Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Human Values Project (Explanations)

Complexity: Methodological preamble

Human Values Project


1. The lesson of "networking"

The 1970s and 1980s may usefully be thought of as the networking decades. They saw the recognition of the limitations of hierarchy and a reinterpretation of many individual and collective behaviours in terms of networks. Networking became fashionable at all levels of society -- even amongst intergovernmental organizations. Given the mathematical tools available for the analysis of networks, and even the development of a discipline of social network analysis, it is surprising that few if any of those insights came to influence the operation of any social networks. Indeed it would be difficult to trace social or institutional networks that had been designed in the light of such insights.

Furthermore, despite the computer technology used to display networks of electrical grids, circuits, road networks, molecules, and the like, little (if any) of that has been used to visualize social or conceptual networks as a guide to improved psycho-social dynamics. Few people, social activists included, ever consider the advantages of visualizing their own network of colleagues and friends -- however neatly the addresses and phone numbers are held in each others' "relational" databases. This may not be true within security and intelligence services.

It would be fair to conclude that in the social realm "network" succeeded to a far greater degree as a metaphor rather than as a mathematical insight -- whatever the views of those with technical competence in network theory. This lesson should not be lost in considering the insights of relevance to social organization that are to be obtained from chaos theory and their probable impact on society.

2. Role of metaphor

This view is reinforced by statements from key members of the Sante Fe Institute (USA), specifically established by the best and the brightest to explore with mathematical rigour the science of complexity in the light of chaos theory. For the director of their first economic initiative (1987-89), W Brian Arthur: "Nonscientists tend to think that science works by deduction. But actually science works mainly by metaphor. And what's happening is that the kinds of metaphor people have in mind are changing....Instead of relying on the Newtonian metaphor of clockwork predictability, complexity seems to be based on metaphors more closely akin to the growth of a plant from a tiny seed, or the unfolding of a computer program from a few lines of code, or perhaps even the organic, self-organized flocking of simpleminded birds." (Waldrop, p. 327 and 329; see also p. 149)

Arthur indicates that the institute's role is to look at the ever-changing river of complexity and to understand what they are seeing. "So we assign metaphors. It turns out that an awful lot of policy-making has to do with finding the appropriate metaphor. Conversely, bad policy-making almost always involves finding inappropriate metaphors. For example it may not be appropriate to think about a drug 'war', with guns and assaults. So, from this point of view, the purpose of having the Sante Fe Institute is that it, and places like it, are where the metaphors and vocabulary are being created in complex systems." (Waldrop, p. 334)

Ironically, the process of articulating such understanding with mathematical "rigour" necessarily has to be contrasted with the "mere" metaphors from which such understanding derives. When articulated in a rigorous computer simulation, the simulation may be recognized of greatest value as a new metaphor (Waldrop, p. 334), precisely because it is an abstraction of limited relevance to understanding the real complexities of current social concerns.

3. Sociology of chaos

On the occasion of a conference on the relevance of chaos theory to social coherence, there is some merit in being attentive to the social psychology of those advancing understanding in this arena. Thus Katherine Hayles notes: "Although the history of chaos theory has scarcely begun to be written, it has already become problematic. It has two main branches; and each seems determinedto ignore the other. The first branch, represented within Gleick's book (1987)...is concerned with the order hidden within chaotic systems...The second branch focuses on the order that arises out of chaotic systems." (Hayles, p 12). She notes that many practitioners in nonlinear dynamics now avoid the term "chaos" as somehow "unprofessional" in their concern with practical and technical problems.

It is tragic that an approach which is claimed to have so much relevance to social systems reveals such blatant weaknesses in taking account of psycho-social dimensions that are likely to be vital to making any effective use of it in such domains. Hayles asks: "Why should the split have occurred between the two branches? That it exists is apparent. After reading Gleick's book (1987), one would not know that Ilya Prigogine's work has substantiated connections with the science of chaos; and after reading Prigogine's and Stenger's Order Out of Chaos (1984)... one would not know that many of the figures lionized in Gleick's text had made significant contributions to the field." (Hayles, p. 12-13) And even though she includes René Thom (1975) with Prigogine in the second branch, the personal dynamics around the failure to interrelate their perspectives is a matter worthy of study.

The history of the development of the Sante Fe Institute (Waldrop, 1992) cited above reveals similar phenomena -- even though the development of the institute was jokingly recognized by its science board as an emergent phenomenon in its own right -- "a joke they actually took quite seriously" (Waldrop, p. 248). But from that text it would be difficult to conclude that any work of significance had been undertaken outside the USA "in forging the first rigorous alternative to the kind of linear, reductionist thinking that has dominated science since the time of Newton" (Waldrop, p. 13). Furthermore it is made clear that it is only exceptionally that specialists from social sciences other than economists are included in its uniquely "interdisciplinary" and "rigorous" approach to complexity. And yet it is also made clear how the institute has been torn by personal and factional dynamics. After the disasters of "global modelling", it is a pity that the rigours of such mathematics cannot be shown to be relevant to the complexities of value conflicts in the real world of government policy-making! It is precisely those values that economists have chosen to overvalue that are the origin of much of the difficulties at this time. And it is questionable whether the more rigorous sciences can have any understanding of "value" in human systems.

One concern in this paper is therefore to respond more creatively to the process of making distinctions essential to greater insight. In this process it seems to be necessary to attach negative value to "old" approaches in order to establish the identity of the "new" -- this may even take the form of demonizing the old with appropriate political or religious labels. But both will continue to attract adherents in a learning society. To the extent that an emphasis is placed on coevolution, ways must be found to relate both such seemingly incompatible realities. It could be argued that an approach matures when it is able to track its own evolution and its own dynamics. At this point those most skilled in nonlinear dynamics would seem to be victims of dynamics to which there insights purportedly apply. As Hayles says, why do such splits form? For a discipline that specializes in understanding bifurcation, it has been remarkably unsuccessful in explaining its own evolution. Can a coherent approach to the challenges of governance emerge from such chaotic and unself-reflexive sociodynamics?

4. Challenge for the valuing participant observer

To date the development of chaos theory has seemingly been based on the insights of detached observers pursuing the scientific programme of elaborating communicable explanations offering some predictive power -- notably for those in positions of power. The drama of the times is the manner in which individuals and groups, whatever their degree of empowerment, are faced with increasing levels of uncertainty. Human values are in flux and subject to challenge. People have to deal with incompatible valueson a daily basis. Only in ideal circumstances can explanations be adequately delivered or marketed as products to respond to this condition.

In what follows the focus is therefore on how participant observers might envisage responding with greater confidence to seemingly chaotic value situations. The insights of chaos theory are used to suggest ways of structuring experience and response to such situations. The subjective experience of chaos should not be forgotten -- especially to the extent that each actively defines to some degree the reality he chooses to inhabit (as the social constructionists argue). It is worth noting the effort to apply catastrophe theory to subjective experience (Postle, 1980).

How people appropriate the insights of chaos theory and use (and misuse) them to structure their understanding and social relationships may be of much greater relevance to the structuring of the immediate future of society than how that future is explained within the social sciences in terms of chaos theory. Analysis aside, the social sciences have notably failed to contribute much to the actual process of social innovation and community design.

4. Neglected values

Crawford Holling (1985, p. 217) points out that: "The complexity of a system is in the eye of the beholder." Chaos and complexity are very new to the sciences -- the stuff of paradigm shifts and Nobel prizes! This is less true for the arts and other cultural perspectives where some relationship to chaos has always been a theme. Katherine Hayles points out that this neglect is in part due to the tendency to value chaos negatively within the Western tradition that arises from the attachment to binary logic.

"If order is good, chaos is bad because it is conceptualized as the opposite of order. By contrast, in the four-valued logic characteristic of Taoist thought, non-order is also a possibility, distinct from and valued differently from anti-order. The science of chaos draws Western assumptions about chaos into question by revealing possibilities that were suppressed when chaos was considered merely as order's opposite. It marks the validation within the Western tradition of a view of chaos that constructs it as not-order. In chaos theory chaos may either lead to order, as it does with self-organizing systems, or in yin/yang fashion it may have deep structures or order encoded within it. In either case, its relation to order is more complex than traditional Western oppositions allowed." (Hayles, p. 3)

She cites Prigogine's and Stengers' endorsement and amplification (in a lengthy "Postface", p. 135-58) of Michel Serres (1982) suggestion that chaos represents not just hitherto unrecognized phenomena but an unjustly neglected set of values. But they may well have been less "unrecognized" and "neglected" from the perspective of disciplines lacking the rigour of the mathematical tradition -- or from that of other cultural traditions.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential