Subproject 1: The Paradigm of (Social) Complexity – Part II-2c: System Formation and Maintenance – The Distinction “System / Environment”

As we saw in the previous blog post (The Scalability Problem | Valonqua ), there are several non-essentialist approaches that can be used to replace an essentialist conceptual strategy regarding features of complexity.
One of these non-essentialist approaches is to couple difference-based how-questions  (How – that is, by means of which differences – is something, here: a feature XY, created?) with an equivalence functionalist observational schema where various functionally equivalent solutions are related to a problem [see Knudsen 2011; Luhmann 1995].
As a result, a list of complexity features (elements with rich and dynamic interactions, emergence, nonlinearity, etc.), previously interpreted as essential for an abstract complex system and its empirical manifestations, is transformed into an open-ended list of difference- and problem-based questions – or, in short: into a list of features-as-problem-concepts.
In this and the following blog post/-s, I´d like to discuss some of these features.

Feature System Formation and Maintenance

How is the formation and maintenance of a (complex) system possible?
As I intend to write several blog posts on the idea of systems as differences, the conceptualization of the social dimension, types of (social) systems, etc., I give here just a few hints:
Whole / parts is a  possible distinction (synonym here: difference) to designate a system. But, it´s a very traditional distinction that  can be traced back to Greek antiquity [see σύστημα – Wiktionary].
Although, it`s still useful in certain, esp. technical contexts, it’s often replaced by two more modern distinctions in complexity research: system / environment and element / relation.
The guiding distinction system / environment involves a few crucial questions:

  • System formation
    How is a system able to differentiate itself from its environment?
    – Or, to bring in the observer explicitly: Which explanatory mechanisms can a language-based observer come up  with to account for the formation of a discipline-specific and concrete system?
  • Boundary determination and maintenance
    How can a boundary be determined?

Given the abstract concept of boundary, the concept of the difference between system and environment, one cannot decide whether the boundary belongs to the system or to the environment. Viewed logically, the difference itself is something third. If one includes the problem of the difference in degree of complexity as an aid to interpretation, however, then one can relate boundaries to the function of stabilizing this difference in degree, for which only the system, not the environment, can develop strategies. Viewed from the system’s perspective, they are “self-generated boundaries” –membranes, skins, walls and doors, boundary posts and points of contact.  [Luhmann 1995, p. 29]

Note: A fuzzy boundary or no boundary at all, won´t do it because there would be no (complex) system whatsoever. And if, for example, the immune system of your body is no longer able to differentiate between the inside and the outside, you´ll probably get sick [-> (autoimmune) disease] or even die.
For Luhmann, the determination of the boundary of a complex system is an empirical and not simply an analytical question of an external and language-based observer [see Luhmann 1995, p. 30]:

Boundaries count as adequately determined if problems concerning their location or the assignment of events as being inside or outside of them can be solved using the system’s own means–for example, if an immune system can use its own modes of operation to discriminate, in effect, between internal and external, or if the societal system, which is composed of communications, can decide by communication whether something is communication or not. For a (scientific) observer, where the boundaries lie may still remainanalytically unclear, but this does not justify viewing the bounding of systems as a purely analytical determination.  (The situation is quite different, naturally, if it is a question of bounding research objects!) An observer interested in reality remains dependent here on the system’s operative possibilities of determination.

How is the boundary dynamically maintained [see Bailey 2008]?
This means that a boundary of a complex system isn´t established once and for all. Instead, such a system has to operate in time. And, while doing so it continually reproduces the boundary between inside and outside, system and environment.
Note: If complex systems are characterized by operational and temporal dynamics, it doesn´t make sense to conceptualize media such as language [Cilliers 1998] or technology [Kevin Kelly´s concept of technium comes to mind, see Kelly 2010] as such systems because they aren´t able to operate (by) / reproduce themselves.
But, this might change as soon as truly self-replicating machines are in (widespread) use [see Wikipedia 2016j; see also the interesting Replicating Rapid-Prototyper  (RepRap) project:].
Here`s a picture of RepRap version 1.0 named Darwin [Reprap_Darwin by CharlesC, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0]:


  • And boundary determination / maintenance refers to the differentiation of a (sub-)system (see below) as well:

Next to systems’ constituting their own elements, boundary determination is the most important requirement of system differentiation [Luhmann 1995, 29].

  • Openness and closure of a complex system
    How does a complex system regulate the relationship of openness and closure regarding its environment?
    – A complex system can´t be completely open (some kind of boundary being maintained is necessary). But, it can´t be completely hermetic either. So, is a complex system always open for energy, matter, and information? [For the generic options being available, see Bailey 2008].


OpenSystemRepresentation by Krauss, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Or, are there, for instance, complex systems that are open for energy and matter, but closed for information? And if such a complex system creates and processes information only within the system, which perturbation mechanisms (besides causal relationships) can be conceptualized so that the environment can somehow influence the system?

  • (Sub-)System differentiation
    How can the difference system / environment be used within the system to form subsystems (for example: science -> scientific disciplines -> scientific subdisciplines -> scientific subsub…disciplines)?
  • Characteristics of the environment of a complex system
    – The environment of a complex system can´t be completely arbitrary or chaotic because such highly unstable conditions would undermine the viability of a complex system.
    – We can distinguish (at least) three types of environment of a complex system:
    -> Environment 1: On this very basic operational level, the environment represents what the system is not. This resembles a kind of flat difference where the environment is undefined or unmarked (George Spencer Brown / Dirk Baecker).
    -> Environment 2: On this second observational level, the environment is a construction of the complex system.
    Example: A complex, esp. language-based system such as a consciousness system or a social system (family, organization, etc.) uses the difference system / environment within itself.
    To put it differently: The difference system / environment is used by means of a selfreferential salto within the system. Or, as Bielefeld system theorists would prefer to say: The difference system / environment re-enters on the side of the system: system (system / environment).
    Note: We´ll come back to this subject when we discuss another feature-as-problem-concept of complex systems, recursivity / self-reference / feedback loops.
    -> Environment 3: Other (complex) systems in the environment of a complex system. This refers to an external observer able to observe the complex system and the (complex) systems (with their respective environments) in the environment of the first system to be studied.
  • Two types of complexity
    With the distinction system / environment, it´s possible to differentiate two types of complexity. One type refers to the environment. Therefore, it`s called environmental complexity.
    This type of complexity has two subtypes:
    -> An unspecified or disorganized environmental complexity that ressembles an overwhelming world complexity.
    ->  A specified and organized environmental complexity.
    The first subtype is a hypothetical negative correlate of the complex system. The second subtype is a construct of the system.
    The other (specified and organized) type of complexity is called system complexity.  And W. Ross Ashby´s Law of Requisite Variety [see Wikipedia 2016k] is applicable to it.
    In this context, two other points are of interest:
    First, there´s an asymmetrical relation between environmental and system complexity. In short, there´s a complexity differential. This means that the environment is always more complex than the complex system itself.

In other words, the difference between system and environment stabilizes the difference in relative degrees of complexity. The relation between system and environment is necessarily asymmetrical. The difference in degree of relative complexity goes in one direction and cannot be reversed. Every system must maintain itself against the overwhelming complexity of its environment, and any success, any permanence, any reproduction makes the environment of all other systems more complex. Given many systems, each evolutionary success increases the difference in complexity for other systems in relation to their environments and thus works selectively on what then remains possible. [Luhmann 1995, 182].

    Second, the internal complexity of a system can be both reduced and increased.

For more details on complexity, see the subsequent blog post in which I discuss the other guiding distinction that is relevant in the context of system formation: element / relation.


[Allen / Maguire / McKelvey 2011]  Allen, P.  / Maguire, S. / McKelvey, B. (eds.) (2011), The SAGE Handbook of Complexity and Management, Los Angeles et al.: SAGE.

[Ashby 1958] Ashby , R.W. (1958), Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems, in: Cybernetica 1:2, 83-99, republished on the web byHeylighen, F. —Principia Cybernetica Project.
URL: accessed  May 26, 2016].

[Bailey 2008] Bailey, K. D. (2008), Boundary maintenance in living systems theory and social entropy theory, in: Systems Research and Behavioral Science (2008), vol. 25, issue 6, 587–597.
URL: Boundary maintenance in living systems theory and social entropy theory [accessed  May 10, 2016].

[Cilliers 2010] Cilliers, P. (2010), Difference, Identity and Complexity, in: [Cilliers / Preiser 2010], 3-18.

[Cilliers 1998] – (1998), Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems, London / New York: Routledge.

[Cilliers / Preiser 2010] – / R. Preiser (eds.) (2010), Complexity, Difference and Identity. An Ethical Perspective, Dordrecht et al.: Springer.

[Kelly 2010] Kelly, K. (2010), What Technology Wants, New York et al.: Penguin.

[Knudsen 2010] Knudsen, M. (2010), Surprised by Method—Functional Method and Systems Theory, in: Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 11(3), Art. 12.
URL:  [accessed April 27, 2016].

[Luhmann 1995] Luhmann, N. (1995), Social Systems, Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.

[Mesjasz 2010]  Mesjasz, C.  (2010), Complexity of Social Systems, in: Acta Physica Polonica (2010), vol. 117, no. 4, 706-715.
URL: [accessed March 20, 2016].

[Miller / Page 2007] Miller, J.H. / Page, S.E. (2007),  Complex Adaptive Systems. An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press.

[Mitleton-Kelly 2003] Mitleton-Kelly, E.(2003), Ten principles of complexity and enabling infrastructures, in: id.  (ed.) Complex Systems and Evolutionary Perspectives on Organisations: the Application of Complexity Theory to Organisations, Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 3-20.
URL:Ten principles of complexity and enabling infrastructures [accessed April 28, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016i] – (2016i), Open system (systems theory),
URL: [accessed May 4, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016j] – (2016j), Self-replicating machine,
URL:  [accessed May 10, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016k] – (2016k), Variety (cybernetics),
URL: [accessed May 10, 2016].

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