Before I became interested in cybernetics, my research had been – through accident rather than intention – broadly moving toward Critical Realism. This is and was primarily through reflexivity. Reflexivity, as a word, has its first usage in late medieval/ Early Modern English history. Early usage is material and refers to physical phenomena. That something bends back on itself, interacts with itself and references itself. The word then is used to indicate a self-referential encounter by a being with itself. Reflexivity as an ongoing negotiation of the world.
Cybernetics offers its own take on reflexivity. The idea of autopoiesis is analogous to reflexivity. It was originally posited by Maturana and Varela to explain how biological systems respond to and interact with complex environments. An organism (or biology system) momentarily interacts with its complex environment. This interaction provides feedback to the organism which responds by adapting its internal systems and processes to respond to that feedback. It is a recursively contingent behaviour, where the organism is able to remake itself in response to a changing environment. Luhmann extended this to psychic and social systems.
Margaret Archer’s realist social theory extends and elaborates on reflexivity, providing an account of how the individual negotiates and then changes structures and cultures (potentially) through reflexivity. The cybernetic account considers how a system which includes organisms and structures, also works reflexively through autopoiesis. The adjustments to the system’s internal processes are remade though recursive and contingent behaviours.
I think one of the major differences, is that reflexivity in realist social theory suggests something akin to linear causalities. Autopoiesis is cyclical, an iterative action, of re-entry into itself.
I have presented the idea of Cybernetic Realism to incorporate the autopoietic and the reflexive.