Are Third Order (i.e. Social) Autopoietic Systems Necessarily Autocratic?

William P. Hall

7 November 2003
8 November 2003


The issue is raised:

[email protected] wrote:

In a message dated 11/5/03 3:45:18, [email protected] writes:

<<"Kenny wrote : 'The second argument , coming from the domain of
ethics, uses the paramount individuality of personal consciousness to
demonstrate that any third order human system configured on the
metaphor of autopoiesis would necessarily be oppressive, inhuman, and

...Kenny is very afraid that any third-order human system such as a
firm or a nation would make humans inhuman like robots. What do you
think of this Kenny's comments?" >>


I agree with Kenny. The mechanicistic orientation of M & V's work
has often been cited as one of its 'bad qualities' when the subject
turns to social systems (as specimens of autonomous or autopoietic
systems). The spectre of an 'autopoietically-organized' society
being oppressive, etc., has been cited as far back as the late
1970's. I seem to recall the Norwegian sociologist Stein Bråten
criticizing autopoiesis from a social perspective, claiming such a
model would lead to rigidity at the expense of 'humanity'.

Still, it must be emphasized that Kenny clearly alludes to
a "...human system configured on the metaphor of autopoiesis...", and
not a purported 'autopoietic social system' per se. Kenny's is
therefore a very apt allusion, since social systems can not be
autopoietic (cf. Maturana's recent pronouncements on this topic).



From: "Bill Hall" <[email protected]>
Date: Fri Nov 7, 2003 2:35 pm
Subject: Re: 3rd Order / 'Autopoietic' Social Systems as Oppressive (cf. Seiichi, Nov. 5)

I may have some contributions to make to this thread, but first let me introduce myself. I earned my PhD from Harvard in 1973 as a cytogeneticist and evolutionary biologist, and stayed in the academic world for some 8 years and managed to spend two years during this time on a postdoc where my primary focus was epistemology and the history of science - especially from the point of view of understanding different research paradigms and scientific revolutions in evolutionary biology. I then discovered personal computing and ended up analyzing and designing documentation and content management systems. For the last 14 years I have been working a large Australian defence contractor where I am now analyzing and designing organizational knowledge management systems. I have also been appointed to the academic staff of Monash University's School of Information Management and Systems as an Honorary Research Fellow in the KM Lab.

As an evolutionary biologist, I used the biological concept of autopoiesis as an organizing framework in my teaching as early as the late 1960's - although I did not think to publish my conceptualization under a catchy name. I have also found it to be an equally useful framework in analyzing the knowledge management requirements for business. I am currently working on a hypertext book dealing with the history and evolution of knowledge and knowledge management technologies, which synthesizes much of this experience and where the concept of autopoiesis will also serve a major role.

I originally discovered Maturana and Varela's parallel development of the concept of autopoiesis via the knowledge management discipline, where it is one of several competing paradigms of organizational theory. The primary proponents of an autopoietic approach to organizations (from a knowledge management point of view) were Georg von Krogh & Johan Roos in their 1995 book, Organizational Epistemology. Macmillan, Basingstoke. Two more sources following on from von Krogh and Roos are, Kay, R. and Cecez-Kecmanovic, D., 2002, Towards an autopoietic perspective on knowledge management, in: ACIS 2002, Melbourne Australia, 4-6 December 2002; and Magalhaes, R., 1996, Organizational learning, organizational knowledge and organizational memory: New proposals towards a unified view, Working Paper Series, no 60, London School of Economics, Department of Information Systems; http://is.lse.ac.uk/wp/pdf/WP60.PDF

As I understand autopoiesis, an entity is considered to be autopoietic if it possesses ALL the following properties based heavily on the checklist definition given in Varela, F.J., Maturana, H.R. and Uribe, R., 1974, Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems. Its characterization and a model, BioSystems, 5:187–196, which is one of the original definitions given in English. von Krogh and Roos also include the checklist as an endnote in their 1995 book.

As a biologist who spent many years trying to understand the fundamental properties of life, I have no problems whatsoever with this as a minimally sufficient definition for what it means to be living. However, to this point the theory of autopoiesis is actually quite limited, in that it focuses primarily on the minimum properties a system must have to be considered to be living. What all of the discussions of the theory I have seen have missed, is to explore the consequences persistent autopoiesis over long periods of time in a competitive environment - specifically to understand the origins of heredity in autopoietic entities and the roles of heredity and natural selection in shaping the nature of autopoietic entities. In any event, many social systems - and especially formal organizations are clearly autopoietic if the above characteristics are accepted as the necessary and sufficient definition of autopoiesis.

In this regard, I have found Stuart Kauffman's work to be of substantial interest (e.g., Kauffman, S.A. 1993. The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford Univ. Press, New York; Kauffman, S.A. 1995. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.).

Enough background.


In my experience human organizations capable of persisting beyond the membership of particular individuals in the organization appear to have the properties of autopoiesis. Maintenance of autopoiesis does not require that the individual members give up their individuality under an autocratic regime - in fact, the actual requirements for autopoiesis may be quite the opposite of autocracy. For example, organizational disintegration often follows the death or abdication of an autocrat.

On the other hand, the kind of organization that is formed by individuals that voluntarily accept allegiance to the organization (i.e., the identifying tag), the organization's code of conduct, and agree to conduct their activities within the organization according to established routines and procedures, thereby creating an organization able to provide its members with income or other rewards for their participation, is very strong and capable of maintaining its existence as an entity over many generations of individual memberships. The key to understanding how the autopoiesis is maintained is to understand how individuals become "tagged" and are thereby different from precursors in the world in general as identifiable members of the organization. The rest of the traits basically boil down to understanding organizational economics, dynamics, and personnel management - all good knowledge management issues.

Organizational memory, as represented in things like articles of organization, employment contracts, written procedures, engrained contexts and routines (e.g., as described by Nelson, R.R. & Winter, S.G., 1982, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 437 pp), also without any reference to autopoiesis, all contribute to the cybernetic processes responsible for maintaining the autopoietic viability of the organization over time. Organizations that become conscious of their own cybernetics of life, e.g., through a conscious knowledge management program, are potentially much more powerful than those depending wholly on unconscious regulatory processes such as those Nelson and Winter describe. None of these activities are necessarily 'oppressive, inhuman, and parasocial'. In fact, as noted above, to the extent that these conditions are applied by an autocratic leader (as is the case in many oppressive and inhuman regimes), organizations become an appendage of the leader and are then subject to death (disintegration) along with the autocrat. Where nations are concerned, I think the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are illustrative examples.

The main case where oppression and inhumanity are genuinely associated with autopoiesis is in theocracy, where religion is used as the means of tagging and control. I would argue that autopoietic theocracies are also potentially brittle, and subject to disintegration if their members can be shown that the costs of membership outweigh the benefits - which is much harder to do with a freely democratic organization where people have joined with open eyes and for self-interest. In any event, I think this brief analysis shows that third order autopoiesis is not necessarily oppressive, etc.

I have made a start on publishing some of these ideas in an hour and a half presentation given to a joint meeting of the New Zealand Knowledge Management Network and GOVIS (New Zealand Government Information Systems Forum) - see Hall, W.P. (2003). Working Towards Biologically Based Theories of Organization and Knowledge to Understand How Organizations Work Best. Joint Lunchtime Seminar, 08/09/03, Rutherford House, Wellington. New Zealand Knowledge Management Network and Government Information Systems Forum. [Presentation - http://www.nzkm.net/assets/NZKMNetGovis(1).pdf]. and in Hall, W.P. (2003) Organisational Autopoiesis and Knowledge Management. submitted to ISD '03 Twelfth International Conference on Information Systems Development - Methods & Tools, Theory & Practice, Melbourne, Australia, 25 - 27 August, 2003 - http://www.hotkey.net.au/~bill.hall/OrgAutopoiesisAndKM(final).pdf

Bill Hall
Evolutionary Biology of Species and Organizations

----- Original Message -----
From: "Timo Järvilehto" <[email protected]>
To: <[email protected]>
Sent: Friday, November 07, 2003 6:52 PM
Subject: RE: [autopoiesis-dialognet] Re: 3rd Order / 'Autopoietic'Social
Systems as Oppressive (cf. Seiichi, Nov. 5)

Thank you, Bill, for your comment and useful references. I have only one
question in relation to our earlier boundary discussion. How do you define
the boundaries of an organization (e.g. insurance company)? For a company in
action there certainly exists no physical border (membrane etc.), and from
my point of view the membership in the company may be determined only on the
basis of its outcome; i.e. all factors contributing to the results of action
of the organization should be included, although their role certainly may be
different. Thus, the autopoiesis wouldn't work within physically determined
boundaries, but rather in respects to the outcome of the organization. Or
what do you think?

Kind regards,


From: "Bill Hall" <[email protected]>
Date: Sat Nov 8, 2003 9:59 am
Subject: Re: 3rd Order / 'Autopoietic' Social Systems as Oppressive


From memory, I believe that von Krogh and Roos introduced the idea of "tagging" as a way of distinguishing components of the autopoietic entity from non-components, and I have undoubtedly developed the idea further in my own thinking.

In autopoetic entities such as represented by swarms of social insects, the tagging may be pheromonal.

In human organizations, the tags can be as simple and obvious as uniforms or identity badges, or as powerful as shared creeds, and can include such things as employment contracts, contextual circumstances connecting members in a network of processes and procedures (e.g., sitting at a desk in a certain office in a certain building may be all that is required to define your place in a particular autopoietic structure), secret handshakes, etc.

The main thing is that the tagging process is the means of autopoietic "production" that provides a means for components of the autopoietic entity to distinguish themselves and other members from non-members, and that by their acceptance of membership, the members also accept certain roles and obligations along with the tags.

Probably the most basic consideration is that the tagged person accepts the tags and the minor or major obligations that affiliation to the particular organization entails - another reason why I argue that autocracy (reflecting tight control by one or a very few autocrats) and genuine autopoiesis are antithetical. Certainly an autocrat can force individuals to adopt the tags and roles on threat of harm if they don't, but as soon as the threat dissipates, the tags are thrown off.

Anyway, your example of the insurance company is a good one. Employees are "produced" from the population in general as they are inducted to become members of the organization and trained to take on certain roles in the organization. The cybernetics of performance <-> salary relationships within the organization create the dynamic mechanisms necessary for the system to function. If the system functions badly, such that the organization does not maintain enough cash flow to maintain the performance <-> salary relationships with its component employees, it becomes bankrupt and disintegrates.

Another point to consider is that so long as the respective tagging schemes are not mutually contradictory, nothing prevents individual humans from simultaneously participating in several different autopoietic organizations at the same time.

Where I go beyond the ideas of minimal autopoiesis is in exploring the roles of knowledge management issues such as organizational learning and memory, and the role of explicit forms knowledge as organizational heredity that help the autopoietic entity to persist beyond the lifetimes of its individual members in the organization.

In any event, I believe the concept of autopoiesis provides a powerful basis for a theory of the organization to inform knowledge management research and practice.

And, Timo, thanks for your leading question - it has helped me to focus on and (hopefully) clearly express a couple of issues I have simply accepted tacitly up to now.

Bill Hall
Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST
(Zappa - Packard Goose)
Evolutionary Biology of Species and Organizations