Sociology: Posts

Complexity and the Social Sciences

Graham Room, author of Agile Actors on Complex Terrains, discusses his new book and complex systems in the social sciences.

"Recent decades have seen a dramatic growth in the literature on complex systems.  Much of this has developed in mathematics and in the natural and computational sciences.  Increasingly however it is also infusing the social sciences.

This has in many ways been a breath of fresh air.  It has got social scientists drawing upon dynamic models from the natural sciences that can be extremely fertile in suggesting new insights – in terms for example of tipping points, bifurcations and co-evolving systems.  It has created much greater interest in the non-linear dynamics of the social world - and in the macro-patterns that emerge unanticipated from the micro-interactions in which we are all involved.

Nevertheless, in applying these perspectives to the social world, we need to take care. How human beings interact depends on the subjective meanings which they construct and negotiate with each other.  These interactions also involve them in exercising and contesting power.  All this also involves uncertainty – and efforts by the powerful to offload that uncertainty onto others.  Yet these have been rather neglected by much of the complexity writing within the social sciences.

This has been one of the main motivations for writing this book. It takes some major themes from complexity science and applies them to core problems in sociological theory and policy analysis. It combines complexity science with perspectives from institutionalism and political economy. There are plenty of other books dealing with aspects of complexity science and institutionalism, but none that integrates them - conceptually, methodologically and in terms of the implications for policy analysis and practice.

This, therefore, has been my aim: to demonstrate to mainstream social scientists the value of the literature on complex systems: and to persuade writers on complex systems that in applying their perspectives to the social world, it is essential to engage fundamentally with core conceptual and methodological debates in the social sciences.  The book thus stands in a much older tradition of scholarship, concerned with the relationship between the social and natural sciences: a tradition which has been central to debates over recent centuries about our self-understanding, both as thinkers and as citizens."

Featured Books

  • Agile Actors on Complex Terrains

    Transformative Realism and Public Policy, 1st Edition

    By Graham Room

    This book assesses the value and relevance of the literature on complex systems to policy-making, contributing to both social theory and policy analysis. For this purpose it develops two key ideas: agile action and transformative realism. The book takes some major themes from complexity science,…

    Hardback – 2016-06-28
    Complexity in Social Science

Related Titles

  • Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences

    The state of the art, 1st Edition

    By David Byrne, Gillian Callaghan

    For the past two decades, ‘complexity’ has informed a range of work across the social sciences. There are diverse schools of complexity thinking, and authors have used these ideas in a multiplicity of ways, from health inequalities to the organization of large scale firms. Some understand…

    Paperback – 2013-08-09

Chapter 1

Read the first chapter for free!

Chapter 1 of Agile Actors on Complex Terrains


This title is the first book in the Routledge series, Complexity in Social Science