An exploratory analysis and synthesis of the viability of groups with salient social identities using Stafford Beer’s VSM model

  • Jonathan Huxley

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Social groups are a fundamental part of our lives. From early beginnings humans lived in family groups and formed 'tribes' that not only provided protection from the many dangers they faced but by combining their efforts humans learnt that a group could be more than the 'sum of its parts'. Collective action has, and still, provides the basis for much of human activity, while shared knowledge contributes equally to the advancement of humankind. Study into groups has revealed that humans instinctively know when cooperation is the best strategy and that not only is collective action often more efficient and effective than that of independent effort but that groups are good problem solving mechanisms, often making better decisions than individuals through the use of 'collective mindfulness' and a group 'trans-active’ memory. People do not just create a group memory, there is evidence they also ‘become’ the group. As social integration rises, people feel, think, and act more like group members. They automatically associate themselves with the groups that they identify with. Tajfel and Turner’s theory of Social Identity suggests that people not only join groups but take on the ‘group identity’ as their own self-image in a process of ‘depersonalization’. To achieve effective collective action requires more than just 'being' and 'feeling' part of a group. Effective cooperation requires cohesion between group members, good communication and a coherent purpose or goal. Social Identity Theory does not provide evidence of how these mechanisms work other than to identify the formation of group norms. For that we have to turn to cybernetics, the study of 'purposeful action' and Stafford Beer's Viable Systems Model in particular. The Viable Systems Model provides an epistemology for examining the viability of systems. Viability is the ability of systems to achieve cohesion and coherence through autonomy, recursivity and ultimately closure with their environment.
    This study brings together these two powerful theories to create a more complete picture of purposeful collective action and group membership. By building a Viable Systems Model of salient social groups the research provides a mechanism to understand how individual human social behaviours form and maintain purposeful social groups capable of self-awareness, self-maintenance and the ability to sustain their identity, autonomous from perturbations in the environment. Not every social group is able to maintain viability. Many groups form and expire as the circumstances dictate. Only a few are able to achieve organisational closure from their environment and sustain their identity, This research seeks to identify what is meant by social viability and what factors make some groups achieve it while others do not. It investigates the formation of social groups under different environmental conditions in order to 'tease-out' the invariances that contribute to viability and it tests the validity of the Viable Systems Model of Social Identity Theory developed for the study. In order to answer the research question the study had to address the difficult issue of conducting research on complex social systems and to utilises a process of deduction, induction and abductive reasoning through both analysis and synthesis to achieve its findings.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Portsmouth
    SupervisorJim Rowe (Supervisor), Robin Asby (Supervisor) & Andreas Hoecht (Supervisor)

    Cite this