Complexity Theory

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David Bent:

"What do the authors mean by a complexity worldview? In a nutshell, they are saying the world is:

  • Systemic: the world cannot be understood through taking apart he bits and understanding them separately. Factors work together synergistically, that is, the whole is different from the sum of the parts. We live as part of patterns of relationships.
  • Path-dependent: history matters and the sequence of events is a key factor in giving shape to the future.
  • Sensitive to context: one size does not fit all, and the way change happens and the way the future emerges is dependent on the detail and particular events and patterns of relationships and particular features in the local situation. By generalising, we risk throwing out the very information that sheds light on why things happen and what might happen next.
  • Emergent, uncertain, but not random: although the future does not follow smoothly from the past, neither is what happens random. The world is neither chaotic not predictable but somewhere in between.
  • Episodic: things are becoming, developing, and changing but change happens in fits and starts. The intriguing thing about the world is that on the surface patterns of relationships and structures can seem almost stable for long periods of time, although micro-changes may be going on under the surface. And then radical change can happen suddenly and new patterns of relationships can self-organise and some completely new features that could not have been predicted may emerge.”


Source: Bent cites the author of this book: Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence by Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen, Cliff Bowman.


The shift towards complexity thinking

Kingsley Dennis:

"The 1990s saw the social sciences engaging with complexity in terms of books, articles, conferences, and workshops, leading some to label this more modern incursion into the social and cultural sciences as the complexity turn (Urry, 2005b). This turn resulted from a gradual shift in discourse, over several decades, away from mechanistic Newtonian epistemologies towards systemic thinking (Capra, 1985). The systems thinking to emerge in the 1950s came out of cybernetics and was characterised by being open and sustained through flows of energy, rather than the earlier forms of closed systems. And systems thinking, the language of process over structure, began to be informed through new discoveries in the natural sciences. Discourses in the social sciences too began to be more transdisciplinary as solutions to social phenomena were sought from more and varied sources. It became necessary to find ways to understand and evaluate increasing patterns of conflict, unpredictability, flows, dynamic equilibrium, breakdowns, breakthroughs, and transnational relations. Approaches that proposed linear analysis and closed systems thinking became increasingly unsatisfying in providing means to interpret accelerating global flows, as well as more mobile social interrelations. Social science found itself increasingly lacking in its ability to analyse patterns of non-causality, where small anomalies or impacts can result in large-scale shifts; where multiple actors/parts can create emergent ‘whole’ effects greater than the sum of its parts; where phases of equilibrium are maintained not through stability but dynamic instability or ‘order through chaos’; where contradictions work as part of a system; and when decentralised and bottom-up processes are increasingly becoming more effective against top-down hierarchical structures. Thus, the complexity sciences at this time emerged as a potentially significant tool for social science to better grasp and contend with these issues.

According to a major report from the Gulbenkian Commission:

Perhaps we are witnessing the end of a type of rationality that is no longer appropriate to our time. The accent we call for is one placed on the complex, the temporal, and the unstable, which corresponds today to a transdisciplinary movement gaining in vigour. (GCRSS, 1996: 79)

Complexity science not only resonates well with traditions of the social sciences, it also helps to bridge the gap between the natural and the social sciences, between disciplines and fields of knowledge. It encourages, and in some way demands, a shift to systemic thinking. Complexity also urges a break from mechanistic, linear, and causal methods of analysis towards viewing interdependence and interrelation rather than linearity and exclusion. Processes, flows, feedback cycles, fluctuations, networks, order from chaos, and dynamism are all features of the complexity sciences." (