Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences:
An Introduction

David Byrne (Routledge, 1998)

In his book, David Byrne acquaints the reader with possible applications of complexity theory to the social sciences. His introduction mainly addresses undergraduates and uses examples drawn from urban studies, education and health to show the contribution that complexity theory can make to empirical research on crucial social issues.

Byrne gives a very personal account of his interest in complexity theory, referring to his own scientific beliefs, his working experience, his special perspective on society, and his ethical viewpoints. Elaborating this normative position in conceptualizing the shortcomings and needs of today’s social science, Byrne introduces us to some of the main concepts of complexity theory. He locates the deficiencies of recent social sciences, as he sees them, in the absence of an approach that combines nonlinear relations, multiple and contingent causation, nonlinear but not unbounded determination, and emergent properties.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the introduction of complexity/chaos ideas in relation to the general program of social science, and to sociology in particular. The first chapter outlines the main concepts and the general terminology of complexity theory thought to be relevant for the social sciences. Chapter 2 reviews some of the previous work conducted in the social sciences that refers to the complexity approach. In so doing, this chapter points to ontological and epistemological issues, systematically deriving a shopping list of issues that are to be addressed by the new research program. The mathematical side of the complexity approach is first tackled in Chapter 3, where the close connections to existing statistical methods in social research are mentioned. This is further developed in Chapter 4, where a methodological program is introduced that closely links the quantitative parts of the social sciences to the ideas of complexity and chaos.

The second half of Byrne’s study is concerned with matters of application. Chapter 5 deals with emergent properties at spatial levels, mainly with the concept of “locality,” in the area of social ecology. Chapters 6 and 7 respectively contain applications of the complexity approach to topics in health and education. The last chapter refers to urban governance as a planning issue. The main part of the book ends with a conclusion concerning the future chances of the outlined research program in the social sciences.

The book seems to be aimed at students who are not only new to the field of complexity theory but also little acquainted with the fields of social sciences. For this purpose, Byrne offers a well-structured introduction that is intuitively accessible and easy to understand. To get a first grip of the problems under consideration, and an idea about the potential of complexity theory, the book can supply sufficient information. The glossary at the end of the main text is especially helpful to support inexperienced readers. The writing style of connecting theoretical claims with personal viewpoints or private experiences, and the extensive use of examples from interesting social problem areas, is well adapted to attracting attention to the new approach.

Having said this, the attempt to address the above audience implies significant deficiencies for other readers, especially those who want to learn something about the application of complex systems science to day- to-day management and leadership challenges. First, Byrne’s outline of the main concepts of complexity theory is awkwardly short. It is not sufficiently elaborated and does not consider the state-of-the-art in this field. The important questions regarding what are the “main concepts” and what we can “do” with these are not systematically tackled. Second, Byrne relies heavily on chaos theory without paying attention to the far broader range of complexity theory. Some concepts are completely missing (e.g., self-organization, recursive closure, circular causality, etc.), some are only marginally addressed (e.g., perturbation), while others are placed at the center of attention (e.g., bifurcation). What motivates this range is not quite clear. At one point in the book Byrne mentions “relevance” to the social sciences as the reason for choosing concepts, but this crucial estimation should be supported. It cannot serve as a justification for a pre-choice.

Third, the value of applying the concepts to the problem areas discussed is not made clear. The examples drawn from health, education and urban planning are presented in terms of ordinary social research and represent the other methods with which they were investigated. Here, the application of terms drawn from complexity/chaos is akin to theory being thrown at a problem, the results and interpretations subsequently making use of a more fashionable rhetoric. The generic function of complexity in this regard is not obvious, nor is the advantage of using these concepts over and above previously available concepts for describing phenomena. Focusing on the dynamics of social systems is nothing new in social research.

To summarize, the book (a) fails in elaborating central concepts, central topics, and the central advantages of a complex systems approach in the social sciences; and (b) does not provide any guidance for management and leadership challenges. The latter is connected to the former: when concepts are unclear, it is impossible to arrive at reasonable options based on these concepts.

Addressing the conceptual issues, the relevant questions that are not answered by Byrne are already well known. They are, for example, what motivates a common framework for the natural and the social sciences (cf. Byrne’s remarks about “analogy,” “iso-morphism,” etc.; they do not in the least mirror the well-developed state of this discussion), and what kind of data can support hypotheses generated by the complex systems approach (cf. the operationalization problem, which may not be considered a problem by Byrne, but it certainly is a problem for those social scientists seeking to apply complexity theory to their field). In his remarks to the last question, Byrne reduces complexity theory to application possibilities concerning the quantitative social sciences (e.g., the statistical concept of interaction). However, day-to-day management problems are more concerned with the qualitative aspects of interaction and other social phenomena. Complexity theory offers many insights here that are ignored by Byrne.

All in all, the book is a sufficient first introduction for students of the social sciences. It provides a preliminary idea about the style of thought and the terminology of complexity theory.


The salient features of Byrne's book are well captured in its title by the words “social sciences” and “introduction.” When I first saw the title I was intrigued, as I had yet to see any comprehensive treatment of the social sciences within a complexity theory framework. Of course, a few interesting contributions had been made in the social sciences, but these were mostly books of readings or were too general in their treatment of human organizations. In short, my expectations were high. As a management professor, I was expecting to read something about management, as in Brown and Eisenhardt's book Competing on the Edge; and I have to say that I was disappointed. But this disappointment was partly due to my perhaps inflated expectations, and may not be directly related to the book itself.

Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences can be seen as being made up of two parts. The first part lays the groundwork for complexity theory in general, and its adaptation to the study of social systems. In the second part, complexity theory is applied in turn to urban planning, governance, health, and education. Byrne begins by introducing and defining the main terms used in chaos theory. This is sound and clear. In the second chapter he shows that postmodernism and complexity, even though they share the premise that positivism is dead, differ on substance. He also shows how chaos/complexity theory, which takes into account systemic change and recognizes the emergent properties of a system, is perfectly adapted to the sociologist's search for truth. This chapter is probably the most clarifying I have read on the relationship between complexity theory and postmodernism.

The following chapters introduce us to what Byrne calls the quantitative program in the social sciences. But here the treatment is disappointingly qualitative, lacking quantified examples to delineate the extent of the proposed quantitative program. Although Byrne is correct in arguing that statistical tools, as used in the physical sciences, are not the most appropriate for studying complex systems in the social sciences because of the lack of sufficiently long time series, he doesn't show how some authors have attempted to turn these difficulties around. He suggests instead the use of more traditional social science techniques, such as contingency tables, to study complexity. As the author does not provide concrete examples, however, I have to admit that it is difficult to understand how this works. It sounds interesting, but I can't relate the use of contingency tables to any mathematics that I know through which to study chaotic phenomena.

The second part of the book is an attempt to study complexity in various social contexts. Byrne looks first at the emergent properties of complex and hierarchically nested spaces: regions, cities, and neighborhoods. Then he turns to health, which he considers a property of a system that has the individual at its core. The last two chapters focus on educational differentiation and urban governance. Byrne shows how the use of simplistic linear models decontextualizes schools from their social environment. He also shows how a systems approach applied to planning and complex simulation processes can contribute to the development of new urban policies. While these four chapters could be stimulating for sociologists, they may well disappoint management experts. The latter will not find any direct guidance on how to study complexity in their organizational contexts—although they may incidentally come across illustrations of emergent properties in a complex system—nor on potential applications of system simulation and nonlinear thinking. Indeed, I had difficulty in finding direct relationships between any of these four illustrations and complexity or chaos theory, except at a very metaphorical and discursive level.

To conclude, Byrne's book is an introduction to complexity/chaos theory, as announced in its title. The seasoned expert in complexity theory will not find in it anything new, aside from the illustrations given in the second part. Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences is targeted at sociologists, and the social sciences are at the heart of its argument. Organization experts, however, might have difficulty in making the leap between their own concerns and the material that Byrne presents. But, as I said, the book has been written for sociologists, and other readers will have to make an effort to adapt what it covers to their own contexts.

Chapter 2 is clarifying, and is an excellent treatment of the convergence and divergence of postmodernism and complexity theory. Undoubtedly, many organizational scientists will find it stimulating. It is disturbing, though, that Byrne reduces complexity theory to chaos theory, which is confusing and reductionist in essence. Complexity theory also covers such areas as evolutionism, self-organizing systems, catalytic processes, and genetic algorithms—none of which is dealt with by Byrne.

I do respect the author's effort to disseminate complex system thinking among social scientists, and I appreciate his attempt to use traditional statistical techniques to study complex phenomena. Because of the difficulty of using available mathematical tools to study complex social phenomena, this could be a valid and fruitful area for further investigation.