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Toward a Universal Theory of the Human Group: Sociological Systems Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Groups and Organizations
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Sociology. Lisbon University Institute, Portugal.
CIES, Lisbon University Institute, Portugal.
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Sociology. uppsala university.
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Drawing on a sociological multi-level, dynamic systems approach – actor-system-dynamics (ASD) -- which has been developed and applied in institutional, organizational, and societal analyses, we formulate a general model for the comparative analysis of social groups and organizations. This social systems approach has not been previously applied in the group area. We claim that the approach can be systematically and fruitfully applied to small as well as large groups and organizations as a methodology to understand and analyze their structure, functioning and dynamics.

A group is considered a system with three universal subsystems on which any human social organization, including small groups, depends and which motivate, shape and regulate group activities and productions. The subsystems  are bases or group  requisites  – necessary for group “functioning” and performance in more or less orderly or coherent ways; on this basis a group may be able to  realize its purposes or goals(as well as possibly some members’ personal goals) and maintain and reproduce the group. The group bases consist of: first, a rule regime (collective culture)defining group identity and purpose, shaping and regulating roles and role relationships, normative patterns and behavioral outputs;  second, an agential base of group members who are  socialized or partially socialized carriers of and adherents to the group’s identity and rule regime; of relevance here are involvement/participation factors motivating member to adhere to, accept, and implement key components of the rule regime; third, there is a resource base, technologies and materials, self-produced and/or obtained from the environment, which are essential to group functioning and  key group performances.

Section I briefly presents the framework and outlines the group systems model, characterized by its three universal bases or subsystems and its finite universal production functions and their outputs as well as the particular context(s) in which groups function. For illustrative purposes, the section identifies three major ideal-type modalities of group formation: informal self-organization by agents, group construction by external agents, and group formation through more or less formal multi-agent negotiation.

The general systems model presented in Section II characterizes a social group not only by its three universal bases but by its finite universal production functions (elaborated in Section IV) and its outputs as well as by its shared places (situations for interaction) and times for gathering and interacting. Group productions impact on the group itself (reflexivity) and on its environment. These outputs, among other things, maintain/adapt/develop the  group bases (or possibly unintentionally undermine/destroy them) Thus, groups can be understood as action and interaction systems producing goods, services, incidents and events, experiences, developments, etc. for themselves and possibly for the larger environment on which they depend for resources, recruits, goods and services, and legitimation. The model provides a single perspective for the systematic description and comparative analysis of a wide diversity of groups (Sections III and IV).

A major distinctive feature in our systems approach is the conceptualization of rules and rule regimes (Sections II, III, IV, and V). Finite universal rule categories (ten distinct categories) are specified; they characterize every functioning social group or organization. A rule regime, while an abstraction is carried, applied, adapted, and transformed by concrete human agents, who interact, exchange, exercise power, and struggle within the group, in large part based on the rule regime which they maintain and adapt as well as transform.

                The paper emphasizes not only the systemic character of all functioning groups – universally their three bases and their output functions together with feedback dynamics -- but also the differentiating character of any given group’s distinct rule configuration (Section IV). For illustrative purposes Section IV presents a selection of  rule configurations characterizing several ideal types of groups, a military unit, a terrorist group, a recreational or social group, a research group, a corporate entity Section V considers the dynamics of groups in terms of modification and transformation of group bases and their production functions. The group system model enables us to systematically identify and explicate the internal and external factors that drive group change and transformation, exposing the complex interdependencies and dynamic potentialities of group systems. Section VI sums up the work and points out its scope and limitations.

The group systems model offers a number of promising contributions: (1) a universal systems model identifies the key subsystems and their interrelationships as well as their role in group production functions/outputs and performances; (2) the work conceptualizes and applies rules and rule complexes and their derivatives in roles, role relationships, norms, group procedures and production functions; (3) it identifies the universal categories of rules making up a rule regime, a major subsystem for any functioning group; (4) the model conceptualizes particular “group rule configurations” – rule regimes with specified rules in the universal rule categories—for any given group;  groups are identifiable and differentiable by their rule configurations (as well as by their resource and agency bases); (5) it conceptualizes the notion of the degree of coherence (alternatively, degree of incoherence) of rule configurations characteristic of any given group and offers an explanation of why group attention is focused on the coherence of rules in certain group areas; (6) the systems model suggests an interpretation of Erving Goffman’s “frontstage backstage” distinction in terms of alternative, differentiated rule regimes which are to a greater or lesser extent incoherent with respect to one another; moreover, the participants who are privy to the differentiation navigate using a shared rule complex to translate coherently and consistently from one regime to the other, using appropriate discourses; (7) incoherence, contradiction, conflict and struggle relating to rule regimes are considered part and parcel of group functioning and development; (8)group stability and change are explicated in terms of internal mechanisms (e.g., governance, innovation, and conflict) as well as external mechanisms (resource availability, legal and other institutional developments, population conditions), pointing up the complex systemic interdependencies and dynamic potentialities of group systems; (9) given the multi-level dynamic systems framework (i.e., ASD) that has been applied in a range of special areas (economic, political, technological, environmental, bio-medical, among others) its applicataion in the field of groups is a promising step toward achieving greater synthesis in sociology and social science. 

Keyword [en]
systems theory, group, rule regime, resoource base, agential base, production functions
National Category
Social Sciences
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-230845OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-230845DiVA: diva2:742084
Available from: 2014-08-30 Created: 2014-08-30 Last updated: 2014-11-05Bibliographically approved

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Burns, Tom R.Corte, Ugo
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