Tom R. Burns

American sociologist

Tom R. Burns (born 1937) is an American/Swedish sociologist, Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden and founder of the Uppsala Theory Circle.



The shaping of social organization (1987)


Tom R. Burns, Helena Flam with Reinier de Man, Tormod Lunde, Alte Midtun, and Anders Olsson (1987) The shaping of social organization Sage, Beverly Hills, California.

  • The rule systems governing transactions among agents in a defined sphere specify, to a greater or lesser extent, who participates (and who is excluded), who does what, when, where and how, and in relation to whom. ln particular, they define possible rights and obligations, including rules of command and obedience, governing specified categories of actors or roles vis a vis one another. The theory deals with the properties of social rule systems, their role in patterning social life, and the social and political processes whereby such systems are produced, maintained, and transformed as well as implemented in social action and interaction.
    • p. 8; Cited in: Carola Aili, Pamela Denicolo, Lars-Erik Nilsson (2008) In Tension Between Organization and Profession. p. 228.
  • There are two basic ways market organization is brought about... Some combination of the two is usual the case:
    1. Strategic structuring, informal or formal, whereby social agents, including the state, establish a rule regime regulating market access and transactions...
    2. Emergent structuring, whereby participants discover or adopt certain similar strategies within bounded rationality and situations with certain opportunity structures and incentive structures. Social network and ecological properties result in relatively well-defined aggregate performance characteristics...

Systems theories (2006)


Tom R. Burns (2006) "System Theories" in: George Ritzer ed. The Encyclopedia of Sociology, Blackwell Publishing.

  • In the most abstract sense, a system is a set of objects together with relationships among the objects. Such a definition implies that a system has properties, functions, and dynamics distinct from its constituent objects and relationships.
    • p. 1.
  • Within sociology there have been several system theories, differing from one another in the extent to which, for example, human agency, creativity, and entrepreneurship are assumed to play a role in system formation and reformation; conflict and struggle are taken into account; power and stratification are part and parcel of the theory; structural change and transformation – and more generally, historically developments – are taken into account and explained. What the various system theories have in common is a systematic concern with complex and varied interconnections and interdependencies of social life. Complexity has been a central concept for many working in the systems perspective. The tradition is characterized to a great extent by a burning ambition and hope to provide a unifying language and conceptual framework for all the social sciences.
    • p. 1.
  • Functionalist systems theories. The theorists in this tradition explain the emergence and/or maintenance of parts, structures, institutions, norms or cultural patterns of a social system in terms of their consequences, that is, the particular functions each realizes or satisfies. This includes, for instance, their contribution to the maintenance and reproduction over time of the larger system. The major functionalist in sociology is arguably Talcott Parsons.
    • p. 1.
  • Historical, political economic systems theory. The Marxian approach to system theorizing clearly points us to sociologically important phenomena: the material conditions of social life, stratification and social class, conflict, the reproduction as well as transformation of capitalist systems, the conditions that affect group mobilization and political power, and the ways ideas functions as ideologies.
    • p. 2.
  • Among other related major developments, world systems theory (Wallerstein 2004) should be mentioned. Inspired by Marxist theories, it addresses dependency among nations and imperialism, placing the evolution of capitalist systems in a global and comparative perspective. Another variant of Marxist system theory is that of Pierre Bourdieu (1977) which unifies the material and the symbolic, as well as agency and structure.
    • p. 3.
  • Actor-oriented, dynamic systems theories. This family of theories -- inspired to a great extent by Buckley -- is largely non-functionalist. It includes Buckley’s (1967, 1998) “modern systems theory,” Archer’s (1995) “morphogenetic” theory, Burns’ “actor-system-dynamics” (also ASD; Burns et al. 1985; Burns and Flam 1987), and the “sociocybernetics” of Geyer and van der Zouwen (1978). Complex, dynamic social systems are analysed in terms of stabilizing and destabilizing mechanisms, with human agents playing strategic roles in these processes. Institutions and cultural formations of society are carried by, transmitted, and reformed through individual and collective actions and interactions.
    • p. 3.
  • System theories have been applied to a wide spectrum of empirical cases and policy issues. Parsons and his followers, in particular, applied their systems theory to diverse empirical phenomena in sociology as well as in other disciplines: modernization, economics, politics, social order, industrialization and development, Fascism and McCarthyism, international relations, social change and evolution, complex organizations, health care, universities, religion, professions, small groups, and family as well as abstract questions such as the place of norms in maintaining social order both historically and cross-nationally. Marxian theory and dynamic system theories have also been applied to a spectrum of diverse empirical and policy subjects.
    • p. 4.

Quotes about Tom R. Burns

  • In recent decades, conceptual approaches have been developed which attempt to solve the structure-agency dilemma (e.g. Giddens, 1984; Bourdieu, 1977; Burns and Flam, 1987). In these approaches, actors are seen as embedded in wider structures, which configure their preferences, aims, strategies. Despite these structuring effects, the approaches leave much room to actors and agency, i.e. conscious and strategic actions. Giddens, for instance, talks of the ‘duality of structure’, where structures are both the product and medium of action. Bourdieu coined terms such as ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ to conceptualise similar notions. And Burns and Flam developed a ‘social rule system theory’ to understand dynamic relationships between actors and structure.
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