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Analytic vs. Systemic Approaches

The analytic and the systemic approaches are more complementary than opposed, yet neither one is reducible to the other.

The analytic approach seeks to reduce a system to its elementary elements in order to study in detail and understand the types of interaction that exist between them. By modifying one variable at a time, it tries to infer general laws that will enable one to predict the properties of a system under very different conditions. To make this prediction possible, the laws of the additivity of elementary properties must be invoked. This is the case in homogeneous systems, those composed of similar elements and having weak interactions among them. Here the laws of statistics readily apply, enabling one to understand the behavior of the multitude-of disorganized complexity.

The laws of the additivity of elementary properties do not apply in highly complex systems composed of a large diversity of elements linked together by strong interactions. These systems must be approached by new methods such as those which the systemic approach groups together. The purpose of the new methods is to consider a system in its totality, its complexity, and its own dynamics Through simulation one can "animate" a system and observe in real time the effects of the different kinds of interactions among its elements. The study of this behavior leads in time to the determination of rules that can modify the system or design other systems.

The following table compares, one by one, the traits of the two approaches.
Analytic Approach Systemic Approach
  • isolates, then concentrates on the elements
  • unifies and concentrates on the interaction between elements
  • studies the nature of interaction
  • studies the effects of interactions
  • emphasizes the precision of details
  • emphasizes global perception
  • modifies one variable at a time
  • modifies groups of variables simultaneously
  • remains independent of duration of time; the phenomena considered are reversible.
  • integrates duration of time and irreversibility
  • validates facts by means of experimental proof within the body of a theory
  • validates facts through comparison of the behavior of the model with reality
  • uses precise and detailed models that are less useful in actual operation (example: econometric models)
  • uses models that are insufficiently rigorous to be used as bases of knowledge but are useful in decision and action (example: models of the Club of Rome)
  • has an efficient approach when interactions are linear and weak
  • has an efficient approach when interactions are nonlinear and strong
  • leads to discipline-oriented (juxtadisciplinary) education
  • leads to multidisciplinary education
  • leads to action programmed in detail
  • leads to action through objectives
  • possesses knowledge of details poorly defined goals
  • possesses knowledge of goals, fuzzy details
  • This table, while useful in its simplicity, is nevertheless a caricature of reality. The presentation is excessively dualist; it confines thought to an alternative from which it seems difficult to escape. Numerous other points of comparison deserve to be mentioned. Yet without being exhaustive the table has the advantage of effectively opposing the two complementary approaches, one of which-the analytic approach-has been favored disproportionately in our educational system.

    Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

    J. de Rosnay

    Feb 17, 1997 (modified)
    1979 (created)


    Reference material

    Cybernetics and Systems Theory

    What are Cybernetics and Systems Science?

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