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Social System

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: December 17, 1999
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Black Letter Definition of Social System
Conceptual Links of "Social System" to Habermasian Discourse

Black Letter Definition of Social System

Nita Metz prompted this file by asking one day for the black letter definition of social system, catching out a wicked little unstated assumption on our part that everyone, simply everyone, is aware of the current social science definition of "social system." We shall think harder in the future on our own unstated assumptions, and we thank you for catching them out.

A social system is an interdependent network of social institutions, such as the family, school, business, religious organizations, financial organizations that shape our lives. The separate institutions affect each other and are interwoven with our cultural, economic, social values. Since each institution, as well as the individual, incorporates knowledge of the others, the network brings to mind the biological systems where all parts affect the whole. With the rise of positivism and the increasing respect given to scientific analysis, social scientists likened society to a biofeedback system. The term "social system" has become a part of general vocabulary, and we no longer think to explain it.

Conceptual Links of "Social System" to Habermasian Discourse

Habermas's hope that we can all come to discourse that will permit us to live and survive together depends to a large extent on his analysis of our social system. He places tremendous faith in the legal system, because he believes its discourse to be founded on legitimacy. He compares the legal system to the power system and to the financial system, and concludes that only in the legal system does legitimacy gain significance. Therefore, he hopes that the language of legitimacy, as expressed in the legal system, can bring us to meaningful public discourse on the issues that divide us, as special interest groups compete for limited resources.

Habermas speaks frequently of social systems and sub-systems and the importance of our recognition of their interdependence and of the interdependence between the individual and the community.