sitemap Whitaker (1995): ARCHIVE: Autopoietic Theory Overview
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ARCHIVE:   Self-Organization, Autopoiesis, and Enterprises (Whitaker, 1995) Enola Gaia
This is an archive edition of a web publication no longer accessible at its original location.

At the 1995 European CSCW Conference in Stockholm, I was asked to create an online essay to be hosted by ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) SIGOIS (Organizational Information Systems special interest group). The resultant set of webpages went online circa December 1995. Since then, the SIGOIS web resource that contained this material was discontinued.

Randall Whitaker

Overview of Autopoietic Theory

Background for Maturana and Varela's Work

Maturana's early experimental work in neurophysiology and perception (Maturana, 1960; Maturana, 1968) led him to question information-theoretic notions of cognition. The theory he subsequently created and refined with Varela was originally intended to address issues theretofore subsumed under studies of 'cognition' and/or 'perception'. The theory's scope has not remained limited to those issues. It builds from its cognitive base to generate implications for (among other things) epistemology, communication and social systems theory. These additional foci have traditionally been placed under the jurisdictions of (respectively) philosophy, linguistics, and sociology. Why, then, should we consider them a subject of concern for a biologist? Maturana's direct reply is that 'Cognition is a biological phenomenon and can only be understood as such; any epistemological insight into the domain of knowledge requires this understanding.' (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 7)

As a biological phenomenon, cognition is viewed with respect to the organism(s) whose conduct realizes that phenomenon. In autopoietic theory, cognition is a consequence of circularity and complexity in the form of any system whose behavior includes maintenance of that selfsame form. This shifts the focus from discernment of active agencies and replicable actions through which a given process ('cognition') is conducted (the viewpoint of cognitive science) to the discernment of those features of an organism's form which determine its engagement with its milieu.

This orientation led to a systematic description of organisms as self-producing units in the physical space. The principles and definitions making up this systematic schema will be termed autopoietic theory's formal aspects. Deriving from this formal foundation a set of operational characteristics (e.g., self-regulation; self-reference), Maturana and Varela developed a systemic explanation of cognition and a descriptive phenomenology. The principles and definitions making up this systemic description will be termed autopoietic theory's phenomenological aspects. Autopoietic theory has been applied in diverse fields such as software engineering, artificial intelligence, sociology, and psychotherapy.

The following sections provide a summary overview of the key concepts relevant to the later discussion of autopoietic theory and enterprises. Each section provides a cursory description for a key concept. If you'd like to explore the concept more deeply, you can go to a more detailed definition by selecting the associated 'DEEPER' link. This will take you to a set of more detailed material mirroring the overview below.

There's much more to the topics below than what can be presented in this space, and there are many more topics in the area of autopoietic theory. If you'd like to explore autopoietic theory in more depth, check into the:


The Observer

'Everything said is said by an observer'.(Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. xix)

Maturana's initial work on cognition emphasized individual living systems. As a result, autopoietic theory has as its foundation the manner in which living systems address and engage the domain(s) in which they operate. This orientation subsumes the manner in which autopoietic theory addresses itself (as a scientific theory) and all other phenomena. A cognizing system engages the 'world' only in terms of the perturbations in its nervous system, which is 'operationally closed' (i.e., its transformations occur within its bounds). To the extent that the nervous system recursively interconnects its components (as in our brains), the organism is capable of generating, maintaining and re-engaging its own states as if they were literal re-presentations of external phenomena. Such states are 'second-order' in the sense that they are derivative from, rather than literal recordings of, experience. These states are called descriptions in autopoietic theory, and an organism operating within the realm of its descriptions is an observer.

[ DEEPER ... ]

In autopoietic theory, the precise form(s) and function(s) which systems are distinguished are unavoidably imposed by whatever observer (e.g., an enterprise member; an enterprise analyst) is addressing them. These factors provide autopoietic theory with an intrinsic prioritization for 'contextualization' of the sort increasingly important for today's enterprise studies.

Fundamental System Attributes: Organization and Structure

Systems cannot be defined by simply enumerating or tracing the layout of their constituent elements. The definitive attribute of a systemic entity is the set of inter-component relationships which (a) outline its form at any given moment and (b) serve as the core 'identity' which is maintained in spite of dynamic changes over time. In autopoietic theory, this set of defining relationships is termed a system's organization.

In effect, a system's organization specifies a category, within which there may be many specifically-realized instantiations. Specific systemic entities exhibit more than just the general pattern of their organization -- they consist of particular components and relations among them. The 'particulars' of a given system's individual realization make up its structure.

Maturana and Varela's complementary distinction between organization and structure is very useful in delineating and analyzing systems' form and function. This aspect of autopoietic theory makes it useful in describing enterprises as having generally invariant form in spite of specifically changing components.

[ DEEPER ... ]

Autopoiesis and Autonomy

Maturana and Varela coined the term autopoiesis to characterize those systems which (a) maintain their defining organization throughout a history of environmental perturbation and structural change and (b) regenerate their components in the course of their operation. Autopoietic systems realized in the physical space are living systems. Varela later defined a broader concept of autonomy, of which autopoiesis is a special case. Autonomous systems maintain their organization, but do not necessarily regenerate their own components.

[ DEEPER ... ]

Domains and Spaces

A key concept in Maturana and Varela's writings is domain. They use the term generally to connote a 'realm' or 'sphere' circumscribing: (1) the relations among observed systems and the unities (medium) with which they can be observed to engage (e.g., phenomenological domain) or (2) the foregoing plus all potential states of relation and/or activity among the given unities (e.g., domain of interactions). Maturana and Varela reserve the term space for the static context in which unities are delineated.

[ DEEPER ... ]

The notion of 'domain' is particularly useful in addressing actual systems (like enterprises). By identifying, delineating, and sorting out the relevant domains in which enterprises (and their subcomponents) operate, analysis and planning are greatly facilitated.

Structural Determination

Structural determination is the principle that the actual course of change in a systemic entity is controlled by its structure (the totality of specific components' individual and synergistic properties within the arrangement by which they constitute the system) rather than direct influence of its environment.

[ DEEPER ... ]

Structural Coupling

Given the principle of structural determination, interaction among systems is explained as '...a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems' (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 75). Structural coupling is the label for ongoing engagement between systems, resulting in structural changes in each. Structural coupling describes ongoing mutual co-adaptation without allusion to a transfer of some ephemeral force or information across the boundaries of the engaged systems.

[ DEEPER ... ]

The notions of 'structural determination' and 'structural coupling' provide a basis for analyzing enterprises and their operations in terms of their general and actual form (i.e., their organization and structure). This approach maintains a focus on the subject enterprise and minimizes counterproductive bias toward a priori allusions to abstractions such as 'information flows', 'market forces', and the like.

Cognition as (Inter-)Activity

We attribute 'cognition' to a system when it is able to discriminate (in terms of response) among unit phenomena in its medium, synchronically (at a given moment) and diachronically (over time). The currently-prevalent cognitivistic viewpoint addresses the capacity for such discrimination in terms of algorithmic procedures for manipulating abstracted 'data' with respect to 'knowledge structures'. To Maturana and Varela, cognition is contingent on embodiment, because this ability to differentiate is a consequence of the organism's specific structure. From their perspective, cognition is what we attribute to systems exhibiting flexible and effective changes during structural coupling. Cognition in the autopoietic view is no more and no less than a living system's effective behavior within its domain of interactions. In other words, cognition is a matter of interacting in the manner(s) in which one is capable of interacting, not processing what is objectively there to be seen. 'Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition.' (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 13)

[ DEEPER ... ]

A full exploration and analysis of Maturana and Varela's views on cognition lies well outside the scope of this brief overview. For now, it must suffice to say that their reinterpretation of cognition grounds cognitive activity in the embodiment of the actor and the specific context of activity. As such, autopoietic theory fits very well with current trends toward emphasizing 'contextualization' and 'auto-determination' in enterprise studies. Varela et al. (1979) provide a recent extension of these principles into an enactive cognitive science.


Maturana (1978b) is the key source for autopoietic theory's account of linguistic interaction. Building from the tenets of structural determinism and structural coupling, he constructs a model of languaging -- activity in which interactors mutually orient themselves to each other and to a subject (as opposed to 'piping' presumably meaningful 'messages' back and forth).

[ DEEPER ... ]

By linking linguistic interaction with structural coupling, the context for signification (determination of meaning) is unified with the context of the interaction. This unification 'grounds' context in the individual's experience, rather than leaving it as a receding horizon of meta-symbolic determinants. This in turn unifies the two senses of 'context'-- determinant of linguistic 'meaning' and relevant situational background. This is the strength of autopoietic theory in addressing 'contextualization' in enterprise studies.

Summary and Conclusions

Autopoietic theory provides a rigorous theoretical basis for addressing people and the social systems in which they participate. Because the theory proceeds from formal specifications on systemic unities, its tenets can conceivably be applied to both. Owing to the extent of Maturana and Varela's expansion of the core concepts to describe a phenomenology of living systems, the theory's scope is relatively broad. This permits researchers to apply its principles across a broader range of subject phenomena than is the case for other current approaches. Because it is rooted in a formal analysis of living systems and cognition, the theory can support research focusing on individual subjects and their activities within an enterprise (e.g., workflow analyses, human factors / HCI analyses of specific information system users). Because the theory includes an explanation for linguistic interaction, it can support research focusing on enterprise social interactions and communications (e.g., ethnographic studies; qualitative research).

Having completed this overview, it should be clearer to you how autopoietic theory intrinsically supports attention to the three themes in today's enterprise research innovations: systemic perspective, auto-determination, and contextualization. The first occurs by definition, the second by focus, and the third by the manner in which Maturana and Varela lay out the phenomenological aspects of the theory.

Copyright 1995 Randall Whitaker. This material may be freely copied and reused, provided the author and source are cited
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