Complexity Theory, Globalisation and Diversity


The paper reviews and argues for the importance of insights from the transdisciplinary ‘complexity theory’ for Sociology. Complexity theory addresses issues that lie at the heart of classic Sociological theory. These include: the tension between general theory and explanation of specific phenomena; emergence, that is, the relationship between microand macro-levels of analysis; and the concept of system. In particular, it is argued that Sociology has much to benefit from the new thinking about the concept of system that has taken place within complexity theory. In an era of globalisation, Sociology needs to develop its vocabulary of concepts in order to address large scale, systemic phenomena. Special attention is paid to the application of specific concepts from complexity theory to social phenomena, including: coevolution of complex adaptive systems, fitness landscapes, and path dependency. The implications for Sociology of distinctions and differences within complexity theory, especially those between the Santa Fe and Prigogine approaches, are addressed. While the focus of the paper is on the theoretical issues, the example of globalisation is used to illuminate the analysis, especially in relation to the changing nature of polities and their interrelationships. COMPLEXITY THEORY, GLOBALISATION AND DIVERSITY Introduction Complexity theory offers a new set of conceptual tools to help explain the diversity of and changes in contemporary modernities undergoing globalisation. It constitutes a challenge to more traditional forms of theorising in sociology and offers new ways of thinking about diverse inequalities and social change in a global era. Complexity theory offers new ways of thinking about some of the classic dilemmas in social science, in particular, engaging with the tension between the search for general theory and the desire for contextual and specific understandings (Calhoun 1998; Griffin 1993; Haydu 1998; Kiser 1996; Kiser and Hechter 1991), which lies at the heart of the tension between realist (Archer 1995; Bhaskar 1997; Byrne 1998; Sayer 1992; Somers 1998) and post modern (Cilliers 1998; DeLanda 2000; Lyotard 1978) approaches. Complexity theory confronts the postmodern challenge to modernist metanarratives to address issues of diversity and complexity more adequately and responds without giving up the quest for explanation and analysis of causation. Critical to these theoretical developments is the re-thinking of the concept of ‘system’, rejecting old assumptions about equilibrium in favour of the analysis of dynamic processes of systems far from equilibrium, and re-specifying the relationship of a system to its environment. It thus provides a new framing for empirical enquiries into diversity and social change. The search for general theory in more traditional scientific thought in many disciplines has often involved a process of reducing complex phenomena to simpler ones. This may involve either a reduction downwards to ever smaller units of analysis as in the movement from organisms to cells to genes in modern biology (Rose 1997) or in the methodological individualism of rational choice theory (Coleman 1990; Goldthorpe 2000; Kiser and Hechter 1991), or it may involve a reduction upwards, as in much structuralist thought in the social sciences (Althusser 1971; Parsons 1951). By contrast other schools of sociology reject these ambitions for general explanation by means of reduction, sometimes by staying close to the meaning of human actors (Smith 1987), sometimes by privileging thick rich descriptions over the search for causal explanation. Complexity theory offers a way of surpassing this polarisation by the development of ontological depth that is not at the expense of explanatory power. In this respect, complexity theory has many parallels with the development of realism in sociological thought (Archer 1995; Bhaskar 1979, 1989, 1997; Sayer 1992). It shares a concern with processes of ‘emergence’ and of different levels and modes of abstraction. This facilitates the development of some of the concerns of classical sociology, such as combining an understanding of both individual and social structure, that does not deny the significance of the self-reflexivity of the human subject while yet theorising changes in the social totality. Some conceptualisation of systematic relationships is indispensable for Sociology. In the context of the empirical analysis of the large-scale interconnections involved in the process of globalisation, this theoretical requirement becomes even more acutely obvious. Complexity theory offers new developments in the conceptualisation and theorisation of systems. Sociology has had something of a hiatus in the development of its thinking about large scale processes and especially about systems during the postmodern turn, while complexity theory within the natural and mathematical sciences has proceeded apace on these issues. Most classic theory in Sociology has addressed the social within a large framing, invoking some kind of concept of social system, whether this is understood at the level of capital, as in Marx (1954), either global (Wallerstein 1974) or national (Jessop 1990), a society, as in Durkheim (1966) and Parsons (1951), especially nation-states (Giddens 1984), or a world religion (Weber 1958). In the turn against the metanarrative (Lyotard, 1978), which has overtaken social theory over the last two decades most large scale theorising, from Marxist to Parsonian, has been marginalised. This has proceeded together with the privileging of issues of particularity, of difference (Felski 1997; Taylor 1994) and of agency (Emirbayer 1997; Giddens 1984) in social theory and analysis. Yet, the emergence of concern with global processes has led to a revival of interest in large scale processes, and of inequality alongside difference, in order to comprehend the meaning and implications of globalisation (Benhabib 1999; Castells 1996, 1997, 1998). In this new context, it is time to think again about the vocabulary of concepts available to social theory to address issues at a large scale, systemic and global level. It is in this context that an investigation of the relevance and usefulness of the concepts developed within complexity theory becomes especially relevant (Urry 2003). It is thus timely to investigate the advances that have occurred in complexity theory within other disciplines in order to see whether and if so how these might assist the development of thinking within sociology.

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Walby2004ComplexityTG, title={Complexity Theory, Globalisation and Diversity}, author={Sylvia Walby}, year={2004} }