Is Michel Foucault a Complexity Scientist?

In 1999 I wrote an article for Studies in Symbolic Interaction titled, Michel Foucault and Symbolic Interactionism: The Making of a New Theory of Interaction. The article sits at the heart of the theoretical framework (social complexity theory) that Hafferty and I outline in our new book, Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry. Our theoretical framework, in turn, is part of the SACS Toolkit, which is our new method for modeling complex social systems.

While it may seem odd to some, my journey into complexity science is through the work of Michel Foucault, particularly his later theory of social practice. For me, Foucault’s work has always been about complex social systems and their impact on individuals.

From Madness and Civilization to The Archeology of Knowledge to Discipline and Punish, what are Foucault’s books about? Think about it. At least theoretically and methodologically speaking, they are about complex social systems! Foucault is trying to understand, in post-structural terms, how systems go from one state to another—from one set of self-organizing relations to another. How, for example, does the care of mental disorders, prisoners, deviants, or the self in the west go from a medieval apparatus of care to a modern apparatus of care?

Given this orientation, could we not call Foucault’s work the study of tipping points? Is not Foucault studying how complex social systems evolve over time to become something new, where they suddenly shift from one self-organizing form to another as a function of some type of punctuated equilibrium, some type of major phase shift? Is that not what Foucault’s whole discourse is about, along with the impact these shifting systems have on individuals and their care of self?

Also, could we not call his early work (up to Archeology of Knowledge) a top-down approach to system modeling? Something similar to Luhmann’s view of systems? I mean, is not Foucault, at least early on, trying to understand how systems change without having to call upon some micro-level theory of agency? Something Luhmann and Parsons and others tried to do? Is Foucault not also trying to understand the system within the confines of the system itself?

Then, beginning with Discipline and Punish and his interviews in Power and Knowledge, is not Foucault suddenly grounding his complex systems view in social practice? Suddenly shifting to a bottom-up perspective? Is that not what his methodological shift from archaeology to genealogy is all about? Top-down to bottom-up? A macro to a micro level shift in orientation?

Think about it? How would Foucault sound if he talked about dispositifs and apparatus as complex systems? What if he talked about apparatus which obey their own internal logic as emergent self-organizing systems? What if Foucault talked about his post-structuralism as a way of talking about history as changing dynamic systems that do more than just follow the dialectic? What if he talked about complex social systems that evolve over time along multiple trajectories? Suddenly his idea of systems containing their own resistance (his Nietzschian theory of power) makes more sense: we are talking about the multiplicity of systems, differentiation and feedback loops. And, suddenly his ideas would not seem so unique—at least by today’s knowledge of complexity science. Suddenly his ideas sound less structural and more systems-oriented.

Because this is a blog, I will not blag on too much. So, just consider one of Foucault’s key concepts, the dispositif. For Foucault, this concept forms the field of relations in which his work, up to the end, is situated within.

Foucault states: "What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical propositions, moral and philanthropic propositions--in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the
elements of the apparatus [dispositif]. The apparatus [the grid of intelligibility] itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connections that can exist between these heterogeneous elements (Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 1980, p. 194)."

As this quote shows, Foucault's work is always about mapping the grid of intelligibility (the dispositif) for some complex system in historical time-—be the system medicine, mental health, the social sciences, criminal justice, psychoanalysis, religion, or government. For Foucault, the dispositif is a system’s self-organizing order of things, its field of organizing practices. But this dispositif is not a totalizing system of relations as in the dialectic. Nor is it something the historian simply uncovers. It is both the interpretive framework that the historian imposes upon the discourses of the past (which is why Foucault often refers to his works as fictions, 1991, p. 33) and the relations that exist between the various discursive and nondiscursive heterogeneous elements making up the field of organizing practices—I mean, does that not sound like 2nd order cybernetics or sociocybernetics? The dispositif is a system of strategies that exist as practice, both on the part of the historian and on the part of the period in question. The dispositif isn’t found within some external structure or within the heads of particular controlling agents. It is within the practice of practice itself. It is fragmented, disjointed and broken, and yet inter-related, unified and organized. It is not a Parsionian system that exists as homeostasis, which then requires us to explain how change happens. It is a changing system where we question how order itself is possible.

Again, this is just a thought. But, it does open up the possibilities for some incredible connections between the last twenty years of sociological inquiry and the new science of complexity. To see a more thorough argument of my point of how Foucault can be used to build a theory of social complexity, see our new book, Sociology and Complexity Science.


  1. I'm interested in your book as I too am exploring the way in which complexity science can inform adaptive leadership and organizational design. Thanks for the post. My connection to Foucault is via Michel Serres (they had a falling out at one point) and the site I run dedicated to his work. I really need to dig a bit more into Foucault's work.



  2. Thanks for the post. I was trying to read through all of your blogs and information before posting back, but you've got a lot of great stuff. So, I will just email now to say I think Foucault is not just for the humanities. He's got a lot of interesting stuff to say--and, going the other way, complexity science can make some of his more opaque ideas clearer. What do you think?