Publish at March 15 2023 Updated March 15 2023

Social systems learning as a basis for collective emancipation

Create ourselves, collectively


What we call emancipation is the free choice of a soul between different limitations


What is emancipation?

Emancipation means to extricate oneself from domination, guardianship, servitude, alienation, hindrance, moral or intellectual constraint, or prejudice. Emancipation is one of the driving forces behind the transformation of society.

This aim is at the heart of the adult development project. It is one of the foundations of the culture of vocational education. It therefore aims at the liberation and independence of each person through knowledge and the associated surplus of consciousness. In order to be emancipated, it is necessary to understand social systems and to develop the possibility of exercising one's power of action within them. Understanding social systems fosters collective emancipation, as identifying the invisible rules that hold us together evolves us and sometimes leaves them with less of a grip.

Learning about social systems

There are several theories explaining social systems.

First, systems theory (Bernard-Weil, 1999) which views social systems as sets of interconnected and interdependent elements. The interactions and relationships between these elements are studied to understand the dynamics of the social system as a whole. This theory is used by Edgar Morin to decipher complexity. 

Contingency theory (Louis 2002) suggests that social systems are influenced by their environment and that different situations require different approaches and solutions. In this theory, social systems  learning takes into account the diversity of contexts and cultures.

Social learning theory developed by Albert Bandura is particularly influential in pedagogy. It shows  how learning occurs through observation and imitation of others' behaviors. Learning thus involves observing the behaviors of others in the social system and understanding their effect on the elements of the system. Learning operates through modeling.

In symbolic interactionism theory (Lacaze, 2013)  individuals interact with their social environment using symbols (words, gestures, signs, etc.). It is therefore a matter of understanding symbols and the meanings attributed to them in a given context.

Learning about social systems is likened to an autopoietic (self-creative) movement to ground collective action 

Understanding a social system is in line with Paolo Freire's ambition for conscientization. Let us first recall that the concept of autopoiesis refers to the capacity of living systems to self-produce and self-regulate, using the resources available in their environment.

The concept was developed by biologists Maturana and Varela (Kawamoto, 2011) to describe biological systems, but it has since been applied to other fields, including the social sciences. Social systems, such as groups, organizations, and communities, often have an ability to self-organize and self-regulate in response to external and internal influences. Members of a social system work together to achieve common goals, while adapting to changes and disruptions that occur.

However, social systems are often more complex than biological systems because they involve human beings with cognitive abilities and free will. The individuals that make up a social system can interact in unpredictable ways. They change their behavior in response to different stimuli. Systems also interact with actors, increasing the number of feedback loops. In addition, social systems are influenced by external factors, such as culture and values, that affect their evolution.

Social Smarter

Social systems learning is part of adult empowerment because it reveals how individuals and groups interact, collaborate, confront, and transform over time. This learning helps them acquire interpersonal skills, develop emotional intelligence, improve their communication skills, better understand cultural differences and also strengthen their civic engagement. They are then able to make choices with awareness.

Social systems are complex, with many actors, dynamic processes, and multiple relationships. Crozier (1977) showed how in organizations human groups learn to manage margins of uncertainty to gain power over the situations in which they are involved. Understanding and analyzing these systems can be difficult, especially for adults who are not trained in systems thinking. Therefore, it is helpful to develop basic systems and learning skills to navigate this complexity.

Subjective perceptions, biases, mental representations, and stereotypes hinder individual and collective actors' understanding of social systems. Each person perceives the world from an angle that depends on his or her life trajectory, the sum of his or her past choices, education, and self-constructed preferences. Sociologists strive to objectify the mental representations that circulate in these systems through their immersion and their observations, questionnaires or surveys. 

It is difficult to have an objective and balanced view of social systems because the trainer, the observer or the learner are always situated in this system and never in a position of exteriority. In group training, especially when the groups are heterogeneous, it is possible to encourage adults to take into account their biases in order to better interact together.

How to learn to understand and act in a social system?

All forms of dialogue or open and constructive discussions are opportunities for adults to recognize and respect differences in values and place in the system. Learning about social systems can be done formally or informally. Through university courses in the social sciences (such as sociology, anthropology, social psychology, etc.), through professional trainings, such as management, human relations, negotiation trainings, through webinars and online trainings offered by educational institutions, professional organizations or independent consultants.

But informal means are also relevant, with books and articles on social systems through social networking, to exchange information, ideas and opinions on social systems. Internet users can follow experts, share articles and interact with others who are interested in the topic. They are responsible for their own learning and can be exposed to different points of view.

Probably the richest human activities to better understand social systems, fall under participant observation, which involves actively participating in a social system, observing the interactions and behaviors of members, and taking note of the norms, values, and practices that govern the system. Simulations can recreate complex social situations, using models and scenarios to understand the interactions and relationships among the different elements of the social system. 

Debates and discussions can provide an opportunity to confront different perspectives and viewpoints, and to better understand the issues and challenges facing social systems. In informal study groups, circles, or communities of interest, members can meet regularly to discuss readings, share ideas, and practice social systems analysis exercises dealing with local life,  culture,  specific problems of an organization or association. 

Probably the most proven way of "learning to do social" relies on all forms of dialogue around a common topic. All dialogues are then interesting, dialogue circles,  talking circles, reflection circles, learning circles, problem solving circles aim to explore complex situations or challenges encountered in a social system and to seek solutions or alternatives together. (Cristol, 2017

Empowering skills learned in a dialogue circle

Attending a dialogue circle can contribute to the transformation of a social system in different ways, depending on the circle's goals and practices, as well as the contexts in which it is embedded. A circle helps to foster mutual understanding, encourage critical reflection develop dialogue skills in participants, building their capacity to communicate effectively, listen actively, formulate relevant questions, respect other points of view and seek constructive consensus.

Finally, the dialogue circle stimulates participants' commitment to and action on social system transformation by increasing their understanding of the issues and challenges they face, inspiring them to think about concrete solutions, and encouraging them to act individually and collectively for change.


Docebo. What is social learning and how to adopt it

Wikipedia. EmancipationÉmancipation  

Bernard-Weil, É. (1999). The theory of ago-antagonistic systems. Debate, (4), 106-120.  

Louis, D. (2002). The theory of contingency. Publications Studies & Analyses.

Lacaze, L. (2013). Blumer's symbolic interactionism revisited. Societies, 121, 41-52.

Wikipedia Edgard Morin  

Kawamoto, H. (2011). Autopoiesis and the "individual" in the making. Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger, 136, 347-363. 

Crozier, M., & Friedberg, E. (1977). The actor and the system.

Cristol, D. (2017). Learning communities: learning together. Knowledge, 43, 10-55. 

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