An analytical tool to understand Pakistan

April 24, 2022

Pakistani academics must initiate debate on systems theory to better comprehend its suitability to our state and society

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A recent point of discussion among a few young academics was whether a social science theory can be deployed to explain Pakistani state and society. Pakistan is difficult for political scientists to study. Some of its state institutions have suffered great damage; some of its colonial structures persist without a validation of their relevance; and its status as a modern political nation state underpinned by religious ideology makes for permanent ambiguity and dichotomy.

The society, too, is split along caste, creed, ethnic, lingual and sectarian lines, making it hard for a single theory to properly explain the very complex social reality.

After a lengthy interaction, a handful of them concurred on systems theory. But several among the group had hardly any clarity on systems theory and how it is relevant to the Pakistani state and the institutions it comprises.

Hence, it forms the topic of today’s column. At the outset, I will try to define it. Next, I will discuss its essential aspects. Lastly, we will see if it can be applied to the Pakistani state system. Can systems theory provide a model that might propose a way in which the system can be reformed from within?

Systems theory, also called social systems theory, is the study of a society as a complex arrangement of elements, including individuals and their beliefs, as they relate to a whole (e.g., a country). The study of society as a social system has a long history in the social sciences. Every system is bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose and expressed through its functioning.

Thus, its relationship with the land is important. Abstract notions, such as the ideology of Pakistan, can only be concretised by bringing environment, space, time and structures into context. The basic idea behind systems theory is, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The goal of systems theory is to model a system’s dynamics, constraints and conditions and to elucidate principles (such as purpose, measure, methods, tools) that can be discerned and applied to other systems at every level and in a wide range of fields for achieving optimised equifinality.

General systems theory is about developing broadly applicable concepts and principles, as opposed to concepts and principles specific to a particular domain of knowledge. It distinguishes dynamic or active systems from static or passive systems. This is the fundamental reason why Pakistani academics should study systems theory with all earnestness and use it as an analytical tool.

Systems theory, also called social systems theory, is the study of society as a complex arrangement of elements, including individuals and their beliefs, as they relate to a whole (e.g., a country). The study of society as a social system has a long history in the social sciences.

Active systems are activity structures or components that interact in behaviours and processes. Passive systems are structures and components that are being processed. For example, a programme is passive when it is stored in a disc file and active when it runs. The field is related to systems thinking, machine logic and systems engineering.

As a transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multi-perspectival endeavour, systems theory brings together principles and concepts from ontology, the philosophy of science, physics, computer science, biology and engineering, as well as geography, sociology, political science, psychotherapy (especially, family systems therapy) and economics. Its hallmark multi-disciplinarity is greatly needed in the Pakistani academic milieu.

Systems theory promotes dialogue between autonomous areas of study as well as within systems science itself. In this respect, given the possibility of misinterpretation, Ludwig von Bertalanffy argued that a general theory of systems “should be an important regulative device in science,” to guard against superficial analogies that “are useless in science and harmful in their practical consequences”. Bertalanffy is an extremely significant figure, therefore. A brief introduction to his career is provided in the following paragraph.

Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (September 19, 1901–June 12, 1972) was an Austrian biologist and one of the founders of general systems theory (GST). His theory had implications that transcended the confines of his own discipline and went on to have significant impact in the social sciences and humanities.

According to Weckowicz, Bertalanffy “occupies an important position in the intellectual history of the Twentieth Century. His contributions went beyond biology and extended into cybernetics, education, history, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology and sociology. Some of his admirers even believe that this theory will one day provide a conceptual framework for all these disciplines”. I think that is what makes it worth our consideration.

Systems theory offers us a pertinent framework with which to study a plural socio-political entity, such as Pakistan because of its open-ended configuration. It does not enforce any specificity that contravenes the immediacy of the spatio-temporal environment.

Through the employment of systems theory, one can controvert the watertight compartmentalisation that Western modernity brought into effect. An indigenisation of epistemic structures and the enforcement of locally tested customary practices find articulation through systems theory. Having said that, I don’t want to appear to be pleading for the theory.

Pakistani academics must initiate a debate on systems theory so as to better comprehend its suitability to our state and society. A meaningful dialogue must take place in the ostensibly silent spaces of Pakistan’s universities and research institutes not only at the level of academics but also at the level of the young university students who ought to engage with such analytical tools to attain a better understanding of Pakistan. That can be the decisive first step on the path towards finding a resolution for the complex problems confronting Pakistan.



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