A Brief Pre-history of Emergence and Complexity in Social Theory

August 1, 2015

It is commonly understood that we live in a complex society today. While this descriptive may seem lacking in content–in the manner of someone responding to a difficult question with the response, “well, it is complex,” in lieu of providing an explanation–amongst systems theorists, the development of Complexity Theory has provided a suite of tools drawn from physics, mathematics, computer science, biology, cognitive theory, and philosophy to provide a more rigorous method of approach. As a basic introduction, complex systems are those which are said to subsist in a state between order and randomness, and the laws governing the system are relatively hard to describe or predict, but not impossible (Sawyer, p 3). In a more positive light, Ladyman, Lambert, and Weisner offer that “A complex system is an ensemble of many elements which are interacting in a disordered way, resulting in robust organisation and memory.” (LLW, p 27). The closely allied concept of emergence is often considered to be instrumental to complexity, as the organization of higher level system effects are said to follow from the disorder of lower level entities, but are not reducible to them. While today we are commonly conditioned to believe that everything is somehow reducible to a scientific atomism, complexity and emergence begin by situating higher level entities as analytically prior in their explanatory models. The problem with this, of course, is reifying an analysis of the abstract entities in play and leaving as axiomatic unexamined biases which we may not even be aware. Yet, as the philosopher of science William Wimsatt warns us, a sloppy reduction is as often as harmful as a sloppy generalization, and it is only through a robust braiding of multiple levels of perspective that science begins to gain a grip upon its objects of study.


The Classic view and the rise of Methodological Individualism

This piecewise accumulation of perspectival orientation is woven into the woof of successive generations of social theory as it sought to define the origin and development of its object of study. The controversy is evident in the foundations of the field. For example: Hobbes break with the Aristotelian principles which had been inherited from the scholastics, and formed the basis of considerations of the “good society” until that point. Hobbes, who for most of his life had been supportive of the Aristotelian conception, turned to vigorously attack it when he became enamored with the developing theories of geometry and Galilean atomism (Levine, p 123). Where Aristotle had perceived a higher order of natural harmony, to which the human faculties could be brought in accord, Hobbes dismissed this as what he took to be an aristocratic idealism, holding instead that nature was in constant state of upheaval, and famously, “a war of all against all” (Hobbes). Hobbes departure from the Aristotelian framework inaugurated a newly atomistic view of human behavior, in which the only truly existing objects of inquiry could be said to be individual human beings, ruled by their passions and appetite for power. Society thus flows from these “elementary particles” (Houellebecq) whose competing interactions constitute the whole of the social order.

The results of Hobbes’ perspectival shift from the society to the individual are with us today and form the basis of most contemporary social, political, and economic theory. Sometimes called methodological individualism, the belief that persons and their actions are the only real and irreducible things, is an essential doctrine of the neoliberal ideology, as is evident in Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 statement that “There is no such thing as society”. Rational choice theory, which underlines most mainstream economics today, is a reductive mathematized psychologization of the methodological individualist approach, while Contemporary Art’s anarcho-realist fixation on the individual subject as the arbiter of interpretation, embraces its micro-sociological myopia.

Nonetheless, there are evident problems with maintaining this position. [1] In economic theories, for instance, price acts as an irreducible social fact and emergent figure, whose effects cannot be accounted for by the limitations of methodological individualism (Arrow, p 4). In Contemporary Art, the emergence of cultural value is indeterminable from the position of the individual, and often falls back upon the vagaries of the market to prop up its speculations. While methodological individualism is ascendent, it is not monolithic.

Returning to the history of sociology, I will skip ahead several centuries from Hobbes and to the French tradition, which in this brief narrative will culminate with Durkheim. It is arguable that his synthesis presented the most developed appreciation of emergence prior to the 20th century.

Tradition and the Emergence of Social Facts

Montesquieu laid the groundwork for the French tradition, challenging Hobbes’ assertion that self-interest was sufficient for a theory of society, arguing instead for a position which we would now recognize as a form of social constructivism: since human beings are always already inculcated into the social order and not found outside of it, society and individuals are co-dependent and mutually constitutive (Levine, p 153). [2] Drawing upon the range of the French tradition, including Montesquieu and his patron Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte crystallized a hard social realism with his statement that “society is no more decomposable into individuals than a geometric surface is into lines, or a line into points” (Comte). Comte’s positivism, however, was balanced with a concern for the practical and emotional demands of those living in a society, and unlike his teacher Saint-Simon, maintained a distinction between the normative and the natural, which fit with the basic bifurcation he made between the organic and inorganic sciences. While he produced a systematic view that hierarchized the relations between astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology, presenting a total picture of humanity in nature, his staunchly maintained anti-reductionism cautioned against the tendency to monopolize the picture of the whole with any single dimension of thought (Levine, p 164-5).

Durkheim was directly influenced by Comte’s anti-reductionism, which lead to his championing of ‘social-facts’ as the true objects of social study. While Durkheim is commonly criticized as an idealist, he was well aware of the the mutual interplay of the individual and society. The sociologist R. Keith Sawyer highlights two apparently contradictory quotes:

Society is not a mere sum of individuals.

Social things are actualized only through men; they are a product of human activity. (Durkheim)

Sawyer thinks the contradiction can be resolved by highlighting the emergentist aspect of Durkheim’s project. While Durkheim himself did not have the term, his concept of sui generis is consonant with the contemporary usage of emergence. (Sawyer, p 104). This was the idea that new phenomena arose spontaneously from the aggregation of many smaller elements. A classic analogy amongst emergence theorists is the distinction between water and its constituting parts: water, though nothing more than the joining of hydrogen and oxygen, displays fluid properties and effects which neither of the two elements does alone. Similarly, Durkheim draws an analogy between the formation of social facts and biochemistry:

But it will be argued that, since the sole elements that make up society are individuals, the primary origin of sociological phenomena can only be psychological. By reasoning in this way, we can just as easily establish that biological phenomena are explained analytically by inorganic phenomena. Indeed, one can be quite certain that in the living cell there are but molecules of crude matter. But these molecules are connected, and it is these connections which cause the new phenomena that characterize life. It is impossible to find even the germ of this connection in any one of these elements. This is because a whole is not the same as the sum of its parts; it is something different, whose properties differ from those displayed by its constituent parts. (Durkeheim [Thompson], p. 60)

Reasoning by analogy is a powerful tool, but one we must be careful not to take it too literally. Exposed to the current of organicism in Germany — the idea that society can be framed as the evolution of a single massive superorganism, similar to the development of a species — Durkheim found a number of influential metaphors in this current of thought. Yet he was wary of overextending the metaphysical implications. Instead, he was eager to show simply that social level entities have a causal power which is not reducible to their constituent parts, but that the two nonetheless rely upon one another (Sawyer, p 105). This is simply a matter of emphasizing the distinct causal powers of higher-level social facts upon lower-level entities (such as individuals). While we are accustomed to thinking (in the Hobbesian sense) of how social facts (such as price) arise from the interaction of many individuals, we are less in the habit of considering how the formation of this fact then asserts a downward pressure upon the activities of those individuals. Social facts thereby constrain the actions of the individual, whether we agree to them or not. It is the task of sociology to recognize and describe the conditions of these facts without assuming their character in advance, but instead investigating them as they appear to us in society (Durkheim [Thompson], p 53).

The organicist trend tended towards a simplification of this study, drawing out a mechanistic and linear order whereby society proceeded from more “primitive” to “advanced” forms. Durkheim eschewed this determinist perspective for one which captured the blockages that resulted from the demands of social transformation. This contrast with organicism can be confusing for readers however, because Durkheim’s terminology often overlapped with and drew upon ideas from organicism, even while remaining critical of the view.

In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim conceives a view of corporatism, which he calls organic solidarity, where many people self-organize into blocks of cooperative segments. This ideal construction is contrasted with another, which he calls mechanic solidarity. Mechanic solidarity is constituted by affective and normative group relations such as familial bonds or traditional customs like honor. He argues that historically (but not necessarily), societies first tend to form mechanical solidarity, which draws a people together through a degree of similarity. Once a degree of density has been reached, society begins to form a cooperative dissociation, whereby tasks become specialized as the need for greater production demands a more rationalized form of organization. In this early work, Durkheim tended to emphasize the density of individual relations as giving rise to social facts, but by his later work he had evolved a more complex view which stressed the dynamism of these relations (Durkheim [Thompson], p 61), and its tendency towards transformation over time. It was therefore, not just material density of the society, but the networked intensity of social connections which resulted in emergent properties. Provided that there are suitably rich connections, a society may then organize according to organic solidarity, where stability is found, not through similarity, but by a harmonious difference, in which each plays a role suitable to their capabilities.

The two ideal types of mechanic and organic are not necessarily in competition with one another over the form of society, but often co-exist within the same society.  However, the tendency towards organic solidarity can weaken the existing bonds of mechanical solidarity. Within this analytic framework, these two types of social organization exert a mutual dependence, as feedback loops between mechanic and organic solidarity oscillate in harmony and disharmony. When they are pulled too far apart, society reaches a state that he called “anomie”. Durkheim’s research on suicide proposed that ill-formed regulation between the social orders would have a disturbing effect on society, leading to a pathological state (Durkheim [Thompson], p. 53-6). Durkheim contrasts his view with Marx, where he feels that the economic explanation is the sole driving factor of society (Durkehim [Thompson], p 15-6). Rather, Durkheim argues that the specialization of society is driven by a range of factors which recognize the normative (but not necessarily utilitarian) import of social differentiation. For Durkheim there is no teleological necessity of capitalism, though he is in agreement with Marx that capitalism is an anomic form of the social-order.

While the emergentist features of Durkheim’s theory remain nascent and limited by his available theoretical tools, he recognized several key features which would allow us to see him as in concert with the general direction of Complexity Theory today: the  identification of both the numerosity of elements in play, the intensity of their structural organization, and the non-linear contingency of  successive transformations resulting in new orders.


1. Margaret Archer identifies the nexus of ontology, empiricism, individualism, and collectivism as important features in the history of this debate. Since individualism and methodological individualism tended to recognize its remit on the basis of empiricism, they felt they had good ontological reasons for tipping the poles of the debate in favor of individuals, because the behavior of individuals was empirically observable, while the objects of collective instantiation seemed to exist outside or above any sensually observable facts, and collectivism appeared to be mere abstraction. On the other hand, collectivists, eager to disassociate from claims which seemed excessively metaphysical, were also left without any empirical basis for their claims, since there was nothing immediately observable from the collective viewpoint. Without reference to observables, and a fear of ontologizing their examination of structure, emergentism became a background claim which had no defined mechanism, but proposed the causal efficacy of social structure. Unfortunately, due to the closeted nature of this emergentism, and a reluctance towards any ontological commitments, causal efficacy could only be determined on an ad hoc basis, as new historical events appeared. Nonetheless, the hay day of a simple empiricism has passed, and individualists would be naive to insist upon the ontological irreducibility of individuals . Still, its methodological variant remains strong, especially in economics, where its ontological assumptions often go unexamined (Archer, p 33-57).

2. Archer would make a further distinction here between constructivism, or what she would call ellisionism and its fundamental focus on the inseperability of the terms of structure and agency; rather she argues that the emergentist should insist on this separability, because without it, we cannot attribute the basis of causation to either agents or structure at any point in time and form a view as to what is the result of structural constraints, and their degree of impact, and what is attributable to the freedom of the actor. Instead, these two poles mutually shape one another with a degree of autonomy, rather than being inextricably linked. Thus the individualist/collectivist debate is restructured around a rejection of the empiricist ontology and reframed under ellisionism and emergentism (Archer, p 64)

Works Cited

Margaret Archer, Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach, 2003.

Kennneth Arrow, “Methodological Individualism and Social Knowledge”, 1994

James Ladyman, James Lambert, Karoline Weisner, “What is a Complex System?”, 2011.

Donald Levine, Visions of the Sociological Tradition, 1995.

R. Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems, 2005.

Kenneth Thompson, Readings from Durkheim, 2004.