Where Da UK Macy Conferences?—A Brief Look at “Traditions of Systems Theory”

I just finished reading the edited volume entitled Traditions of Systems Theory—Major Figures and Contemporary Developments, edited by Darrell Arnold (2014). I’ll call this book Traditions for short. In its seventeen chapters, Traditions talks about system(s) thinking and theory past, present, and future. [1] This book is clearly aimed at scholars as evidenced by its hefty price tag—$145 print version; $45 Kindle version, which is the version I bought. As many of you know, I have a keen interest in systems theory. Why? Well, because John Bowlby used organismic systems theory (more on this below) as a backdrop for his theory of attachment. As I have said before (and talk about in my book Bowlby’s Battle) to “get” Bowlby’s theory of attachment you must first “get” organismic systems theory in specific and general systems theory in general. To that end, our Foundation commissioned an article by Dr. Gary Metcalf entitled John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist (2010). [2] In the rest of this blog I’d like to make a few general observations concerning Traditions, and, in turn, systems theory. One question I’ll be asking is, “Where da UK Macy conferences?” Hopefully the importance of this question will become apparent as we go along.

Would I recommend Traditions for a person with a casual interest in systems theory? No. Again, it’s rather academic. If you have a research interest in systems theory then I’d suggest putting Traditions at the top of your reading list. Unfortunately, there’s no good general interest book that I know of on systems theory. The one I would recommend is by Debora Hammond entitled The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory (2003). Hammond’s book is also a bit academic [3] but approachable. Hammond wrote chapter sixteen—Systems Theory and Practice in Organizational Change and Development—for the Traditions edited volume. I would recommend Hammond’s chapter, so you may wish to rent Traditions through Amazon (which I think is about $18.00) and read chapter sixteen.

As Hammond mentions in her Traditions chapter, systems thinking has been around for centuries if not millennia. “Although its roots can be traced back centuries, and even millennia, systems theory—and the corresponding systems approaches to dealing with complex problem situations—emerged as a distinct filed of inquiry in the mid-twentieth century through a confluence of developments in science and technology,” writes Hammond in her Traditions chapter. By way of a brief timeline, Ludwig von Bertalanffy—arguably the father of organismic systems theory—started his work in 1929. And systems architects played an important role in structuring the logistics of the war effort during WWII. [4] WWII systems efforts were developed mainly at the RAND Corporation here in the US and at the Tavistock Clinic in the UK. “[E]ric Trist and Fred Emery developed an open systems approach—initially inspired by Bertalanffy—that eventually became known as sociotechnical systems,” writes Hammond in Traditions. She continues, “The Tavistock Institute for Human Relationships was established in 1946 under the leadership of Trist and … used action research to facilitate participatory approaches to organizational change and development in business and industry.”

OK, bells and whistles should be going off for you Bowlby fans. Hopefully you’re scratching your head and asking, “Hey, wasn’t Bowlby associated with Tavistock, and didn’t he run the Children’s Department there?” Yes and yes. Writing in her 1998 book entitled John Bwolby—His Early Years, Suzan van Dijken tells us that Bowlby assumed the position as head of the Children’s Department in January, 1946. According to van Dijken’s research, both Donald Winnicott and Evelyn Lucas were considered for the position. van Dijken goes on to suggest that Bowlby’s army connections (Bowlby served during WWII) may have given him a leg up over Winnicott and Lucas. Who was one of Bowlby’s army colleagues? Yup, Eric Trist (according to van Dijken).

So, all this to say that during the mid- to late 1940s, Bowlby was at ground zero of systems thinking in the UK. In researching his article John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist, Dr. Metcalf traveled to the Tavistock and looked through their archives. He also spoke with Sir Richard Bowlby, John’s son. Dr. Metcalf’s article only scratches the surface as far as the Bowlby–systems theory connection is concerned. Sadly, this connection is largely lost and rarely talked about. In my opinion, it’s a very important connection, one that should be thoroughly investigated. Any takers? However, in fairness, Britain’s contribution to systems thinking is largely overlooked, at least here in the US. Hammond is one of the few US researchers I know of who has spent time looking at the British side of the systems story. [5] Allow me to expound on this point a bit more.

If you read a book on systems thinking and theory written in the last 30 years or so (and Traditions qualifies here), inevitably you will hear about the Macy conferences, which were held from 1946–1953 in the US. The Macy conferences were funded by the Macy Foundation. The major figure associated with the US Macy conferences was Norbert Wiener, arguably the father of cybernetics. The US Macy conferences focused on such things as “information exchange, feedback, and the self-organization [that takes place] on several distinct layers within complex systems such as computers, the brain, and human communities” (quoting from chapter two of Traditions). What you do not hear about are what I call the “UK Macy conferences.” These conferences took place in the UK during the period 1953–1956. And although not funded by the Macy Foundation (at least not to my knowledge), the UK Macy conferences were patterned after the US Macy conferences. The proceedings of the UK Macy conferences can be found under the short title of Discussions on Child Development edited by J.M. Tanner and Bärbel Inhelder (who was Piaget’s longtime collaborator). Let’s listen in as Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith, who, at the time, was associated with the Macy Foundation, starts the first UK conference (taken from Discussions on Child Development):

What I now have to say is intended to be introductory, and to tell you what we would like to have as the mood of the conference. I have been co-opted to this job because it was hoped that we could use at least some of the Macy Foundation conference methods in this meeting, and so first I should say a little about them. The Macy Foundation is a charitable body that makes grants for research. In the course of doing this the Foundation directors and officers became disturbed by the narrowness of the approach of the investigators who asked us for help. Their projects were drawn up from a unilateral point of view, and it seemed more and more that, to make advances in practically any problem of science, one needed the participation of several disciplines.

Hopefully the reader can see why I use the term “UK Macy conferences.” I think this is an appropriate name. But, again, the UK Macy conferences are rarely mentioned when the topics of systems thinking and theory come up. (Not once mentioned in Traditions.) I find this curious mainly because in many ways the UK Macy conferences continued the discussions started at the US Macy conferences. In fact, there were participant crossovers, most notably anthropologist Margaret Mead. The UK Macy conferences featured many prominent systems thinkers of that time. To drop a few names that you might recognize: John Bowlby (naturally), Konrad Lorenz (a big name in ethology), the aforementioned Margaret Mead, Jean Piaget (cognitive psychology), Grey Walter (known for his robotic tortoises, videos of which can be found on YouTube), Erik Erikson (prominent psychoanalyst), Julian Huxley (who literally wrote the book on modern evolution theory), and Ludwig von Bertalanffy himself. I would be remiss if I did not mention that Bowlby’s report to the WHO—entitled Maternal Care and Mental Health—was one of the central triggers for the UK Macy conferences (along with a report by Dr. Lucien Bovet entitled The Psychiatric Aspects of Juvenile Delinquency). Again, the UK Macy conferences are rarely if ever mentioned. I find this to be a travesty. Allow me to end by making some sweeping generalizations.

So, what really triggered this modern systems revolution? As talked about in Traditions (and mentioned above), what really got things going was biologist Bertalanffy’s discovery that biological systems are in fact open systems that import energy and export waste. In doing so, these organic open systems seek to obtain a dynamic equilibrium between themselves and their environment. “[Bertalanffy] argued that the laws of physics and chemistry were insufficient to explain the complex organization in living systems and their ability to maintain themselves in a far-from-equilibrium steady state,” writes Hammond in her Traditions chapter. To maintain a dynamic equilibrium, organic systems exhibit purpose or goals. They are goal-seeking, purposeful systems. Actually, when you think about it, not such a big a deal. But for the times, this was a heresy. Bowlby imagined the mother-infant relationship in these same terms. When the attachment behavioral system of the infant is triggered, the infant begins the organismic process of seeking out safety and security and (hopefully) regaining a dynamic equilibrium with her mother. Here’s one of my favorite Bowlby quotes from his trilogy on attachment that speaks to the heresy of purpose:

At one time to attribute purposiveness to animals or to build a psychology of human behavior on the concept of purposefulness was to declare oneself a vitalist and to be banned from the company of respectable scientists. The development of control systems of increasing sophistication, such as those that control a homing missile, has changed that. Today [the mid-1960s] it is recognized that a machine incorporating feedback can be truly goal-directed. Thus it comes about that nowadays to attribute purposiveness to behaviour and to think, if not teleologically, at least teleonomically is not only common sense, as it always was, but also good science.

Bowlby recognized that systems engineers were increasingly putting purposefulness or goal-directed behavior into their mechanical systems: a missile finds its goal of a target; a home thermostat finds its goal of a set temperature; an autopilot finds its goal of a set course. Bowlby naively assumed that if vitalism was now “cool” as far as the science of mechanical systems was concerned, it should then be cool to talk about vitalism in organic systems, which is at the heart of organismic systems theory. A missile seeks out its target as does an alarmed infant. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Today, it is very definitely cool to talk about the vitalism of mechanical systems (i.e., Amazon guiding you to the target of a new purchase, or Apple’s Siri guiding you to a street address), however, biological systems are still often framed using simple cause and effect thinking (also known as “billiard ball thinking”). This leads me to my last point.

To simplify the systems picture to the level of risking libel, there are two overarching forms of systems thinking and theory. For lack of better terms, there is a wartime form of systems thinking and theory, and a peacetime form. The former espouses a conservative political view; the latter a liberal political view. Bowlby naively thought that if the wartime version was cool—building guided missile systems and decoding secret messages using computer technology—then the peacetime version must be cool too. Well, again, it did not work out this way. As you read Traditions, what you find is this contemptuous ebb and flow between the war version and the peace version. As Nora Bateson (Gregory’s daughter) points out in chapter seventeen, her father (who developed family systems theory) experienced firsthand the rise of fascism in Europe. As Nora Bateson puts it:

[S]ome of the sort of source books that I’ve been reading about the Macy Conference really talk about that period [1946–1953] and about the circle of people that Gregory and that Margaret Mead were among at that time. And just this sort of of outpouring of trying to think of things differently and in a more hopeful way. Erik Erikson was part of that—a lot of people who had come as refugees from Nazi Germany, as well as a lot of very homegrown thinkers. The social sciences in this day were very much in this kind of reformist mode.

So, you had groups who wanted to use systems thinking and theory for so called “good”—to build better democratic societies. And then you had groups who wished to use systems thinking and theory for another kind of good—to build better and more effective (and efficient) military systems. As the Traditions book talks about (and I do as well in Bowlby’s Battle), the democratic good version of systems thinking and theory is now caught up in what is known as emancipation or liberation psychology. In contrast, the military good version has continued unabated with military systems becoming ever more automated and autonomous. (Drone warfare would be an example here.) As I wrote about in an earlier post on PTSD and Vietnam vets, the military version can have some devastating side effects. But so too the peace version now with its attention on liberation. Liberation has become an end in and of itself. But few are asking the question, “liberation toward what?” And so we have a generation that lacks direction and purpose.

I get frustrated because in my opinion Bowlby had a front row seat for the greatest transformation of our time: the ushering in of the systems revolution that now surrounds us in the form of the digital age. And I think Bowlby saw this coming and tried, like many of his colleagues, to be an active participant in guiding this new age. Bowlby contributed by introducing us to his attachment theory. Sadly, like with the UK Macy conferences, this part of the Bowlby story is largely lost. If anyone knows of a work (other than Dr. Metcalf’s) that specifically looks at the Bowlby–systems theory connection, please leave a comment. Love to read it.


[1] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, arguably the father of organismic systems theory, would often use the singular form system theory. As an example, his 1969 book is entitled General System Theory. I’ll use the plural form systems theory because most current systems thinkers use the plural form.

[2] Dr. Metcalf is a past president for the International Society for the Systems Sciences (2007–2008). Contact the Foundation for a copy of Dr. Metcalf’s article.

[3] I get the impression that The Science of Synthesis may have come out of Hammond’s Ph.D. dissertation. Just my impression.

[4] For an UK example, I’d point to the 2014 movie about Alan Turing’s war efforts entitled The Imitation Game. In many ways Turing put systems thinking and information processing on the map, a map that stayed hidden for many years because of the confidential nature of Turing’s wartime work.

[5] After reading The Science of Synthesis, I contacted Dr. Hammond by email. She was the one who told me about Gerald Midgley’s 2000 book Systemic Intervention. Midgley is a UK researcher who, in the early 2000s, was Director of the Centre for Systems Studies, a research institute based in the Business School at the University of Hull (pulling from the dust cover of Systemic Intervention).