System: Structure

I’m not writing a thesis, so rather than spending time in scholarly rigor genuflecting to the institutionalized societies of collegial thought by properly citing the ancients and the published modern authorities on the definition of system, allow me to lean into the first paragraph of Wikipedia on the subject of system. It might prove a useful primer, at least in the first paragraph or so (at the time of my writing of this). I’m going to bulletize the salient points.

  • system has structure
  • system has boundaries
  • system has functioning
  • system has purpose

The etymological roots of the word go back through Latin and Greek (almost unchanged as systema for quite some time), from components for “syn” (with, together) and “histemi” which apparently derives from the Proto-Indo-European “root” of “sta” (stand, static, state) via what could loosely be called an active verb form: to cause to stand together. See etymonline or wiktionary if you’d like to explore more.

While the word has existed in some form or another, and has been applied (originally) to limited and diverse topic areas; it’s use has grown over the centuries to be somewhat of a beast today when used in so many contexts.


Structure is basically an admission of composition: that things (parts) are placed together to make a composed thing from those constituent parts; and that these parts are somehow connected (or interrelate) in a way to formulate the composed thing being declared to have structure. Describing the structure of something without identifying any parts is impossible. It may be possible to describe the externalities of something without being able to identity any parts, by noting how that thing relates to other things beyond itself, but that’s not the structure of that thing being described.

When used without qualification or reference and merely as a quality itself, structure is a very abstract concept able to be stretched over many categories of compositional interrelationships. For instance: atomic structure, musical structure, narrative structure, mechanical structure, political structure, organizational structure, conceptual structure, and the list goes on. In each of these (and many more) the rules of structure are constrained by the received scheme of available parts, the availability of a common space in which those parts can be “positionally” located, and how those parts can interrelate with each other in that space as largely governed by their relative positions in that space. In short: what, where and how.

Common-space? Yes, the structural parts must be capable of interrelating. If they cannot influence each other they are not “together” in any meaningful sense. A good deal of systemization is discovering or inventing the space in which parts can interrelate.

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