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Revista mexicana de ciencias agrícolas

versión impresa ISSN 2007-0934

Rev. Mex. Cienc. Agríc vol.8 no.1 Texcoco ene./feb. 2017 


Epistemic framework for studying agroecosystems

Patricia Cruz Bautista1 

Juan Pablo Martínez Dávila1  §  

Francisco Osorio Acosta1 

Gustavo López Romero1 

Néstor Estrella Chulin2 

José Regalado López2 

1Colegio de Postgraduados-Campus Veracruz. Carretera Xalapa-Veracruz, km 85.5. Predio Tepetates, Manlio Fabio Altamirano, Veracruz. CP. 91690. AP. 91700. Tel. 229 2010770, ext. 6430. (;;

2Colegio de Postgraduados-Campus Puebla. Carretera Federal México-Puebla, km 125.5. Santiago Momoxpan, San Pedro Cholula, Puebla. México. CP. 72760. AP. I-12. Col. La Libertad, Puebla, Puebla, México. CP. 72130. Tel. 22 228514 55, ext. 2013. (;


The aim of the present document is to frame the approach of agroecosystems, with autopoietic perspectives, in some current that corresponds to it considering that many of the works realized under the approach of agroecosystems lack of a frame of this type and with theoretical absence. Based on this assertion, it is desirable that researchers studying complex phenomena possess epistemological notions to locate their academic position and, based on it, the theoretical bases of such works. This would undoubtedly help to identify the differences and similarities of the various epistemic postures, making the work planned to be coherent. The agroecosystems approach is located within the galilean line; which, through history, has had as objectives: the control and domination of nature, in an attempt to maximize profits. The knowledge of the different epistemic postures can lead us to reflect on the benefits, or otherwise, of the galilean current, but also of the aristotelian current, with the option of complementing both currents, in the quest to be a better human being and achieve a best society.

Keywords: autopoiesis; epistemology


El objetivo del presente documento es enmarcar al enfoque de agroecosistemas, con perspectivas autopoiéticas, en alguna corriente que le corresponda considerando que muchos de los trabajos realizados bajo el enfoque de agroecosistemas carecen de un marco de este tipo y con ausencia teórica. Con base en esa aseveración, es deseable que los investigadores que estudian fenómenos complejos posean nociones epistemológicas para ubicar su posición académica y, con base en ello las bases teóricas de dichos trabajos. Esto ayudaría sin duda a identificar las diferencias y similitudes de las diversas posturas epistémicas, haciendo coherentes los trabajos que se planean realizar. El enfoque de agroecosistemas, está ubicado dentro de la línea galileana; la cual, a través de la historia, ha tenido como objetivos: el control y dominio de la naturaleza, en un intento por maximizar las ganancias. El conocimiento de las diferentes posturas epistémicas puede llevarnos a reflexionar sobre las bondades, o lo contrario, de la corriente galileana, pero también de la aristotélica, con la opción de complementar ambas corrientes, en la búsqueda de ser un mejor ser humano y lograr una mejor sociedad.

Palabras clave: autopoiesis; epistemología


This work starts with the premise that Abitbol and Botero (2005) very aptly do: “theories are not chosen for how true they are (since they are almost never), but for their usefulness in the construction of specific models which are used to explain phenomena, do things and solve problems in concrete situations”. Or, as Maturana and Varela (1994) would say, before attempting a formalization, it is necessary to have a complete description of the phenomena or of the system to be formalized.

In this same sense, it is assumed important by Padrón (1994), “... it is necessary that the student manage epistemological notions to help explain certain operations, this in the light of a conceptual framework inserted in a pre-defined epistemological approach. For this, not only is it important to locate and understand the epistemological line in which the researcher is, but to have knowledge of the other lines, and thus, take a critical position that contributes to improving the quality of the research work”. It should be noted that there are few studies that have been concerned with insertion in any of the different paradigms of research. Some of the contributions in this respect are those of Mardones and Ursua (1982), Padrón (1994); as well as, Pasek and Matos (2006), which will be considered, to finally locate the Luhmannian theory.

Given the above, the theoretical proposal of Luhmann’s autopoiesis is a border option to explain the phenomena that occur in contemporary society, it offers complexity, which, without doubt, could be useful to try to understand social phenomena. To achieve this, it is important to have the epistemic basis of such a theory, to use it consistently; considering proposal of García (2006), the research process must begin with an epistemic framework, to specify how do we know? And what do we know? As mentioned by Álvarez et al. (2014), the epistemological approach chosen by a researcher, will adequately guide the choice of the theoretical and methodological approach, hence the importance of the researcher handling epistemic elements to ensure proper construction of the object of study.

Based on what has been explained, it is considered relevant that the researcher can consciously clarify, explore and assume a particular paradigm (Pasek and Matos, 2006), this will contribute to cementing the theoretical bases of the various works carried out, and to be done, where the researcher take a stand for solidity, and even carefully take elements of both streams, which may help explain and better understand the phenomena under study. Therefore, it is proposed that the objective of this document is to place in a congruent way the study of agroecosystems with an autopoietic approach, in the adequate epistemological current, which will contribute to assume the corresponding paradigm, with solidity and coherence.

Epistemological origin vs theory of autopoietic social systems of Niklas Luhmann

Considering the importance of the theory of autopoietic social systems (TSSA) and therefore the autopoiesis of Luhmann for the present document, it is relevant to answer the following question: What is the epistemological genesis of Luhmann’s theory? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to make a brief historical tour of the main known epistemological currents and from there to reach the bases of Luhmann’s proposal. This in order to know and apprehend that knowledge and thus have a solid basis for understanding, interpreting and applying the TSSA. To do so, it must be based on what is considered as philosophy of science and epistemology; noting the difference between the former and the general philosophy. In the past, the term philosophy of science has been used (looking more “literary”, arousing some mistrust) or: epistemology (which is a more serious, “scientific” word); as can be seen, since the choice of term, the controversy begins (Mardones and Ursua, 1982).

On the one hand, the concept of epistemology is employed in different ways: according to the country and for what is used, it serves to designate a general theory of knowledge, or for detailed studies of the genesis and studies of the sciences. What can be said is that epistemology is not the reflection of an orthodoxy; does not pretend to discover “the truth” of epistemology. It is only an attempt at analysis; epistemology does not seek to impose dogmas on scientists, but to study the genesis and structure of scientific knowledge (Mardones and Ursua, 1982). On the other hand, philosophy, more than the other disciplines, reveals what man is in all his reality; has to do more with man himself than with his environment and his action lies within the subject; since it allows and makes possible a greater perfection of itself (Pantano, 1949).

Given the above, general philosophy encompasses all kinds of thinking, all knowledge, where the human being seeks to be in harmony as a society and allows metaphysical questions. From this comes the philosophy of science, it is in charge of seeing everything concerning science. Still allowing metaphysical questions; while in epistemology, only scientifically testable facts are contemplated.

Chronology and controversy between two irreconcilable epistemological traditions: the aristotelian and the Galilean

These two traditions originated in ancient Greece. The Aristotelian tradition goes back to the stagirite, as one of its first representatives, while the galilean, although it receives the name of Galileo Galilei, sinks its roots in Pythagoras and in Platon. For the aristotelian current the first thing is the observation and then the idea, that is to say, a teleological reason was sought: In order to what happened the phenomena? Whereas for the galilean current, it was thought that the idea was first; besides being interested in the dominion and power over nature; was no longer interested in answering the why? and for what? but only by the how? of the phenomena (Mardones and Ursua, 1982).

Some authors make a clear distinction between the two positions, defining that Aristotle’s classic thought created vitalism, assigning to living beings a finalist immaterial guiding element, which acquired expression through the materialization of its forms. After Aristotle, and as a variation of his fundamental notions, in the history of biology are recorded theories that in one way or another try to cover all the phenomenology of living systems, under a peculiar organizing force, the inevitable pressure of expression and the decisive impulse of cartesian thought, thus emerges a different approach, which insisted that the only factors operative in the organization of living systems are physical factors, denying the force of an immaterial system organizing the living (Mardones and Ursua, 1982; Maturana and Varela, 1994).

Assuming this, it is thought that knowing everything concerning epistemology will help researchers to make the decision to apprehend a paradigm that is in accordance with their thinking style. To achieve this, the different paradigms must be considered, which come from the two traditions mentioned above. Mardones and Ursua (1982) propose three positions: the analytic empirical; the phenomenological, hermeneutic and linguistic; and the dialectic or critical hermeneutics.

Padrón (1994), for his part, also points out three approaches or paradigms: the inductive empiricist, the deductive rationalist and the introspective phenomenology.

Taking the works of Padrón (1994), Mardones and Ursua (1982), and Pasek and Matos (2006), the epistemological postures are analyzed, an emerging posture is proposed, the holistic approach or complexity paradigm; For the above, four basic elements were used: the ontological (the conception of the universe or the conception of reality), the gnoseological (way of conceiving and generating the knowledge of man in facing life), axiological Of values), methodological (procedure to address reality), and epistemological (how scientific knowledge is generated). The above proposals provide a broad overview of the various positions; However, considering that all the proposals emerge from the two main currents, and for the purposes of the present work, it is used the proposal of Mardones and Ursua (1982) (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Epistemological approaches. Elaboration based on the philosophy of the social and human sciences of Mardones and Ursua(1982).  

Epistemological postures

In order to be internalized in the objectives of the present work the analysis is approached through the two main philosophical currents, the aristotelian or materialist stance, and the galilean or idealist stance. In the Aristotelian or materialistic current there is a bifurcation; on the one hand, there is the phenomenological, hermeneutic and linguistic posture, and on the other, the dialectical or hermeneutical position according to the classification of (Mardones and Ursua, 1982). As we know, the dialectical or critical-hermeneutic posture is totally opposed to the analytic empirical position, since they conceive of reality as changing and dynamic, which is transformed by the very activities of man (Mardones y Ursua, 1982; Pasek and Matos, 2006). This position is mainly represented by the Frankfurt school in the twentieth century, attending to two basic theses: the first is directed to the dialectic of the relations of domination (inheritance of Marxism); the second, from a subjectivist perspective that includes the works of Dilthey, Husserl and Heidegger, in the separation between “sciences of nature” and “sciences of the spirit”, and the concepts of “understanding” instead of “explanation”.

In the same vein, the critical theory that emerges from the need for emancipation goes through the explanation of how man is alienated and subjected through socio-cultural mechanisms, which includes the same science in terms of structure and domination. These emancipatory ideas are not found in the positivist position, that is, they do not go through “scientific explanation”, it is useful only in the approaches of “interpretation” and “understanding” (Padrón, 1994). The phenomenological, hermeneutic and linguistic posture, as a derivation of the positions of the Frankfurt school in the 60’s, follows another variant, which moves towards empiricism (in terms of experientialism or experientialism), maintaining its own phenomenological, reflexivist and subjectivist standards of the Frankfurt paradigm (Padrón, 1994). It should be clear that, in this sub-line, it is not intended to ignore “scientific rationality” as understood by the positivist-empirical tradition; only contradicts their reductionism, for them, the world is a species under construction that men design, since to access reality, they use the symbols elaborated by him, such as language; and are based on the fact that the center of attention is the phenomenon and its understanding, therefore it is considered that science is fundamentally a historical product of man (Mardones and Ursua, 1982).

In short, we can understand that, unlike the empiricists, who had an objectivist view (where the subject was not involved with the object), the phenomenology posed the opposite, they considered that the subject had to be involved with the object in order to understand the phenomenon, is they have a subjectivist view of reality.

In reference to the galilean line, as we know, this one has the objective to the handling and control of the nature for business purposes; that is, basically seeks financial and economic efficiency. Some authors divide this position into rationalism-idealist and empiricist-realist (Padrón, 1994), or empirical-deductive, rationalist-deductive and holistic or complexity (Pasek and Matos, 2006). As can be deduced, in this line are the empiricists, rationalists, positivists, and all who participate in the paradigm of complexity. It should be mentioned that all these paradigms emerged at different times, so that for the purposes of this document, all of them were placed in the general line of platonic idealism.

The empirical-analytical posture is found in the galilean current, and appeared in the nineteenth century, seeking to fulfill the dreams of the enlightenment. By the hand of the bourgeoisie it had and aims for the pursuit of knowledge to culminate with the mastery of nature to achieve material progress (Mardones and Ursua, 1982). In the same line, the Galilean, stands the rationalist-realistic (Padrón, 1994) or rationalist-deductive (according to Pasek and Matos) posture represented by Popper, Einstein, Chomsky, etc. The galilean line passes first from a form of science with observable objects, to later pass to the calculable and thinkable (Padrón, 1994). Another posture emerges from the galilean current, the holistic approach, because of the growing awareness of the complexity of natural and social phenomena, there arises the need for a position that could analyze these phenomena widely.

Systems theory

Assuming already the two epistemological currents, this document refers to the posture of the systemic thought. As mentioned earlier, the systemic approach is found in the Galilean current. According to Arnold and Osorio (1998), Bertalanffy himself recognizes himself as positivist, saying of himself: “in philosophy, the formation of the author followed the tradition of neo-positivism of the group of Moritz Schlick, later called the Vienna Circle. Had to be, his interest in german mysticism, Spengler’s historical relativism and the history of art, combined with other unorthodox attitudes, prevented him from becoming a good positivist”.

It is important to mention Herrscher’s (2005) approach, which states that while the empiricist approach has gone unchanged for 400 years, systemic thinking has already gone through three distinct generations of change: the first generation (operational research), which dealt with interdependence, in the context of mechanical systems; the second (cybernetics and open systems) dealt with the double challenge, interdependence and self-organization in the context of living systems, and the third generation, which responds to the trio of interdependence, self -organization and freedom of choice, in the context of socio-cultural systems.

The three generations of systems and their main representatives have been kept in the galilean line (Bertalanffy, Rolando García, Herrscher, Van Gigch, Morin, Chiavenato, etc.), since, despite the study of the social part, no ideas of emancipation are included, thus the conflict is handled only as a dysfunction of the system. The term “agroecology” appeared in the twentieth century, and in the 1980s it was consolidated as a discipline. From Gliessman, Conway, Altieri, Odum, Hechts, agroecology had the technical-agricultural-ecological notion; however, in introducing the socio-cultural component of the complex systems approach into research, Morin, Caporal, Costabeber, and Paulus integrate complex thinking into systems analysis and introduce agroecology into the field of agroecology More complex and holistic, of production systems and their phenomena (Álvarez et al., 2014), so that the agroecosystem was abandoned as something only physical-biological, to be integrated into the studies of complex systems, qualitatively surpassing agroecology.

Consequently, abstract visions emerge about the concept of systems, Herrscher (2005) mentions that systems are not things, but that there are things that are decided to treat as systems; In this line of abstraction, García (2006) defines complex systems as “... representations of reality cuts, conceptualized as an organized totality, in which the elements are no longer separable and cannot be studied in isolation”. This position, when considering agroecosystems as a model, also clarifies and places the approach of complex systems in border position to explain, understand and interpret them. Because of the complex reality of the world, phenomena are becoming increasingly difficult to study (with the added effects of globalization), the agroecosystems approach has to be based on the theory of complex systems.

Based on the previous references, it can be said that the complex thinking, proposed by Edgar Morin, Rolando García and Niklas Luhmann, corresponds to a fourth generation of systems. This complex systemic approach offers a new way of approaching reality, in a multidimensional and no longer reductionist way. The contemporary society demands a new approach, one that allows to approach the complex phenomena within its multiple diversity.

Autopoietic systems

Moving on to the proposal of autopoietic systems. We will have to consider that Maturana and Varela (1994), were the first that offered this proposal, under a biological only approach; inclusive, from the beginning they were positioned in the galilean current saying: our approach will be mechanistic: we will not adduce forces nor principles that are not in the physical universe.

Luhmann takes this idea and moves it to social phenomena causing a great controversy in the scientific field, placing the human being in the environment of the social system, not in its structure. Humberto Maturana, given his biological approach, does not find it appropriate to apply this proposal in social systems, not like Luhmann does, since Maturana proposes the existence of social systems, but under a completely biological vision. The TSSA and autopoietic approach is then postpositivist and posttempericist (Figure 2), valid for both biological and social phenomena, which is really a revolution in the field of modern epistemology (Arnold, 1988).

Figure 2 Epistemological location of the autopoietic systems approach. Elaboration based on the proposal of Mardones and Ursua (1982).  

It is not possible to forget, of course, that Niklas Luhmann’s work is considered to be heiress of Talcott Parsons’ social systems perspective (Lewcow, 2012), Luhmann retakes parsonian functionalism from a different perspective. For him, the functional system was not being applied adequately, it defines its theoretical position as functional-structuralist and not as structural-functionalist, as Parsons argued.

Luhmann, proposes that there are no given structures that must be supported by required functions, but that function is the raw material on the structure (Arriaga, 2003). In Luhmann (2005) argument that function must be observed above structure, that function consists in the understanding and reduction of complexity.

Although the TSSA is placed first in the idealistic current; However, Luhmann takes elements of phenomenology and hermeneutics to adapt them to his theory (Sánchez, 2007), understanding that it is no longer enough to explain social phenomena (Erklaren), but also to understand them (Verstehen). This shows the need for new eclectic views on modern epistemological dynamics. Luhmann proposes a plausible social theory, compared with those proposed by Weber and Habermas; however, not only is it important to get closer to the understanding of complex contemporary social phenomena, but these proposals must consider theoretical resources that show the importance of moral aspects in the interaction of human beings (Sánchez, 2007), something of the which still lack the proposals mentioned.

The agroecosystem under an autopoietic approach

The approach and concept of agroecosystems, has had several aspects, is used in relation to its perspective of object of study, as part of the new science of complex systems; and as an abstraction of agricultural reality, so it is also considered as a model (Vilaboa et al., 2009), This approach has its origins in the general systems theory, proposed by Bertalanffy (1976), where he was considered as a real entity, as an open system that has some structure, components, inputs (inputs), outputs (outputs), function and interaction between its elements and components. As can be seen, the concept remains in the Galilean line, and although it has had different approaches, several of them, refer to the ecosystem modified by man, whose objective is to obtain certain products for the benefit of the same (Hernandez, X. 1977; Odum, 1985; Hart, 1985; Conway, 1987).

According to García et al. (2010) there are several concepts of agroecosystem, are: ecosystemic, space-temporal, cybernetics, unitary, modeling, evolutionary, diagnostic, systemic and autopoietic. Although they have different notions, they are all in the same galilean line; although researchers such as Gallardo et al. (2011) propose an assemblage of paradigms to do science (empirical-inductive, theoretical-deductive and introspective-experiential); although there are still researchers who refuse complementarity. Many of them have not even considered the study and objective of social emancipation, characteristic of the dialectical posture or hermeneutic criticism.


It is important and desirable that researchers integrate epistemological notions, since this will surely contribute to improve the quality of their research work, starting from better-founded philosophical bases. The approach of the theory of autopoietic social systems is located within the galilean current, where it has been sought the dominion and control of the nature, to maximize the profits; in addition, elements of hermeneutics and phenomenology are also considered; There are hardly any ideas of social emancipation. The theoretical body offered by Luhmann clearly shows the importance of complementing the methods, in order to improve the explanation and understanding of complex phenomena.

From our perspective, the study of agroecosystems can be greatly improved by some epistemic and theoretical knowledge, since the methodology to be used in the different research works should be detached from these. And above all, these notions will allow a more critical view of existing positions, since researchers often lock in one position without knowing the others, thus limiting the analysis of the complex phenomena of agroecosystem.

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Received: November 2016; Accepted: January 2017

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