Systems of organization: Ladders, webs, and fractals as organizing structures

If we look carefully, we can see systems literally everywhere. But what exactly are we looking for? Why does our perspective matter? And how do different perspectives affect how we think about the world?

There are all kinds of systems: physical (mechanical, infrastructure, environmental, physiological), social (political, economical, legal, health care), informational (ideological, mathematical, linguistic). The lists go on. Essentially, anything that operates as a functional whole with interacting parts could be described as a system.

As a generic term referring to a whole unit defined by interacting parts, the word system is not particularly useful. While there is a range in the degrees of interactivity possible, since everything is connected, everything interacts, which means everything is somehow part of a system. Of course, all systems are not created equal.

What is and isn’t a system depends on how we perceive relationships among parts and wholes. If we don’t see any relationships, we may assume that two things aren’t part of a common system. The relationships we do see inform our thinking about the nature of the whole and parts of a system.

While there are a variety of part-whole relationships or interactions, we can categorize systems – or, more accurately, ways of looking at systems – into three functional types: linear, network, and emergent. Even though they follow a developmental trend of increasing complexity, each perspective represents a distinct organization of interactions among parts that constitute a whole. The descriptions below are intended to serve as an outline for comparing and contrasting these perspectives.


Although not typically referred to as a system, linear interactions are nevertheless an important type of part-whole organization.

  • Organization: Vertical/Horizontal (ordered) interactions
  • Structural metaphors: Ladders, chains
  • Example: Viewing the body as a single functional unit on a spectrum of time, its various states or stages can represent parts of the whole.




Networks may represent various degrees of complexity and different scales of non-emergent levels.

  • Organization: Lateral interactions
  • Structural metaphors: Stars (centralized), trees (decentralized), webs (distributed)
  • Example: Viewing parts of the body as functional units can involve:
    • External or internal pieces of the body as parts that fit together to form a whole.
    • Systems within the body as parts that work together to form a whole.
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    • Tissues of the body as parts that operate in specific ways to form a whole.
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  • Organization: Multi-scale (ordered) network interactions
  • Structural metaphors: Fractals
  • Example: Viewing body cells as functional units, the body emerges from the various interaction patterns of its cells. As the diagram illustrates, this perspective may include more than two levels of scale.


Your Body 3.0 | Nina Tandon
Hierarchy | Wikipedia