The systems theory of Ernst Haas

First insertion on Holland Grumpy Sam De Wolff: 30 march 2023

E.A. Bakkum is a blogger for the Sociaal Consultatiekantoor. He loves to reflect on the labour movement.

Since halfway the twentieth century attempts are made to describe society by means of systems theories. They present schemes of interactions between actors within their institutional frames. The present blog elaborates on the systems theory, which Haas proposes around 1964 in his book Beyond the nation-state. Learning processes create a certain dynamics. Integration occurs, when the actors unite in collective organizations. The administrative apparatus is not neutral. The way of making decisions is adapted to the nature of the system.

Since three years ago Holland Grumpy published a blog about the systems theory of Parsons, new blogs have regularly appeared with discussions of similar systems analyses. An interesting proposal has been done by Easton, who wants to model the political system. In the present paragraph a similar attempt is described by a predecessor, E.B. Haas, in his book Beyond the nation-state (in short BN)1. The figure 1 places the various systems thinkers along a time axis. Some systems theories are universally applicable. Others have been designed specifically for the analysis of politics or the labour market. Originally a system is still interpreted as a functional unit. After Crozier the system obtains a more empirical meaning, in the sense of an organization or closed network.

Scheme of systems thinkers
Figure 1:   systems thinkers

The perspective of Haas is located somewhere between Parsons' and Easton's perspective. Haas wants to apply his theory to international organizations, like the United Nations (in short UNO). He wonders how states realize collaboration. He focuses on the international integration, just like at the time Tinbergen. However, the underlying idea has a broader applicability on various kinds of organizations and systems. Systems integration in the sense of Parsons mainly implies the increase of the internal cohesion.

According to Parsons the system development is predetermined. New systems emerge, because society differentiates, so that again and again new functions have to be executed. The systems moves from one equilibrium to another. According to Haas this view is unsatisfactory. For, often the definition of the function of a system is controversial. He gives as an example the World Health Organization of the UNO (p.14 in BN). Originally the states had different opinions about the role of the WHO. Even now for instance the policy of birth control is controversial2. Haas points to the importance of the personal choices, which are made by the actors in the system (p.5 in BN). These introduce dynamics into the system3. The fundamental beliefs (deep core beliefs) of the actors are partially political, and partially based on knowledge (p.19, 23). Politics is the domain of clashing views and different morals, and this complicates making decisions4.

Learning processes

It is a hallmark of Haas' view, that the distinction between politics and the general interest is rejected (p.24, 47). There is an interaction between these two factors. Harmony can not be calculated by experts (p.34). The decisions can be subject to the interests of sub-systems (according to Haas these are the states and international organizations). Haas argues that collective rules can emerge without purpose or effort (p.45). Then a collective learning process occurs (p.48). Such a process of growth implies a progressive integration into a more coherent system (p.48). So according to Haas the system is a network of actors, just like later has been proposed by the institutional analysis (IAD) (p.53). He is interested in the transitions in the system (p.62). A transition can be an integration, but also a disintegration of the system (p.67).

The actors in the system have goals, beliefs and means (p.77)5. These attributes emerge due to the historical context (p.82). The actors impose tasks to the system (p.77). So the choice of these tasks is a subjective process (p.83). Haas adheres to the idea, that the system has functions (p.64). In the perspective of Haas functions are unintended consequences, such as integration (p.83). In this context Merton uses the term latent functions. Contrary to Merton, Haas assumes, that the functions are visible for all actors (p.83). Therefore the actors are capable of learning from the developments. When the learning process leads to integration, then collective organizations of actors will form (in the study of Haas these are the bodies of the United Nations) (p.88). Thanks to the learning process new goals will emerge, and these are embodied in the organizations (p.93).

Collective organizations

The survival of the organizations is a goal in itself, which requires leadership (p.90, 103, 115)6. The organization must be flexible and yet develop its own course. Its direction develops planned goals, which satisfy the needs of the other actors (p.114, 119). For, the other actors must be convinced of the usefulness of the organization (p.116, 119). Leaders must always take care, that sufficient support is maintained among the actors (p.94, 96, 115). Support is created by compromises and the formation of coalitions (p.102). When the organization attains successes, then it can even expand (p.117). Successes can result from (unintended) functions, such as the integration of actors (p.117). Moreover, organizations must curb their costs and stimulate an internal efficiency (p.91).

Besides, the leader must further bonding and cohesion within his organization. This requires internal morals (p.95, 100, 114). This means, that the collective organization is not a neutral apparatus!7 Although it has expertise, it will not propagate the objective truth, if ever this would exist. If necessary, the organization must adapt its goals to the environment (p.96, 101). Its goals are dynamic, because it participates in the mentioned learning process. In this respect Haas adheres to the systems model of Easton and the punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). The system has an internal feedback. The organization must usually choose between various strategies (p.98). In a network environment (such as the United Nations) the goals are formulated in a democratical process (p.99, 114).

Photo of quartet card Gandhi
Figure 2:   Gandhi
   quartet card Unicef

Making decisions

It has just been remarked, that searching for support complicates making decisions. Collective organizations try to find morals (values), which can attract a large coalition of actors (p.104-105). According to Haas the reconciliation of morals and needs of the various actors is essential for integration. This is an evident truth, which is leading in sociology. Parsons expresses this idea with his latent (L) and integration (I) systems. Easton states, that the political community continuously searches for support for its authority. When the support is based on collective morals, then Easton calls it diffuse. The modern actor-institution models emphasize, that the action arena is affected by the common culture and morals. However, these frames of reference differ in the way of presenting the interaction of morals and the action arena. There also does exist a (long-term) feedback) of the action arena towards morals.

The perspective of Haas is an adaptation of the structure-functionalism of Parsons, which relies on determinism. Haas emphasizes the inherent arbitrariness in political decisions. He sees the choice for the type of interaction as a dichotomy: there is harmony or conflict (p.105). This holds both for the beliefs and for the desired outcomes (p.105). Depending on the beliefs and desired outcomes the actors prefer a certain interaction, for instance logical arguments, bargaining, a vote or convincing (p.105, 110)8. He also anticipates on more modern perspectives, such as the multiple streams framework of Kingdon9. A political movement can lead to a transition in the ideas (p.106). This can be called a punctuation, although Haas does not think in terms of equilibriums.


Haas makes an attempt to clarify his method of analysis (p.viii in BN). He is not satisfied with a historical narrative, which focuses on a casus. Haas wants to find general rules, which are limited by the specific context. But he does not believe in a universal truth, and therefore favours constructivism10. He prefers a dialectical approach (p.108). His analysis combines induction and deduction. A previous blog described this by the formula y = f(c, x(c)), where c is the context, x are context-dependent variables, and y is the outcome. Due to the role of the context the theory has a limited range. This is called a causal reconstruction, or a process analysis.


The book Beyond the nation-state is not a standard work, and therefore its study is not a natural choice. Yet the book is valuable, because it is a link in the development of systems theory. Haas enriches the systems theory with new concepts, such as unintended effects (functions) of systems. The loyal readers of Holland Grumpy, who are already familiar with modern systems theory, do not find much new elements in the ideas of Haas. Then his perspective is mainly a feast of recognition. Remember, that the systems theory is less fruitful than Parsons and his contemporaries believed or hoped. Precisely the political arbitrariness, which is energetically emphasized by Haas, implies that policy research rarely can offer general solutions or causal relations. Even the work of Nobel price winner Elinor Ostrom has not led to a real break-through of understanding. This is regrettable, and a disappointment, in the first place for your blogger11.

  1. See Beyond the nation-state (1964, Stanford University Press) by E.B. Haas. In 2008 ECPR Press published a reprint. (back)
  2. On p.41 in Beyond the nation-state Haas also points to the interpretation of human rights, which can be defined differently by various states. On a global scale the functions of human rights can merely partially be institutionalized. (back)
  3. Obviously, also Parsons understands, that actors influence events. His first important book even had the title The structure of social action. But Parsons emphasizes other aspects in his argument than Haas. (back)
  4. More than ten years ago the German political scientist F.W. Scharpf stated, that politics can lead to a decision trap (Verflechtungsfalle). Actually this is logical. The challenge is to understand when the trap will occur, and when not.
    This blog will here and there compare the ideas of Haas with more modern insights, like here those of Scharpf. (back)
  5. Acording to a blog of almost four years ago the institutional analysis and development of the couple Ostrom assumes, that the actors dispose of beliefs, means, procedures for decisions, and a certain capacity to process information. In this view the goals follow naturally from the beliefs. (back)
  6. In principle you could interpret the collective organization as a sub-systeem. This is the approach of Parsons. Each (sub-)system has its proper function, which guarantees its survival. The political scientist G.H. Scholten also sees the administration as a subsystem of the political system. Most later system thinkers, such as Easton, Ostrom or Sabatier, do not do this. In their view collective organizations are simply actors. (back)
  7. Your blogger copies this insight from the political scientist G.H. Scholten, for instance in his inaugural lecture Politiek en bestuur. (back)
  8. According to a blog of already three years ago F.W. Scharpf proposes a similar taxonomy of interactions. However, he uses a different perspective than Haas. He does not derive his taxonomy from the dichotomy, but from the institutional form of the collective actor. (back)
  9. On p.106 in Beyond the nation-state Haas writes: "Current theorizing can add (...) further ways of resolving conflict. One is random settlement of differences, such as by flipping of a coin". (back)
  10. On p.108 in Beyond the nation-state Haas writes: "[Issues] can not be defined away by subsuming them to a transcendent or an immanent truth. (...) They must compromise. And when they compromise, they must scale down their objectives, since we can not assume that one will persuade the other". ECPR Press labels in his product description of the new edition the approach of Haas as a soft constructivism. This publisher states that the systems theory of Haas is neo-functionalism. (back)
  11. So, is reading this book a waste of time? Of course not, because it stimulates a continuing reflection on processes in policy development. You acquire a sense of the desirabilities, causes and consequences. It does appear, that employers are hardly able to value such knowledge (not even the expert organizations). They prefer for instance a certificate How To Use SPSS. (back)