Society for General Systems Research (SGSR/ISSS)

At the 1954 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in California Bertalanffy met the economist Kenneth Boulding, biomathematician Anatol Rapoport, and neuro-physiologist Ralph Gerard and they joined forces in conceiving a society for the development of General System Theory. In 1983 Kenneth Boulding commented the dinner that can be seen as the starting point of the SGSR: “Somebody said, ‘Let’s form a society.’ So we called a meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in December of that year in Berkeley. Some seventy people came and there was a lot of enthusiasm; the society got off the ground, originally as the Society for the Advancement of General Systems. Then, the following fall, Anatol Rapoport and Ralph Gerard joined me at the University of Michigan and the Society got underway.” In 1957 its name was changed to Society for General Systems Research (SGSR).

Along the last five decades, more and more people engaged in scientific work, technological innovations and management activities, have become the System Movement, which rather paradoxically is NOT AT ALL a System. Bertalanffy didn’t always like what was happening but he considered that it was “a fertile chaos” that generated many insights and inspirations towards an idea whose time had come. “This is a scientific revolution which, when considered in retrospect, may well equal the Copernican Revolution in importance.”

Pretty soon, after the constitution of the Society for General Systems Research in the 1950s, Bertalanffy expressed that the members of the systems movement were “a heterogeneous lot” composed by biologists, behavioral scientists, social scientists, systems engineers, analysts, and designers. He was indeed very friendly when he recognized that the multiplicity of systems professions were engaged in creating an array of systems approaches that were different in basic assumptions, mathematical techniques and aims. He even justified the diversity of approaches arguing that every systems approach might work well only on some problems as he assumed that sometimes the best approach would be a combination of others previously developed.

However, it became gradually more and more evident that one of the main constituent elements of the systems movement was the analytical stream: culmination of the traditional scientific approach derived from the methodo resolutivo, successfully introduced by Galileo Galilei since the seventeenth century. This analytical avenue has an historical justification because it took the place of the ancient holistic assumptions — secret and practically inaccessible to human mind — that were used as a way for avoiding explanations of real circumstances. To think analytically has been considered during centuries quite indispensable for tackling any difficult problem through fragmentation, which would mean divide and conquer.

The SGSR’s manifesto defined a general system as any theoretical system of interest to more than one discipline. That definition was far less ambitious than the Bertalanffian vision of laws for systems in general, but Bertalanffy agreed to the compromise in the belief that even a thousand-mile journey must begin with one step.

The manifesto stated that the society’s major functions would be to:

  1. investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another;
  2. encourage the development of adequate theoretical models in the fields which lack them;
  3. minimize the duplication of theoretical effort in different fields;
  4. promote the unity of science [by] improving communication among specialists.

In 1988 the name of the society was changed to International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) which continues, though diversely playing a leading role in the international systems movement, providing a scholarly environment for a world-wide membership and virtually every discipline. Today it is one of the few professional societies nourishing interdisciplinary research while searching for integrative systems approaches.