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Systems theory in social science

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 31, 2020, from

Article Summary

‘Systems theory’ is a label for two very different approaches to social analysis. The first was a post-1945 successor to traditional organicist theories of society that for some twenty years dominated US sociology and political science. It was never very popular outside the USA, and is now of largely historical interest; social scientists who aspire to develop a positive science of social interaction have for the past two decades rested their hopes on the individualist analyses provided by rational choice theory.

Systems theory in the first sense of the term flourished in US sociology and political science from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and is especially associated with the names of Talcott Parsons in sociology and David Easton and Gabriel Almond in political science. A systems approach to social analysis was commonly, though not universally, associated with some form of functionalism, especially in the work of Parsons, the leading structural-functionalist of his day. It fell into disrepute along with functionalism, a victim of the changed political climate of the 1960s as much as of its purely intellectual weaknesses.

The second form of systems theory is associated especially with the name of Niklas Luhmann, and its leading critic is Jürgen Habermas. The second form is in vigorous life, but not well known in the USA.

Citing this article:
Ryan, Alan and James Bohman. Systems theory in social science, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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