RC51 Newsletter

IN MEMORIAM: Felix Geyer, 1933-2020

By Bernd R. Hornung on behalf of the RC51 Board

We report with sadness the death of Felix Geyer who died at the age of 87 on August 23rd, 2020 after a long and colorful life as a scientist travelling the world.

Much more a friend than a colleague to most of his worldwide companions in science, Felix was a sociologist with a passion for systems and cybernetics along with a strong compassion and deep sympathy for his fellow humans. To his friends and colleagues, he was connected by his numerous activities and, once the internet appeared, by tirelessly sending and answering e-mails. He did not get too tired to answer and resolve all the big and little problems people from around the globe cared to bring to him about the conferences he organized, or any other questions related to scientific life.

The science he devoted his life to was systems and cybernetics, applied to the social sciences, in particular to sociology, which was his own original field. No wonder that the result was “Sociocybernetics”, a term he coined together with his close friend and colleague Hans van der Zouwen and a journalist. It first entered the world of science as title of a two-volume book which was published in 1978. From there it was still a long way to what is nowadays the Research Committee 51 (RC51) on Sociocybernetics of the International Sociological Association (ISA).

Felix was an important teacher of sociocybernetics. Not by academic lecturing at a university, but by organizing numerous conferences and session-streams about systems and cybernetics, later “Sociocybernetics”, where he not only taught us through his presentations and written articles, but also by insisting on and promoting the high quality of presentations and papers. This is something RC51 continues to do, not least by awarding once a year the “Walter Buckley Award” for didactically good presentations. Once in a while, however, I remember him saying: “And now we have to sit through another boring session!”

For me and some others involved in organizing scientific events and holding together scientific groups he was maybe even more important for sharing his skills and knowledge of organizing. Felix was an excellent, careful, and thorough organizer, even up to meticulously caring about the last details. It worked well! The results were enjoyable, and it was a pleasure to cooperate with him. During my time as president of RC51, Felix became my best friend in science.

We met for the first time at the International Congress of Cybernetics and Systems of the WOSC – World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics in Mexico City in August 1981. At that time, I was a doctoral student of Niklas Luhmann, who said to me “There are two Dutch guys organizing a conference in Mexico, why don´t you go?” I went, and the two Dutch guys were Felix Geyer and Hans van der Zouwen. A close relation with Felix began at the memorable Bucharest Congress of 1996 of the WOSC. The social science section organized by Felix was a preparation for establishing ISA RC51 on Sociocybernetics later on at the ISA World Congress of Sociology in Montreal in 1998. There he asked me whether I would be willing to serve as president of RC51, he being the secretary. In the end, titles did not matter. We were running RC51 as a team of peers, and both of us enjoyed it very much.

Also, after retiring in 1998 from his work at SISWO, the Interuniversity Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Amsterdam, Felix kept close contact with “his” RC51, until age and health conditions made it difficult. The last one of the yearly RC51 conferences in which Felix still participated was held in Mexico City in 2008.

My last meeting with Felix must have been in summer or fall 2010, when I made a short visit to his home at Laren near Amsterdam, being on a trip in The Netherlands. Although he had been an enthusiastic communicator and e-mail writer during his active life, Felix spent his last years very much in retreat at his home.

Born on October 14th, 1933, near Amsterdam, the Amsterdam region had remained his home base for his worldwide activities. Felix had studied first geology and then sociology at the University of Amsterdam from 1951-1961. In 1980 he received his PhD with a thesis about “Alienation Theories, A General Systems Approach”. Here he connected sociology to system theory by treating a classical sociological topic, which at the same time fitted with the humanist and emancipatory intentions of the fathers of systems theory and cybernetics.

After a few years of work in the private sector Felix joined SISWO in 1968, where he became head of the methodology section. He held this position until his retirement in October 1998. From SISWO as his home base Felix became one of the co-founders of the Dutch Systems Group in 1970. He also served as Executive Secretary of ISA. from January 1983 until January 1987.

Felix was also closely connected to the WOSC and organized social science resp. sociocybernetics sections at the triannual WOSC congresses in Amsterdam (1978), Mexico City (1981), Paris (1984), London (1987), New York (1990), and Bucharest (1996), where in a way the story of ISA-RC51 began.

So, after all, we have to say farewell to a good friend who loved life and its pleasures, and who always eager and willing to contribute to the good life of his fellow humans whatever he could. In this sense, Felix Geyer stands in a row with the fathers of systems and cybernetics, and we from RC51 feel obliged to honor and safeguard this heritage and to contribute what we can to a decent future for humankind and this planet.

A detailed CV of Felix can be found in the Internet: http://www.unizar.es/sociocybernetics/chen/felix/

Marburg, Beginning of September 2020

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. 

RC51 Newsletter

Felix Geyer’s Passing. An article in memoriam

By Dr Philippos Nicolopoulos

Felix Geyer has passed away. We lost a distinguished international social scientist, an unforgettable colleague, a friend. It is difficult to express our sadness with words, but it is “a must” for us to pay tribute (in scientific terms) to his memory. So, we should write in memoriam for his scientific contribution, for his work in the field of sociocybernetics, for his abilities in organizing, for his human contacts, for his personality.

Felix Geyer was the inventor with J. van den Zouwen of the term “sociocybernetics” and he contributed so much to the establishment of the RC51 of International Sociological Association (ISA).  That’s why he became worthily emeritus president of this committee (c. on Sociocybernetics). The aforementioned term was successful, and its meaning exactly referred to the cybernetics of social systems with a new way which was not identified only with the 1st order cybernetics (cybernetics of observed systems). Its meaning became broader and comprised the so-called 2nd order cybernetics of the observing systems. This one was much more appropriate for the human systems. Its features fitted better mature human beings in their social dimension.

Felix in his works explained why the limited model of “input-output-feedback” (1st order cybernetics, observed systems with clear distinction between system and its environment) was not adequate for human actions, processes and formations. He was always trying to push social scientists, who were dealing with social systems, to develop their views and theories in that perspective, in which the “observer”, his/her perception abilities, motivation and value world constitute a basic and crucial role in the whole process of communication and control, beyond the characteristics of 1st order Cybernetics (Cyb).

In a very comprehensive paper presented at Bielefeld (World Congress of Socioloby, 1994), as well as in a similar paper presented in the Bucharest Congress of Cybernetics (1996), Felix, as I remember, described with a clear way the distinctions between the 1st and 2nd order Cyb. and underscored that the latter referred mainly to processes and concepts which are associated with “self” (self-organization, self-reference, self-steering, autopoietics, morphogenesis etc). Thus, the cybernetic model doesn’t remain a static one, but embraces dynamical process as positive feedback or change which many times characterize the human systems. Thus, we see beyond the limits of the homeostatic equilibrium notion, which is connected mainly with mechanical systems.

In the same paper (which many times is included in citations of books and articles of mine, which refer to sociocybernetic model), he connects his non- static perspective with chaos and complexity theory and especially with the system situation far from equilibrium, in which non-linear relationships obtain. After a bifurcation point there is always a possibility (but of course no certainty) to reach a higher organization structure.

I remember that in discussions with him, when I insisted on the social change processes (change against the established interests which maintain unfair and unequal social conditions), he accepted the change possibility and he connected it with the cross-catalysis process. For him sociocybernetics and 2nd order cybernetics were associated with complexity theory and the systems theory beyond the equilibrium conditions.

Felix was intelligent and methodical but not dogmatic, he was open minded and prompt to discuss a different opinion from his own opinion or from the “established opinion”. Thereby he liked to discuss new ideas or to push and support you in creative scientific work despite his different theoretical direction. So, he liked to share with other scientists the scientific activity in their common scientific field (international meetings, conferences, congresses etc), regardless of their theoretical or ideological differentiations or disagreements.

That’s why his contribution in organizing (conferences, symposia, scientific communication and cooperation through the internet) was great.

My memories from Felix were many. I met him for first time in Bielefeld in the World Congress of Sociology of ISA (1994), in which I became member of thematic group on systems theory and cybernetics. After the first discussions in the congress we continued our contact through emails, and we shared the common interest to improve the activities of the aforementioned thematic group. So, we cooperated as we were preparing our sessions in Bucharest Congress in 1996 on Cybernetics. After that, we had the World Congress of ISA in Montréal in 1998, in Brisbane in 2002, the 1st conference of Sociocybernetics in Colimbari, Crete and the 3rd in Corfu (for which I cooperated with him more, for I had personally more responsibility in organizing), Lisbon Conference in 2004, Maribor Conference in 2005. So, a part of my initial work in the field of sociocybernetics was connected with Felix. He encouraged me to present my ideas and my work of this field in international scientific fora and always he helped me in organizing. I use and I used some of his papers and works in my classes or in independent lectures and I mentioned him in some citations of my own works in Greek or English.

All of us, who we have worked some years ago for the establishment of RC51 of ISA, we acknowledge his crucial contribution to the upgrading of the aforementioned thematic group to the RC51. Moreover, he was warm in human contact, cosy, and he had sense of humor. He was not only an “office scientist”, but he was full of “liveliness and energy”.

Felix Geyer passed away, but his scientific contribution and his warm personality are always present and alive. He will always live in the hearts and the spirits of all sociocyberneticians and is… always ready to help us for the organization of a new conference!

Dr Philippos Nicolopoulos
Former Associate Professor of the University of Indianapolis (Athens Campus), Former Assist. Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Univ. of Crete,
Attorney at Law at the Supreme Court of Greece

RC51 Newsletter

A letter from the Systeemgroep Nederland regarding the death of Dr. Felix Geyer

Kindly shared with us by Prof. Gerard de Zeeuw

On September 15, the Board of the Systeemgroep Nederland sent the following letter to Felix’s family and friends and to his carer (translated from the Dutch):

Dear relatives and friends of Felix Geyer,

Dear Mrs Ria Meul,

It is with deep regret that we learned of the death of Dr. Felix Geyer on August 23, 2020. He was a highly regarded colleague and a good friend.

His contributions as a colleague include serving as one of the founding fathers of the Systeemgroep Nederland. He was one of the first in the Netherlands to understand the importance of system theory for sociology and subsequently worked hard to develop its implications. He introduced the now generally accepted term for this development, namely sociocybernetics.

He has also worked hard to pass on that theory to others. We recall the many conferences he helped organise, together with colleague Prof. Hans van der Zouwen. His contributions also include various courses on system theory that were presented in the first years of the existence of the Systeemgroep Nederland.

Finally, we would like to recall what made Felix such a highly appreciated colleague. He was always ready to explain matters or contribute to discussions with great humour and respect for others. This often happened during a meal and while enjoying a drink. Felix combined conviviality with sharp analyses, a sense of proportion and well-founded advice.

In recent years, Felix gradually withdrew from public activities. We missed him very much and we will in the future.

On behalf of the System Group Netherlands,

The Board
Prof. Loet Leydesdorff
Drs. Martha Vahl
Prof. Gerard de Zeeuw

An RC51 Conference in the Time of Pandemic

By Manuel Meza Cuervo

2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic; 2020 will be remembered as the year that challenged the social systems, the economic systems, and governments around the world. But most importantly, it will be remembered as the year that reminded this generation that one of the essential values of humankind is its resiliency.

This has been a year of many firsts. And for the first time, the RC51 decided to have an online conference.

The RC51 Annual Conference, set to take place in Porto Alegre 2020 World Forum, was put off due to the pandemic. In the two months after the postponement announcement, the RC51 board organized it virtually instead, taking advantage of modern communication technology. Two committees were formed: a scientific one, in charge of choosing the papers, and an organising one, responsible for promoting the conference and handling all the technical and administrative arrangements.

Some of us had some experience managing communication technologies such as Zoom and Google Hangouts; they are easy to handle, and almost all of the global academic community is familiarized with them. The real challenge was to design the conference so that we could feel close to each other despite the technological barrier. To achieve this connection, we prioritized the discussion over the exposition time in three sessions for three days.

We asked our participants to send us a five-minute video where they presented their work in addition to their papers. That allowed us to spread their contributions through our social media. We had never done this before. This idea came to life to overcome the pandemic challenges, and I hope this practice continues in the following conferences.

For the organizing committee, holding an annual conference was not enough. We wanted to tap the full potential of technology, so we decided to have the two first sessions in the usual format (splitting time between the presentation and Q&A) while having a third one as an experimental and collaborative open session. In the last session, we discussed the core concepts and methodologies of Sociocybernetics using a collaborative tool called IdeaBoardz.

With over thirty people in each session and 15 papers presented from 11 countries, the first RC51 Virtual Conference was a success. We also had a great experience connecting, collaborating, and working on a virtual board with stickers.

The pandemic gave us a challenge as a research committee and showed us a new way to stay in touch. Of course, nothing is comparable to the live experience, but with the XXI century technology, we now have a powerful tool to find new ways to connect despite the challenges that may arise.

A report on the intriguing experimental session

By Luciano Gallón

It was around last May that Patricia, our RC51 president, ask the RC51 board for ideas on a RC51 2020 conference after the postponement of the ISA Forum because of the pandemic. It was a provocative and interesting challenge because of the restrictions but also an opportunity for creating new ways for participation for member and non-members.

After some really key experiences working with documents about a “credo” or a “manifesto” of a field of knowledge, I shared with the board a proposal for carrying out an experiment on collaborative writing of a very simple but relevant document for our sociocybernetics field. It should be a very simple experiment, easy, and take little time. In the end we would have a two to three pages document with a set of ideas about the present, practice, future of, and vision for, sociocybernetics.

After a couple of board meetings, we as a team came out with the decision of holding a collaborative experiment with the purpose of writing a “Sociocybernetics Manifesto”. The other possibility was writing a “credo for sociocybernetics” but this was well discarded with solid arguments.

So, during June and July, detailed planning began with the challenge of setting up an experimental and collaborative session, two hours maximum, open to all participants, both members and non-members. Through an online collaborative debate process, the goal was to produce a short reference document about sociocybernetics as a paradigmatic framework: a Sociocybernetics Manifesto.

We held the experimental session on the third day of the online RC51 2020 Conference, July 16th. The core ideas the participants shared came from these three aspects of sociocybernetics:

  • Intentions: What one has in mind as a purpose or goal to do or bring about with sociocybernetics (what for?)
  • Motives: Something (such as a need or desire) that causes you to act based on sociocybernetics: (why?)
  • Views: A mode or manner of looking at or regarding sociocybernetics (what?)

For me, as the experiment moderator, this was a wonderful experience. Seeing the way everybody was following the instructions, well, almost everybody, and how the flow of ideas started to increase with a lot of insights on sociocybernetics, was evidence of a useful way of creating value for RC51.

In the end we got 86 points about the three aspects: 34 Intentions, 30 Motives and 22 Views. So, at first, it looks like answering What for? is easier than What? We also got 294 votes for the different points.

What is next? The experiment has not ended yet. We have the following plan ahead: September: document what was done and the result as it is; October: debugging work; November: a new on-line session with guests to do a second round of review and consolidation; and, finally, December: publication of the manifesto.

I will conclude this report by remembering Felix Geyer. I had the opportunity to meet him in person during the RC51 2007 Conference in Murcia. I learned from him some key answers to the question What is sociocybernetics? Following Felix’s insights, I invite all the participants in the manifesto session to share your ideas about the evidence, or not, of the presence of these concepts during the “intriguing experimental session: Self-reference, Self-steering, Self-organization, Auto-catalysis and Cross-catalysis and Autopoiesis.

Please feel free to share with me your ideas over luciano.gallon@hotmail.com. Thank you again for your support and participation.