Capacity for Development: New Solutions to Old Problems

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What follows is not a comprehensive account of such a broad and complex body of literature; that would go far beyond the scope of this article. Its aim is simply to provide sufficient general theoretical background before turning back to the analysis of migration and exploring how these advances can be applied in that field. The early approaches to systems theory in the s attempted to integrate the approaches of the natural and social sciences. Bertalanffy argued that it was possible to identify isomorphisms in the patterns of behaviour of various phenomena in completely different fields, such as biology, mechanics, demography and economics.

The broad idea of applying principles from the physical sciences to the social world is clearly echoed in the work of Parsons. He examined the relationship between the whole of a social system the society, a group and its parts areas of activity, individual members of a group. In The Social System, Parsons argued that human societies can be analysed as systems whose parts can be understood only in terms of the whole. The crucial feature of the social system, as in biological organisms, is its self-equilibrating properties which enable it to achieve homeostasis maintaining a stable state.

Four functional imperatives must be solved in order to continue existence—adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance. The rise of this school of thought was largely reversed by attacks: first, from structuralists who challenged its conservative assumptions and the absence of any theory of social change; and then from constructivists, who argued against the reification of social structure.

As a result, systems theory, on which Mabogunje based his migration systems approach, came to be largely discredited by many social theorists due to its being irredeemably tainted by its association with structural functionalism and the whiff of metaphysics.

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While many abandoned systems theory, in the s Luhmann set out to rebuild it on constructivist foundations. Like his predecessors, his theory was based on a concept developed in the natural sciences: autopoiesis or self-reproduction. Originating in the biological sciences, this was a way of describing how cells in a living organism interact to reproduce the different cells to sustain the organism; as long as this process continues, the organism has life. Luhmann adapted this concept to social sciences by suggesting that autopoiesis can be seen at work whenever the elements of a system are reproduced by elements of that system.

Departing from the biological concept which proposed that the elements are relatively stable, for Luhmann the elements in the social system have no substantive existence outside the system. This ontological stance brings Luhmann to argue that the basic element in his theory of social systems is communication. This conceptualization of social systems suggests that they have a virtual quality that makes them very hard to grasp or apply to everyday social settings.

In particular, there is little evidence that it has been adopted by scholars for the study of migration Halfmann Their main charge is that by disregarding the distinction between the elements and the whole system, Luhmann ends up with holism Wan a : People are either observers of the system or subject to it sometimes as its victims. This tendency to depersonalize and thereby depoliticize social systems renders them devoid of agency. Rather than responding by abandoning system theory, these authors all refer to the need to rehabilitate it.

Poe Yu-Ze Wan: Reframing the Social: Emergentist Systemism and Social Theory | SpringerLink

This echoes the experience in migration studies which has struggled to break the system habit, as noted above. However, this seems likely to introduce confusion and it is not adopted here. Among scholars calling for a decisive break with earlier systems theory, there are many differences and points of heated debate. However, there is sufficient common ground to suggest an overall direction for this relaunched systems theory Pickel : First, as noted above, there is a shift towards a realist ontology.

For realists, the new systems theory must find a path between this individualism and the holism of earlier systems theory, including that of Luhmann.


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  3. Reframing the Social: Emergentist Systemism and Social Theory?

The emergence of distinctive properties of collective entities that cannot be reduced to their constituent parts is fundamental to realist system theory Elder-Vass ; Sawyer ; Wan a. Crucially, these emergent properties can include causal powers Sawyer Where causality lies remains an area of much debate. However, causal powers may also be ascribed to impersonal social entities in the sense that they can be cited as causes of action if not purposively driving it ; for example, a demographic imbalance may significantly reduce the chances of finding a spouse without migration.

Jepperson and Meyer take this further to recognize causal influences at the individual, socio-organizational and institutional level. Mechanism-based explanations propose causal pathways by which the phenomenon X may result in outcome Y. Such mechanisms are likely to be abstract and not directly observable, but once hypothesized we can look for evidence of their operation Bunge ; Gerring ; Mahoney In order to take seriously the questions of emergence, causality and causal mechanisms, the new systems theory needs also to take account of the agency of the social actors within the system.

After all, it is the absence of agency that is one of the main charges against earlier systems theories. Again, this remains an area of great debate among the realists Archer , ; Elder-Vass a , c ; Mingers ; Stones Summarizing these debates is beyond the scope of this paper for further discussion see Bakewell Suffice it to say that any relaunched formulation of system theory must include a clearly articulated notion of agency that allows the social scientist to surmise how systems develop, reproduce themselves and dissolve. Keeping in mind these current debates on broader social systems, we now return to the narrower theme of migration systems.

This section proposes a refined notion of the migration system which takes advantage of these theoretical advances in order to address the critiques of the earlier versions that are outlined above.


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  • After elaborating a definition of this relaunched conception of migration systems, it shows how this approach takes particular account of the new thinking on causality, emergence and agency. This can be adapted to provide a more abstract idea of the system as follows.

    A migration system is defined by:. Given that this notion of the migration system is concerned with movement between particular places, it may be appropriate to further distinguish these three types of elements by the locations with which they may be mainly associated. Using this approach, Table 1 provides a limited set of some plausible elements for a migration system. Many more could be added, and a different form of categorization could be used, but this serves to provide an illustration for the discussion. Of course, it is possible to see ways in which some of these elements are themselves products of the system—such as migration policy.

    They may be the outcome of relations between other system elements or shaped by feedback mechanisms within the system.


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    • Nonetheless, when one comes to analysing a system at any given time, elements such as these will be perceived as real social entities that can cause change. This is not to claim that such elements are fundamental, in the sense of fundamental particles that resist reduction in physics.

      It seems likely that attempting to reach more fundamental elements would require such a level of abstraction as to make the notion of a migration system unusable. Hence, it is better to start by adopting a parsimonious approach to listing system elements and break them down only as required.

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      When it comes to dynamics, the initial focus should be on feedback mechanisms, whereby migration induces changes in other elements of the system, which in turn induce changes to future migration patterns. By including this broad range of elements, the analysis of feedback in this system must certainly reach beyond a focus on remittances and migrant networks and it allows the consideration of changes in the labour market or transnational identities induced by migration.

      If the term feedback is reserved for the analysis of changes within the system, the other aspect of the system dynamics is then concerned with the relationship between system elements and the wider environment. Indeed, making this distinction between the two forms of dynamics makes it possible to define the boundaries of the system more clearly.

      Establishing these boundaries is a critical issue for any definition of a system: what is part of the system and what is part of the wider environment?

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      Mabogunje took the environment to be all objects which both change and are changed by the behaviour of the system. This is problematic as the elements within the system will change and be changed by the behaviour of the system. Instead, in this new formulation, the wider environment refers to those objects or factors for which feedback mechanisms cannot be plausibly identified.

      Establishing these system boundaries will be the subject of much debate, but it may be possible to identify some likely environmental factors, such as rainfall, disease, political conflict, technology, or even the ongoing global economic crisis. These may affect the movement of people or their strategies; likewise, the movement of people may affect them.

      However, it is unlikely that we can establish a feedback mechanism as we can with system elements. Hence, in order to define the system dynamics, it necessary to specify both the internal feedback mechanisms and relationships between changes in the system elements and the environment. For example, the securitization of migration since shows how what may once have been seen as a factor external to any migration system between West Africa and Europe is now incorporated within it. This specification of feedback and the environment is one of the fundamental changes that sharply distinguish this new definition of a migration system from what has gone before.

      In other words, we are interested in identifying rules of the game that govern the emergence of new elements in the system, rather than just the flows between places. In addition, this understanding of feedback is not concerned with regulation of the system and reaching equilibrium; instead it examines the dynamic reproduction and change in system elements, even allowing for its dissipation.

      Applying this definition of a migration system in any particular context requires a close examination of the causal mechanisms at play. To present a stylized example, if we think of a Mediterranean migration system, taking in movements between North Africa and Europe, the economic crisis part of the wider environment has generated increased levels of general unemployment and resulted in pressure to tighten immigration policy. It is important to think very carefully how such changes may play into the system.

      If North African migrants are employed in a particular segment of the labour market as seen with Moroccan agricultural workers in the Algarve , the response of the system will depend on how that sector is affected. As conditions change in Europe, what is the mechanism by which this may affect the decisions of people in North Africa to migrate? Is it a question of information flow through social networks, increased journey costs as visa regimes are strengthened, the collapse of employment agencies, and so forth? Indeed, it is these dynamics that define the system.