Interdependence is one of the central concepts within systems theory in that most definitions for a system involve the idea of interdependency between a set of parts.1 Indeed the idea of interdependency is often the central concept that is used to define a system, in that without interdependency between parts there is no system just a set of independent elements. Interdependence is a type of connection or relation between elements; relations may be defined as either dependent, co-dependent, independent or interdependent.
In systems theory, interdependence is defined in slightly more specific terms than in the everyday usage of the term. Here it means an interrelationship between autonomous elements through the formation of a combined, emergent organization. The essence of interdependence involves autonomy, differentiation, and emergency. Two or more autonomous elements coming together, differentiating their states with respect to each other, to create some combined organization that is greater than any of the parts, through the process of emergence.
Before there can be any form of interdependence, there must be connectivity between the parts. Connectivity and interdependence are two distinctly different phenomena. Connectivity defines an exchange of some kind, whereas as interdependence describes some form of dependence within that exchange. Although they are different ideas, connectivity is a prerequisite to interdependence and connectivity is a driver of interdependency. There may be other factors that change the degree of interdependence within a system, but connectivity is a primary factor. As connectivity increases, this presents more channels or mediums for the development of interdependencies.
If two or more parts of a system are highly interdependent, they must engage in a large number of interactions. If no interactions occur between the parts of a system, they are not interdependent and therefore they do not make up a system.2
Dependence defines the state of relying on or being controlled by someone or something else.3 The flow of dependence in this relation is unidirectional. One element is dependent on the other without the other element being dependent on the first. For example, in mathematical modeling, there are dependent and independent variables. Many scientific and mathematical models investigate how the former depend on the latter. The dependent variables represent the output or outcome whose variation is being studied. The independent variables represent inputs or causes, i.e. potential reasons for a change.4 Planet Earth’s relationship with the sun is one of dependence. The Sun can be said to be independent of the Earth, but Earth’s whole state and functioning would change dramatically without the Sun.
Codependency describes a relation where each element is dependent directly on the other to maintain their state or operation. Codependence often implies a power imbalance between the two components within the dynamic, as one element becomes dominant over the other. Even though one part is seen to have manifest power or influence over the other, the dependency still operates in both directions; the influencer is still dependent in some way on the influenced.
For example, in an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, the socio-political dynamic will often be presented as one of dependence, where the people are dependent on the sovereign or dictator to rule them. Power and influence will appear to flow in one direction, with the ruler being independent to do as they want. But of course this is not the case, without the population, and the population being submissive to the ruler, the ruler would not exist. Thus the ruler is equally dependent on the population, but this only becomes manifest when the people rebel and reveal the underlying dynamic of codependence.
Within psychology, codependency is characterized by a person belonging to a one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting some or many of their emotional and self-esteem needs or enabling the person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behavior.5 But equally, over time the other person becomes dependent on their role in supporting that person. Dependence and codependence are essentially the same things, the only difference being whether the flow of that dependence is unidirectional or bidirectional.
Independence within a connection relates to a lack of any form of dependence within the relation, each element may engage in the connection but is not significantly affected by it. Independent elements act autonomously. The components within an independent connection are not defined, driven or significantly influenced by the other items in that connection. This type of relation may be defined as an exchange, which is the act of giving one thing and receiving another. In a connection between independent agents, exchanges are made based upon the perceived interests and logic governing each actor. For a connection to be one of independence, the members must be acting autonomously.
An independent relationship requires both freedom and autonomy on the behalf of the members engaged in the relation. Freedom defines the ability to act without internal or external constraints.6 While the term freedom is often understood more in terms of the capacity to make external choices, the term autonomy defines not just the actions that someone takes, or appears to have available to them, it also relates to the motives behind their actions and reasoning.
For actions to be autonomous they must be a product of an individual’s capacity to govern themselves. The coherentist approach to autonomy states that an agent governs their actions – and thus acts autonomously – if, and only if, their motives adhere with some internal logic, set of rules or beliefs defined by that actor. As long as the agent acts in a way that is in agreement with their own beliefs, desires, and logic, then they can be said to be acting autonomously.
Added to this, the set of instructions under which an actor is operating must also be based on sound reasoning. Actors do not truly govern themselves unless the motives or mental processes that produce their actions are responsive to a sufficiently wide range of reasons for or against a particular belief, value or action. The individual needs to be aware of the reasoning, information, and motives behind their operations to be acting independently. If these are constrained than their autonomy will be likewise constrained.
For example, a person who is exposed to only a limited number of media channels which present only a single perspective on a political subject, cannot be said to be acting fully independently when it comes to casting their vote, as in such a circumstance their reasoning has not been a product of a balanced consideration of all the relevant facts.
Interdependence is inherently complex in that it involves a dynamic of both dependence and autonomy on different levels. As the author Stephen Covey wrote, “Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make.” Interdependence is what happens when autonomous element interact and enable the emergence of an overall system. The concept of interdependence differs from the reliance in a dependent relationship, where some elements are dependent on others. With interdependence the parts are not dependent on each other directly, they are instead, interrelated through enabling the emergence of some overall combined organization.7
Interdependence involves the emergence of some overall combined system to the organization, where individuals retain their autonomy with respect to each other, but they are interdependent with respect to the overall combined organization. Each component has to differentiate their function and state with regard to other components in order to create a combined overall system. It is then this relationship of interdependence that shapes the constituent element’s properties, and thus the change in the parts is not seen to be generated by any elementary part but instead is defined by its interdependence with the whole.
When two or more elements work together to form some combined organization they differentiate their states with respect to each other in order to create synergies and the emergence of a new level of organization. This emergent organization is not associated with the individual properties of any of its parts; thus no part is directly dependent on any other, they are shaped and formed by the whole organization. One example of this would be a co-operative enterprise, which is an autonomous association of people united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled business.