Tag Archives: Cybernetics

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.