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Complexity Theories, Social Theory, and the Question of Social Complexity
Peter Stewart Philosophy of the Social Sciences 2001 31: 323 DOI: 10.1177/004839310103100303 The online version of this article can be found at: http://pos.sagepub.com/content/31/3/323

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PHILOSOPHY Stewart / THE QUESTION OF THE SOCIAL OF SOCIAL SCIENCES COMPLEXITY / September 2001

Complexity Theories, Social Theory, and the Question of Social Complexity
PETER STEWART University of South Africa

In this article, the author argues that complexity theories have limited use in the study of society, and that social processes are too complex and particular to be rigorously modeled in complexity terms. Theories of social complexity are shown to be inadequately developed, and typical weaknesses in the literature on social complexity are discussed. Two stronger analyses, of Luhmann and of Harvey and Reed, are also critically considered. New considerations regarding social complexity are advanced, on the lines that simplicity, complexity that can be modeled, and incondensible complexity permeate society simultaneously. The difficulty of establishing complexity models for processes involving ongoing interpretation is discussed. It is argued that the notions of system and environment need recasting in social studies. Existing social studies and literature, it is argued, reflect a polymorphous, contextual, contingent, labyrinthine, dramatic and political face to social complexity. Students of social complexity must be literate in such studies.

Society is highly complex in certain respects. Why is it, then, that views of society through the lens of complexity theory seem to miss out on much of the complexity, opacity, and particularity of social processes? I must confess to a sense of wonder at the freshness and persuasiveness of the historical and myriad approach to the natural world, which is embodied in the attempt to form new “sciences of complexity.” It is a new rationality that preserves many unknowns; its mathematics suggests great openness in historical material process. Yet my wonder is not evoked by complexity theories applied to the social world.

Received 30 June 1999 I would like to thank the University of South Africa for a sabbatical grant, which assisted this project, and the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge for hosting me as a visiting scholar in the middle of 1998, which enabled me to pursue aspects of the project.
Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 31 No. 3, September 2001 323-360 © 2001 Sage Publications

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Furthermore, the attempts, serving a variety of interests, to develop theories of the social by now form a huge, partly complementary, partly contradictory heterogeneous field (for overviews, see Turner 1996; Craib 1992; Swingewood 1984; Abraham 1977). Through which gateways do complexity theories enter this teeming citadel? While I will use the terms complexity theory and complexity theories in this article, some authors (e.g., Baker 1993; Kiel and Elliott 1996; Eve, Horsfall, and Lee 1997, foreword) prefer chaos theory as the umbrella term to describe all nonlinear phenomena. However, chaos theory refers to processes that are describable by algebraic formulas (see Cilliers 1998, ix). Certainly determinate chaos (not to mention determinate linearity!) is a recurrent part of complex processes, but mathematical determinism is meaningless with regard to many biological, ecological, and social processes, in my opinion (see also Casti [1993] on this issue; Katz’s [1989] notion of “incondensable complexity” is also relevant here). It seems to me that the main danger of the concept “complexity theory” is that its users are often preoccupied with systemicity and an organismic model, and the phenomenon of emergence. However, using the resource of algorithmic complexity, complexity may be viewed without the assumption that it all fits and functions together. Theories of nonlinearity would also be an acceptable general term, in my judgment. To explore this topic, this article first considers some definitions of complexity, which are shown to reflect different concerns. It is argued that definitions of social complexity are inadequate, but also that theories of complexity, including social complexity, are here to stay. Then some limitations that recur in the literature on social complexity are examined, and two stronger expositions of dissipative approaches to society are considered. This is followed by an attempt to more adequately outline the particular nature of social complexity by suggesting some principles for the study of social complexity and outlining some social thought that has bearing on considerations of complexity.

WHAT IS COMPLEXITY? The nature of complexity, and especially social complexity, is still very open to debate and further research. Complexity is a matter of perspective or framing (which in our case relates to human intention and interests), level of detail (fine or coarse graining), and the result of perceiving through observation. A small

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” or “self-steering” entities. cultural structure. This echoes Casti’s (1994.sagepub. More broadly. Downloaded from pos.com at Univ of Education.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 325 stone could be described as a highly complex quantum entity. Once we have a perspective able and willing to see complexity.” the choice of items to pattern is somewhat arbitrary and “probably a mixture of intuition. observation. there are differing definitions of. systems-theoretical. solve complicated problems. Winneba on July 6. aesthetic appreciation involves other factors. “that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape” (Pieper 1963.” “self-organizing. and a variety of problems are being addressed. technological. types of information. For Ricoeur (cf. 26). Zolo 1992. and approaches to. perceptions in daily life utilize socialized preconscious schemata (Bourdieu’s habitus) and at times an intuitive intellect. in which he argued that a systematic theory of complexity would have to proceed through a theory of models. and even the intrinsic nature of the human nervous system” (Katz 1986. Aided with computers and new theories. 1974. and kinds of complexity. there are ways of perceiving the world that do not predominantly involve the labor of rationality. and to map the workings of the human brain. there are attempts to model the origins of life. This would seem to relate to the fact that there are a variety of disciplinary approaches involved (particularly mathematical. but it may be simple in terms of its relative chemical inertness on a village path. Dobuzinskis 1992). as are perceptions structured by the illogic of emotional life. relating observer to observed. 2013 . For example. 276-77) argument. and abstraction. mass society (for example. complexity. to model afresh the mechanisms of evolution. and biological). Among those committed to the scientific enterprise of making abstract models of “configurations of real world items. 1986) objectification is a valid but limited mode of understanding. In addition to perceptions influenced or dominated by the unconscious.” “autocatalytic. insight. A further problem is that of experienced increases in operational complexity—and attendant problems—in modern. which takes its place as a moment in the imperatives of human becoming and the active encounter with possibility. And the very issue of transposing mathematical and biological models to society and testing nonlinear mathematical and systems models against various institutions and social processes is itself a problem that will lead to redefinitions of complexity. An analytic perspective may frame things to reveal or discount certain details. including social agents. 2). historical accident. cybernetic. A related problem is working out how complex “dissipative.

100101).” Formal definitions of complexity fit into two main groups: definitions of algorithmic complexity. with his explication of the concept of boundary conditions.” A related definition—in the language of pattern theory—states that “the complexity of a pattern is the size of the minimal precursor pattern—the minimal templet—necessary for its construction” (Katz 1986. Cohen and Stewart (1995. the explanation of particular physical phenomena requires closing in on “local knowledge” and broader particular Downloaded from pos.com at Univ of Education. specific programs of fabrication) of both biological and random patterns. 1) suggested that “irreducible heterogeneity is tantamount to complexity. with his development of the notion of templets (i. advanced the debate on complexity by demonstrating the necessity for explanations of phenomena in which “an a priori indeterminable number of microstates is narrowed down to a few biologically relevant ones” (Küppers 1995. 20) provided a simple version of algorithmic definitions: “We may tentatively define the complexity of a system as the quantity of information needed to describe it. More modestly.400. Through these unique and specific histories. deriving from the new biology and a revivified systems theory. Kauffman (1995. or the less than 1018 seconds in the estimated history of the universe thus far (Poundstone 1987. Küppers (1995. or equations can adequately describe the relevant process.. explanation must have recourse to the specific causative configuration (such as a particular arrangement of DNA or the particular circumstances that caused a traffic accident). no general explanations. 106) estimated that “the state space of the human genomic regulatory system is at least 2100. deriving largely from computer mathematics. 2013 . 105) and in which “ephemeral templets” without long-term coherence create random phenomena (Katz 1986. these processes select a course through unimaginably large sequence spaces. and Küppers.sagepub. Winneba on July 6. The first type of definition relates to issues of calculability and reproducibility and fabrication. we get an index of the importance of the history and the unique structure (the templets or boundary conditions) of particular DNA configurations. formulae.000 or 1030. 76). From this perspective.e. which must in turn be largely explained through their unique history and evolution. 121).000.000 microstates in sequence space for the bacterial genome. 98) mentioned the figure of 102. In these cases.326 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 Katz (1986. and organizational complexity. Katz.” Comparing these vast numbers to the estimated number of particles in the universe—about 1081. It also indicates the importance of structures and processes that produce order within these huge sequence spaces.

. Kaufmann 1993. systemic. 8) and its analysis. or what types of complexities. La Porte (1975. occur at the social level.” To this line of argument. there have been many attempts.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 327 knowledge of structural. . Zolo (1992. 2013 . Sambrook and Whiten (1997) argued that (at least for the behavioral and cognitive sciences) organizational complexity is often more relevant than algorithmic complexity because the latter views random events as highly complex. They argued that the number of levels of organization in a system (for instance. 6) argued that “the degree of complexity in organized social systems . 204). There have been inadequate efforts to clarify what type of complexity. For example. .” From the perspective of one humanities discipline. is a function of the number of system components . and environmental histories and knowledge of the extent of information and means of interpretation. 430) argued that while some social phenomena—such as mob behavior—can be analyzed through models of nonlinear dynamics such as chaos and catastrophe theories and dissipative structures. 6) also gave an emergent definition: “Within science . . . Increasing complexity is displayed in more complex self-steering forms and in ecosystemic environments (and their logical analogues). the relative differentiation or variety of these components . . . and the degree of interdependence among these components. . Khalil (1995. autopoietic.sagepub.” This approach explores complexity primarily through the notion of the progressive emergence of far-from-equilibrium dissipative. 3-4) added the dimensions of “instability or turbulence of the environment and . rather than broad. the tendency of its variables to change along swift or unpredictable trajectories” and “the state of cognitive circularity reached by agents who become aware of the high level of the complexity in their own environment. “the development of institutions and the organization of labor resemble the evolution of Downloaded from pos. This latter perspective relates to surprising behavior (Nicolis and Prigogine 1989. complexity is the study of the behaviour of macroscopic collections of (basic but interacting units) that are endowed with the potential to evolve. . the number of hidden layers in a neural net or the number of levels of reciprocal anticipation in one animal’s strategy toward another) is a truer reflection of complexity. Winneba on July 6. or self-steering systems in evolutionary space. which increase in complexity as their component systems coevolve (cf. form of complexity in problem solving that merits the greatest attention” (p. . “It is this deep. 1995). Similarly. However.com at Univ of Education. . The second type of definition relates to organizational transitions and emergence of new causative parameters. . Coveney and Highfield (1995.

even more than before. symbolic representation. This in turn would depend on “a much more ambitious program of creating a theory of models” (pp. general nonlinearity. 2013 . 16). as I argue below. while using criteria such as differentiation and unpredictability in his descriptions of complexity. Winneba on July 6. and this development engenders far-reaching debates in many areas of knowledge. By virtue of the new domain of objects open to research (namely. many are highly skeptical as to the usefulness of portraying society as a whole as a self-regulating system. Casti (1994) believed that an integrated science of complexity is some way away and would depend on taking complexity debates beyond ordinary language and formalizing the “symbols and syntax” of an appropriate logical system that is also responsive to the subjective nature of complexity.” Luhmann. as regards a definition of complexity.sagepub. that a naturalistic explanation may be available. it is this latter complexity that Luhmann wrote about. and further work. However. clarity. for example. which might be more difficult to incorporate into a formal system. even in the absence of predictability” (Drees 1995. also used complexity in an existential way: complexity is a problem. and the emergence of order through organizational complexity is a very refreshing and suggestive development within the natural sciences. and people need to be “shielded from the immense complexity and contingency of all the things which could be deemed possible” (1986. 223). Luhmann distinguished this immense complexity of the world from a lesser but increasingly problematic complexity produced by social systems and their interrelations. his Ecological communication [1989]). There would seem to be a need for openness. yet many definitions of complexity are geared only to considering single self-regulating systems. For example. 277-78). artificial net- Downloaded from pos. COMPLEXITY THEORIES ARE HERE TO STAY The whole area of determinate chaos. with a pronounced organismic characterization of this social system (see. The province of natural science has been extended: “Theories of chaotic and complex systems have made it clear.328 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 species and biological organization. it seems that Casti was referring to the subjectivity of perspective and scale rather than to the subjectivity of mode of perception. rather than the discontinuity of ecosystems or chaotic structures. and partisan interests. and doubly so when it comes to social complexity.com at Univ of Education.

and club membership. There have also been studies of more general processes.3 There are studies of more quantifiable phenomena such as patterns of voting. Horsfall. investment in some complexity research is assured.1 Popular accounts—and reputable scientists’ accounts—of complexity theory have often provided confident but avowedly speculative models of how these new perspectives in mathematics and systems theory might apply to society. too. and Fester 1989). they relate to rule-bound behavior and situations with low levels of personal interaction. Winsemius. pavement avoidance strategies. there are those who attempt to use complexity theory in alliance Downloaded from pos. 2013 . For example. and Lee 1997). Winneba on July 6. and empirical nonlinear outcomes suggesting either determinate chaos or simply deviation from a linear model). First. Paradoxically.com at Univ of Education. natural systems displaying order. regime collapses. aspects of these new theories are being used to good effect. and Yakushiji (1991) and Norgaard (1994) endeavor to show how the world’s economy and ecology act as a single far-from-equilibrium system. Margulis. these investigations are rather simple processes with a bit of a twist. especially global environmental studies. and “self-organizing cities” (Portugali 1997. The enthusiasm for complexity theory has led to new subdisciplines and to a large academic and popular literature. Futures research has also made use of the debates over complex systems. they involve fairly easy questions of quantification. systems models and models of self-regulation are proving fruitful (Odum 1993. In a variety of other disciplinary contexts. Authors such as MacNeill. in the area of environmental studies. purchasing behavior.2 There also have been an increasing number of attempts to use the concepts—and sometimes the cosmology—of complexity theories for social analysis. such as arms races. Kiel and Elliot 1996.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 329 works simulating intelligence and the evolutionary emergence of order. and the relevance of this to increasingly dominant informational capital. Rambler. THE HORIZONS OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY THEORY I would like to focus on four weaknesses that recur in the literature. Eve. and by virtue of the availability of new tools—primarily the computer and specific software programs—this broad field of research is destined to continue and grow.sagepub. children’s friendships. Particularly because of the relevance of “evolving” neural nets and genetic algorithms to the advance of artificial intelligence (AI).

It is my contention that. . There is an innate (though not necessarily infertile) reductionism—and sometimes clumsiness—in bringing the method- Downloaded from pos. Winneba on July 6. Complexity theories have developed mainly within specific natural science fields. 2013 . Social science . 273-74) argued heatedly against social approaches “developed during simpler times” and argued for “their replacement by paradigms which are better suited to the evolutionary situation. in many cases. Second. the metabiological. high complexity. . ideology. Complexity As Metatheory Some writers attempt to use the discourse of complexity theory as a social science metatheory.” “If these theories act as perturbations and fluctuations. but it is also current in the academic literature. and education. driving a restructure of social science. Turner (1997. and autopoietic systems: it does. personality. But the essays in this book are the first fruits of an approach that is as appropriate to social science as calculus is to the study of motion. theories of social complexity are parented by a limited range of social philosophies that are each subject to ongoing social debate. Kenyon De Greene (1996.” This is most explicit in the popular literature (for example. or as non-Euclidian geometry was to relativistic physics. then the future can indeed be promising” (p. furthermore. family. that this reductionism relates to lack of expertise in the field they are entering.330 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 with systems theory as a general and dominant metatheory for the social sciences. . This reductionism is not because human society does not display innumerable signs of nonlinearity.sagepub. . emergence. xxvii) claimed. and we know that there may be factors that cannot be identified in advance. Third. 292). The reductionism is because we already know quite a lot about the autopoietic system known as a woman or man—and we know immediately that the “nature” of this system involves knowns and unknowns of history.com at Univ of Education. organicist (and organismic) model of social systems is often used uncritically. the myth that all or most social processes can usefully be quantified in mathematical terms persists. and if they help to generate new paradigm thinking. has until now been forced to use logical and mathematical instruments originally designed to deal with much simpler systems . language. often coupled with a rhetoric of a “new paradigm. the work of Capra). Last. . the use of complexity theory as a paradigmatic horizon has led to a reductionism in social studies and.

In a discourse that portrays itself as anti-Newtonian yet scientific. Baker (1993) endeavored to delineate an “attractor” for the social world that would explain chaos and order in society. these theorists represent one corner of the debate. an attractor is discernable that emerges repeatedly. . In Freud and Beyond.5 At another level. as in the Mandelbrot set. What psychological theory should accompany social analysis? Should it be the avant-garde psychoanalysis of Lacan or more clini- Downloaded from pos. in discussing dependency theory. Baker advanced the idea that in the coming and going of . Baker used a couple of anthropological sources to justify sweeping statements about human action and interpretation. which clearly relates to sociological debates about power. It is that of centre-periphery . brilliant” essay (according to Francis 1993). companies and societies attempt to center their world and control the flow of energy and information through it. Baker (1993) did not take up these debates. Baker used reputable sources (George Herbert Mead and Berger and Luckmann. and which is colored with naturalist images such as the Mandelbrot set and gypsy moths. To take one example. villages.com at Univ of Education. for example. As with the issue of dependency theory. 2013 . Baker stayed with those theorists of the 1970s and 1980s who confirmed his views without recognizing the subsequent debate around dependency theory and the eventual unviability of dependency theory in its classic form—the form he drew on. human action no longer can be explained without recourse to the psychoanalytical debate—a debate that is extremely wide. Instead. The centre has an entropic effect on the periphery.4 Similarly.sagepub. Winneba on July 6. . Mitchell and Black (1995) traced the huge array of strands of psychoanalytic thought in the Freudian tradition alone. Individuals. 135-36. gave a significantly less volitionary picture of human action and symbolization from that of Berger and Luckmann. .Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 331 ologies and models from one discipline or skill into another. . families. (Pp. This dynamic phenomenon creates the turbulence and recreates the order in social life. in a “seminal . communities. . . . However. again. for example) but. 139) This is an interesting if speculative idea. he related it both to dependency theorists’ accounts of center and periphery in the world’s political economy and to the ideas of some anthropologists on the nature of human action and perception. . . if this is not done in dialogue and interaction with the existing disciplinary debate. social relationships. and its pattern is redolent of autopoesis [sic] and dissipation. Bourdieu’s account of the constraints imposed by habitus. causing increased randomness and increasing amounts of unusable resources. .

add to this the boundary conditions created by actual people attempting to act reflexively on aspects of the context. Eve (1997. “Complexity may be defined as a set of deterministic theories that do not necessarily lead to long-term prediction” (Saperstein 1997.sagepub. 313). The heterogeneous set of boundary conditions shaping real-world contexts is best described through codes or discourses that are able to retrieve aspects of these contextual histories or.. if rigidly maintained in the social field. a theorist is in a weak position to make major generalizations. Green 1986) and the object relations school? My point is simply this: without recourse to the specificities of the relevant social fields. 105). 2013 . Social contexts have particular physical histories. which together produce a unique set of boundary conditions in each context. that are able to retrieve the templets of the boundary conditions themselves. however.com at Univ of Education. This mathematical horizon. environmental histories. to state it differently. Winneba on July 6. But the world may be unpredictable and difficult to account for mathematically for other reasons. and without engagement in the full debates concerning the fields. The concepts and the poetic imaginary of complexity theories may indeed at times throw light on social process. Reality Is Mathematical “Reality is mathematical. and human histories. 274-75) used the analogy of a car with chaotic physical processes being controlled by a sentient Downloaded from pos. One version of the exaggeration of the significance of social phenomena that are best described through mathematics is demonstrated contained in some cruder exponents of chaos theory. dominated by the image of chaotic processes.332 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 cally pragmatic approaches such as the recent work of André Green (e. leads to a positivism of numerical and spatial relationships. Chaotic processes in practice may be unpredictable. A number of theorists. and it is often impractical to give a mathematical account of the result of a combination of chaotic processes. wrongly infer that the unpredictability of real-world events is predominantly due to processes of deterministic chaos entering into deterministic systems due to “small random disturbances from outside the model in question” (Saperstein 1997. 121).g.” averred Aulin (1989. whether Baker’s notion of “center-periphery” unveils a universal social attractor must be determined by social debates and research rather than by complexity metatheory.

” However. and a city map. used the term social system in a more dispersed manner: some societies may be more systematic than others..sagepub. Winneba on July 6. 163 ff. The phone call giving an address received before setting out might be best represented through speech analysis.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 333 driver to hypothesize that “most of the structure in society represents human attempts to monitor deviations and minimize chaotic outcomes. but the outcome of his approach—largely determined by the driver’s steering and acceleration—will have contingent effects that may be more influential than chaotic processes. Its safety may be enhanced by the historical phenomena of solar radiation and gravity. emotional imaginaries. insofar as the society as a whole is regarded as a complex system with its own autopoietic strategy and exerting downward causation. there are intersocietal systems. 236 ff. for example in the work of Luhmann and also among those allied to neofunctionalism (see Alexander 1985. also Parsons 1977. and the ebb and flow of social struggle? While chaos theory can indicate the route to postpositivism. academic debates. the criticism of the idea of an overall. a history that reached a culmination in the later Parson’s functionalism (see Swingewood 1984. Social Systemicity Theories of complex systems. 2013 . How can this deal with phenomena such as the equipment for a children’s game. 1995. Bourdieu said his notion of a field Downloaded from pos. 177-203). This systemic conception of society has a history in sociological thought. have a great weakness when applied to society. and we must drop the biological and physical images of system (1984. or the growth of middle-class narcissism—phenomena that take form within linguistic fields. it is of little use among phenomena that are symbolically constituted.com at Univ of Education. Giddens. The Toyota templet and the system of roads and road signs as used on the journey will have material effects. while thriving on many-leveled diversity. for example. The drunk driver approaching is also sentient in a fashion. Chaos theory also relies on variables that are determinate and rigorously definable in relation to each other. Yet this conception is greatly contested. While Parsonian functionalism still enjoys some support.). the psychology of sexual fantasy. many factors concerning neither chaotic outcomes of given systems nor reflexive control of these chaotic outcomes will affect the progress of a car. coherent social system is strong. Münch and Smelser 1987).

and political positions (democracy. antipositivism. 111) argued that “ ‘Society’ is not a valid object of discourse. evolutionary approaches). complexity theory is a child of the enlightenment and carries with it some of the baggage of “Westerncentrism. Laclau and Mouffe (1985. a large proportion of writers on social complexity take what can be regarded as a weak position in social theory. As complexity approaches enter social debates. exponents of complexity theories have predominantly identified themselves with a narrower grouping of philosophical approaches. does not deny the validity of investigating whether particular social systems are genuinely self-regulating. 103). and especially of a system characterized by common functions. religious traditions (primarily Eastern and mystical traditions).sagepub. However. and self-regulation—so many postulates of systems theory that must be rejected. 2013 .com at Univ of Education. hermeneutics. 456 ff. many proponents of complexity theory seem to be using complexity theory as a weapon Downloaded from pos. sociological theories (systems theories. (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992. writings on complexity theory sit unsteadily astride two traditionally antagonistic philosophic traditions: instrumentalism and enlightenment naturalism. internal cohesion. and Machiavellianism). This. however. managerial strategy) philosophical positions (realism. Taken together as a single grouping. There is no underlying principle fixing—and hence constituting—the whole field of differences. Taylor 1989.). poststructuralism). 12) believed that the idea of society as a “unified totality” is a case of “what Horkheimer called the ‘paranoia’ of reason. however. Marxism. Lyotard (1984.6 On both counts. environmentalism. At the same time. and modernist retrieval of lived experience in a devastated world (cf.”7 At the same time. at a less theorized level.” Yet more polemically.334 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 excludes functionalism and organicism: the products of a given field may be systematic without being the products of a system. psychoanalysis. they have allied themselves with a variety of cultural positions (New Age discourse. interests within these social fields have incorporated aspects of the new theories as tools of their own strategies. Winneba on July 6.” By virtue of their organicist ideas. Horizons of Social Complexity Theory within Social Philosophy The bulk of writing on social complexity is decidedly limited in its relation to socially relevant philosophical traditions such as phenomenology.

Back 1997).” Accounts in natural science of complexity are “within the framework of the reductionistic research program. complexity theories are much closer to the Western tradition of instrumentalism and “disengaged reason” (Taylor 1989. complexity theories are parented by mathematics and biology. O’Connor 1994. neural nets can be used to inform estate agents of optimum prices for properties. Hansson 1996. 2013 . and the culture of “Newtonianism” and. Enlighten- Downloaded from pos. the new ideas are used to inform managerial technique. and more tentatively. Much of the interest in complexity theory in the social sciences is in reaction to these approaches.) than they are to the reaction to instrumentalism embodied in the romantic and modernist traditions.” This series of attempts includes “gestalt and field theory. . information theory. Allen 1994. which has an inner dimension” (Taylor 1989. For people reacting in this way. 343). catastrophe theory.com at Univ of Education. Back (1997. “the goodness and significance of nature” is affirmed (Taylor 1989. “which generally draw on a much richer conception of human nature. 39. In addition. In this tradition. 496). Winneba on July 6. 93). Yet. behaviorism. In this respect. complexity theory is a sword for dealing with conventional statistics. instead. and some professional careers in biology and mathematics are sustained by these new theoretical explorations.” in which “limitations with regard to our physical understanding of living things . and fuzzy sets to the current impact of chaos and complexity theories. . are attributed exclusively to the material complexity of the phenomena under consideration” (Küppers 1995. fractal techniques can encode video information in less digital space. game theory.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 335 against positivism and instrumentalism in social science. On the instrumentalist side.sagepub. in opposition to dualist religious and philosophical thought. acknowledging unpredictability and the contingency of analysis and decisions (Dobuzinskis 1992. 495 ff. complexity theories also have connections with a different enlightenment tradition—that of naturalism. continuing through sociometry. 50) saw complexity theory as the latest in a maturing series of attempts to improve the traditional statistical model “while working within the general paradigm of a science which uses the language of mathematics for its ideal expression. In orthodox statistical approaches—still strong in the United States—complexity is acceptably hidden in less-than-perfect correlations and the logocentrism8 and nominalism of the categories employed. This broad antipositivism is compatible with a wide variety of social science traditions. a large number of the writers in the field see themselves as scientists.

a realist version of naturalism links well with Marxism (see. there was a strong sense of novelty. such that the links of complexity theory to traditions such as systems theory were often obscured.).336 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 ment naturalism has variously been systematically materialist. awe and reverence in the unfolding. whatever its limitations. Luhmann can be seen as more advanced or further immersed in the problematics of social science than many writers on social complexity. Thus. viii). Krieglstein 1990). DISSIPATIVE MODELS ROOTED IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES The Case of Niklas Luhmann In the rush of popular complexity literature since the mid-1980s.com at Univ of Education. and in reverential awe of physical order (Taylor 1989. Reed and Harvey 1992. Winneba on July 6. and Freud.9 Stuart Kauffman (1995. 347 ff. for example. 343). Owen 1996. 304) quoted himself : “If one cannot find spirituality. tilting at dualism and affirming what the authors believed to be spiritualities in accord with naturalism. which is Downloaded from pos. one is nuts. Harvey and Reed’s (1996) model is discussed below.11 Parsons’s social theory. with an autopoietic understanding of systems. was deeply influenced by other theorists of the first half of the twentieth century— particularly Weber. In this regard.000 pages in print in German [Bernadz 1989.12 Parsons’s and Luhmann’s roots in interlinked sociological traditions and debates distinguish them from much current writing on complexity theory. on the side of ordinary life and “the release of the stultified powers of nature and desire” (Taylor 1989. vii]) but also as regards his synthesis of emerging ideas of systems with existing social science traditions and philosophies. Luhmann has a distinct position from other writers on social complexity not only as regards status and output (already in 1989 he had 6. 2013 .sagepub.10 His work can be seen in part as a development of the functionalist theories of Parsons—whose later writings drew strongly on systems theory and a metabiological characterization of society. and with a perspective of “the phenomenological disclosure of meaning” (Bednarz 1989. The popular science writings of Capra (1983) and Laszlo (1996) are cases of enlightenment naturalism. Harvey and Reed 1996.” For others. Durkheim. Niklas Luhmann is a major (if much disputed) German social theorist who has synthesized the tradition of systems theory as utilized by Talcott Parsons with cybernetics.

6). 29).Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 337 often devoid of social theory or at best tentatively explores the links between complexity and a given theory. who is the current social theorist of major standing who has most engaged with Luhmann’s work.13 Luhmann. must to some extent inform any systematic debate on social complexity. and critical evaluations of Luhmann seem to be completely unknown in these circles. Luhmann’s writing. A further difference is that Luhmann’s work has been visible for several decades—especially in Germany—and there have been sustained evaluations of his work by other social theorists such as Habermas. these systems exist in a world that is “overwhelmingly complex for every kind of real system” (1979. “to the extent that systems Downloaded from pos. and the critiques of this writing. Yet. Habermas. institutions.sagepub. . The societal system thus encompasses all large-scale and public processes. I think. 11). the social system. Luhmann’s writings are still relatively unknown in the current Anglo-American popularization of complexity theory. as the system of communication. For Luhmann. as various as the welfare state and the systemic difficulties of democracy. started from the premise that “ ‘society’ signifies the all-encompassing social system of mutually referring communications” and from the premise that “for any system the environment is more complex than the system itself” (1989. are naturalistic autopoietical systems struggling for survival within a general scheme of evolution. its theoretical imaginativeness. from a systematic systems-theoretical perspective. the natural environment. while acknowledging Luhmann’s opus as a “competitive philosophical paradigm” (1992. 2013 . Luhmann’s work covers a very wide variety of themes. and its capacity for processing information” (Habermas 1987b. elements of the labor process and the economic system. . 7. 354). Systems tend to increase their own complexity to reduce the complexity of their environment. The environment of a social system includes social systems and subsystems outside itself. Winneba on July 6. a systems view of the functionality of love. and discourses (as filtered through the lens of communication) and tends to exclude aspects of the immediate “lifeworld”14— and. 22). and those parts of human life that are not “socially effective communication”: “even the consciousness of psychical systems belongs to the environment of the societal system” (1989. 15 Luhmann’s theory “is today incomparable when it comes to its powers of conceptualization.com at Univ of Education. and the problematic relation between the societal system and the natural environment. and a variety of shifting social subsystems. Luhmann’s theory has come into a fair amount of criticism. perceived an “objectifying effect” .

and Beck is generally critical of Luhmann’s social analysis. 307-9 ff. 297).16 My principal point here is this: by virtue of his integration into the field of social theory and social research. a structural analytic model was presented that attempted to show levels of increasing complexity encompassed within the social system. However. might also be seen as dissipative systems. 384). rather. and both have written books on risk in modern societies. of the Western tradition in which we “understand ourselves in terms of objects” (1987b. Winneba on July 6. Luhmann in fact has been subjected to fairly sharp criticism from a number of writers. or nations. while the Downloaded from pos. 384). Harvey and Reed did this by mapping research strategies onto the objects or processes to which they are applied (Harvey and Reed 1996. Habermas saw Luhmann’s theory as a subtle recasting. Luhmann (as with Parsons before him) becomes subject to complex debates not necessarily involving complexity theory or systems theory. is the fate of current writings on social complexity.). too. “Luhmann’s systems functionalism is actually based on the assumption that in modern societies the symbolically structured lifeworld has already been driven back into the niches of a systematically selfsufficient society and been colonized by it” (1987a.” They did not discuss whether components within these macro systems. Luhmann’s theory “separates out the ‘undercomplex’ lifeworld as an indigestible residue—precisely the realm of phenomena of a social theory that has not burned all bridges to the prescientific experience of crisis” (1987b. Beck’s book is the classic text on the risk society. They treated whole societies.338 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 theory penetrates into the lifeworld. Reed and Harvey 1992) were predominantly concerned with using theories of dissipative systems to justify a realist approach that “sustains the particularity and plurality of the social world while preserving rational canons of scientific understanding” (Harvey and Reed 1996. Ulrich Beck is another German theorist of modernity who drew on the work of Luhmann.sagepub. through the aid of cybernetic theory. 312)—a historical assessment with which Habermas had considerable disagreement. 2013 . Harvey and Reed’s Realist Model Harvey and Reed (1996. 354). This. introducing into it a metabiological perspective from which it then learns to see itself as a system in an environment with other systems-in-an environment” (1987b. as dissipative “social systems.com at Univ of Education. or modes of production (it is not clear). Thus. such as institutions or individuals.

such as those including narrative elements. and writers such as Richard Rorty and Richard Bernstein (e. This is partly because the model is rooted in two strong (though currently contested and relativized) traditions: philosophical realism and Marxism. if there is a natural fit between realism and theories of complexity. Harvey and Reed (1996) argued that there is a natural fit between complexity theories and realist and Marxist philosophy. 2013 . It should be noted that Harvey and Reed’s model suggests that a realist complexity perspective ordains that there are levels of society not describable through mathematics or the cybernetic modeling on which current complexity theories depend.sagepub. I infer. Second. We enter a much wider debate here. Bernstein 1983) argued for pragmatic rather than rig- Downloaded from pos.g. heterogeneous number of studies that may have validity and usefulness. following Bhaskar (1979.. Harvey and Reed’s scheme sanctions a wide variety of social science methodologies.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 339 refraction of sunlight may be subjected to predictive or statistical modeling. their argument can connect with many existing social science debates and acknowledge a wide. at the same time. there are extensive debates over realist and Marxist epistemologies. were for Harvey and Reed (1996) a prime source of the indeterminacy through which the dissipative social system is chaotically driven. and. through the notion of emergent epistemological levels.com at Univ of Education. processes of cultural and class struggle require the more indeterminate modeling strategy of historical narrative. the model allows realist social science to switch to less deterministic methodologies. The model also suggests itself as a provisional tool to clarify issues of practical research methodology. Michael Dummett (1996) eventually advocated “subtle realism” as the most defensible philosophy. In some ways this is persuasive: it can be argued that Marxism as a materialism is a form of naturalism and. Harvey and Reed’s (1996) model can be debated from a number of angles. Issues of high complexity are dealt with neatly through the notions of emergence and levels. that “an essentially realist view of science” can be the foundation for “a qualified antipositivist naturalism” (see also Bhaskar 1978). 3). For example. Winneba on July 6. Harvey and Reed’s (1996) model is in many respects a strong one. First. criticisms of realism might affect these complexity theories. The higher levels (requiring historical narrative) incorporate processes in which humans “subjectively define themselves and their actions”. these levels. The authors used this argument to assert that “social systems” consist of nested and emergent levels of increasing complexity.

most complex levels are those of “class struggle (and) conflict over cultural hegemony” and “societal evolution via historical modes of production. 318). norms.sagepub. and William Outhwaite (Blomley 1998). consist of facilities. might on occasion require Harvey and Reed’s most abstract modeling strategy. bureaucratic. 1979)? I think there is a logic behind Harvey and Reed’s (1996) categories. And why. Their third level. 26 ff. roles. Through what other strategy does one describe the toxic marsh left by a departed factory or the extinction of the dinosaurs? The middle ontological levels.. Winneba on July 6. Why should the allocation of roles. Rom Harré. constitute an ontological level? Why are these functionalist concepts of midcentury social science and productivist Marxism used. that of the ecological organization of the local biotic community. variously Marxist and functionalist. clearly.” Harvey and Reed associated this only with predictive and statistical modeling. These are levels relating to the intrinsic limits of the various strategies of modeling social phenomena. 1987. Foucault 1967. for example. 2013 . Second. some of which can be modeled statistically and some not. however. which might assign mass society a lower aggregate connectivity and complexity than a family or commune. and industrial regime (cf.” To me. which they synthesized from the work of Kenneth Boulding and Neil Smelser. and which is likely to place many human-made systems on a lower level of complexity than natural ecosystems. the ontological levels suggested by Harvey and Reed (1996) are rather arbitrary. 322). suggests an overly abstract and structuralist social theory. is there “mode of production” to the exclusion of military. However. They do say that it is the “ontological structure of the dissipative social system . rather than their particular descriptions. There is an ongoing British debate on realism involving figures such as Bhaskar.com at Univ of Education. The highest. and it relates to my last line of criticism: that of their implied organi- Downloaded from pos. at the top. . Starting with the most simple category. that is nonnegotiable. that of “determinate regularities of the physical universe. Giddens 1981. that of historical narrative. these levels are extremely arbitrary. the phenomenon of chaos is also closely associated with “iconographic modelling” as in computer graphics. rather than levels established by some criterion of complexity? This could relate to levels of connectivity. their choice of levels. as Harvey and Reed themselves said later (p. and values. .340 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 orously realist approaches to society. (and) the systemic and emergent nature of the ontological levels” (p.

trading on the modernist notion of social system.) argued persuasively against the notion of the nation-state as coherent system in the “global age. social heterogeneity is seen in functionalist terms: everything is captured in the adaptive searches of the far-from-equilibrium social system. cannot substantially account for the events and particularities of the social world. roles) can be seen as levels of function in a system rather than as emergent phenomena in their own right.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 341 cism and overreification of systemicity. and silence with regard to material and symbolic high complexity. Their typology works against the dimensions of social process that relativize systemic elements. In the paragraphs that follow. though in an irregular fashion. 119 ff. both in human experience and in historical outcomes. while having validity for some analytic tasks. complexity that can be modeled. the population of such systems is far too small to justify the risky strategies of far-from-equilibrium evolution. possibly in the sense of nationstate. TOWARD A POSITIONING OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY Simplicity. Downloaded from pos. I use a complexity perspective to attempt to flesh out arguments limiting the role of complexity theories as regards society and to justify a perspective that sees roles for finite rationality and nonlinear modeling as well as encounter. Albrow (1996. For this reason.sagepub. The typology of ontological levels used by Harvey and Reed serves the notion of whole system. 2013 .” Unsystematic process and communication should be included. complexity models. The whole issue of social complexity needs to be rethought without assumptions of systemicity and without a laboring of “levels. Harvey and Reed used the notion of system uncritically and with considerably less subtlety than did Luhmann. The concepts used (norms. practical immersion. and incondensible complexity permeate all areas and “levels” of society simultaneously. The argument is then brought closer to social studies with paragraphs initiating a discussion on how complexity is reflected in social studies not inspired by complexity theories. Rather.com at Univ of Education.” If Harvey and Reed are rather referring to transnational systems such as modes of production. for example. and resources from social theory and social studies should be more fully used. Winneba on July 6.

and occlude nonlinearity. interpretation. Winneba on July 6. others are lost in current ephemeral processes. Untraceable Causative Templets Each situation and happening has (at the level of a thought experiment) a full explanation or templet that involves material and symbolic-communicative histories that instantiate themselves in the situation or happening. along with some of the structure of organic or organizational templets (DNA. especially linguistic. 2013 . and in general. This is partly because we are evolutionarily adapted to be of an appropriate size and metabolic pace and to have mechanisms and horizons of perception broadly in tune with our natural and human-made environment. and heterogeneous dysfunction. approximation. symbolize. Downloaded from pos. we appropriate and encounter the world in a specifically human way. Ordinary language is clearly deeply involved with and adapted to the complexities of the physical and social world while simultaneously eliciting nonobjective modes of presencing and expression. effectively bracket. An account of ordinary language—and more specialist languages— should be given that shows how an undoubtedly complex. complex systems.sagepub. and multifarious social realm can often be described and referred to.342 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 Basic Principles for the Study of Social Complexity The Human Horizon The world in which we live is largely knowable by people. McDonalds franchises). model.com at Univ of Education. psychological. Language has evolved with the ability to reflect. to people’s satisfaction. heterogeneous. At the same time. but large parts of the causative templet are irretrievable: some parts are lost in the past. We can bracket many high complexities that are below thresholds of response or that do not affect the net outcomes of mass process. and discursive zones of relative order. and the construction of physical. Some of this history may be retraced. processes are forced through the lenses of human semiotic. in which the battle for complete templeting is given up from the start in favor of tolerance of high complexity.

Evolution differentiates forth massive particularities. clouds. and pattern).sagepub. Winneba on July 6. Our ecosystems are interplays among physical regularity. where describable. energy. 2013 . These particularities—sighs. and where contingency is high. Incondensible Complexity At the same time. as when you turn a foreign corner. the world can be seen as reasonably definitive. systems. In addition to this. Massive inert forms and life also both display sometimes excessive regularities within their particular history (such as birdsong or the rhythm of the tides). meaningful propositional references can be made to a huge range of phenomena. including many of reducible complexity. massive events (i. As a result of this. which is also the level of continual reinstantiation of effective histories. and entirely ephemeral interactions.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 343 The Terrain of Particularity Society is revealed as susceptible to useful description. together with our prejudice in favor of particular comprehensibility. this largely orderable terrain is bathed in processes of incondensible complexity (Katz 1989). flagella movements. aided and Downloaded from pos. contain processes that are in practice incalculable. human-made objects. This is because evolutionary differentiation of matter and life produces more and more refined particularities. but also at the level of particular environmental conjunctures. and persistent structures. and useful analytic and modeling processes can be pursued. complexity will be common. highly improbable differential sectorization of matter. fairly stable forms. such as some utterances. and shifting zones within society. the slaughter that occurred in that Rwandan church—all have greatly complex origins in an absolute analytical sense.com at Univ of Education. it is endlessly instantiated in particulars that do not follow from generalities. yet. especially at the level of the social. as in an organic social group. and a proportion of such processes are in principle incalculable..e. At this level of particularity. processes of high. Where there is a high number of types of connection in a network. This situation. it is largely this particularity that is in evidence to people. sometimes maximally high. and where high numbers of variable influences all condition an outcome.17 Many zones within society. and discourses also have simple aspects to them.

its complexity can to that extent be characterized. and possibly condensed. it provides the chaotic environment to which institutions must respond. alienation. might have the appearance of “too complicated for analysis” and be characterized through rudimentary conventions and aesthetics. and nonobjectifying practices produces the regular newness that we constantly map onto our day’s structure. aesthetic experience (despite Bourdieu’s Distinction [1986]. should be identified and left to other discourses and methodologies—principally in the forms of narrative and interpretation (cf. Downloaded from pos. Eminently describable processes. 2013 . Rational knowledge may extend the province of that which can be analyzed. This is doubly so when human interpretation influences material process. the same might apply to ignorant views of complicated interinstitutional feedback effects. However. Incondensible elements can be at least associated with fleeting and highly local events and detail.344 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 abetted by ignorance. it produces experiences of freshness. theoretically reducible and incondensible elements coexist. however. and predicted. lack of information. in terms of objectified material process. biographical accounts. Unquantifiable Phenomena There are types of human process that have large domains that cannot be meaningfully quantified. processes. Winneba on July 6. and oddity. for example. modeled. news.com at Univ of Education. once one can establish even some of the causes of a situation. in all real situations. will nevertheless have the character of unpredictable process of unfolding of particularity.sagepub. Harvey and Reed 1996)—and also to silence and aesthetic reception. and with the totality of events. while usually occurring within bounded sets such as an institutional framework. largely at a level of incondensible complexity. with discourse shaping itself in relation to immediately prior discourse. Areas and processes of informational high complexity. depending on the relation of what is known to what is unknown. Our familiarity with this situation is reflected in our energy for new experiences. or “incondensible complexity” and hermeneutic or mathematical indeterminism. and the expectation that our daily life. Consider. it provides the playground for human processes of symbolization that do not objectivize. and interactions in a given situation. the phenomena from which we organize experiences are. However. such as the growth of a plant.

deprivation. The phenomena they deal with are not always usefully measurable. If so. the categories or units of quantification in mathematical terms can dissolve and decohere with a fresh reconstitution of the object. which can be mathematically defined or objectively modeled. Winneba on July 6. any interpretation. Theorists such as Luhmann and Zygmunt Bauman argue that institutions and systems of society are devices of simplification and order. such as the interpretation of music or the nature of a marriage proposal. In general. Complexity—as relations between measurable objects—may be bracketed from a phenomenological perspective. Social phenomena may be constituted and received by “feeling. to which it is evident that observation. including nonlinearities. and not simply knowing” (Halton 1995. The Social Reduction of Complexity If the immediate lifeworld of experience and action is too complex to manifest overall pattern.sagepub.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 345 in which Bourdieu. Complexities in this dimension are better appreciated through hermeneutic approximations.com at Univ of Education. The work of Alfred Schutz is an example of this (see also Craib’s [1992. and action can be done through the (perhaps temporary) suspension of the objectivizing gaze and by following the imaginary of the lifeworld. The elucidation of certain modes of experience. Any system of successfully applied rules at least at one level reduces complexity. experiencing. 2013 . through discourse and debate. and factors such as distance. remembering and forgetting. must participate in the symbolic reconstitution of the object. This sort of approach may have great validity while not immediately engaging with phenomena. moreover. analysis. while convincingly demonstrating how taste is implicated in social hierarchies. dreaming. through narrative. processes in which the “objects” concerned are necessarily reconstituted afresh through symbolic and interpretive means. 273). and to some extent through postmodern discourses of alterity and difference. interpretation.] discussion of phenomenological sociology). and synthesis are not the only modes of perception. of singularities and the unpresentable. the orderly aspects of society could be sought in factors that reduce complexity. 97 ff. In this situation. does not deal with the aesthetic part— enjoyment and understanding of the communication of the singular). and isolation may also reduce the connectivity of society. including mathematical and structuralist ones. mass societies with large populations will have Downloaded from pos. and the evolution of public affairs as reflected in news.

finding visual. power. As against Harvey and Reed’s account of a hierarchical and ultimately unified social structure and process. concepts. 2013 . yet analytically accessible. 281-83). logical. in need of empirical and theoretical justification. systemic perspectives should be retained—but as hypotheses. There is scope for modeling societies and social processes as loose environmental systems with low systemic requirements and great redundancy. fields of interaction in which individuals draw on rules. and building a biography may be a significant source of order. For example. in a manner that is sensitive to the horizons of this approach. as may be shared systems of rules. the homeostatic devices most people have for screening information. beyond the evidence and informed interpretation. capitals. At the same time. Contingent Systems. John Thompson saw social-historical analysis as consisting of the analysis of spatio-temporal settings. resources. cooperation. and the growth of formidable economic and political systems under industrialism. using the work of Bourdieu and others. . in terms of the distribution of. and habituated practical schemata. I would argue for more contingent.com at Univ of Education. let alone autopoiesis. Society As Environment While nonlinearity is a safe (but often valueless) bet in the social field. and providing an arena for experimentation. and aesthetic form. Winneba on July 6. Societies are more usefully seen as forms of containing environmental systems rather than as organismic systems.” and social structure as “relatively stable asymmetries (in) social institutions and interaction . opportunities and life chances” (Thompson 1990. and with the knowledge that human economy is one component of the global ecosystem. There are undoubtedly surprising features of society that reflect mathematically describable nonlinearities—or even linearities. A proportion of the literature on complexity has already embarked on studies in this area. and access to. which allow huge varieties of social forms and diversity of local situations. including preindustrial societies. bearing in mind the fairly systematic features of many societies. while the vicissitudes of the psyche and the stochastic process of daily life and encounter may work against this homeostasis. Furthermore. other things being equal.346 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 lower average connectivity among individuals and groups than a small society or social grouping. there must be no assumption of systemicity.sagepub. institutions as “relatively stable clusters of rules and resources. . and thus have a lower and more manageable level of complexity. and conflict— Downloaded from pos.

Although it would be easy to expand and improve on what follows. it may be that individuals and groups may simulate a self-steering institution in the hope that it will persist and grow. Something like a notion of a semisystem is necessary (if only to discard pretentious systemic analysis) for various social phenomena such as a protectorate or a football match. Winneba on July 6. most social institutions are server institutions and lack autonomy in certain respects. and order.com at Univ of Education. small businesses. the inextricable concurrence of different “levels” of complexity occurs. the issue of narrative mode must also be raised. This model should take into account the cultured nature (in the horticultural sense) of many social institutions. even when discussing simple material. for example. What follows is a preliminary perspective on complexity as revealed in social studies not informed by complexity theories. The narrative mode that a social study uses reveals its openness to complexity. While broader issues of narrative and interpretation are discussed in following paragraphs. that is the point: the nature of social complexity will largely be revealed through such investigation.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 347 although within certain basic boundaries of subsistence.sagepub. Faithfulness to the evidence and accuracy is neces- Downloaded from pos. even market economies have been artificially set up. may simply be tools of an individual or group strategy and be constantly refashioned to the needs of that strategy. for example. Other systems. And all histories—whether of particles or modes of production— require narration and end in silence. organized phenomena? Reflections of Complexity in Social Studies The points expressed above largely derive from a consideration of the complexity literature. The prevalence of narration also suggests that if we want to describe society and its complexity. self-steering social systems at times. 2013 . Or is the notion of system unhelpful as regards some coherent. Perhaps there are leaderless. even in many quantitative studies relying heavily on statistics. A complexity model of enduring social institutions and other apparently dissipative human-made social phenomena could be developed. we must find one using the structure of a natural language. Narrative and Authorial Vision Narration and interpretation are ubiquitous in social studies. environmental balance. This is an indication that.

and acknowledge. these implicit—and sometimes more explicit—characterizations before claiming privileged social knowledge.com at Univ of Education. extensive. Downloaded from pos. 2013 . . 312-13). The Mixed Appropriation of Differential Complexity Societies. theoretical and empirical openness and the ability to learn from debates are necessary characteristics of an approach that can to some extent reveal social complexity. I would also take as signs of acknowledgement of complexity. corresponds to the human condition of plurality. Second. and relentlessly instantiated in particulars for there to be exhaustive social description or explanation. Any reasonably sensitive analyst of society knows something about these horizons: they are part of everyday life and part of the historical experience of many generations. Winneba on July 6. the nature of society and of social complexity are open questions. ambiguous. complexity may be more strongly revealed in the dramatic rather than the epic: George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky portrayed Dostoevsky the dramatist as “suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery .” within local studies and local knowledge. “Action . not man. this plurality is specifically the condition . no piece or relation of this high complexity can be revealed. including “complexity” explanations. . to the fact that men. of the political rather the technical. shifting. . are too complex. This remains so even if a negative hermeneutic or deconstructive or statistical process is called for. Something of an awareness of plurality and of uncaptured difference. or social formations. . A complexity approach must rise to. . For Hannah Arendt (1959. At present.” Furthermore. Partly for this reason.sagepub. advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural” (1967. . The immersion of an author in the decentering aspects of life that give “experience” and “maturity” are also often crucial indicators of the level of depth in a narrative. So too is an awareness of one’s horizons. of all political life. . . and within traditions of phronesis and praxis (Bernstein 1983).348 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 sary to reveal social complexity: without an attempt to be faithful to what is. 9-10). their best characterizations are implicitly contained (amid much dross) within the combined subdisciplinary fields of the social sciences and “humanities. I would use these criteria to argue that society’s complexity may be implicitly revealed or concealed in almost any of the various sociological approaches and in other writings on human society. live on earth and inhabit the world .

speaking of determinable states of affairs. traditions. 1) maintained. 35). Winneba on July 6.” while “women’s discourse designates men as subjects . Downloaded from pos. if attempting to manage being black in a northern culture “requires some specific forms of double consciousness” as Paul Gilroy (1993. .com at Univ of Education. Similarly. will be rendered impotent by ignoring these and numerous other significant processes made visible in differentiated and specialized areas of social enquiry. attempting to solve practical human problems. This reflection endorses. interpreting information and texts. the world is designated as inanimate abstractions integral to the subject’s world. trying to make sense of the whole. and problem-solving methods. For instance. using some statistics and quantification. Harvey and Reed’s (1996) picture of ontological levels and Lee’s advice that we should aim to “make use of both narrative prose and mathematics to describe a world in which individual human and non-human interaction cumulate through linear and nonlinear. and the world as concrete inanimate objects belonging to the universe of the other” (Irigaray 1993. if. hermeneutic. Particular Discourses It would seem that the route to understanding and explaining the overall systemic and relational nature of many sectors and processes in society—and to give any sort of general account—lies through particular discourses. developing a pseudosystematic view of the world and denying aspects of the world’s complexity for reasons of ideology and sectional interest. speculative. and theories of social complexity.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 349 Generally.sagepub. social studies contain a mixture of approaches to social complexity. 2013 . disciplines. But clearly society has different kinds of complexity—and simplicity—all “occurring together” in a way that is best described not through a single systemic view but through a variety of quantitative. as in one version of feminist discourse. reflecting complex reality as contingent. and. and in turn social theories. polemic. and literatures. . variously reflecting people’s experience. more negatively. this must affect any general account of society. probabilistic and deterministic processes” (1997. But describing society through “narrative prose and mathematics” is similar to horse and rabbit pie: narrative has far more varieties and far more symbols than does mathematics. this too must have many historical and structural consequences. and goes beyond. it is broadly true that “in men’s discourse. 29). local and global.

It also requires a rigorous suspicion of the reification of ordinary language realism and of theoretical concepts: compared to the traditions of structuration and depth-hermeneutics. Any account of the complexity of society. The study of complex social phenomena is inevitably drawn into this hermeneutic process. Relationism: Pierre Bourdieu Pierre Bourdieu used a “relational” method of investigating social fields and of “constructing the object” to escape what he called the realist or substantialist mode of thinking . Winneba on July 6. however. as opposed to sources in external or even internal structural injunctions. self-regulating model of a system. Bourdieu’s fields roughly correspond to Luhmann’s subsystems19. The methodologies proposed by Giddens (1984.350 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 Hermeneutics The hermeneutic moment in all social investigation displaces any final formal model and introduces propositional and representational elements that can be analyzed only through further. regardless of the scope for objective description. 483). 272-327) and the philosophical tradition of critical or depth hermeneutics18 can be used to show the necessity of hermeneutics in sociological study and. Bourdieu’s intention was to suggest something more contingent and conflictual and more rooted in the particularities of relational interaction than is reflected in an emergent.sagepub. 2013 . as exemplified in Giddens’s theory of structuration. must go through the process of interpretation and must acknowledge the potential social effect and creativity of people. also the importance of recognizing the source of many actions in the new interpretations of social subjects and groups. Both Giddens and Thompson proposed strong synthetic methodologies involving both general social and symbolic structure and the particularities of context and interpretation. Bourdieu’s method of scientifically uncovering social objects through adding to the “science of scarcity.) and John Thompson (1990.” a science of “the practical knowledge which the agents obtain for themselves by producing divisions and classifications which are no less objective than those of the balance-sheets of social physics” (Bourdieu 1986. interpretation. disputable. This has implications as to which overall models of conscious human shaping as opposed to structural constraint are generally and contextually accurate. laborious work. requires attentive. lay people here Downloaded from pos. 327 ff.com at Univ of Education.

the application of metatheoretical organismic models to society and its subsystems seems highly premature. whatever the limits of his method. and physicalistic accounts of nonlinearity in society that exclude the symbolic systems of classification are dabbling with the edges of social structure and systematic features. The result is the system. Bourdieu required the building of a relational model that gradually uncovers the traits of members of the relational set that are responsible for the differences within and structure of the object of investigation (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992.sagepub. but appears there .com at Univ of Education. and this is the attitude to social complexity in some postmodern cultural and social studies. For Bauman (1995b. The recent writings in social theory by Zygmunt Bauman related the issues of structures and systems to the high complexity of contingency. “The chaos and contingency which modernity spent two centuries to occlude out of the business of life is not just back in the field of vision. and systems under attack and reshaping in the collective heteronomy of particular processes and humans in action. . which suggests kinship to some aspects of complexity theory. 224 ff. lives” (Bauman 1995a. In this approach. yet this freedom is invariably deployed in frenzied efforts to foreclose this choice . . naked. I think that Bourdieu showed. Bourdieu in large measure was open to the pluriformity and flux of the things he investigated. 27. 31-32). which in Lyotard’s words “has the consequence of causing the forgetting of what escapes it. . In this light. Taylor.20 that there are levels of relational interaction and structure that are not immediately visible or susceptible to theoretical deduction but rather to laborious reconstruction (see also Emirbayer 1997). The endemic indetermination leaves man free to choose. . . . . Winneba on July 6. No system has ever disposed of that residue. . . . But what remains in that residue is fraught with system-building zeal . the effort to bring the excluded peoples of the South into the modern order “opens up the floodgates through which chaos and contingency pour into their. without cover or adornment”.” What escapes it is the other aspect of human condition .J. The human condition is such Downloaded from pos. 2013 . transient worldviews and rationalisms. .). 143). once orderly. passion.P. Contingency: Zygmunt Bauman A contingent approach has been strong among some philosophers of history such as Isaiah Berlin and historians such as A.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 351 have few rational resources beyond their own strategizing.

dominance. and that perverse structure is replicated at the most intimate levels. the public terrain too simultaneously has systems in formation. as in some of Mahler’s music. and decay. this approach largely trades in an unquantifiable phenomenological currency.” in Habermas’s terms. 2013 . Furthermore. from the perspective of psychoanalysis. a portion of what he said relates closely to the issues of social complexity (especially as regards modern societies).sagepub. It calls into question the Downloaded from pos. The issue is more than that of capitalist commodification and exploitation. Bauman combines contingent perspectives with a picture of unfolding alienation and social domination and estranged progress. As regards complexity theories. projects that often end up being other people’s disorder—as with the holocaust or “development.352 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 that in one fell swoop it spawns systems and the rebellions against them.” How strong is Bauman’s model? Clearly. opposition. but it does not accord with organismic or systemtheoretical complexity perspectives. Bauman’s emphasis on the unpredictable reiterates that many significant social processes are maximally complex in the random sense and formed by what Katz (1986) termed “ephemeral templets. informed surely by the historical events of the holocaust and the collapse of Eastern European state socialism. there is an aesthetic approach to society depicting existential and rational entrapment in endless and perverse social and psychological constraint.21 Particularly French social theory has taken up elements of this vision. This immersion in nonhuman and inhuman systems and structures I will term “labyrinthine complexity. and labyrinthine social darkness. bureaucratic and discursive regimes are also implicated. as with Foucault and.com at Univ of Education. This literature suggests that “the system is threatening the lifeworld. the progress of systems and social stability are not due to the self-steering of systems but rather of historical system projects of groups of people.” Labyrinthine Complexity In the industrial and modern eras. Earlier. it is not just the personal and private that is fluid and contingent. Winneba on July 6. In this account.” This perspective has some precedent in classical accounts of life given by Dante and others. Lacan. as in Kafka and Peter Handke. Dickens and Dostoevsky explored social darkness of the physical and psychological warrens of the nineteenth-century city.

com at Univ of Education. just civilization must largely be seen from the perspective of the South.Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 353 boundaries between social systems and people by suggesting that people are constantly constrained into performing intricate structural routines. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies” (Z iz# ek 1991. In this process. Ethics Specific issues as regards social modeling—and thus complexity theories—are raised by aspects of social process such as people’s creating and contesting discourses and practices of ethics. This side of social process may not be functional in a naturalist sense. CONCLUSION Social processes and phenomena are far too complex for complexity theory to deal with. Slavoj Z iz# ek quoted Chesterton’s remark that “civilization itself is the most sensational of all departures and the most romantic of all rebellions . without the aid of the resources of the better of existing social theories and studies. have a logic distinguishable from the vegetative heteronomy of habitual social reproduction. Bloch [1959] 1995). or profoundly elucidate. people involved with social complexity will have to be sociologically literate. environmental protection and “the politics of the personal”: a civilization that is “sane. . Winneba on July 6. It also suggests that there is no necessary connection between the logic of systems in society and human welfare and well-being. 81). I think that a far more adequate theory of social complexity. and should be engaged fully in the debates concerning the particular field and local Downloaded from pos. and becoming. humane and ecological” (Robertson 1983). led by intentionality. Taylor 1989. Furthermore. struggle toward a caring.sagepub. Theoretical work. In a global environment. and thus will manifest specific complexities. in its modest way and like other action. such as exploring the issue of social complexity. complexity theories do not provide a particularly effective metatheory of social processes. Practices on this terrain. conscious of its horizons. . mostly replicates but sometimes refashions one’s position in the politics of this civilization and the social process of practical-moral becoming in oneself and others. could be gradually constructed as an aid to the social theories in which it will be immersed. p. both within the horizon of mortality and at a general social level (cf. . 2013 . Having said that. rationality.

and Lee (1997. Here I attempt to work within Charles Taylor’s (1989) description of historical currents of social and philosophical thought. In particular. See especially Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) and Distinction (1986). this will involve real people in contested history. More technical. For some of the current debate on dependency theory. Examples of this include highly speculative passages in Kauffman (1995). More strictly on the theme of complexity are popular texts such as Laszlo’s Evolution: The Grand Synthesis (1987). Eigen and Winkler (1983) on game theory. and less manipulative. non-Western accounts of complexity.354 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001 area with which they are dealing. Laszlo (1987). 7. and Capra’s most sober relevant work. and academic works. Bach. 4. NOTES 1. and Schuurman (1993). Downloaded from pos. Capra (1997). Kauffman (1989. The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World (Cohen and Stewart 1995). as they have influenced people’s selfconstitution. See also a general overview of sociological theories of social action by Ian Craib (1992. Eigen (1996). These all deal with reasons for the collapse of the dependency paradigm in its classic form in the early 1980s. 325-45) and Eve. 3. 281-300) each contain more than five hundred references to sources that contributors to the volumes have used in their efforts to relate concepts of chaos and complexity to social processes. 2.sagepub. Nicolis and Prigogine (1989). William Poundstone’s outline of how physical law and information conspire to create complexity in The Recursive Universe (1987). 1993). Prigogine and Stengers’s Order Out of Chaos (1985). and John Casti’s (1993) Searching for Certainty. Casti’s Complexification (1994). Horsfall. see Leys (1996). See also Featherstone (1990) for debates on how cultural considerations might modify dependency theory. and Prigogine and Stengers (1985) are generally reticent on the question of social complexity. Waldrop’s chatty narrative Complexity (1984). Gödel.com at Univ of Education. Paul Cilliers (1998) provided a model of understanding based on neural nets and an organicist model of social complexity to justify an objectivist reading of Derrida’s deconstruction. Casti (1994). Some examples of the popular science literature in English on the general theme of nonlinearity are Woodcock and Davis (1980) on catastrophe theory. Capra’s (1983) solar age polemic against “Cartesian-Newtonian thought”. Stuart Kauffman’s (1995) popularization of his own work. B. The Web of Life (1997). for example. Hettne’s Development Theory and the Three Worlds (1996). Ruelle (1993) and Hall (1991) on chaos theory. scientific. Coveney and Highfield’s systematic and clear Frontiers of Complexity (1995). Douglas Hofstadter’s (1980) classic romance of paradoxical logic in the computer age. Escher. 6. especially “Underdevelopment and Dependency: Critical Notes”. Winneba on July 6. The bibliographies of Kiel and Elliot (1996. Helbing’s (1995) work was a cautious yet rigorous attempt to extend nonlinear mathematical techniques to social studies. 2013 . the advent of complexity theories merely carries forward Western attempts to dominate the globe while ignoring older. Davies’s The Cosmic Blueprint: Order and Complexity at the Edge of Chaos (1995). 33-124). which approached the topic from the philosophy of science. Sardar (1994) argued that in significant respects. 5.

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