3 Ways of Thinking About Complexity

Simplistically, the attempts to apply theories from the complexity sciences to social phenomena fall broadly into three camps.

In the first camp are writers who are still trying to bend complexity to a predictive scientific model: the idea, then, is that it might be possible to develop a framework or a tool to apply to social phenomena such as organisations to achieve predictable, ie better, results. These authors sometimes imply that is possible for managers to ‘unleash complexity’ in the organisation, or after Wheatley, to follow a few simple rules and ‘utilise’ complexity.

In many ways this way of understanding insights from the complexity sciences as tools which can somehow be ‘applied’ directly to organisations never really escapes from the dominant scientific paradigm, which assumes that reality can be explained in terms of rules which are replicable in any context, thus resulting in our ability to predict and control nature..

In the second camp are academics who have tried to analyse complex social phenomena by using sophisticated computer models. In this group I would include Peter Allen at Cranfield and Peter Hedstrom at Oxford University. Neither would claim that there models are in any way predictive, or in the latter’s case, even of necessarily being an accurate picture of reality. Rather they claim that their models offer us a better way of understanding how social phenomena may arise.

To a certain extent, then, Allen and Hedstrom are partially leaving behind the notion that science is only science if it can produce causal, predictive results which are universally applicable. However, they still believe that reality needs to be modelled using the universal language of mathematics before we can be properly sure that we understand what is going on. The linear equations used in these computer models have no mathematical solution, they only have retrospective explanatory power.

In the third camp are authors like Ralph Stacey, Robert Chia and Hari Tsoukas, who understand complexity in interpretive terms and would deny that it is directly applicable to social phenomena. Nonetheless they would argue that insights from theories of complexity offer similar explanations to those forged by a generation of philosophers and sociologists such as Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu and the American pragmatists to name the most prominent. Stacey, Chia and Tsoukas, suggest that insights from the complexity theories and from these prominent sociologists and thinkers, pose a radical challenge to the way we understand social phenomena. So, for example, Stacey calls on Elias to show how he has a theory of social emergence very close to the central insight from complex adaptive systems theory (CAS), that complex social patterning arises purely from the interactions of agents organising locally. There is no overall plan and no single agent is in charge. This is how Elias describes it:

“As the moves of interdependent players intertwine, no single player nor any group of players acting alone can determine the course of the game no matter how powerful they may be. … It involves a partly self-regulating change in a partly self-organizing and self-reproducing figuration of interdependent
people, whole processes tending in a certain direction.”

This understanding of insights from the complexity sciences implies a fundamental challenge to writers in the first group, who still think that complexity is something they can harness or control. As managers and workers in organisations we can never ‘use complexity’ because we ourselves are part of the patterning that we presume to change. We may, through our greater power, be able to have greater influence on events, but our influence will always be modified and affected by the power of everyone else we seek to influence. In effect social patterning arises from the interplay of power relations.


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