Complexity Theory: Societies as Complex Systems

  • Eoin Flaherty


This chapter offers an alternative approach to systems drawing on complexity, emergence, and critical realism. It suggests that social-ecological systems are inherently dynamic, metabolic entities engaged in a continual exchange of matter and energy with their environments to forestall dissipation. The concepts of autopoiesis and dissipative structures are introduced as foundational concepts for thinking about social organisation and social order. It shows how a complex view of systems can serve as a guide for mixed-method investigation, how systems are inherently multidimensional, how we can think about change as an inherent property of systems, and how we can approach their measurement in a manner which does not obscure this complexity.


  1. Alhadeff-Jones, Michel. 2008. Three Generations of Complexity Theories: Nuance and Ambiguities. In Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education, ed. Mark Mason, 62–78. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, Kevin. 2010. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Atkins, Peter. 2007. Four Laws That Govern the Universe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bailey, Kenneth D. 2006. Living Systems Theory and Social Entropy Theory. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 23: 291–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. ———. 2008. Boundary Maintenance in Living Systems Theory and Social Entropy Theory. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 25: 587–597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bhaskar, Roy. 2008 [1975]. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Bradshaw, Corey J.A., Xingli Giam, and Navjot S. Sodhi. 2010. Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries. PLoS One 5 (5): 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brown, Heather A. 2010. Multilinearism, Contingency, and Resistance: Reevaluating Marx on Historical Development in Precapitalist Societies. New Political Science 32 (3): 345–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Byrne, David. 1998. Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. ———. 2005. Complexity, Configurations and Cases. Theory, Culture and Society 22 (1): 95–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Capra, Fritjof. 2005. Complexity and Life. Theory, Culture and Society 22 (1): 33–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Castellani, Brian, and Frederic William Hafferty. 2009. Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cilliers, Paul. 1998. Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. ———. 2001. Boundaries, Hierarchies and Networks in Complex Systems. International Journal of Innovation Management 5 (2): 135–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Costanza, Robert, John H. Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, and Richard Norgaard. 1997. An Introduction to Ecological Economics. Boca Raton: CRC Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Elliot, Euel, and L. Douglas Kiel. 2004. Introduction. In Chaos Theory in the Social Sciences: Foundations and Applications, ed. Douglas Kiel and Euel Elliot, 1–15. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  17. Evans, Tom P., Darla K. Munroe, and Dawn C. Parker. 2005. Modeling Land-Use/Land Cover Change: Exploring the Dynamics of Human-Environment Relationships. In Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Human-Environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems, ed. Emilio F. Moran and Elinor Ostrom, 197–213. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  18. Fisk, D.J., and J. Kerhevre. 2006. Complexity as a Cause of Unsustainability. Ecological Complexity 3: 336–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Goldstone, Jack A. 1998. Initial Conditions, General Laws, Path Dependence and Explanation in Historical Sociology. American Journal of Sociology 104 (3): 829–845.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Halpin, Brendan. 1999. Simulation in Sociology. American Behavioral Scientist 42 (10): 1488–1508.Google Scholar
  21. Hammond, Debora. 2003. The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory. Boulder: University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Harvey, David L., and Michael Reed. 2004. Social Science as the Study of Complex Systems. In Chaos Theory in the Social Sciences: Foundations and Applications, ed. L. Douglas Kiel and Euel Elliot, 295–323. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  23. Heylighen, Francis, Paul Cilliers, and Carlos Gershenson. 2006. Complexity and Philosophy. In Complexity, Science and Society, ed. J. Bogg and R. Geyer, 11–32. London: Radcliffe Publishing.Google Scholar
  24. Kiel, L. Douglas, and Euel Elliot. 2004. Exploring Nonlinear Dynamics with a Spreadsheet: A Graphical View of Chaos for Beginners. In Chaos Theory in the Social Sciences: Foundations and Applications, ed. L. Douglas Kiel and Euel Elliot, 19–29. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kondepudi, Dilip, and Ilya Prigogine. 1998. Modern Thermodynamics: From Heat Engines to Dissipative Structures. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  26. Levins, Richard. 2008. Dialectics and Systems Theory. In Dialectics for the New Century, ed. Bertell Ollman and Tony Smith, 26–49. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Levins, Richard, and Richard Lewontin. 1985. The Dialectical Biologist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Luhmann, Niklis. 1986. Ecological Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. MacKenzie, Adrian. 2005. The Problem of the Attractor: A Singular Generality between Sciences and Social Theory. Theory, Culture & Society 22 (5): 45–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mahoney, James. 2000. Path Dependence in Historical Sociology. Theory and Society 29 (4): 507–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Manual-Navarrete, David. 2008. Approaches and Implications of Using Complexity Theory for Dealing with Social Systems. Complexity and Social Systems.
  32. Mason, Mark. 2008. What Is Complexity Theory and What Are Its Implications for Educational Change. In Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education, ed. Mark Mason, 32–45. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. McMichael, Philip. 2004. Development and Social Change, a Global Perspective. London: Pine Forge.Google Scholar
  34. Meadows, Donella, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1974. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: New American Library.Google Scholar
  35. Mol, Arthur P.J. 1997. Ecological Modernization: Industrial Transformations and Environmental Reform. In The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology, ed. M. Redclift and G. Woodgate, 138–149. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  36. Nowothy, Helga. 2005. The Increase of Complexity and Its Reduction: Emergent Interfaces Between the Natural Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences. Theory, Culture and Society 22 (15): 16–31.Google Scholar
  37. Ollman, Bertell. 2008. Why Dialectics? Why Now? In Dialectics for the New Century, ed. Bertell Ollman and Tony Smith, 8–25. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Porush, David. 1991. Fictions as Dissipative Structures: Prigogine’s Theory and Postmodernism’s Roadshow. In Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, ed. N. Katherine Hayles, 54–84. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  39. Sawyer, Keith R. 2001. Emergence in Sociology: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Some Implications for Sociological Theory. American Journal of Sociology 107 (3): 551–585.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. ———. 2005. Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Skyttner, Lars. 2005. General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.Google Scholar
  42. Smith, Tony. 1993. Dialectical Social Theory and Its Critics: From Hegel to Analytical Marxism and Postmodernism. New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  43. Smith, John, and Chris Jenks. 2006. Qualitative Complexity: Ecology, Cognitive Processes and the Re-emergence of Structures in Post-humanist Social Theory. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  44. Sokal, Alan D. 2001. What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove: A Critical Look at ‘Science Studies’. In After the Science Wars, ed. K.M. Ashman and P.S. Baringer, 13–28. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Swingewood, Alan. 1991. A Short History of Sociological Thought. London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Urry, John. 2005a. The Complexity Turn. Theory, Culture and Society 22 (1): 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. ———. 2005b. The Complexities of the Global. Theory, Culture and Society 22 (1): 235–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Walby, Sylvia. 2007. Complexity Theory, Systems Theory and Multiple Intersecting Inequalities. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 37 (4): 449–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Waldrop, M. 1992. Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  50. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2006. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham/London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eoin Flaherty
    • 1
  1. 1.SociologyUniversity College DublinDublinUK

Personalised recommendations