autopoiesis & organizations

Below are a few ideas and questions on the relevance of Maturana's theory of
autopoiesis to organisation theory - it also makes reference to the
applicability of some elements of non-linear systems theory. I look forward to
reading your responses!
This is an exiting area with potentially significant implications for the
development of organisation (and I suspect administration/political) theory

Do human social systems qualify as autopoietic systems? - Stafford Beer in the
preface of Maturana and Varela's "Autopoiesis - The Organisation of the
Living" suggests that they meet the relevant criteria although in this
reference (1973) the authors seem unclear or uncertain. By the writing of "The
Tree of Knowledge" however both seem convinced that social systems do
constitute third order autopoiesis. [there would be some benefit in examining
more rigorously the degree of fit with the criteria Maturana and Varela have
identified - this could be an area to open up for discussion in this forum]
Per Bak and Kan Chen's work on self organised criticality demonstrates how
complex systems, possibly including ecosystems, may organise themselves to a
point where they are maximally responsive to perturbations and generate a wide
range of behavioural options. While this is of clear benefit to a species from
a point of view of survivability in an evolutionary sense, (ie helps preserve
continuity of a second order system through time) critical organisation may
also benefit an individual organism and improve its ontogenetic survivability,
ie the ability of the organism to respond to perturbation and to third order
systems ability to do the same. Where is the evidence that such self
criticality occurs in second order systems and in third order (social
Paradigm shifts of all kinds appear to qualify, so do many dynamics in
organisations. Recent rapid change at the level of nation states in Europe
appear to fit the broad pattern.
Following Kauffman, self reproducing (autopoietic) entities may evolve to a
critical state (edge of Chaos) This should be true of any living system
(including organisations?) as it gives maximum potential to preserve
in response to the widest possible range of perturbations. In nature however
this seems to happen in two ways, through high levels of diversification of
species operating within clearly defined niches and with a few flexible
capable of operating in a wide range of environments. Is this the result of
short and long cycles of recurrent perturbations? if so on what basis does
pattern emerge and what is its relevance/applicability to understanding third
order systems - do organisations and social systems show these
On the whole third order systems seem stable but you do not have to look far
to find examples of very rapid transition (eg East Germany and the old Soviet
Union). In Kauffman's models the critical variable in a closed boolian network
which determines whether its behaviour will be stable, critical or chaotic is
the degree of interconnectedness of the components which comprise the system.
He notes that these systems have attractors and the stability of the
attractors varies with the type and degree of perturbation. Changing a single
state (boolian systems being bistable) representing a minimal perturbation and
a more extreme perturbation being the change in the nature of an element (from
an 'or' function to an 'and ' function for example) Maturana notes that
structural change within an autopoietic system may be a) conservative ie.
change in relations between components only or b) innovative where the
components themselves change. (p99 Autopoiesis) there seems to be a parallel
between these ideas.


Internet: (Chris Goldspink)
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