Complexity Theory in the Social Sciences: tidying things up or just creating chaos?

By Alessio Bertolini (Staff Writer)

Can we actually know the universe? My God, it’s hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown. - Woody Allen

“We live in a complex world”. This sentence is constantly used by people around us, and occasionally we might use these words ourselves in conversation. But how complex is it? And, can we really understand its complexity? What about the social world and its complexity?

In this post, I introduce the reader to Complexity Theory. I begin by outlining some scientific ways of knowing (ontologies) through which the sciences have understood scientific endeavours themselves (epistemology), and which, in turn, have gone on to form a kind of origin story for the emergence of Complexity Theory in the social sciences. I then go on to briefly discuss how Complexity Theory has found its home somewhere between the chaos of postmodern relativism and the tidiness of scientific reductionism. I conclude by discussing how the theory has become particularly relevant for the we view society today.

Behind the commonsense acknowledgement that the world is a complex thing, there are profound ontological and epistemological questions that ought to be answered. In contemporary society, we are used to receiving most answers from science, but how is science actually dealing with complexity?[1]

In the 19th century the birth of Newtonian physics established the ontological perspective that the world works in a mainly mechanistic and deterministic way. Phenomena depend on causes that are related to each other by universal relations, immutable in time and space. In order to discover these relations, complex phenomena have to be divided into smaller parts. If necessary, these parts will be cut into smaller and smaller parts until we reach a level at which the parts are small enough and simple enough to be studied scientifically. Thus, in Newtonian physics complex phenomena were viewed as a combination of simpler ones, an idea that came to be known as reductionism. Over the following few centuries, the expansion of the scientific method meant disciplines other than physics tended to follow the same approach, dividing complex phenomena into its basic components and analysing each component individually. The social sciences were no exception.

Both positivist and early Marxist sociologists shared the idea that society followed some basic, universal rules, and that the purpose of science was to discover those rules by analysing society’s most basic components. In the 19th century, this Newtonian approach allowed incredible developments in human knowledge in many fields, but soon started to be seen as limited.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Quantum physicists questioned Newtonian ideas by showing that phenomena at the atomic level followed completely different rules from phenomena at the macro-level. Indeed, on infinitely small scales things work in a probabilistic rather than deterministic way. It is thus not only overly simplistic, but profoundly wrong to attribute to macro-phenomena the cumulative behaviour of its individual components.

Chaos Theory showed that very small changes in initial conditions can cause enormous changes in later outcomes. The famous ‘butterfly effect’ (where the flap of a butterfly’s wing in the UK can trigger, after several months or even years, a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico) is the most renowned example of this idea of ‘non-linearity’. Thus, while quantum physicists have questioned the mechanistic and deterministic ontology of Newtonian physics, Chaos Theory has completely reversed the common sense assumption that large consequences are necessarily caused by large causes[2]. Epistemologically, modern physics has ruled out the possibility of knowing everything precisely, and the idea that phenomena can be fully understood through a reductionist approach.

Similarly, innovative ideas were developed, in part independently, in other scientific areas. Biology and the Cognitive Sciences are both well known for introducing the concept of ‘emergent properties’. Life and mind are good examples of things that cannot be reduced to their basic components. Rather, they ‘emerge’ naturally from the interaction between these basic parts. A cell, the basic unit of life, is not simply a combination of molecules, and a mind is not just a set of neurons. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and thus a reductionist approach is not enough to understand the world in its complexity.

But where were the social sciences in all of this? Social phenomena proved early on that they could not be easily grasped through a reductionist approach. The diversity of the social world, its variation in time and space, called for more sensitive and softer approaches than that of most ‘hard’ sciences. From the work of one of the founding fathers of Social Science, Max Weber, onwards, many sociologists and social scientists grew cautious about attributing universal and atemporal laws to the social world. They were also more hesitant about conceiving of society simply as nothing more than a bunch of individuals, each pursuing her own goals and producing her own behaviour. It was only much later, however, with postmodernism and postmodernists, that the deterministic theories of social functioning were seriously questioned.

Postmodernists deeply critiqued the scientific approach and queried its utility in helping scholars to understand the world, particularly the social world. They questioned the possibility of fully understanding complex phenomena in an objective way, and of applying rigid rules to social worlds. However, postmodernism failed to provide any suitable epistemological alternative, and its advocates were accused of relativism, even nihilism. Whilst the excesses of postmodernism have mostly faded, the epistemological debate in the social sciences is far from set. Contemporary social sciences are torn between, on the one hand, the new-positivist approach of quantitative social science, which is still trying to attribute universal and deterministic laws to the social world; and extreme interpretivist approaches on the other, which emphasize the uniqueness of every social phenomenon and the inability of the social sciences to understand anything outside extremely small and locally limited phenomena. While the former are blamed for oversimplifying the complexity of social phenomena, imagining society simply as a huge machine, the latter are accused of failing to provide generalizable knowledge, and of trapping science into relativist and fragmented positions, defying the purpose for which science was initially designed.

A couple of decades ago, some social scientists started to find a way to reconcile these apparently opposed positions. Drawing from ideas developed in modern physics, particularly Chaos Theory, and those of ‘emergent properties’ from Biology and the Cognitive Sciences, some scientists developed what came to be known as Complexity Theory[3].

So what is Complexity Theory? What are the implications of embracing Complexity Theory on the way we think and imagine the world works? And what are the consequences for the ways in which we try to understand it?

First of all, Complexity Theory states that social phenomena can be conceived of by reference to systems[4]. A system is a network of agents (it does not have to be individuals, it can be tribes, parties, states) which exist in relation with each other. These relations are not stable, they may change over time in direction and intensity – imagine the shifting relations in the EU. The action of an agent produces an effect on a number of other agents, which in turn produces reactions on yet other agents, and so on, in a way that allows for cycles of feedback. Given that feedback may be positive or negative, small initial changes in one agent may produce changes in the network that are non-linear[5], as with the hurricane-causing butterfly in Chaos Theory. Thus, small causes can produce huge consequences, and huge changes may produce tiny ones. For example, slight preferences toward living with people from the same ethnic background might produce enormous ghetto phenomena in urban centres[6]. The fact that a system might be constantly perturbed by small changes in one of its components, means that it is likely to be always evolving, and never in equilibrium. Of course, systems such as a society may be quite robust and resistant to change, but occasionally may see dramatic changes that were not predicted. The bankruptcy of the Lehmann Brothers and the invention of Facebook, are just two examples of small changes that produced large, unexpected social consequences. In this way Complexity Theory provides a perspective of the social world which is neither mechanistic nor deterministic, but is rather quite chaotic, in the physical sense of the term.

A system in Complexity Theory is more than the sum of its components. It is its components plus the relations between its components – which may or may not be unique to that set of relations. A society is indeed more than a multiplicity of individuals, and a federation of states is more than the sum of its individual members. Society, federations and so on, can thus be seen as possessing ‘emergent properties’ produced by the particular sets of relations between its components, but also, in  turn, influencing those components in a dynamic, cycle-of-feedback way. Only by looking at a system in a holistic way rather than a reductionist one, can we develop a true understanding of it.

Complexity Theory seems to be an interesting way to combine the best of all other approaches presented here, allowing social phenomena to behave in a non-deterministic way, and to be understood in a non-reductionist framework, while also avoiding the relativism and disorder of postmodernist ones[7]. In the end, the world seems to be neither too tidy nor too messy, but just complex.

 [1] French philosopher Edgar Morin is considered the most important author in addressing complexity as a philosophical issue

[2] Urry, J. (2005), The Complexity Turn, Theory Culture Society; 22; 1

[3] For an interesting overview of Complexity Theory in the social sciences see Byrne, D. (1998), Complexity Theory and The Social Sciences. An Introduction, London, Routledge

[4] For a well articulated exemplification on how social phenomena can be seen through the lenses of Complexity Theory see Walby, S. (2007), Complexity Theory, Systems Theory and Multiple Intersecting Social Inequalities, Philosophy of Social Sciences; 37; 49

[5] For a more detailed explanation of the idea of networks and feedbacks see Heylighen,F.,  Cilliers, P.,  and Gershenson, C. (2007), Complexity and Philosophy, in Bogg and Geyer (editors), Complexity, Science and Society, Oxford, Radcliffe Publishing

[6] This example is taken from Urry, J. (2005), The Complexity Turn, Theory Culture Society; 22; 1

[7] For a comparison between postmodern approaches and Complexity Theory see Cilliers, P. (2005), Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism, Theory Culture Society; 22; 255