RC51 Newsletter

Memories of Felix Geyer

By Johannes van der Zouwen, Emeritus Professor of Social Research Methodology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

I first met Felix Geyer in 1970, when he was Head of the Methodology Division at SISWO, Netherlands Universities Joint Social Research Centre. There he was doing what he did all his working life: bringing people with common interests together and trying to build an effective organization for these joint efforts. In this case, bringing together social researchers and methodologists of different universities, to work out a solid curriculum for research methodology to be accepted by all Dutch Universities. These meetings, organized by Felix, can also be viewed as the starting point of the formation of NOSMO, the Dutch Organization of Social Research Methodologists.

By that time Felix was very much interested in a topic that became the subject of his dissertation, i.e., alienation. He studied that topic with concepts and insights derived from General Systems Theory (GST). By that time, studying a social process with the conceptual tools of systems theory was quite novel. Remember that Walter Buckley’s book on “Sociology and Modern Systems Theory” was published only a few years earlier (1967).

From that time on we see that two labels can characterize his scientific work: 1) coordination: bringing people together to form an effective organization and 2) applying systems theory to the study of social structures and social processes; what many years later, (in 1978) was coined as “sociocybernetics”.

Felix used the context of two large organizations to reach these goals: The World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics (WOGSC) and the International Sociological Association (ISA). Under the aegis of these organisations he (co-)organised many conferences. Most of these conferences resulted in publications about the ever-expanding domain of sociocybernetics.

I had the pleasure to work together with Felix organising many of these conferences and selecting and editing those conference papers that were fit for inclusion in special volumes. Therewith we applied a kind of “division of labour”: Felix was especially keen on papers that were offering new perspectives, where I was looking after the empirical testability of all these sweeping theories. A bit like “the good cop and the bad cop”; Felix being enthusiastic about still another new approach, I posing all kind of critical questions: like “where is the evidence for this theory”?   

In the many hours we worked together, preparing conferences and publications, I especially liked his good humour and his limitless energy. I remember one of his practical jokes that nearly went wrong. He was only recently appointed as the Secretary General of the ISA, and he had just acquired an answering machine with remote control, so that when he was out of office, he still could receive messages, and send out messages to the thousands of members of the ISA. To demonstrate this brand-new device, when working at my place, he recorded the general message: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the forthcoming world congress of the ISA will be cancelled”. Of course, this dramatic message had to be removed from the recorder, but he could not manage that from my work place. So in a hurry he left for his office, in order to get that messages deleted before it could produce a lot of unrest in the ISA.

As indicated above, Felix had the strong conviction that the application of GST to the description and solution of sociological problems would turn out to be very beneficial to sociology. That meant for him that sociocybernetics had to gain a proper place, both in the world of the cyberneticians, and in the world of the sociologists. The recognition in the cybernetics world was gained in 1978 as Felix and I were asked by Dr. John Rose, the Director General of the WOGSC, to organise a large section (rather a sub-conference) on Cybernetics and Social Systems, resulting in the publication “Sociocybernetics”. From then on, we were invited to organise these sub-conferences during all subsequent WOGSC conferences.

Within sociology, i.e. the ISA, the process went more slowly. Felix knew that if the group of sociocyberneticians wanted to promote from an “Ad Hoc Group” into a Research Committee, the group had to acquire more scientifically active members, and to organise a series of successful meetings. 

And here things come together:

  • First, a loyal home base (SISWO) that provided Felix with organizational support, despite the fact that his activities, i.e. promoting sociocybernetics, could be seen as quite distant from his formal task description.
  • Second, a large network within ISA, evolved in the four years that he acted as Secretary-General of ISA.
  • And, last but not least, the contributions of the members of the Ad Hoc Group. Stimulated by the enthusiasm of Felix, more and more of its members participated in conferences, and the number of papers and other publications increased, such that the promotion from an ‘ad hoc group’ to a ‘research committee’, was only a matter of time. 

For his contributions to sociocybernetics Felix was granted the title of Honorary Member of the WOGSC. In the Festschrift for Felix Geyer (Kybernetes, Vol. 35, 3/4, 2006) one can find much more information about his work. Let me conclude by saying that through his efforts sociocybernetics has gained in the social sciences the place it deserves. 

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