Complexity and the Social Sciences: Insights from Complementary Theoretical Perspectives
University of Leicester, UK
Last modified: September 18, 2007
The application of complexity theory crosses many disciplinary domains thereby reflecting the multidisciplinary perspective inherent within the concept. Within the social sciences, the advent of complexity theory has facilitated a re-examination of the concept of system, “rejecting old assumptions about equilibrium in favour of the analysis of dynamic processes of systems far from equilibrium, and respecifying the relationship of a system to its environment” (Walby, 2003).
The term ‘System accidents’ describes an aetiology that arises from the interactions among components (electromechanical, digital, and human) rather than the failure of individual components. Accidents involving complex socio-technical systems, such as that resident within the nuclear power industry, aerospace industry and military operations, reflect this aetiology characterized by its nonlinearity and inherent complexity. “Complex systems cannot be understood by studying parts in isolation. The very essence of the system lies in the interaction between parts and the overall behaviour that emerges from the interactions” (Ottino, 2003). The application of Actor Network Theory (ANT) facilitates an examination of complex socio-technical systems focusing on the interconnectedness of the heterogeneous elements characterized by the technological and non-technological (human, social, organizational) elements that comprise the problem space. This paper presents and argues for the integration of complexity theory as a complementary theoretical perspective to the field of sociology as a means of generating insights. The integration of ANT and complexity theory in analyzing aviation accident aetiology is presented as an example.