Was Kenneth Boulding an Evolutionary Economist, a Systems Theorist, or Both?

17 Pages Posted: 24 May 2011

Date Written: May 18, 2011


Some contemporary systems theorists have chosen to ignore or at least downplay the early work of Kenneth Boulding. This group has advanced the level and scope of systems thinking by building more analytically sophisticated models and extending the range of issues that the interdisciplinary approach has addressed. Other contemporary researchers have made the Boulding Skeleton the centerpiece of their pursuits. Some have adopted the skeleton largely as is and extended systems thinking above level 4 in the original hierarchy. Others have kept Boulding’s first four levels intact while redefining the higher levels in ways that more suitably fit their particular research agendas.

Boulding constantly stressed communication across traditional academic disciplines as well as communication among systems thinkers. The former is still occurring with some regularity (even among groups that are not part of formal systems thinking) while the latter is often lacking as the movement has fragmented. Some systems theorists no longer feel comfortable even using the term GST and prefer monikers or nomenclature more in line with branches of the field in which they have done their own work.

Writing more than 20 years after outlining the rudiments of the skeleton, Boulding in his Ecodynamics presented a series of arguments for synthesis. Commenting on the book at the time of Boulding’s death, one reviewer (Henderson 1995: 274) described this work “as the search for the all-by-all matrix”. To make certain that General Systems thinking does not move further from a full synthesis of disciplinary approaches today than it was in Boulding’s day, the movement would do well to not lose sight of what originally motivated that “search”.

Suggested Citation

Pluta, Joseph E., Was Kenneth Boulding an Evolutionary Economist, a Systems Theorist, or Both? (May 18, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1845243 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1845243

Joseph E. Pluta (Contact Author)

St. Edward's University ( email )

Department of Economics
Austin, TX 78704
United States
512-448-8645 (Phone)

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