Complexity Theories, Social Theory, And the Question of Social Complexity

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Philosophy of the Social Sciences 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: Published by: Additional services and information for Philosophy of the Social Sciences can be found at: Email Alerts:
Transcript  Philosophyof the Social Sciences version of this article can be foundat:DOI: 10.1177/0048393101031003032001 31: 323 Philosophy of the Social Sciences  Peter Stewart Complexity Theories, Social Theory, and the Question of Social Complexity Published by: can be found at: Philosophy of the Social Sciences  Additional services and information for  Email Alerts:   Subscriptions: Reprints:   Permissions:  Citations:   What is This?- Sep 1, 2001Version of Record>> at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 10, 2013pos.sagepub.comDownloaded from   PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY Complexity Theories, Social Theory, andthe Question of Social Complexity PETER STEWART University of South Africa In this article, the author argues that complexity theories have limited use inthe study of society, and that social processes are too complex and particular to be rigorously modeled in complexity terms. Theories of social complexity areshown to be inadequately developed, and typical weaknesses in the literatureon social complexity are discussed. Two stronger analyses, of Luhmann and of Harvey and Reed, are also critically considered. New considerations regardingsocialcomplexityareadvanced,onthelinesthatsimplicity,complexitythatcan be modeled, and incondensible complexity permeate society simultaneously.The difficulty of establishing complexity models for processes involving ongo-ing interpretation is discussed. It is argued that the notions of system and envi-ronmentneedrecastinginsocialstudies.Existingsocialstudiesandliterature,itis argued, reflect a polymorphous, contextual, contingent, labyrinthine, dra-maticandpoliticalfacetosocialcomplexity.Studentsofsocialcomplexitymust be literate in such studies. Society is highly complex in certain respects. Why is it, then, thatviews of society through the lens of complexity theory seem to missoutonmuchofthecomplexity,opacity,andparticularityofsocialpro-cesses? I must confess to a sense of wonder at the freshness and per-suasiveness of the historical and myriad approach to the naturalworld, which is embodied in the attempt to form new “sciences of complexity.”Itisanewrationalitythatpreservesmanyunknowns;itsmathematics suggests great openness in historical material process.Yet my wonder is not evoked by complexity theories applied to thesocial world. 323 Received 30 June 1999I would like to thank the University of South Africa for a sabbatical grant, whichassistedthisproject,andtheFacultyofSocialandPoliticalSciencesattheUniversityof Cambridgeforhostingmeasavisitingscholarinthemiddleof1998,whichenabledmeto pursue aspects of the project. Philosophy of the Social Sciences , Vol. 31 No. 3, September 2001 323-360© 2001 Sage Publications  at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 10, 2013pos.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Furthermore, the attempts, serving a variety of interests, todeveloptheoriesofthesocialbynowformahuge,partlycomplemen-tary, partly contradictory heterogeneous field (for overviews, seeTurner1996;Craib1992;Swingewood1984;Abraham1977).Throughwhich gateways do complexity theories enter this teeming citadel?WhileIwillusetheterms complexitytheory and complexitytheories inthis article, some authors (e.g., Baker 1993; Kiel and Elliott 1996; Eve,Horsfall, and Lee 1997, foreword) prefer chaos theory as the umbrellaterm to describe all nonlinear phenomena. However, chaos theoryrefers to processes that are describable by algebraic formulas (seeCilliers 1998, ix). Certainly determinate chaos (not to mention deter-minatelinearity!)isarecurrentpartofcomplexprocesses,butmathe-matical determinism is meaningless with regard to many biological,ecological,andsocialprocesses,inmyopinion(seealsoCasti[1993]onthisissue;Katz’s[1989]notionof“incondensablecomplexity”isalso relevant here). It seems to me that the main danger of the con-cept “complexity theory” is that its users are often preoccupied withsystemicity and an organismic model, and the phenomenon of emer-gence. However, using the resource of algorithmic complexity, com-plexity may be viewed without the assumption that it all fits andfunctionstogether. Theoriesofnonlinearity wouldalsobeanacceptablegeneral term, in my judgment.Toexplorethistopic,thisarticlefirstconsiderssomedefinitionsof complexity,whichareshowntoreflectdifferentconcerns.Itisarguedthatdefinitionsofsocialcomplexityareinadequate,butalsothatthe-oriesofcomplexity,includingsocialcomplexity,areheretostay.Thensome limitations that recur in the literature on social complexity areexamined, and two stronger expositions of dissipative approaches tosociety are considered. This is followed by an attempt to more ade-quatelyoutlinetheparticularnatureofsocialcomplexitybysuggest-ing some principles for the study of social complexity and outliningsomesocialthoughtthathasbearingonconsiderationsofcomplexity.WHAT IS COMPLEXITY?The nature of complexity, and especially social complexity, is stillvery open to debate and further research.Complexityisamatterofperspectiveorframing(whichinourcaserelatestohumanintentionandinterests),levelofdetail(fineorcoarsegraining), and the result of perceiving through observation. A small 324 PHILOSOPHY OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES / September 2001  at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 10, 2013pos.sagepub.comDownloaded from   stone could be described as a highly complex quantum entity, but itmay be simple in terms of its relative chemical inertness on a villagepath.ThisechoesCasti’s(1994,276-77)argument,inwhichhearguedthat a systematic theory of complexity would have to proceedthrough a theory of models, relating observer to observed. An ana-lytic perspective may frame things to reveal or discount certaindetails, types of information, and kinds of complexity. Among thosecommitted to the scientific enterprise of making abstract models of “configurations of real world items,” the choice of items to pattern issomewhatarbitraryand“probablyamixtureofintuition,insight,his-toricalaccident,culturalstructure,andeventheintrinsicnatureofthehuman nervous system” (Katz 1986, 2). More broadly, there are waysof perceiving the world that do not predominantly involve the laborof rationality, observation, and abstraction. For example, aestheticappreciation involves other factors, as are perceptions structured bythe illogic of emotional life. In addition to perceptions influenced ordominatedbytheunconscious,perceptionsindailylifeutilizesocial-izedpreconsciousschemata(Bourdieu’s habitus )andattimesanintu-itive intellect, “that simple vision to which truth offers itself like alandscape” (Pieper 1963, 26). For Ricoeur (cf. 1974, 1986) objecti-fication is a valid but limited mode of understanding, which takes itsplace as a moment in the imperatives of human becoming and theactive encounter with possibility.Once we have a perspective able and willing to see complexity,therearedifferingdefinitionsof,andapproachesto,complexity.Thiswouldseemtorelatetothefactthatthereareavarietyofdisciplinaryapproaches involved (particularly mathematical, systems-theoretical,cybernetic, and biological), and a variety of problems are beingaddressed. Aided with computers and new theories, there areattemptstomodeltheoriginsoflife,tomodelafreshthemechanismsof evolution, and to map the workings of the human brain. Arelatedproblem is working out how complex “dissipative,” “autocatalytic,”“self-organizing,” or “self-steering” entities, including social agents,solvecomplicatedproblems.Afurtherproblemisthatofexperiencedincreases in operational complexity—and attendant problems—inmodern, technological, mass society (for example, Zolo 1992;Dobuzinskis 1992). And the very issue of transposing mathematicaland biological models to society and testing nonlinear mathematicalandsystemsmodelsagainstvariousinstitutionsandsocialprocessesis itself a problem that will lead to redefinitions of complexity. Stewart / THE QUESTION OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY 325  at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 10, 2013pos.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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