Structural coupling

This term was introduced by Humberto Maturana.

Horse And Rider

The rapport between horse and rider illustrates 'structural coupling'.

Origins of the term:

  • It was devised by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in trying to understand the organisational processes that sustain living systems.
  • It reflects the complementarity of different organisms that can emerge when they operate interdependently over a prolonged period.

“We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.” (Maturana & Varela, 1973 p. 75)

  • The Korean word jeong ( jeong.png ) has a similar meaning, although it is usually applied within terms of social relationships.
  • In order to understand 'structural coupling' fully, it is useful to explore the term autopoiesis which, in literal terms, denotes the idea of 'self-creation' (as system).
  • Where autopoiesis explains how a single organism sustains its own survival, 'structural coupling' is the process by which several organisms establish working synergies after they have developed habits that correspond to the other's behaviour.

Structural Coupling 3 square-50cm-spacer.jpg 429px Ants Cultivating Afids On Digitalis Purpurea Purple Foxglove Roter Fingerhut Hesse Germany 05
Fig. 1 - Illustration of Structural Coupling (Maturana & Varela) square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 2 - Symbiosis among ants, aphids & Foxglove (Wikimedia)
Fig. 1 shows the metabolic pathways of two organisms (i.e. the circles/spheres) in the context of their ecosystem (i.e. the wave system at the bottom). The reciprocating arrows between them show an interdependence that has developed over time.

Fig. 2 illustrates symbiosis, which represents a particular type of structural coupling that often occurs as a long-term interaction between two or more different biological species. The above photograph, the Aphids on the tip of purple foxglove are attended by ants, which harvest the honeydew being secreted from the aphids.

Possible applications

Because the framework of thinking behind Maturana and Varela's theories are systemic, their approach can also be used for systems that include non-biological components.

  • Example 1.: in a managerial context, structural coupling among colleagues can be augmented using some methods of co-authoring that we call sympoiesis. This is designed to bring about new possibilities (within the co-authored text) while simultaneously enhancing the strength and/or resilience of the coupling (e.g. team spirit) between/among the co-authors.


  • Example 2.: structural coupling exists in many social, technological, economic and political forms, such as corruption, vested interest, exploitation or institutional racism, etc. By understanding it, we may map, explain or re-model the co-dependencies that serve to sustain a particular paradigm, even after its usefulness has vanished.

Further Reading

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