More than a Metaphor? Complexity in the Social Sciences

By Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

‘Complexity theory’ has had an impact across the social sciences. In particular, the analysis of systems, and the effects of non-linearity have impacted on social theory. Yet the ways in which complexity has been interpreted have been diverse. Is it’s prime contribution as a metaphor which can be used as a way of explaining social phenomena, or are complexity phenomena related to physical concrete patterns in human relations? Is it that events in the social world are ‘as if’ complexity phenomena are at work, or is it ‘physics all’ (or most) ‘of the way down’? The answers to such questions are significant in terms of ontology, methodology and epistemology in the social sciences. In this paper we assess a diversity of ways in which complexity has been appropriated in the social sciences, before arguing that social systems do manifest complex phenomena. We will argue that complexity is apparent in the social world in different types or kinds of systems. In addition, and as critics have pointed out, a particular feature of social systems as opposed to non-human systems is that human actors have cognisance of their situation, complexity approaches need to allow for this in their analyses.

Keywords: Complexity Theory, Social Systems, Epistemology, Ontology, Differentiated Complexity

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.59-70. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.195MB).

Dr. Erika Cudworth

Senior Lecturer in Politics and Sociology, School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies, University of East London, London, UK

Dr. Erika Cudworth is Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London, UK. Her research interests include: social and political theory, particularly feminisms, ecologisms and complexity theory, food consumption and production, human relations with non-human animals and educational inclusions/exclusions. She is author of Environment and Society (Routledge, 2003), Developing Ecofeminist Theory: the Complexity of Difference (Palgrave, 2005) and The Modern State: Theories and Ideologies (with Tim Hall and John McGovern, Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

Dr. Stephen Hobden

Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies, University of East London, London, UK

Dr. Stephen Hobden is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of East London. His main areas of interest are International Relations Theory, China in world politics, and North-South relations. He is the author of International Relations and Historical Sociology: Breaking Down Boundaries (Routledge, 1998), and edited, together with John Hobson, Historical Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2002).


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