Book chapter

Social Complexity, Crisis, and Management (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Because social complexity is rarely defined beforehand, social science discussions often default to natural language concepts and synonyms. Assert a large sociotechnical system is complex or "increasingly complex," and notions of many unknowns, out-of-sight causal processes, and a system difficult to comprehend fully are triggered. These terms, however, also suggest the potential for, if not actuality of, catastrophes and their unmanageability in the sociotechnical systems. It is not uncommon to find increasing social complexity credited for the generation or exacerbation of major crises, such as nuclear reactor accidents and global climate change, and the need to manage them better, albeit the crises are said to be far more difficult to manage because of the complexity.The costs of leaving discussions of "complexity, crisis, and management" to natural language are compared here to the considerable benefits that accrue to analysis from one of the few definitions of social complexity developed and used over the last 40 years, that of political scientist Todd R. La Porte. Understanding that a large sociotechnical system is more or less complex depending on the number of its components, the different functions each component has, and the interdependencies among functions and components underscores key issues that are often missed within the theory and practice of large sociotechnical systems, including society's critical infrastructures. Over-complexifying the problems and issues of already complex systems, in particular, is just as questionable as oversimplifying that complexity for policy and management purposes.