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Autopoiesis and organizations: A biological view of organizational change and methods for its study

Goldspink, Chris and Kay, Robert (2009) Autopoiesis and organizations: A biological view of organizational change and methods for its study Working Paper.


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For many years we have been concerned with the role that autopoietic theory can play in resolving what is often termed the micro-macro problem in social science. The ‗micro-to-macro problem‘ concerns our capacity to explain the relationship between the constitutive elements of social systems (people) and emergent phenomena resulting from their interaction (i.e. organizations, societies, economies). To this end we have argued (Goldspink and Kay 2003, 2004), for a synthesis of autopoietic and complexity theory, where autopoietic theory provides a basis for understanding the characteristics of the micro-level agents that make up social systems (human individuals), whilst complexity theory provides a basis for understanding how these characteristics influence the range and type of macro-level behaviours that arise from their interaction. Implicit to this view is the assumption that it is biology which specifies the characteristics and qualities of human agents. Therefore it is also biology which constrains the range and type of interactions these agents can generate, and hence the form of structure which emerges from that interaction. This approach differs considerably from the disembodied sociological path taken in Luhmann‘s (1990) application of autopoietic systems.

The main contribution of Maturana and Varela‘s (1980) autopoietic theory has been to provide a concise specification of the defining characteristics of biological agents including humans. It serves therefore to advance our understanding of the micro facet of the micro-macro problem. Before his death, Varela began to explore further the implications of autopoiesis for understanding social macro phenomena drawing increasingly on a complex systems view (Thompson and Varela 2001; Rudrauf et al. 2003). We seek to extend this offshoot of the original contribution.

In this chapter we attend in particular, to some of the practical implications that result from a social extension of autopoiesis. Principle amongst these is our understanding of the basis for and nature of organizational change. We begin by giving a brief overview of the micro-macro problem and an outline of our approach to its resolution. We then draw on this approach to develop a perspective on stability and change in organizations. We illustrate this using two cases and in so doing also provide examples of methods which can be used to map the interplay of micro and macro behaviour in particular organizational contexts.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Sociology
Authors :
Goldspink, Chris
Kay, Robert
Date : 1 January 2009
Additional Information : Forthcoming in: Magalhaes, Rodrigo, Sanchez, Ron (eds), Autopoiesis in Organizations and Information Systems, Elsevier Science (Advanced Series in Management)
Depositing User : Mr Adam Field
Date Deposited : 27 May 2010 14:42
Last Modified : 31 Oct 2017 14:02

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