Subproject 1: The Paradigm of (Social) Complexity – Part II-2a: Intro “Complex Systems”

(2a) Intro Complex Systems

The features of complexity such as unpredictability, nonlinearity, etc. that I´d like to discuss in a series of blog posts refer to organized complexity in the sense of [Weaver 1948]. And organized complexity is just another expression for the formation  of an entity that
is composed of elements (synonyms: parts, components, or agents) and their relations (as dynamic interactions). It escapes simple causal logic or other scientific approaches such as probability theory and statistics, too.

Such an entity is usually called  a (complex) system (synonyms in certain contexts: network, swarm, etc.).
However, this is not an essentialist definition of a system, but rather a problem concept. So, the question isn´t any more what a (complex) system really is (its true meaning, nature, or essence), but:

  • How do we conceptualize a complex system in a specific (physico-chemical, biological, psychological, sociological, etc.) domain?

And this is equivalent to the following two questions:

  • Which differences are or can be used to conceptualize such a system?
  • How is a complex system possible? That is, which are the explanatory mechanisms, esp.  regarding the openness / closeness and boundary maintenance of such a system?

This non-essentialist or deontologized perspective refers to three positions.

Position 1 – Differences:
ifferences are constitutive for creating something as something on an information (not a material!) level. Examples:

  • Foreground / background as a basic difference for perceptual phenomena. See, for instance, this GliderGun from Conway´s Game of Life [Gol-gun by Toxic~frwiki, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0]:
  • The word father instead of equivalent expressions such as son, daughter, mother, grandfather, etc. that are equally plausible, for example, in family related contexts. So, the meaning of the language form father isn´t an intrinsic quality, but it depends on what it is not (namely, son, daughter, mother,  etc.).
    Or, to put it in more general terms following the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure whose insights have later been radicalized by difference-based approaches such as deconstruction (Jacques Derrida), form theory (George Spencer Brown / Niklas Luhmann / Dirk Baecker), or discourse theory (Ernesto Laclau / Chantal Mouffe):

The sign is determined by the way in which it differs from all the other signs in the system – “in language there are only differences without positive terms”. The sign is a node in a network of relationships.
The relationships are not determined by the sign, rather, the sign is the result of interacting relationships. [Cilliers 2010, p. 6, referring to Saussure].

Position 2 – Observer dependency:
The expression observer means here, in a general or abstract sense, every processor of differences. Therefore, the traditional observer as the processor of perceptions is just a special case of a system capable of processing differences. Other possible observers are, for example:

  • immune systems
  • neural systems / networks,
  • brains (cerebral systems),
  • psychic systems (as processors of various perceptions),
  • consciousness systems (as processors of thoughts), or
  • social systems (families, organizations, etc.).

Position 3 – (Operative) Constructivism:
If every phenomenon depends on media specific differences used by a specific observer in a particular context then these phenomena can be interpreted as difference-based and observer dependent (operative) constructions.

  • Observer relationalism:
    An operative constructivist position isn´t equivalent to a position of relativistic indifference. It´s rather equivalent to a position of observer relationalism. So, the crucial question in this context is: Which observing system uses which differences in a particular context to construct this (and not a different) reality?.
  • Multiperspectivity (synonym sometimes: polycontexturality):
    Observer relationalism includes often a plurality of possible observers (= multiple constructions) when observing a scientific, economic, political, etc. phenomenon. And this irreducible plurality of observing systems supplants the traditional guiding difference of subject / object.
  • Reality as  reality construction:
    The expression reality is just the short version for: difference-based and observer dependent (operative) reality construction on an information level. 
  • Deconstruction:
    Every (realist) description can be deconstructed by asking: Which observing system uses which context relative differences in this description?

In sum:
We can conceptualize a complex system in more than one way. For example, as

  • complex adaptive system (CAS) or a swarm intelligence system emerging from the dynamic interactions of its elements (agents) (CAS theory, see, for example, Miller / Page 2007 or Dorigo / Birattari 2007 for research on swarm intelligence). Examples: Flocks of birds, swarms of insects, etc.

Traffic in Hanoi as an example of a CAS

BBC – Example of a swarm intelligence system

Igor Nikolic – Complex adaptive systems – TED Talk 2010

  • An autopoietic (living) system (Humberto Maturana / Francisco Varela, see Wikipedia 2016d).
    Example: A biological  cell [3D-SIM-4 Anaphase 3 color (3D representation of two mouse daughter nuclei in a late stage of nuclear division (Telophase)) by Lothar Schermelleh, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0]:
  • A self-referential system where the observing system distinguishes between itself and its environment by processing the difference system / environment dynamically within the system (Bielefeld School of social systems theory: Niklas Luhmann, Dirk Baecker, Peter Fuchs, etc.).
    Examples: Consciousness systems and communication-based social systems such as interactions, organizations, and society.
  • A biological, neural, cerebral, psychic, conscious, social, etc. system as the construction or attribution of a language-based observer according to the German sociologist Dirk Baecker.
    It´s then the responsibility of this language-based observer to elaborate on the explanatory mechanisms of such a constructed system (its mode of boundary maintenance, its possible recursivity / self-reference, etc.).
  • A discourse with empty signifiers (Essex School of discourse analysis: Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, etc. – see Wikipedia 2016e).
  • A difference (or rather: différance)-based connectionist network (Cilliers 1998). Cillier´s example: Language.


This deontologized view of concepts as unresolved problems for which several functionally equivalent solutions can be conceived has consequences for our (open-ended) list of features of complexity referring to complex systems, too.
As this is an important point which challenges a basic assumption of complexity research (namely, the assumption that such general features can simply be applied to concrete and discipline-specific complex systems on all scales – see, for example, Cilliers 2010; Mitleton-Kelly 2003; Sporns 2007), I´d like to dedicate a whole blog post to it (see the next post called Features of Complexity: The Scalability Problem).

While you´re waiting for the next blog post to be published, it´s perhaps a good idea to have a look at Melanie Mitchell´s video Complexity – A Guided Tour on Youtube. This video gives some nice examples and shows why the new paradigm of (social) complexity is so intriguing:

If you´d like further information on complex systems research, these  introductory texts (suited for non-specialists) are good reads:

  • Füllsack 2011 (an excellent text that is, unfortunately, only available in German)
  • Mitchell 2009 (in English)



[Cilliers 2010] Cilliers, P. (2010), Difference, Identity and Complexity, in: [Cilliers / Preiser 2010], 3-18.

[Cilliers 1998] – (1998), Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems, London / New York: Routledge.

[Cilliers / Preiser 2010] – / Preiser, R. (eds.) (2010), Complexity, Difference and Identity. An Ethical Perspective, Dordrecht et al.: Springer.

[Dorigo / Birattari 2007] Dorigo, M. / Birattari, M. (2007), Swarm intelligence,  in: Scholarpedia, 2(9):1462.
URL:  [accessed March 23, 2016].

[Füllsack 2011] Füllsack, M. (2011),  Gleichzeitige Ungleichzeitigkeiten. Eine Einführung in die Komplexitätsforschung, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften / Springer Fachmedien.

[Luhmann 2006] Luhmann, N. (2006), System as Difference, in: Organization (2006), 13 (1), 37-57. URL: [accessed Sept 18, 2015].

[Luhmann 1995] – (1995), Social Systems, Stanford California: Stanford University Press.

[Mesjasz 2010]  Mesjasz, C.  (2010), Complexity of Social Systems, in: Acta Physica Polonica (2010), vol. 117, no. 4, 706-715.
URL: [accessed March 20, 2016].

[Miller / Page 2007] Miller, J.H. / Page, S.E. (2007),  Complex Adaptive Systems. An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press.

[Mitchell 2009] Mitchell, M. (2009), Complexity. A Guided Tour, Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press.

[Mitleton-Kelly 2003] Mitleton-Kelly, E.(2003), Ten principles of complexity and enabling infrastructures, in: id.  (ed.) Complex Systems and Evolutionary Perspectives on Organisations: the Application of Complexity Theory to Organisations, Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 3-20.
URL:Ten principles of complexity and enabling infrastructures [accessed April 28, 2016].

[Nicolis / Rouvas-Nicolis 2007] Nicolis, G. / Rouvas-Nicolis, C. (2007), Complex Systems, in:  Scholarpedia, 2(11):1473.
URL: [accessed March 23, 2016].

[Sporns 2007] Sporns, O. (2007), Complexity, in: Scholarpedia, 2(10):1623.
URL:  [accessed March 23, 2016].

[Weaver 1948] Weaver, W.(1948), Science and Complexity, in: American Scientist, vol. 36 (4), 536-544. URL: [accessed March 22, 2016].

[Villiers-Botha / Cilliers 2010] Villiers-Botha, T. de / – (2010), The Complex “I”: The Formation of Identity in Complex Systems, in: [Cilliers / Preiser 2010], 19-38.

[Wikipedia 2016a] Wikipedia (2016a), Complex Systems, URL: [accessed Febr 24, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016b] Wikipedia (2016b), Social Complexity, URL: [accessed  Febr 24, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016c] Wikipedia (2016c), Complexity, URL: [accessed Febr 25, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016d] Wikipedia (2016d), Autopoiesis, URL:  [accessed Febr 25, 2016].

[Wikipedia 2016e] Wikipedia (2016e), Essex School of discourse analysis, URL: [accessed March 23, 2016].

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s