Open and closed systems

There is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the concepts of open and closed systems. Much of the misunderstanding or confusion derives from mechanistic “scientific” descriptions of systems; it is the old General Systems Theory of Ludwig con Bertalanffy, which had little to say about system closure. As Luhmann writes,

Closed systems were defined as a limit case: as systems for which the environment has no significance or is significant only through specified channels. The theory concerned itself with open systems.

(Social Systems, 6-7)

This question was posted on “What are some examples of open and closed systems?” Here are the top three responses, each of which considers only systems as described by Bertalanffy:

Open System

An open system is a system that freely exchanges energy and matter with its surroundings. For instance, when you are boiling soup in an open saucepan on a stove, energy and matter are being transferred to the surroundings through steam.

Closed System

Putting a lid on the saucepan makes the saucepan a closed system. A closed system is a system that exchanges only energy with its surroundings, not matter. By putting a lid on the saucepan, matter can no longer transfer because the lid prevents matter from entering the saucepan and leaving the saucepan.


There are no truly closed systems, except for purely conceptual systems, e.g. the physicist’s imaginary box that is isolated from all outside influences.

Even a rock is subject to e.g. changes in temperature which cause it to expand and contract, the influence of water which slowly dissolves it, and the slow growth of lichen which slowly crumbles its surface.

All real systems are open systems which we often pretend are closed because we 1) want to understand the internal dynamics of the system or 2) want to understand the major external influences on those systems while ignoring the minor influences.

And third

Let us take simple examples.

A closed system allows only energy transfer but no transfer of mass. Example: a cup of coffee with a lid on it, or a simple water bottle.

An open system is one which can allow mass as well as energy to flow through its boundaries, example: an open cup of coffee.

Isolated systems allow neither mass nor energy to flow through their boundaries. Example: a thermos flask.

In reality, a perfectly isolated system does not exist, for instance hot water in a thermos flask cannot remain hot forever.

The main problem with all of the above is that they fail to distinguish between structural closure and operational closure. All three responses refer to structural openness and closure only, though without using those words. There seems to be a basic lack of interest in system closure because it’s not seen a real thing. As Luhmann wrote, “The theory concerned itself with open systems.” They say nothing about system operations–when system operations are the whole point of studying systems! I don’t even know why we need to call a cup of coffee with a lid on it a system at all. What operation does it carry out? It’s just a cup of coffee with a lid on it, and the lid simply slows down entropy. It’s just an unplugged machine, which means it’s a useless machine.

Structurally closed systems exist only conceptually or analytically; however, operationally closed systems exist in reality—or more precisely, they are observable. (Social systems theory does not concern realities that exist independent of some observing system. This is what radical constructivism means.) In other words, we do not need to merely pretend that operationally closed systems exist. For instance, if you lack money or credit, you quickly come to appreciate the operationally closed nature of the modern economy. It’s not just a concept; you are locked out of the economy and you live (and perhaps die) on the street. Anyone who says “there are no truly closed systems,” has likely never been in this predicament.

Social systems (and other autopoietic systems) are structurally open and operationally closed. To be structurally open means expectations (social structures are expectations) may be perturbed by the environment. Social systems are communication systems, and operational closure means that a social system only communicates with itself. Communication is intra-systemic; there is no communication between system and environment–no inter-systemic communication.

Social systems must have a communication medium. For instance, the communication medium of the modern economy (or commerce) is money. Without some form of money (even if accessed negatively through debt) we cannot participate in the modern economy. Anyone without access to money is excluded from the money-based economy (as distinguished from a barter or gift-based economy). A communication medium makes communication meaningful within that system. Money is meaningful within the modern economic system but not elsewhere.

The structures of a social system are expectations, or the sense of “what’s next.” To repeat, structures and operations are fundamentally different. A meaningful communicative event (which is a synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) is an operation, while social structure consists of expectations.

Expectational structures are open in the sense that they are influenced by environmental factors. For instance, an organization might face a financial crisis and this might influences its expectations—its view of its own future. Furthermore, a system’s expectations may be influenced (perturbed, irritated) by the expectations of another social system.

For example, a public health social system (not to be confused with individual people or actors) might expect to see an increase in opiate abuse, which might lead an Emergency Room Medicine social system to expect an increase in opiate-overdose patients. Or a climatology social system (a social system that communicates about climatology or that is based on unique climatological distinctions) might expect to see global warming along with sea-level and more violent hurricanes, which might lead a real estate investment social system to expect a decline in value for ocean front properties.

For social systems, what systems expect to see is more important than what they actually see now, because they are always projecting into the future. Consider the stock market; it measures expectations. The economy or a particular company might be doing badly now, but investors are always looking at the future. This is why a pandemic can be keep raging, with unemployment still high and companies going bankrupt, but the stock market can go up because investors expect a profitable future.

This is where systems thinking is most valuable; it’s all about decreasing the randomness of life, or getting better at seeing how things interact in complex ways and preparing for what might come. In an economic context, this kind of thinking goes back to the invention of marine insurance in Greek and Roman antiquity. Marine insurance “covers the loss or damage of ships, cargo, terminals, and any transport by which the property is transferred, acquired, or held between the points of origin and the final destination” (Wikipedia). At some point in history, people (or rather social systems) decided to not just stoically endure random misfortunes. They decided to actually prepare for what might happen in the future.

We are concerned with social systems (which are communications systems), not human beings, actors, or actions.


  1. What I am searching for is not available.
    I am searching for identification of open and closed system and I couldn’t find it. Thanks


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