Chaos, Complexity and Sociology

Raymond E. Eve, Sara Horsfall and Mary E. Lee (eds) (Sage, 1997)

Chaos, Complexity and Sociology presents 18 papers that seek to show the usefulness of complexity science to the study of social systems. We should applaud this effort on two grounds .

First, the authors in this volume avoid using complexity as a buzzword. Complexity science has the potential to improve our understanding of social groups, organizations and strategy. Unfortunately, with this potential comes the temptation to exploit the hype for quick royalties and consulting revenue. Much of the work claiming to import complexity (and chaos) theory into business studies just uses these terms for their press value. These authors typically write that the world is complex (or chaotic) and therefore managers should do “X” (insert most recent pop management idea). A generous reading claims that these authors use complexity metaphorically, but others simply see their writings as managerial snake oil (i.e., at best, a placebo). This work risks turning complexity theory into a managerial fad to be discarded when managers tire of these unfounded claims. To see the true value of complexity science for the understanding of social systems, researchers must import not only the vocabulary, but also the technology, of complexity theory from the physical and biological sciences. Thankfully, all of the essays in this volume consider complexity science rigorously.

Second, this book demonstrates that complexity science stimulates thought by providing a new lens for looking at a broad range of topics. Within Chaos, Complexity and Sociology, one can find applications to social interaction, children’s friendships, the organization of domestic labor, collective action, and organizational behavior, among others. Indeed, complexity theory has the potential to influence thinking about all systems in which actors influence each other (i.e., nearly all of sociology). In illustrating the breadth of potential applications, this volume is a home run.

The essays, by a variety of authors, can be grouped into two categories: 1) those that consider complexity theory in the social sciences at a meta-theoretical level and 2) those that attempt to relate concepts from complexity theory to sociological research. Each section accounts for approximately half of the volume.

The first set of essays primarily considers complexity theory and its relation to the social sciences at a philosophical level. Several pieces stand out from the rest. Saperstein, a physicist, provides a remarkably clear and cogent explanation of what complexity science might bring to the social sciences (Chapter 9). He also highlights a number of interesting applications published elsewhere. Sociologists will find intriguing Staubmann’s interpretations of Simmel (Chapter 7) and Bainbridge’s reading of Homans (Chapter 8) as precursors to modern dynamic theories of social systems. Also, Back nicely places complexity theory in perspective by reviewing the impact of earlier mathematical imports on sociology (Chapter 4).

The second set comprises attempts to apply complexity theory to sociological research. Unfortunately, many of these attempts either fail to produce new empirical implications or suffer from cursory data analysis. Nevertheless, two chapters provide glimpses of complexity theory’s potential in sociology. Carley presents the results of an organizational simulation experiment (Chapter 17). She shows that rigid employment systems and organizational structures can actually be beneficial to the firm. Although they sacrifice some upside potential, rigid firms perform better on average than their more flexible rivals by preventing the hiring of redundant employees and ensuring that employees do not overlook critical organizational tasks. Carley deserves praise for her careful examination of the results to explain why the simulation yields these findings. Future research could test her results empirically, although she does not do so. In addition, Dooley et al. offer an impressive piece of data analysis (Chapter 18). They highlight a broad array of new tools for analyzing longitudinal data. Unfortunately, their inductive analysis of teenage pregnancies in Texas makes it incumbent on readers to determine how one might use these methods to inform theory testing.

Academics with an interest in, but limited exposure to, complexity theory will probably be the most receptive audience for this volume. Scholars well versed in complexity theory might find many of the essays either too elementary or too loose for their taste. Meanwhile, most managers will find little of interest. The papers obviously address academics. Moreover, only one essay, Carley’s, clearly offers insight into business policy.

The question that this work, as well as most other applications of complexity theory to the social sciences, leaves open is: “Does it improve our understanding of the world?” The potential for such improvement should be high. Theory and research in the social sciences typically view phenomena as having reached equilibrium, rather than as transitional states in a dynamic system. This static framing provides theoretical tractability, but it might also lead to grossly inaccurate models of the world. Nevertheless, improvements in computing power now allow researchers to solve computationally what cannot be solved analytically.

Will these dynamic, computational models yield new expectations about social behavior? Probably. The work in this volume already suggests some new patterns for which researchers should look. Will these models predict behavior better than our current theories? The jury is still out. The essays in this volume fail to verify their hypotheses empirically. Moreover, several of the authors unfortunately imply that such tests cannot be made in complex systems. I disagree. Though it might take some creativity, researchers can derive critical tests to determine how the predictions of dynamic theories differ from traditional equilibrium models and, with the appropriate data and statistics, make them. Ultimately, this empirical work will be critical to determining the real value of complexity theory to both managers and the social sciences.