sitemap Whitaker (1995): ARCHIVE: Recommended Reading Plan
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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

Reading Plan for Further Study

I have introduced people to, and tutored them on, autopoietic theory for a number of years. The following reading plan is a suggested 'menu' based on these experiences. The real difficulty in approaching Maturana and Varela's theories lies not in their complexity but in their novelty. Because it takes a while to catch onto and shift into these thinkers' perspective, the following readings are ordered so as to provide a 'graduated' progression. The links will take you to the full bibliographical data in the references.


    • MATURANA & VARELA (1987;1992)
      This book gives an overview of Maturana and Varela's ideas in a style aimed at the general (non-technical) reader. Many of the basic concepts are introduced here, but some of them (including the key concept of 'autopoiesis') are not defined with the sort of rigor one finds in books and articles listed below. This is a good place to start, but not a good place to stop (if you're serious about exploring the theory).

    • WINOGRAD & FLORES (1986)
      This popular book includes a brief introduction to the basics of autopoietic theory. This entry point is not the best, but it is very accessible owing to the popularity of the book.


    • MATURANA & VARELA (1980)
      This has to be considered the main published reference on autopoiesis. The book contains two key papers reprinted with an extended introduction by Maturana and a preface by Stafford Beer. Short but painstakingly detailed, this is the theory in a concentrated form. Navigating the book can be facilitated with the extensive index (ASCII text file) listed among the resources.

    • VARELA (1979)
      This book is the most comprehensive reference on autopoietic theory, autonomy, and the application of George Spencer Brown's 'calculus of indications'. It is also the primary reference for Varela's distinction between autopoiesis and the more general feature of autonomy (which he considers applicable to social systems).

      If you wish to obtain a solid grasp of autopoietic theory, reading one or both of the above books is a necessity.

    • MINGERS (1994)
      This book is a recent publication which (a) introduces and critically analyzes autopoiesis, as well as (b) providing an extensive overview of the debates generated around Maturana and Varela's work. Its strength is contextualizing the origin and the proliferation of autopoietic theory. I recommend this as a secondary reference, to augment your background after having read at least one of the 2 books above.


    • BENSELER, et al.(eds.) (1980)
      This is a sampler of papers on the subjects of communications and social systems. There is a wide diversity of viewpoints, and this compilation is worth reviewing if you're interested in applications of autopoietic theory to social systems.

    • MATURANA (1978a)
      A very well-organized exposition of cognition from the autopoietic perspective. The German collection in which this paper appears is not easy to locate.

    • MATURANA (1978b)
      The key article on linguistic interaction and 'languaging'. If these aspects of autopoietic theory are of interest to you, this paper is a necessity. Some of Maturana's comments on linguistic interaction are found here and nowhere else.

    • MATURANA (1975)
      A summary on living systems and structural coupling. A good introduction to the formal aspects of autopoietic theory.

    • MATURANA (1988)
      A recent overview of the phenomenological and epistemological aspects of autopoietic theory. Recommended as a secondary source (not recommended as an initial introduction). This paper is most explicit about philosophical issues; Maturana distinguishes between 'transcendental' ontologies (with fixed referential bases -- e.g., objectivism) and the class of 'constitutive' ontologies (where the observer 'brings forth' the world), of which autopoietic theory is an example.

    • MATURANA (1980)
      Maturana's key essay on social systems.

    • ULRICH & PROBST (1984)
      A sampler of papers on self-organization and social systems. This collection contains Hejl's best-developed paper.

    • VARELA, MATURANA and URIBE (1974)
      This is one of the seminal papers on the formal concept of 'autopoiesis'. Well written and concise. Of particular interest is the discussion of the specific criteria for attributing autopoiesis to a given system.

    • VARELA, THOMPSON and ROSCH (1991)
      Varela and his colleagues discuss the problems of cognitivism in addressing both abstract 'cognitive processes' and personal experience. They describe 3 stages of cognitive science -- cognitivism (e.g., AI); emergence (e.g., connectionism); and enactive. The 'enactive' term is used to delineate a variety of work (including their own) which addresses 'cognition' in terms of action/experience. Many ideas from autopoietic theory are presented or used in this book, but 'autopoiesis' itself is not mentioned. I believe this is best seen as an extension or application of concepts from autopoietic theory in cognitive science.

    • VON KROGH and ROOS (1995)
      A recent (and well-informed) application of autopoietic theory to enterprise knowledge building. This book has a broad scope, and the authors bring a wide variety of the relevant literature to bear on the issues they address. This is a good theorization on how to apply autopoietic theory to the knowledge functions of organizations.

    • ZELENY (1980)
      A sample of other researchers' analyses of autopoiesis.

    • ZELENY (1981)
      An excellent collection of papers from writers (primarily from systems science) contextualizing and/or critiquing autopoietic theory. This is a central source of responses / reviews to Maturana & Varela's theories.

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