- Complexity:Unruly and Otherwise*
Complexity is, as they say, everywhere you look these days. Of course, it has been there all along, but only recently has its significance become appreciated, particularly as it relates to challenges to the human condition (Gleik 1987). Along with growing concerns about the impacts of human activity on the sustainability of life on earth, and the truly global spread of the "bads" as well as the "goods" that so entertains the minds of those concerned with the trajectory and dynamics of the modernization project (Beck 1992), complexity has become one of the Hydraic heads of the contemporary problematique: indeed, it is probably its most defining characteristic, being the very essence of a host of phenomena, ranging from the relationships between fossil fuel carbon emissions and changes in the climate of the globe, through to the transnational dynamics of violence rooted in clashes of civilizations. The ubiquity of complexity has captured the attention of a community of researchers from a diverse spectrum of academic disciplines that, in the manner of these things, has spawned its own scientific domain (Capra et al. 2007). The complexity sciences had their genesis some 50 years ago in the work of a number of scientists in different disciplines who initially were working independently of each other. Although yet to assume [End Page 614] the respectability of an institutionalized scientific discipline or meta-discipline, those working in the complexity sciences are committed to the dual quest for theoretical understanding of the nature of complex phenomena, and for generating processes and strategies for dealing effectively with them. Because the focus of this praxial work is both understanding and action, it is somewhat ironically creating its own internal dialectical complexity through the interrelational tension between abstract interpretation and concrete engagement.
In the commonsense view of everyday life, things, events, and phenomena—including, and perhaps especially, those associated with human endeavors—are considered complex whenever they are composed of a multitude of different component parts that are seemingly too numerous to count. From this perspective, a Boeing jet airliner, with its many hundreds of thousands of parts, is a complex machine, just as the universe, with its literally innumerable heavenly bodies in an incomprehensibly enormous volume of space, is a vast complex on an unimaginable scale. Then, too, there is the notion of complexity that has to do with the contingent nature of the interrelationships between different interconnected things or events or, indeed, of different ways of coming to know them. There is an important difference between these two perspectives: in the first instance, in principle at least, the object in review is essentially knowable, and its "behavior" therefore theoretically predictable. It might be better to refer to this circumstance as "complicated" rather than "complex." In the second case, the inherently contingent nature of the outcomes of the often synergistic interactions between what are often considered to be different parts of some form of coherent whole, makes the behavior of that whole at best exceptionally unpredictable, and at worst quite unknowable in any usable detail. While a marriage in Western society is (typically) only between two people, the relationship between them, which involves potentially very significant differences in beliefs, values, motivations, habits, and so on, can be extraordinary complex. This interpersonal situation is greatly amplified by scale as the relationship is further extended beyond the couple to include all of the individuals within an entire family. And complexity piles upon complexity as the level of collective organization is further extended beyond the family to embrace the tribe, or the village, or the sect, or formal organizations, or informal institutions, or whole civilizations, or nation states—and so on and so forth.
Moreover, this aspect of "true" complexity is by no means exclusive to human organization, for the rest of nature also seems to be replete with complexity. Phenomena in the natural world seem to be characterized as much by nonlinearity and the indeterminacies of synergy and chance, as by the determinism of the mechanistic linearity that has for so long been the intellectual framework of...