Complexity science and conflict theory are two relatively new interdisciplinary fields that have much to learn from and offer each other. One benefit of their cross-fertilization is that data from real life conflicts becomes available for complexity scientists, and new models of conflict dynamics from complexity science become available for conflict practitioners. Challenges to effective cross-fertilization are the extreme jargon, disinclination for knowledge transfer, and few opportunities for practitioners and researchers of either field to meet across each specialty’s boundaries. Another important barrier to cross-fertilization is that espoused theory from complexity science does not yet easily translate into a theory-in-use for conflict practice. I suggest that one possible method for interpreting complexity science concepts for use in real life applications is to import complexity science principles into conflict practitioners’ conflict mental maps.
Complexity science, aside from adding considerable jargon, aids in understanding power, powerlessness and empowerment in conflict. Weaker agents, that would traditionally be viewed as powerless in a conflict, use protest and direct action to improve their own fitness, and deform stronger agents’ fitness on their shared landscape. They attempt to drive a conflict system into instability, or unpredictability, or launch a cascade where a new equilibrium may favor their disadvantaged position. The data suggest that networked protest groups, as well as having passion and commitment, are structurally and organizationally well adapted for their fight against the powerful. Following complexity principles makes protest groups fitter, and makes the hierarchies against which they are protesting less inclined to understand or tolerate them.