Complexity Theory, Revolution, and Social Movements

By Jason MacLeod on October 1, 2011 — 2 mins read

David Byrne defines complexity as “interdisciplinary understanding of reality as composed of complex open systems with emergent properties and transformational potential”[1] (325).  This understanding of complexity theory echoes similar definitions we read in the past – mainly social science research.  The definitions and found in science and mathematics, especially the significance given to algorithms, does not contain the broader ideas found in interdisciplinary understanding.  While we all can agree that math comprises everything, from the Fibonacci to string theory, the general laws of nature cannot discover or quantify complexity’s, well, complexity.  Byrne’s intent and method for discovering complexity is to look and identify the causal components, which explain how systems produce phenomena.  And, ultimately, these phenomena are qualitatively transformational.

I found it interesting that another major approach in complexity research in social science “can be seen in studies that draw upon an emerging vocabulary of complexity to conceptualize specific social phenomena” (326).  One example of this approach was the use of the model of “dissipative structures” to revolutions.  As noted, “dissipation refers to the way in which energy is expended or scattered within a system and is associated with the instabilities that may be chaotic”(316).  With this notion we can imagine the system being the French monarchy and the popular revolt.  The monarchy had reached a level of instability and the social structures that were reproduced and reinforced through this hierarchy, or overarching social structure, began to dissipate and weaken.  This dissipation of the structure thereby became associated with the social movements and transformed into revolt.  This dissipation of the monarchic structure thereby created new structures and new beliefs – such as the rights of man.  While the rights of man didn’t spread to French colonies, the newly created structure did influence French social relations.  I find that this approach misses an important concept of complexity – emergence.

When complex systems begin to form new structures – social or physical – this new patterns emerges from the complex system.  This emergence, in a sense, is the galvanization of close and disparate parts of the structure.  This new formation is entirely necessary when theorizing social movements, revolutions, and revolts.  The use of dissipative structures focuses only on the movement of energy to chaos and instability, but does not take into account what the order out of chaos.  This lens only views revolutions as a chaotic and instable moment in space – the dissipation of order.  This, however, does not theorize the movements, armed or unarmed, that occur.  The groupings of individuals bound together by a basic desire for change.  Emergence recognizes this grouping pattern and can theorize the disparate connections between people (or their closeness physically, emotionally, or mentally) and whether their initial foundation was for change; the eventual change can take other forms.  In the French revolution, this change resulted in the rights of man.  Emergence provides the lens through which the basic necessity of change, overthrowing the monarchy, resulted in a document containing principles that spurred the evolution of enlightenment ideals.  Therefore, dissipative structures and emergence must be intimately tied to the theorizing of social movements and revolutions.  Otherwise, we only see the chaos and not the eventual order out of chaos.


Hatt Ken & Victoria University of, Considering Complexity: Toward A Strategy for Non-linear Analysis(2009).



[1] Hatt Ken & Victoria University of, Considering Complexity: Toward A Strategy for Non-linear Analysis(2009).