testing the validity of complex systems

I could be wrong here, and I am not entirely sure about the argument I am making, but it seems to me that much of the work being done in complexity science has yet to reach a point where topics are tested to see if and how they function as complex systems. There is lots of work on the network structure and dynamics of various systems; there is lots of agent-based modeling, and some of this work has gotten along enough to do both agent-based modeling and network analysis. Then there are various forays into emergence, self-organization, autopoiesis, swarm behavior, dynamics, chaos, evolution, and measurments of complexity. But, there is yet to be any sort of criteria set by which researchers can go out and determine if and how some topic of study is and acts like a complex system.

I am not setting up a straw person here. I know our field is very new; in fact, in some ways there is no complexity science; there are, instead, the complexity sciences. I know there are multiple definitions of what a complex system is; and i know we work in a broad range of fields, making any sort of singular statement both impossible and, at least from my perspective, unncessary. we can accept that complexity is an encyclopedic term and leave it at that.

So, for sake of discussion, let's just focus on the social sciences. In the social sciences, there does not seem to be much research actually applying the full force of complexity science to the study of a topic. Researchers do not seem to often take a topic, apply some criteria or empirical tests to see if it functions like a complex system, and then proceed on to examine the topic in complex systems terms.
Instead, it just seems that most topics are assumed to be complex systems, and some aspect of them is studied, say their network structure or the role agent-based interaction plays in their emergence.

My colleague, Galen Buckwalter and I are working on a paper now that does just the sort of thing we are talking about. Our work is in community health science. We are trying to take a topic and say, "okay, we think this community can be studied as a complex system; we think it acts like a complex system, and we have all these methodological tools that we can use to explore the empirical validity of our conjectures, so, let's proceed, in litmus test fashion, to determine if and how our community acts like a complex system."

Why do we think this is important? Well, I guess I will need to blog on it a bit, but for now I think the main answer is that, without some type of empirical and methodological rigor established (start with a, then move to b, etc), it becomes impossible to pull together the arsenal of tools, theories and concepts complexity scientists have created over the last three decades to get the most out of studying any given topic in the social sciences in complex systems terms. That is all for now, but i will try to say more and say it better.


  1. Looking forward to future posts and maybe an early draft of the paper?

    Good luck as you proceed.

  2. Hello! It is so good to read this! I started my research a few months ago... and I wanted to use complexity to tourism planning processes. But I found that I was assuming that tourism behaves as a complex system in destinations! Now I am rethinking my research towards studying the behaviour of a complex tourism system and look for "evidence" of its complexity... looking forward to future posts too!

  3. Carla,

    i think that would be a very interesting way to approach your research project, especially in an area like tourism (here i am thinking of the work of John Urry and colleagues on tourism and mobile societies) and its direct connections to complexity.

  4. That is a prescient observation. I'm a physicist with an abiding interest in complex systems. In fact, much of the cutting edge work being done today involve many-body strongly correlated systems.

    I have also searched for and failed to find a ``definition" of a complex system which would allow us to do something along the lines of F = m a with it. Is such an encapsulation of the complexity of complexity science - so to speak - possible? Should it be possible?

  5. thanks for the excellent comment. And, point well taken. for example, I think of statistics as a form of mathematics created to deal with increasingly complex systems that, at best, probability statements could be made. in so doing, statistics at least allowed some degree of rigor and systematic integration and cohesion of ideas. i think complexity science needs something similar. one says, 'okay, this is the defintion of a complex system i am working with.' others can then say, 'can you show me that your system of study at least meets that definition in an empirically meaningful way?' as you say, the response one would give to critics would not be of the F = m a type. but, there should be some way to demonstrate that one's system of study can, in some type of checklist fashion, empirically meet all the conditions one supposes the system meets. otherwise, we are adrift in metaphor, which is dangerous science. what does anyone think?