Theory and Decision

, Volume 10, Issue 1–4, pp 13–30 | Cite as

A systems concept of society: Beyond individualism and holism

  • Mario Bunge
Part I. Concept Formation, Theory Construction and Criteria for Theory Acceptance


Three rival views of the nature of society are sketched: individualism, holism, and systemism. The ontological and methodological components of these doctrines are formulated and analyzed. Individualism is found wanting for making no room for social relations or emergent properties; holism, for refusing to analyze both of them and for losing sight of the individual.

A systems view is then sketched, and it is essentially this: A society is a system of interrelated individuals sharing an environment. This commonsensical idea is formalized as follows: A society σ is representable as an ordered triple 〈 Composition of σ, Environment of σ, Structure of σ〉, where the structure of σ is the collection of relations (in particular connections) among components of σ. Included in the structure of any σ are the relations of work and of managing which are regarded as typical of human society in contrast to animal societies.

Other concepts formalized in the paper are those of subsystem (in particular social subsystem), resultant property, and emergent or gestalt property. The notion of subsystem is used to build the notion of an F-sector of a society, defined as the set of all social subsystems performing a certain function F (e.g. the set of all schools). In turn, an F-institution is defined as the family of all F-sectors. Being abstractions, institutions should not be attributed a life and a mind of their own. But, since an institution is analyzable in terms of concrete totalities (namely social subsystems), it does not comply with the individualist requirement either.

It is also shown that the systems view is inherent in any mathematical model in social science, since any such schema is essentially a set of individuals endowed with a certain structure. And it is stressed that the systems view combines the desirable features of both individualism and holism.


Mathematical Model Social Science Social Relation Human Society Desirable Feature 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mario Bunge
    • 1
  1. 1.Foundations and Philosophy of Science Unit, McGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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