Book Review: System Thinkers - Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp

Jan 10
2011

This book is a laudable effort to provide a panoramic overview of a sprawling field that is difficult to systematize. Systems Thinkers offers a gallery of 30 brief but engaging portraits of scholars-practitioners-activists who have played a decisive role in systems science and systems thinking. Each portrait is complemented with a short but telling extract from their writings. Taken together, portrait and text provide a rounded and accessible introduction to their intellectual background, career, personality and key contributions to the field. Each section is followed by a list of references which is a great resource for those wanting to read onwards (but also a sad reminder of how many classic systems book are out of print).

This book seems to be particularly useful to people who have already some experience with systems thinking but want to expand their horizon. People completely new to the subject may, perhaps, be confused by the profusion of approaches and ideas that fits under the generic label of ‘systems thinking’. In any case, this book is very helpful for orientation purposes but obviously provides a too slender basis for readers wanting to put these ideas into practice. It is essentially impossible to capture in a few pages even the main ideas (let alone the often important subtleties) in systems approaches such as Soft Systems Methodology or the Viable Systems Model (to name just two examples).

I do have some minor quibbles with the book. Inevitably, given the wide scope of the systems discipline, the choice of a limited number of key representatives is bound to be slightly controversial. The focus on people who published in English inevitably excludes important and difficult thinkers from particularly French background who have not or barely been translated (Edgar Morin, Henri Atlan). Even acknowledging the overwhelming contribution of the Anglo-Saxon intellectual sphere in shaping the field of cybernetics and systems thinking, there are some sad omissions. I would have liked to see Gordon Pask, George Spencer-Brown, Bela Banathy, Karl Deutsch, Luc Hoebeke, C.S. Holling and Michel Serres included in this gallery. So why not 35 or 40 thinkers rather than 30?

The portraits are sensibly grouped into seven categories, including 1) general systems theory, 2) early cybernetics, 3) late cybernetics, 4) system dynamics, 5) soft and critical systems, 6) complexity theory and 7) learning systems. Despite the authors’ assertion that there is no ‘true’ map of the systems discipline, I think it would have been very helpful to visualize the historical and intellectual cross-linkages between these areas and personalities.

Finally, as seems to be very often the case with publications in this field, the price is outrageous. But as there is not really an alternative, I’m still happy to recommend this book.

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