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Evolutionary Systems Thinking: What Gregory Bateson, Kurt Lewin, and Jacob Moreno Offered to Action Research that Still Remains to be Learned

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Greenwood, D.J., 2015. Evolutionary Systems Thinking: What Gregory Bateson, Kurt Lewin, and Jacob Moreno Offered to Action Research that Still Remains to be Learned, in: The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City
Thematic Area
Development studies
Many action researchers acknowledge Kurt
Lewin as a key figure. Some acknowledge
Gregory Bateson’s concepts of systems and
deutero-learning. Few know who Jacob
Moreno is. Lewin and Bateson are linked conceptually
and connect action research both to
general systems theory (GST) and evolutionary
theory and method. Moreno was also a
systems thinker who linked therapy, systems
theory, and psychodrama in a powerful and, as
yet, largely untapped (by action research) way.
Knowing about their views helps explain why
action research rejects the boundaries of conventional
academic inquiry, separating inquiry
from action and provides an epistemological/
theoretical foundation for action research as a
scientific method based on democratic practice
and the welfare of fellow humans.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This book chapter links evolutionary biology and  general systems theory to action research, as these theoretical frameworks contributes to understanding opportunities for change in a social setting. The basis is that “evolution is the interaction between the ‘possible’ and the ‘actual’”. Evolution is an an “‘optimizing’ process, one of making it into the next generation with the material at hand”. What emerges in an evolutionary sequence is never the only possible outcome of that process. It is only what actually happened.

 From evolutionary biology the author picks three interacting factors of relevance to social change processes

“variation as constantly being produced” and as a necessity for evolution to occur.
Selection through what is apt to a context (reproducible) or what is seen as (sexually) attractive (attractive to reproduce, reviewers comment). Among sentient beings selection becomes very complex, attraction and repulsion mechanisms of all sorts can come into play.
Environment providing the barriers and opportunities for evolutions

The author warns for “or concoct evolutionary explanations for traits without knowledge of their genetics”, where genetics need to be translated to an appropriate feature in social contexts. A one-to-one relationship between a trait and an evolutionary explanation is often not possible.

From General Systems theory the chapter argues that to understand life means knowing, not just the components, but also the way the components are organized into systems that interact with their environments. The relation among the parts make a system and systems have to manage system boundaries to survive. This holistic view is a direct challenge to frameworks that try to explain by reducing phenomena to their constituent parts Central to the author is that this is a holistic and evolutionarily dynamic theory of organic evolution.


The distinction between closed and open systems is central. Open systems survive by maintaining dynamic equilibria through the adjustment to the external forces flowing across their boundaries. GST has an elaborate conceptual apparatus for discussing these processes. If we think of human social and cultural systems as open organic systems, human groups are constantly producing all kinds of cultural variations, we see that only some have evolutionary consequences (e.g. music, languages, world wars, mass genocides, obesity, global warming, etc.).

From one of the GST founders the author picks that the significant changes in living systems occur at their boundaries. Boundaries do not separate systems but connect them in complex ways, seeing the world as an interdependent open system.

Gregory Bateson is used as a bridge between evolutionary biology, general systems theory and action research.  Readings of Kurt Lewin takes this further as his  conception of the force field, the social field, and topological psychology are all systems theories linked to a view of humans as capable of significant behavioral changes when the system conditions and processes open them up to change. No system is ever the only one possible, no system is final, and no individual exists outside a system. Variation among individuals within a field is central to unfreezing the existing system and moving a change process forward.

Understanding any behavior required understanding the larger system of which it is a part. Changing behavior must take account of that larger system. Researchers (or students) must action a system to understand its dynamics and potential for change and also that collaboration among the stakeholders in a social field is essential to their collective well-being.

Without systems theory, action research is impossible. Evolutionary thinking and theory is a key support for action research’s claims about the centrality of diversity, local knowledge, sustainability, etc.
Point of Strength
 Making clear connections between the idea of action research for social and behavioural changes and evolutionary biology and general systems theory the article provides good conceptual tools and directions for studies. Basing these assumptions on a accessible review of the work of foundational theorists, the article provides more than a toolbox as it also give explanations to the tools to be used.