The Edge of Organization:
Chaos and Complexity Theories of Formal Social Systems

Russ Marion (Sage, 1999)

For the burgeoning social scientific interest in chaos and complexity theories, this is a timely and welcome publication. It is a good attempt to provide a comprehensive, yet interesting and readable, account of various aspects of chaos and complexity theories, particularly highlighting the theoretical underpinning, as well as the empirical implications for policy and managerial decision making. It is unique, challenging and highly ambitious on three different levels. As a work of studying chaos and complexity theories it addresses an important yet underarticulated research area, namely, the daily occurrence of the seemingly chaotic, random and complex events that cause misunderstanding on the very nature of social system, as well as the communicative and discursive aspects of these events; all these being fully articulated by the author in a comprehensible, readable and in rational and scientific terms.

On the contextual level, in the Preface the author kicks off the debate that “Chaos is the spice of order” and, more importantly stressed in Chapter 1, he goes on to argue that “nonlinearity’ (no direct logical relationship found between two time-series events in chaotic situation) is a central concept in chaos and complexity theories (p.5). Here, the book rightly introduces, as well as highlighting, the essence of social reality: its (r)evolutionary process, coupled with its systematic embeddedness, on the unpredictability, uncertainty and chaos of events and dynamics. In short, the introductory chapters (1-3) provide a solid foundation, such as basic concepts and assumptions for the theories, for easy comprehension by beginners.

On the theoretical level, Chapters 4 and 5 develop a general theory of complex systems, by arguing the holistic conceptualization of social (sub)systems, and the interactional aspects (such as positive and negative feedback, resonance and interference) of the social systems in and beyond their shifting/changing environment. By emphasizing the functional differentiation in and beyond the social (sub)systems, the author points out three main observable phenomena/phases of the evolution of chaotic situation, namely, the stable, edge of chaos and chaotic. Obviously, this part provides the most original reinterpretation (synthesis) of various theses in the chaos and complex theories school of thoughts—serious readers will learn from this.

From Chapters 6 through 14, with chapter titles of: Structural Contingency Theory, Footprints of Complexity, Resource Dependency, Organizations in Wonderland, Coupling at the Edge, Darwin and Organizations, Limiting the Organizational Expansion, Changing Complex Organizations, Stability and Change at the Edge, the book is full of learning examples and turns to more specific cases of organizations and their context, in and through which the elements of chaotic and complex scenarios can be systematically studied, observed and analyzed. The reviewer strongly recommends this for managers and those policy makers who daily have to confront complex decision making in uncertain and unpredictable environments. By showing the extent of the complexity hallowing the systematic ordering of chaotic events, the author has rightly pointed out that the unfolding of the complexity of socioeconomic political events (like the collapse of the USSR in 1989) requires more social scientific knowledge, coupling that of natural scientific (say, mathematical, logical) reasoning.

Special attention should be drawn to Chapter 15, as it provides a very useful pathfinder, plus a map, to find the order within the seemingly disordered, complex and random social (sub)systems. The last chapter recapitulates that social development in general and socioeconomic and political (d)evolution, intertwined by revolutionary events, in particular are contingent on a set of flexible, dynamics yet interdependent forces, systematically anchoring at the edge of chaos and complexity.

Two main caveats are obvious. First, the book addresses too many issues, ranging from hypothetical examples such as Albert Einstein’s Island (could he have developed his famous theories of relativity if he had been interacting with himself alone?) to mathematical reasoning represented by algebraic symbols and formulas in 315 pages! Given the complexity of issues and concepts discussed, perhaps the publisher might consider releasing a CD-ROM version so that hyperlinks can be estab-lished to clarify the concepts and issues, as well as to other related studies and Web pages for beginners to further their course of study.

More problematic is the fact that the author is not critical enough to highlight or test some of his quasi-functionalist, seemingly a priori assumptions, particularly when these assumptions were embedded and subsequently being used to modeling the reality—the “unqualified use” of mathematical or algebraic equations per se (being used for the search of the ordering of complexity) cannot reveal the past history nor be predictable for future events, as it is mostly within a close system of interpre-tation. Here, a more stringent approach for the “mathematicization” of our complex social reality is thus called for—this is particularly the case for beginners, as well as for managerial and public policy decision makers.

In spite of this, the reviewer is satisfied with this book and, particularly, learned much from its simple, clear and precise way of promoting the studies (which are usually filled with mathematical symbols without telling much about the “complexity”) of complexity and chaos. Undoubtedly, this book is very good for someone beginning to explore the chaos and complexity theories, as there are both hypothetical and empirical examples, models, insights, narratives and metaphors addressing various important concepts and elements in the systematic study of chaos and complex social systems. Likewise, the 23-page annotated bibliography is definitely good for beginners’ investigative pursuit.

Overall, this book provides a down-to-earth, jargon-free and complex formula, reinterpretation of the theories and the associated concepts on chaos and complexity. It helps us to comprehend the systematic (dis)ordering of the “disorganized” society at the turn of the millennium—the author should be commended for this!