Exploring the science of complexitySystems and complexity

Exploring the science of complexity series (part 8): Applications in the social, political and economic realms

This article is part 8 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts.

Following initial applications of the new body of work to the physical sciences, a number of thinkers and institutions started to work towards new approaches, ones which viewed social, political and economic phenomena through a complexity lens. Many statements have been made about the relevance of complexity science, of which the following is typical:

Economies are complex dynamic systems. Large numbers of micro agents engage repeatedly in local interactions, giving rise to global regularities such as employment and growth rates, income distributions, market institutions, and social conventions. These global regularities in turn feed back into the determination of local interactions. The result is an intricate system of interdependent feedback loops connecting micro behaviours, interaction patterns, and global regularities. 1

Some thinkers, who include Nobel laureates among their number, have even argued that complexity sciences provide a mechanism to overcome the boundaries between the physical and social sciences2. Despite such kinds of statements or ambitions, the application of complexity to human realms has not consisted of a straightforward, non-contentious transfer. In Whose Reality Counts, a book that represents one of the first attempts to bring complexity thinking into thinking about international development, Robert Chambers provides a pertinent summary of the debate:

… the striking resonance by analogy with the few simple rules on non-hierarchical self-organising systems in computer simulations poses the question whether we have a deep paradigmatic insight, an interesting parallel, or an insignificant coincidence (emphasis added). 3

This debate continues to shape the applications of complexity outside the physical sciences.

It is useful to have an initial overview of the debate at this stage. As with all debates, we can find champions, pragmatists and critics. (And, naturally, one person’s serious champion is often another’s lightweight evangelist, but that is another matter.)

The champions, for whom complexity is a deep paradigmatic insight, see it as a new approach to science, thought and action. To them, complexity science signifies a change in the way that social sciences should be conducted, and this should in turn lead to a fundamental shift in policy and practice. Opinions vary on how this should materialise. Some are concerned with the direct application of mathematical definitions found in the natural sciences to social phenomena. As Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine4 suggested, complexity is not simply a theory of the physical world, but deals with the dynamics of all populations that can be understood using statistical methods. Such efforts focus on ‘hard’ data which are collected over time and analysed to identify the existence of the key concepts of complexity. This approach calls for evidence of complexity which is identical to, or at the very least comparable with, that found in the natural sciences. Such approaches face methodological and data issues.

Other, perhaps less mathematically minded, champions suggest that lack of data and other issues facing quantitative applications of complexity in the social sciences should not deprive social analysts of a set of useful insights5, and that many significant phenomena of so-called social realms are in fact hybrids of physical and social realms – for example, health, environment, technology and so on6. In general, complexity has appealed most to those who feel that top-down, command-and-control and reductionist approaches can be inappropriate in many real world situations. As Chambers puts it:

… provisionally, it would seem that the key is to minimise central controls, use rules which promote and permit complex, diverse and locally fitting behaviour: decentralise, minimise controls, enable local appraisal, analysis, planning and adaptation for local fit in different ways 7

The sections to follow will help to clarify and understand why the above might be the case, and look at the ideological implications of this approach more closely.

The pragmatists, for whom complexity provides interesting and potentially useful parallels, are
exploring the relevance of complexity science to social systems and organisations, and working to assess the practical benefits that arise from its application outside the natural sciences8. This work suggests that complexity is a lens that helps us look at our world and shape our action but, importantly, that it is a set of concepts and tools that should not be treated as the ‘only way’ to look at and do things9.

The pragmatists tend to accept the work-in-progress nature of complexity sciences, and the challenges that arise from drawing on diverse and varied bodies of knowledge. These challenges create issues around definition, measurement, analysis and coherence, and lead to a general acknowledgement that there is a need for a deeper theoretical understanding and further practical applications. As has been suggested by one thinker:

The atmosphere of complexity work is of a construction site, not a completed building, which has led in the last few years to complaints that the grand edifice cannot be erected 10

Critics, for whom complexity may be nothing more than an insignificant coincidence, dismiss the relevance of complexity science beyond the natural sciences, levelling a number of potentially troubling objections. Some have argued that, in each case of transferring an idea from philosophy or the natural sciences into the social sciences, one must first demonstrate specific application11, and that this is not being carried out sufficiently in complexity science. Since there are now numerous examples of such application, especially in the past decade, this argument becomes less of a criticism and more of an important proviso.

There are also frequent criticisms of the fact that complexity science has become a favourite of management consultants, with a growing number of ‘complexologists’ selling their services in the realm of organisational management. As one thinker on military operational analysis has put it:

The majority of these writings seem to claim that the “old” thinking needs to be wholly replaced with “new” thinking, and that a new all-embracing perspective, sometimes referred to as “complexity thinking”, is available that will solve all our apparent woes 12

Such consultants have been accused of using ‘well defined technical terms’ as ‘window dressing’ to add an air of scientific authority to their own agendas13. Equally critical is the fact that the key concepts of complexity often seem poorly understood, and issues of their relevance and applicability often glossed over or ignored14. As one writer on the role of complexity in management has said:

… there is no evidence that complexity science-based prescriptions for style, structure and process do produce the results claimed for them … Such evidence as is adduced is almost exclusively anecdotal in character 15

Even more challenging is the following statement:

Much of the work claiming to import complexity science into [the social sciences] … typically writes that
the world is complex therefore managers should do “X” (insert most recent pop management idea)’ 16

Following a famous example of Western confidence tricksters offering shares in a highly valuable but fictional commodity, such approaches have been described as peddling ‘managerial snake oil’ 17

Critics have also argued that complexity sciences can show us nothing new in socioeconomic realms. Specifically, they are seen to add nothing to approaches dealing with understanding social phenomena, only offering recommendations already reached by other thinkers. Its popularity is related less to the inherent value in the approach and more to the current wider societal need to better understand an increasingly interconnected and uncertain world.

Over the course of the … [series], we will attempt to navigate these debates by using empirical studies as the basis of our exploration, being as rigorous as possible in interpreting their implications. In taking an empirically based approach, we hope to establish careful and considered connections between complexity and specific implications for aid work, while avoiding accusations of peddling ‘managerial snake oil’ 18.

We will revisit debates both throughout the … [series] and in our conclusions.

Next part (part 9): Unpacking complexity science – Key concepts and implications for international aid.

Article source: Ramalingam, B., Jones, H., Reba, T., & Young, J. (2008). Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts (Vol. 285). London: ODI. (https://www.odi.org/publications/583-exploring-science-complexity-ideas-and-implications-development-and-humanitarian-efforts). Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

Header image source: qimono on Pixabay, Public Domain.

References:

  1. Tesfatsion, L. and Judd, K. (eds) (2006). ‘Agent-based Computational Economics: A Constructive Approach to Economic Theory’ in Handbook of  Computational Economics, Volume 2: Agent-Based Computational Economics.
  2. Urry, J. (2003). Global Complexity, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  3. Chambers, R. (1997). Whose Reality Counts: Putting the First Last, London: Intermediate Technology Publications.
  4. Prigogine, I. (1997). The end of certainty, New York: Free Press.
  5. Dendrinos, D. (1997) ‘Chaos: Challenges from and to socio-spatial form and policy,’ in Discreet Dynamics in Nature and Society, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 9–15.
  6. Urry, J. (2003). Global Complexity, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  7. Chambers, R. (1997). Whose Reality Counts: Putting the First Last, London: Intermediate Technology Publications.
  8. Mittleton-Kelly, E. (2003). ‘Ten Principles of Complexity and Enabling Infrastructures’ in Complex Systems and Evolutionary Perspectives of Organisations: The Application of Complexity Theory to organizations, London: Elsevier Press.
  9. Mittleton-Kelly, E. (2003). ‘Ten Principles of Complexity and Enabling Infrastructures’ in Complex Systems and Evolutionary Perspectives of Organisations: The Application of Complexity Theory to organizations, London: Elsevier Press.
  10. Berreby, D. (1998). ‘Complexity Theory: Fact Free Science or Business Tool’, Strategy & Business, 10: 40–50.
  11. Sokal, A. and Bricmont, J. (1998). Intellectual Impostures, London: Profile Books.
  12. Richardson, K. A., Mathieson, G. and Cilliers, P. (2000). ‘The Theory and Practice of Complexity Science: Epistemological Considerations for Military Operational Analysis’.
  13. Haynes, P. (2003). Managing Complexity in the Public Services, Berkshire: Open University Press.
  14. Piepers, I. (2006). ‘The International System: at the Edge of Chaos’.
  15. Rosenhead, J. (2001). Complexity Theory and Management Practice, Working Paper Series, LSEOR 98.25, London: LSE.
  16. Sorenson, O. (1999). ‘Book Review’ of Eve, R., Horsfall, S. and Lee, M. ‘Emergence’, Chaos Complexity and Sociology 1: 149-51.
  17. Sorenson, O. (1999). ‘Book Review’ of Eve, R., Horsfall, S. and Lee, M. ‘Emergence’, Chaos Complexity and Sociology 1: 149-51.
  18. Sorenson, O. (1999). ‘Book Review’ of Eve, R., Horsfall, S. and Lee, M. ‘Emergence’, Chaos Complexity and Sociology 1: 149-51.

Ben Ramalingam and Harry Jones with Toussaint Reba and John Young

Authors of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper "Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts".

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