Operational closure

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Operational closure

Operational closure is used in the context of system theory. According to Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela a system is operationally closed when its operators are not instructed by its environment, but determined by its own structure and organization (Maturana & Varela, 1980). A closed system as such can in fact be ̎disturbed ̎ by its environment by triggering cognitive acts, which means that it cannot be conceived as pre-existing information. Yet the system´s environment is unable to enforce the system to take a certain course of action. The operational part of the term refers to “component actions, which are determined by component role and nature, and by their reciprocal interconnection” (Geyer & van der Zouwen 2001, p. 128). The closure part of the term refers to “the relationship between system and environment” (ibid. p. 128). It is through recursive reproduction of the system that the operational closure can be maintained (Arnoldi, 2001, p. 5). New operations are always grounded on previous ones and “build forth” on them (ibid.). According to Arnoldi (ibid., p. 6) it is often “binary codes” or extremes (e.g. ranging from illegal to legal) which serve to st a boundary to the system and thus operationally close them.

Autopoietic systems (Autopoiesis) are often referred to as operationally closed systems. According to Niklas Luhmann social systems are autopoietic systems. He claims that the operational closure for any system is necessary for operating on its own. Therefore all autopoietic systems are self-referential (self reference) (Noe & Fjelsted Alroe 2002, p. 10). This operational closure needed during the “process of self-reference” (ibid. p. 41) helps to mobilize a system´s network. As mentioned above it can be understood as an act of setting “boundaries” during the process of autopoiesis. This implies the “selection of meaning” (ibid.) among many other possible meanings – and that way the boundaries of the system are drawn – the system is operationally closed. The operational closure though also brings along a “limited capability of self-observation” (ibid., p. 43) so that only by communication the boundaries can be reopened and reproduced in another way, selecting another meaning to the system (ibid., pp. 41-42). Noe and Fjelsted Alroe conclude that objects can never be part of the system but remain part of the undefined environment. An object can be only in the system as its representation created by the system and is then called an actant (ibid., pp. 44-45).

“Like every social system the family is a closed system. The notion of closure is, thereby, related to the operational process, i.e. for a family to exist as a family it is necessary to draw a boundary. This is executed by the family itself – the social system family is a so-called autopoietic system” (Koch 2005, p.6).


-Morss, J.R., Stephenson, N., Van Rappard, H. (2001). Theoretical issues in psychology. Kluwer Academic, Norwell.

-Geyer, J.F., Van der Zouwen, J. (2001). Sociocybernetics: complexity, autopoiesis, and observation of social systems. Greenwood Publishing group inc., Santa Barbara.

-Noe, E. & Fjelsted Alroe, H. (2002). Combining Luhmann and Actor-Network theory to see farm enterprises as self-organizing systems. Cybernatics and Human Knowing, 13(1), 34-48.

-Koch, A. (2005). Autopoietic spatial systems: the significance of actor network theory and system theory for the development of a system theoretical approach of space. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Division of Geography, Seminar on Social Geography, University of Munich.


-Published by Ivar le Loux (s4092031) & Jorg Schröder (s4083245)

-Links added by --JikkeVanTHof 15:23, 18 October 2011 (CEST)

-Enhanced by Janna Völpel s3015041JannaVolpel 16:01, 7 May 2012 (CEST)

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