al sys­tems the­o­ry. Sys­tems the­o­ry is under­stood here not so much as a uni­form the­o­ry but more as a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work and a set of method­olog­i­cal tools that can be applied in dif­fer­ent fields of research. To Heinz von Foer­ster the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of cyber­net­ic is self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty. He speaks of cir­cu­lar­i­ty, refer­ring to all con­cepts that can be applied on them­selves, process­es in which a state ulti­mate­ly repro­duces itself.

Unity of Sciences and Humanities

What is high­ly sig­nif­i­cant and is again and again point­ed out by all authors is that cyber­net­ics can­not be restrict­ed to a spe­cial field of research objects. This meta-dis­ci­pli­nary view and its inter­dis­ci­pli­nary options for appli­ca­tion would already suf­fice to dis­tin­guish cyber­net­ics in an aca­d­e­m­ic world that is still char­ac­terised by the the­o­ret­i­cal and method­i­cal dual­ism of nat­ur­al sci­ences and the human­i­ties. Sim­i­lar fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of organ­is­ing indi­vid­ual ele­ments as a sys­temic whole can be found in organ­isms, in soci­ety, and in tech­ni­cal arte­facts. In the first chap­ter of “An Intro­duc­tion to Cyber­net­ics”, Ash­by writes that cyber­net­ics “treats not things but ways of behav­ing. It does not ask ‘What is a thing?’ but ‘What does it do?’”. Biol­o­gist Hum­ber­to Mat­u­rana express­es this in a sim­i­lar way in his answer to the ques­tion of life. Accord­ing to Mat­u­rana, the ques­tion of life can­not be answered by seek­ing the nec­es­sary prop­er­ties of the ele­ments con­sti­tut­ing liv­ing organ­isms, but by trac­ing the fun­da­men­tal organ­i­sa­tion­al prin­ci­ples in which “liv­ing sys­tems” acquire their iden­ti­ty and through which liv­ing sys­tems dif­fer from non-liv­ing sys­tems. What Niklas Luh­mann fas­ci­nates about cyber­net­ics is that the prob­lem of con­stan­cy and invari­ance of sys­tems is tak­en up and explained in a high­ly com­plex, change­able world. This “qual­i­fies cyber­net­ics as an uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly non-onto­log­i­cal research approach and reveals a sur­pris­ing prox­im­i­ty to the func­tion­al­ist sys­tems the­o­ry of soci­ol­o­gy” (Luh­mann 1968).

Information: Third Factor alongside Matter and Energy

Sys­tem process­es, espe­cial­ly the rela­tion between the sys­tem and the envi­ron­ment, are under­stood as “infor­ma­tion­al process­es” in which con­tin­gen­cies exist and selec­tion occurs rather than as neces­si­ties in the sense of a strict causal­i­ty. Infor­ma­tion is often referred to as a func­tion of the organ­i­sa­tion of sys­tems. Some nat­ur­al sci­en­tists regard infor­ma­tion as a “third fac­tor” next to mat­ter and con­scious­ness (v. Weizsäck­er 1974) or mat­ter and ener­gy (Stonier 1990). The pur­pose­ful influ­enc­ing of social phe­nom­e­na always amounts to an attempt to inter­vene in high­ly com­plex sys­tems with self-organ­is­ing (dis­si­pa­tive) struc­tures. These sys­tems respond to attempts to reg­u­late them com­ing from their envi­ron­ment only on the basis of their inter­nal struc­ture. Thus reg­u­la­tion has to han­dle the phe­nom­e­non of the deter­mined­ness of sys­tems’ struc­tures.