2001 Conference (May 27-29)

Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Beth Dempster

Being Organizationally Ajar:
An Alternative Heuristic for Understanding Change in System Organization




A key aspect of systems-thinking is applying different ways of looking/understanding to the complex situations we are surrounded by and embedded within. My intention in this paper is to describe an alternative system concept that may offer such an opportunity, by questioning the construction of two distinct categories - organizationally closed vs. organizationally open systems. In studying behaviours and interactions of/in ecosystems and social groups, I find that neither absolute characterization offers adequate heuristic potential. While the notion of organizational closure provides a valuable heuristic for understanding many systems, and while other characteristics of autopoiesis - notably self-production and self-reference - provide valuable contributions toward understanding complex ecological and social systems, organizational closure seems somewhat misleading in these latter cases. In consequence, I consider the possibilities provided by also conceptualizing a middling category: What opportunities for understanding emerge from considering systems to be organizationally ajar? Ecosystems, for example, allow changes to their pattern of organization in a different manner than organisms do - such as through the incorporation of new species. While organisms can be characterized as organizationally closed, ecosystems are open-but-not-completely-open, hence, organizationally ajar. In this paper, further questions are offered for consideration, such as: What implications arise by rephrasing the open/closed question to become: to what entities/phenomena is a system open and to what is it closed? How does any system regulate inputs, and of what type? What are the implications of this different concept for the definition of boundaries in ecosystems and social systems?


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