More than a Metaphor: Complexity Theory in the Social Sciences




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Common Ground



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‘Complexity theory’ has had an impact across the social sciences. In particular, the analysis of systems, and the effects of non-linearity have impacted on social theory. Yet the ways in which complexity has been interpreted have been diverse. Is it’s prime contribution as a metaphor which can be used as a way of explaining social phenomena, or are complexity phenomena related to physical concrete patterns in human relations?Is it that events in the social world are ‘as if’ complexity phenomena are at work, or is it ‘physics all’(or most) ‘of the way down’? The answers to such questions are significant in terms of ontology, methodology and epistemology in the social sciences .In this paper we assess a diversity of ways in which complexity has been appropriated in the social sciences, before arguing that social systems do manifest complex phenomena.We will argue that complexity is apparent in the social world in different types or kinds of systems. In addition, and a scritics have pointed out, a particular feature of social systems as opposed to non-human systems is that human actors have cognisance of their situation,complexity approaches need to allow for this in their analyses.


The file attached to this record is the author's final peer reviewed version. The Publisher's final version can be found by following the DOI link.


complexity theory, differentiated complexity, epistemology, ontology, social systems


Cudworth, E. and Hobden, S. (2009) More than a Metaphor: Complexity Theory in the Social Sciences. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. 4 (4), pp. 59-69.


Research Institute

Institute for Research in Criminology, Community, Education and Social Justice