Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

A system is a set of interdependent or interacting elements that form an integrated, static or fixed whole.

explanatory context


System has a range of meanings in the social sciences. It occurs in the notion of social system, in systems theory and logical system.


There is also a good deal of confusion about the distinction between system and structure.

Logical system

A system of logic is any set of axioms and rules of inference that presribe the way in which logical operators are invoked. The formal truth of an argument containing those logical operators can be checked by reference to the logical system.

Social system

Social system is in some usages a rather vague term that implies any social structure. In order to distinguish system from structure (in the structuralist sense) it is best to consider system in the sense normally associated with positivist approaches such as the Durkheimian approach and structural functionalism. In this sense system refers to an organisational pattern of relatively fixed, or congealed, social interactions.


This is different from the underlying structure of social relations.


The above distinction is rather confused by some structuralists, such as Piaget who talk about the structure of systems.


Social system analysis tends to draw a parallel with organic systems.

Systems theory

Systems theory is a rather imprecise term but essentially involves an analysis of the functional interdependence of the parts of a social or organisational whole. It involves the decomposition of a complex system into component parts and an assessment of the functions that each have.

Systems theory conventionally argues that the whole system is somehow more than the sum of the parts. This can be seen in Durkheimian analysis, structural functionalism and also in some approaches to systems analysis. The idea is that a society, for example, is more than the sum of the individuals in it; there are organisational and institutional components that exist independently of any individuals.

Similarly for business systems analysis, an organisational system is independent of the individuals who work in it. Thus for systems theory the interrelationships between the parts in a system are of crucial importance.

This view, however, should not be confused with a holistic approach (such as structuralism), which argues that the component parts are relational and that they have no meaning outside the complete social structure, which cannot be decomposed into functional parts.

Talcott Parsons attempted to develop a theory of social systems, see Tetley lecture on Parsons

Information systems analysis

Systems analysis is a term used in information technology to refer to the process of examining a self-contained system in order to address a problem related to data flow. It involves decomposing the system into manageable component parts as a prelude to systems design.


Systems design

Systems design is a term used in information technology to refer to the process of designing an information collection and dissemination system that will meet the requirements of an organisation. System design needs to take into account the information flow, software and hardware requirements.

Systems design is usually preceded by systems analysis.

analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'system', by reference to Habermas although this is a term used much earlier especially by structural functionalists, as:

To Habermas, the structures (such as the family, the legal system, the state, and the economy) that are anchored within the lifeworld, but which come to develop their own distinctive characteristics and to grow increasingly separated from the lifeworld.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) states:

Social system: A term characteristic of functional analysis (and specifically of Parsonian structural-functionalism). The social system consists of both a social structure of interrelated institutions, statuses, and roles and the functioning of that structure in terms of social actions and human interactions. The social system thus is said to include both social change (Comte's dynamics) - the processes and patterns of action and interaction - and social stability (Comte's statics) - stable social structural forms. Further, the social system constitutes a unitary social whole reflecting a real value consensus - the sharing of common values, social norms, and objectives.

associated issues


related areas

See also

binary system (of higher education)


structural functionalism


Tetley lecture on Parsons

unitary system (of higher education)


McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 12 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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