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Observing Systems Research Methodology

March 29, 2015

We may call an Observing Systems Research Methodology a research methodology that

  1. makes choices of explicit systems references both for the observation to be carried out, usually that of a scientific discipline, entertained by one or more authors, and for the subject to be observed (Talcott Parsons). Note that there are only two options for any subject to be observed within a systems reference. It can either be considered to be itself a system or a structure of a system or it can figure in the environment of a chosen system. Either assumption cannot just be postulated but must empirically be shown;
  2. considers the subject to be observed to be possibly an observing system in itself (Heinz von Foerster);
  3. considers the subject complex if it defies causal and statistical analysis. The subject then may be assumed to be a self-organizing system, relegating any observation of it not to understanding but to control, that is to interaction relying on a memory of its own (W. Ross Ashby);
  4. collects quantitative or qualitative, correlative or interpretative, ethnographic or cartographic, narrative or discursive data and gives them a coding, framing, scripting, or modeling due to metadata taken from any kind of heuristics, including general or specific systems theories;
  5. and identifies the audience the results of the research are to be presented to, be it a scientific community, the (observing) subject, a third party (a principal or client, a wider public, a vested interest to be invoked), itself to be considered an observing system, or the author of the paper reading it again when old and reminiscent of better days.



Talcott Parsons, The Social System, New York: Free Press, 1950.

Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems, Seaside, CA: Intersystems, 1981 (most papers reprinted in: idem, Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, New York: Springer, 2003).

See W. Ross Ashby, Requisite Variety and Its Implication for the Control of Complex Systems, Cybernetica 1 (1958), 83-99.

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