The key point of systems thinking and the knowledge we have that goes with it is to locate people within a physical system – the world (actually the bio-sphere) within which we exist as individuals and groups.

If human behaviour is an emergent property of the whole system as has been described then some parts are given; these stem from our physiology and our primate inheritance. However other parts are malleable; these are the parts we have control over, the artifacts we use and culture that goes with them together with a large set of norms and beliefs. Our brains plasticity means we can change the way we behave. We have only have to look at other cultures and past ones to see how different these can be.

What about the environment?

In systems thinking, at least in its business usage, it is common to create a context diagram to put the system within its environment. This has some merit when looking at a bounded system. Here I am looking at the totality of human activity and trying to view it as a system. This quote sums up why I have not got a separate description of the environment;

“There is no environment in some independent and abstract sense. Just as there is no organism without an environment, there is no environment without an organism. Organisms do not experience environments. They create them. They construct their own environments out of bits and pieces of the physical world, and they do so by their own activities” Lewontin 1991 Capra and Luisi, p141

As Capra notes “they represent a general pattern applicable at all levels of life” so Culture is the environment and we make it as well as being shaped by it. Which is almost the same as saying first we make our tools then our tools shape us.

Start with the individual

In this model the individual perceives the world, that is both nature and the culture she is part of. The physiology of the individual enable her to react to what the senses show and her mind enable her to form a view of it, by virtue of having a brain that is complex enough to allow rational abstract thought (as well as irrational, emotionally driven reactions).

Move to Groups

The results of this self-reflection are shared with others. Each individual within the group is working (as a physical being) in the same way – each has perception, physiology and self-reflection. Through communication (eventually written or electronically recorded) the group comes to produce 2 things – a set of norms values and beliefs and a base of knowledge.

I visualise it like this. First just a reminder of the sub-systems within the human activity system, then a close up of an individual, then place the individual within a group, then have many groups.

And then to groups of groups

The groups perceive each other and may come to have collective norms, values and beliefs as well as shared knowledge.

Now add Power

If we define power as the ability to get someone else to do our bidding then Basic Power arrises just because we are primates within the groups some individuals will become leaders (silverbacks). They may do this through charisma and/or strength. Secondary Power comes from Culture, it may allow physically weak people to become leaders because of a set of beliefs. Think of Franklin D Roosevelt through democracy or Frederick the Great through the divine right of kings. That leads to a modification to the diagram about - we can now highlight the powerful individuals within groups.


The point here is to help visualise the underlying simplicity of what becomes hugely complicated simply because of our numbers, the are millions of groups and billions of people. Groups have overlapping memberships, the powerful individuals from groups form groups of their own.

We don't need class to comprehend this, what we need is a way of dealing with power and keeping the silverbacks in check, see Behaviour as an Emergent Property - Implications for how this relates to holistic political economy.