Complexity Theory and Social Research
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Fri Mar 9 15:22:46 MST 2001
Richard commented upon my papers, arguing that he was not interested in
reading them. Why doesn't he instead try to participate in the discussion
and spell out what he thinks about the complexity theory? The below article
briefly summarizes the objectives of complexity theory in social science
research. I am posting it so that he can benefit.
Comparing this with Jurriaan's references on "regulation theory" and "social
accumulation" school (which emphasizes the interaction of political,
economic and cultural factors in the formation of complex social system such
as capitalism), this article also makes a case for refuting "linear
determinism and reductionism" in sciences. The challenge comes from two
directions. 1) that complexity is not a "single discipline. It represents an
exchange of ideas, methods and assumptions across a number of fields. This
proves the point in the article I posted today that social science
disciplines are converging rather than diverging in their methods and
claims. Thus, complexity theory is challenging the priority of one science
over another, and instead offering a philosophical communication between
disciplines. 2) The other objection is to the Newtonian "foundations of
western science" with a "recognition of the limits of science understood as
the use of linear mathematical formalism in describing the world" The
second objection seems to share some commonalities with the post-modernist
skepticism of western enlightenment philosophy.
Given what is described below, I could not find the complexity theory very
strong enough to deal with the political economy of capitalism, especially
its class character. The theory shares something in common with the "chaos
theory" in its claim that the systems are inherently unstable,
transformative and non-linear (sounds similar to Lyotard's views on the post
modern condition). Taking this premise to its extreme, it is possible to end
up in chaotic situation without any stability and order. The capitalist
system generates disorder, but it also offers some form of stability
(ideological apparatuses) to make sure the system is at the same time being
reproduced. I agree with Jurriaan that the theory still encourages us to
think about the complexity of social life..I am not sure, though, if it
offers an alternative system.
Complexity Theory and Social Research
by David Byrne
David Byrne is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Durham.
He has a long standing interest in the use of measurement as a way of
describing social change and is currently completing a book on Complexity
and Social Theory for Routledge.
'Complexity' is a fundamental challenge to the traditional linear programme
in science as a whole and its ideas of certainty and randomness.
The inherently evolutionary and historical nature of complex systems is
The application of methods derived from chaos studies in the physical
sciences is assessed.
The role of simulation and 'iconological' representation in the study of
complex systems is described and evaluated.
Traditional techniques of numerical taxonomy and quantitative modelling are
considered as tools for describing the
evolutionary behaviour of complex social systems over time.
The use of qualitative data analysis as a tool for examining complex systems
Trisoglio defines complexity as
... not a single discipline, but a process that represents the sharing of
ideas, methods and experiences across a number of fields. (1995:1).
Hayles puts it more forcefully : 'When a dichotomy as central to western
thought as order / disorder is destabilized it is no
exaggeration to say that a major fault line has developed in the episteme.'
(1991:16) What we are dealing with is a recognition
of the limits of science understood as the use of linear mathematical
formalism in describing the world. This constitutes a
challenge to the Newtonian foundation of western science. The elements of
this challenge include: (i) a recognition of the
centrality of Poincaré's conception of deterministic chaos in both
mathematics and science, dismissing both randomness, the
foundation of stochastic modelling in science, and certainty, the foundation
of linear determinism; (ii) a revalidating of the idea
that systems have emergent properties which are not to be understood by
reductionist analysis of the systems into lower order
components -- that is an assertion of holism; and (iii) a rejection of the
tradition of a two valued logic in which order and
disorder are dichotomous and opposites and its replacement by a conception
of them not as antagonistic and fixed states but
rather as stages in a process of dynamic and transformational becoming.
The implications of this reformation have been identified by the Gulbenkian
Commission on Restructuring the Social Sciences
(1996). Not only are the boundaries which constitute disciplines in the
social sciences rendered irrelevant by this perspective,
but it offers a challenge to the demarcation of the social from other
sciences. This does not amount to prioritising any domain of
knowledge. What we are dealing with here is not a new envy of physics
founded on reductionism -- quite the contrary. There
are three points which need to be made before turning to the implications of
complexity theory for the form and content of the
social research programme.
The first is that we now have available an account of dynamics which centres
on non-linear changes in the properties of systems as a whole rather than
the linear trajectories of the elements which are located within those
systems. As Prigogine and Stengers (1984) put it, we should replace
mechanics with thermodynamics as our central analogy. The second, which
follows from the first, is that systems are inherently evolutionary and that
changes over time are not reversible -- systems are essentially
historical1. This means that such systems have emergent properties and
provides us with a way of conceptualising time which
permits a proper understanding of the relationship between the temporal and
the social. Finally, we have available a developed,
sociologically located discussion of the meta-theoretical character of
complexity theory which identifies it as a scientific ontology complementary
to the philosophical ontology of critical realism developed by Bhaskar (see
Reed and Harvey 1996).
For social research the most important implication of this is that the long
running problem of relating the quantitative and
qualitative programmes no longer matters, apart from to those who deny any
substantive reality to anything other than social
actions and therefore regard all measurement as inherently reifying. The
rest of us are now able to see the quantitative as itself
inherently qualitative, given that the nonlinear and emergent character of
social and other significant systems means that we can
never establish general non-contextual laws and that the quantitative
account itself is simply, but very usefully, a way of
describing local contexts and transformation of systems as a whole.
This way of thinking corresponds very closely to the idea of the
transformation of modes of production. The idea that systems
are nonlinear means exactly that changes happen in them which are
discontinuous and represent transformations of kind. Local
quantitative descriptions of such bifurcation points are the measured
history of such qualitative transformations of state.
Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222
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