Walter F. Buckley

American sociologist

Walter Frederick Buckley (1922January 26, 2006) was an American sociologist, and Professor of sociology, who was among the first to apply concepts from general systems theory (GST), based on the work of Bertalanffy, to sociology.


  • In modern science, in fact, let alone modern systems theory, cause disappears wherever you have a very complex system of interrelated elements.
    • Walter F. Buckley (1970) in: Cry California. Vol 6. p. 28.

Sociology and modern systems theory (1967)


Walter F. Buckley (1967) Sociology and modern systems theory.

  • This book is intended as an exploratory sketch of a revolutionary scientific perspective and conceptual framework as it might be applied to sociocultural systems. This point of view and still developing framework, as interpreted here, stems from the General Systems Research movement and the now closely allied fields of Cybernetics and information or communication theory.
    • p. vii.
  • There is a revolutionary scientific perspective (stemming) from the General Systems Research movement and (with a) wealth of principles, ideas and insights that have already brought higher degree of scientific order and understanding to many areas as of biology, psychology and some physical sciences... Modern systems research can provide the basic of a framework more capable of doing justice to the complexities and dynamic properties of the socio-cultural system.
  • The modern systems view, which flowered during World War II (though building on principles in the wind much earlier), has already borne its first fruits and is in danger of a superficial acceptance into the corpus of sociology by way of the incorporation of some of its now common vocabulary.
    • p. vii.
  • In essence, the process model typically views society as a complex, multifaceted, fluid interplay of widely varying degrees and intentions and intensities of association and dissociation. The "structure" is abstract construct, not something distinct from the ongoing interactive process but rather a temporary, accommodative representation of it at any one time.
    • p. 18 as cited in: D. Paul Johnson (2008) Contemporary Sociological Theory: An Integrated Multi-Level Approach. p. 472.
  • Systems theory provides:
    1. A common vocabulary unifying the several "behavioral" disciplines.
    2. A technique for treating large, complex organizations;
    3. A synthetic approach where piecemeal analysis is not possible due to the intricate interrelationships of parts that cannot be treated out of context of the whole;
    4. A viewpoint that gets at the heart of sociology because it sees the sociocultural system in terms of information and communication nets;
    5. The study of relations rather than "entities" with an emphasis on process and transition probabilities as the basis of a flexible structure of many degrees of freedom.
    6. "An operationally definable, objective, non-anthropomorphic study of purposiveness, goal-seeking system behavior, symbolic cognitive processes, consciousness and self-awareness, and sociocultural emergence and dynamics in general.
  • [The equilibrium model describes systems] which, in moving to an equilibrium point, typically lose organization, and then tend to hold that minimum level within relatively narrow conditions of disturbance.
    • p. 40 as cited in: Jacquie L'Etang, Magda Pieczka (2006) Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice. p. 335.
  • A system is more than the sum of its parts.
    • p. 42.
  • "information" is not a substance or concrete entity but rather a relationship between sets or ensembles of structured variety.
    • p. 47.
  • Openness is an essential factor underlying a system's viability, continuity, and its ability to change.
    • p. 50 as cited in: Roberta R. Greene (2011) Human Behavior Theory and Social Work Practice. p. 182.
  • That a system is open means, not simply that it engages in interchanges with the environment, but that this interchange is an essential factor underlying the system's viability, its reproductive ability or continuity, and its ability to change.
    • p. 50.
  • In Deutsch's view, to say that a social system is in equilibrium implies that: 1) it will return to a particular state when disturbed; 2) the disturbance is coming from outside the system; 3) the greater the disturbance the greater the force with which the system will return to its original state; 4) the speed of the system's reaction to disturbance is somehow less relevant — a sort of friction, or blemish having no place in the "ideal" equilibrium; 5) no catastrophe can happen within the system.
    • p. 56.
  • Morphogenesis will refer to those processes which tend to elaborate or change a system's given form, structure, or state.
    • p. 58.
  • Only a modern systems approach promises to get the full complexity of the interacting phenomena - to see not only the causes acting on the phenomena under study, the possible consequences of the phenomena and the possible mutual interactions of some of these factors, but also to see the total emergent processes as a function of possible positive and/or negative feedbacks mediated by the selective decisions, or "choices," of the individuals and groups directly involved.
  • The more recent concern with complex adaptive organization has led to the notion of contingency as the important key. Thus Wiener, while working in the field of communications and probability theory, became convinced 'that a significant idea of organization cannot be obtained in a world in which everything is necessary and nothing is contingent'
    • p. 82 as cited in: Felix Geyer, Johannes van der Zouwen, (1994) "Norbert Wiener and the Social Sciences", Kybernetes, Vol. 23 Iss: 6/7, pp.46 - 61. Buckley is here referring to Norbert Wiener (1953) I am a Mathematician; The Later Life of a Prodigyan, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 322.
  • As a suggested working definition, we may define power as control or influence over the actions of others to promote one's goals without their consent, against their "will," or without their knowledge or understanding.
    • P. 186.
  • Adaptive system — whether on the biological, psychological, or sociocultural level — must manifest (1) some degree of "plasticity" and "irritability" vis-a-vis its environment such that it carries on a constant interchange with acting on and reacting to it; (2) some source or mechanism for variety, to act as a potential pool of adaptive variability to meet the problem of mapping new or more detailed variety and constraints in a changeable environment; (3) a set of selective criteria or mechanisms against which the "variety pool" may be sifted into those variations in the organization or system that more closely map the environment and those that do not; and (4) an arrangement for preserving and/or propagating these "successful" mappings.
    • p. 491.
  • Basic ingredients of the decision-making focus include, then: (1) a process approach; (2) a conception of tensions as inherent in the process; and (3), a renewed concern with the role and workings of man's enlarged cortex seen as a complex adaptive subsystem operating within an interaction matrix characterized by uncertainty, conflict, and other dissociative (as well as associative) processes underlying the structuring and restructuring of the larger psychosocial system.
    • p. 499.

Society as a complex adaptive system (1968)


Walter F. Buckley (1968) "Society as a complex adaptive system" in: Modern systems research for the behavioral scientist. Walter Buckley ed. p. 490-513.

  • We have argued at some length in another place that the mechanical equilibrium model and the organismic homeostasis models of society that have underlain most modern sociological theory have outlived their usefulness
    • p. 490.
  • A more viable model, one much more faithful to the kind of system that society is more and more recognized to be, is in process of developing out of, or is in keeping with, the modern systems perspective (which we use loosely here to refer to general systems research, cybernetics, information and communication theory, and related fields). Society, or the sociocultural system, is not, then, principally an equilibrium system or a homeostatic system, but what we shall simply refer to as a complex adaptive system.
    • p. 490.
  • We argue, then, that the sociocultural system is fundamentally of the latter type, and requires for analysis a theoretical model or perspective built on the kinds of characteristics mentioned. In what follows we draw on many of the concepts and principles presented throughout this sourcebook to sketch out aspects of a complex adaptive system model or analytical framework for the sociocultural system.
    • p. 490.

Class and society (1959)


Kurt Bernd Mayer, Walter F. Buckley (1959). Class and society. New York: Random House. (2e ed. 1969).

  • The division of distinctive social roles and tasks, based upon both inherited and socially acquired individual differences, is called social differentiation.
    • p. 4.
  • Social differentiation is a universal characteristic of human societies. Early human societies survived and became dominant among animal species because of their superior social organization — that is, their more elaborate division of labor and consequent close coordination of activities.
    • p. 4.
  • In a class system, the social hierarchy is based primarily upon differences in monetary wealth and income. Social classes are not sharply marked off from each other, nor are they demarcated by tangible boundaries. Unlike estates, they have no legal standing, individuals of all classes being in principle equal before the law. Consequently, there are no legal restraints on the movement of individuals and families from one class to another... Unlike caste, social classes are not organized, closed groups. Rather, they are aggregates of persons with similar amounts of wealth and property, and similar sources of income.
    • p. 15; as cited in: Ronald J. Samuda (1998) Psychological Testing of American Minorities: Issues and Consequences. p. 47.
  • A second dimension of stratification in modern societies is the status order. The term status as used in this study refers to the differentiation-of-prestige and deference among individuals and groups in society.
    • p. 46.
  • Prestige rests upon interpersonal recognition, always involving at least one individual who claims deference and another who honours the claim... Status groups treat of each other as social equals, encouraging intermarriage of their children, joining the same clubs and associations, and participating together in such informal activities as visiting, dances, dinners and receptions.
    • p. 46 as cited in: Harold Entwistle (2012) Class, Culture and Education.
  • Status is dependent in the long run upon high class position — the maintenance of a prestigious style of life costs money — there is no necessary correspondence between them at any given time.
    • p. 48.

Society: A Complex Adaptive System--Essays in Social Theory, (1998)

Walter Buckley (1998). Society: A Complex Adaptive System--Essays in Social Theory.
  • Historically, most societies have been heavily skewed in favor of the power pole, and most of history— especially modern history— can be seen as a struggle toward the authority pole, that is, toward the institutionalization of a process of informed, consensual self-determination of the whole, which we call "democracy".
    • p. 186.
  • Don't simply blame the individuals involved in policy decisions (although they must shoulder the moral and legal responsibilities); blame the sociocultural structure within which they are enmeshed. Search for the role pressures, the premiums and penalties that result from doing or not doing things in certain ways, the goals held out with associated carrots and sticks, and the tensions generated by the often incompatible demands of peers, family, sub- and super-ordinates, politicians, and national flag
    • p. 256.

Quotes about Walter F. Buckley

  • Buckley introduced cybernetic principles to sociologists, emphasizing concepts such as feedback much more than Parsons had. He presented the standard feedback loops where a positive and negative relationship in concert lead to a steady state... In addition, he drew upon the innovative work of Maruyama (1963) to show that loops could be other than homeostatic or stead state. For example, loops containing only "pluses" (positive relationships) are termed "deviation-amplifying" loops by Maruyama, as they do not lead to a steady state but expand indefinitely. Loops which are "deviation minimizing" in contrast contain all "minuses" (negative relationships) and proceed continuously down in a negative spiral. Both can be seen as examples of what are colloquially termed "circular causation."
    • Kenneth D. Bailey (1994) Sociology and the new systems theory: toward a theoretical synthesis. p. 154 - Pagina 154 - Social Science.
  • The first sociologist to make the argument of sociocybernetics was the American sociologist, Walter F. Buckley, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and 1998 honorary chair of the sociocybernetics research committee (RC-51) of the International Sociological Association.
    • Brian Castellani, Frederic William. Hafferty (2009) Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry. p. 183.
  • Buckley (1967, 1968) is best known for his outline of the features that characterize complex adaptive systems. He proposed that a complex adaptive system must manifest some degree of "plasticity" and "irritability" vis-a-vis its environment
    • Roberta R. Greene (2011) Human Behavior Theory and Social Work Practice. p. 182.
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