Stability and change in complex social systems

In order to write about how policymaking can address problems of time-inconsistency, I first need to clarify my interpretation of a complexity view of change.  (So those not in favour of rather technical posts – I’d suggest giving this one a skip!)

Complex systems change continuously. Not oscillating around an equilibrium point (complex systems are non-equilibriac), but more in the sense of seeking stability through change (Shine, 2015), a more ‘homeostatic’ type of process as the system journeys through time.

This ‘stability through change’ process is termed ‘self-organisation’. Every agent in the system constantly responding and adapting to both internal and external stimuli.   The more self-organising capacity a system has in the form of information and connections, the more stable and resilient it is.

In social systems, human self-organisation happens according to social norms and rules. Therefore, influencing these influences the direction of this ‘stability through change’. Norms and rules are codified in institutions (think of SA’s Constitutional Court), and so the direction of a system is augmented through its structures.

But there is another source of change in a social system. And in true complexity fashion this one is inseparable from the first! But worth considering separately to aid understanding. It is this change that often attracts attention in that can be very quick and dramatic.

Complex systems are non-linear. Small changes can set them off on a particular pathway that snowballs towards a tipping point. Once a system ‘tips’ this either results in systemic collapse, or substantial re-ordering with the possibility of different systemic properties emerging.


So the connections between the two types of change? Well, the greater the level of self-organisation, the lower the likelihood of collapse at a tipping point. And the ongoing self-organisation can itself lead to a build up of pressure in a system, providing ripe conditions for a ‘tip’. If a systemic re-ordering after a tipping event destroys structure, a different direction of self-organisation may more easily emerge.

Therefore, as well as attending closely to social rules and norms and hence institutions, those agitating for change in a system should also be on the look out for positive feedback loops, ‘snowballing’, and either dampen these down or speed them up! However, once the drama subsides, the source of enduring change is the way a system self-organises: a collapse or re-ordering can cause a loss of system function and structure (desirable or undesirable), but it’s the rules of self-organisation that effect the ongoing emergent properties.

2 thoughts on “Stability and change in complex social systems

  1. Oh indeed! A very helpful attribute in keeping an isolated phd researcher engaged and thinking through policymaking implications. Trump and the US are assisting too 😉 Thanks for the comment!


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