Organized Social Complexity: Challenge to Politics and Policy

Organized Social Complexity: Challenge to Politics and Policy

by Todd R. La Porte


View All Available Formats & Editions
Use Standard Shipping. For guaranteed delivery by December 24, use Express or Expedited Shipping.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691617701
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1504
Pages: 390
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Organized Social Complexity

Challenge to Politics and Policy

By Todd R. La Porte


Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07569-3


Organized Social Complexity: Explication of a Concept



One particularly striking aspect of modern political and social development has been the capacity of men to construct social systems encompassing more and more groups. Our lives are bounded by agencies, organizations, combines, coalitions, and associations: networks of hundreds of connected groups and persons. In part this condition has been a self-moving outgrowth of economic and technological progress which has stimulated proliferating organizational and social differentiation. In part men have intentionally linked group to group, organization to organization, nation to nation in efforts to gather specialized and mutually required resources. National development of such resource capacity has been a major driving force of politics and commerce. Indeed, cooperation and mutual exchange provide the foundation of modern life and the consuming attention of public policy concerns. Our national penchant in solving public problems is through policies which increase the connections between groups and which tend toward mutual dependence among public and private organizations.

One consequence of these increases in group connections — both spontaneous and purposive — has been the tightening of organizational dependencies affecting social dynamics and political movements. Another has been a rapid increase in the number of people and agencies affecting the day-to-day experiences of individuals. Closely related to this increase has been one in the number of surprises we encounter. They are generally disturbing surprises, caused by the interruption or frustration of our expectation by some hitherto unrecognized dependency. These surprises we often "account for" with the somewhat bewildered assertion, "It's a complex situation," implying that they are unaccountable. Somehow the unexpected occurs frequently, especially in matters of politics and social and organizational life. Perhaps such situations have always been unaccountable, but at present they seem to affect more people in a shorter span of time. They seem somehow to have intensified. The pervasiveness of such surprise-producing dependences is exploited by contemporary advertising. Repeatedly we are told that such and such a product or service will "uncomplicate" things: will "simplify" matters in the kitchen, "expedite" getting from here to there, "ease" the process of paying our bills by reducing our indebtedness to one loan compounded from the unwieldy burden of many creditors. The sensitive nerve endings of the advertising copywriter have intuitively gauged the degree to which the surprises of complexity prompt feelings of uneasiness and frustration within everyone.

But advertising strategies and tired assertions that "things are complex" do little to provide satisfactory understanding of what is happening to us. We eagerly seek conceptions of the world which promise some explanation or insight about what we are experiencing. The conceptions available to us form a network of notions describing phenomena which are social, complex, and organized. This book is addressed to some of them and in some cases challenges their adequacy in the face of increasing levels of organized social complexity.

We have come to the collective conviction that the degree of social complexity, particularly that confronting modern industrial nations, has seriously eroded the quality of our traditional conceptions about social and political realities. Insofar as this is the case, the utility of our cause/ effect beliefs about these realities must be seriously questioned — especially the utility of those that are currently used as the basis for the analysis of public problems and the construction of policy proposals. Part One of this volume (Chapters I — III) includes an explication of the concept of organized social complexity, explores its impact on the human intellect, and ends with a discussion of what is often asserted as the major cause for its increase. Part Two (Chapters IV and V) is devoted to analyses of two theoretical systems — public planning and systems analysis — which, while intended to provide direct control over social matters, may be neither direct nor regulatory. Part Three (Chapters VI-VIII) emphasizes methodological aspects and research applications. Part Four (Chapters IX and X) takes both a retrospective and prospective view of theories responding to social complexity.

The Concept of Organized Social Complexity

The term "complexity" appears in many areas of the social sciences, perhaps most often in the study of large scale, "complex" organizations. Very little, however, has been done to develop this concept so that the phenomenon intuitively ascribed to the term may be related to aspects of social, political, or organizational life. In this chapter we shall attempt such an explication as an introduction to more particular considerations of the consequences for conceptual thought of increasingly complex organized social systems.

In an important article titled "The Architecture of Complexity," Herbert Simon avoids a formal definition of complexity, suggesting only that complex systems are ones "made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way." We shall attempt, perhaps more foolhardily, to advance beyond this generality by dealing with a particular kind of complexity, namely organized, social complexity. In emphasizing organized complexity we are following the distinction made by Weaver between unorganized and organized complexity. Taken originally from formulations in the natural sciences, the former describes systematically unrelated elements, parts, or variables affecting the behavior or outcomes of systemic operations. These aggregates of randomly interacting elements, such as gas molecules under pressure, consumer behavior, and voters in general elections, are fruitfully described with statistical techniques. Despite the fact that each of the variables displays random behavior, each system as a whole has certain orderly properties which can be discovered through probability analysis.

Systems that are characterized by organized complexity, on the other hand, are those in which there is at least a moderate number of variables or parts related to each other in organic or interdependent ways. Systems, like the internal dynamics of living organisms, self-conscious social organizations and chemical molecular reactions, for example, cannot be adequately described through probability techniques and pose challenging conceptual and methodological problems.

Our concern will be further limited to social systems possessing the characteristics of organized complexity. The most obvious empirical referents are social groups with conscious purposes, such as formal organizations or informal, but cohesive, groups and associations. Members of such systems will be defined as those persons engaged in relatively self-conscious interaction with each other, recognizing their common relatedness to one another within the system. For our purposes, the self-conscious characteristic is crucial; it is central to the requirement that interaction among elements be interdependent and systematic. Lacking this self-consciousness, aggregate behavior in social groups could just as well be unorganized.

Self-conscious relatedness implies a distinction between perceived and unperceived relatedness. The former is based on the individual's recognition of his connections to others around him — his awareness that his activities directly impinge on the activities of others and theirs upon his. When dependence and connectedness are recognized, an individual is likely to base his actions on some reckoning of their effect on those involved with him. Unperceived relatedness exists when the structure of a situation, e.g., work structure, holds persons in remote and indirect but important relationship to one another. In these cases dependencies are not likely to be recognized, and an individual's actions are not likely to reflect a conscious concern for how they might affect others indirectly dependent upon him. Such actual but unrecognized dependence is revealed when the relationship falters: suburban homeowners' sudden recognition of their dependence upon garbage collectors when confronted with a garbagemen's strike; the city dweller's realization that there is an administrator downtown who is crucial in the determination of his housing conditions.

In this introduction, our concerns are mainly fastened on self-conscious, perceived relatedness rather than on social complexity of the unperceived variety. With these distinctions as a preface, we can now move to a working definition of organized social complexity.

The degree of complexity of organized social systems (Q) is a function of the number of system components (Ct), the relative differentiation or variety of these components (Dj), and the degree of interdependence among these components (Ik). Then, by definition, the greater Cl, Dj, and Ik, the greater the complexity of the organized system (Q).

A component of an organized social system is defined as a person or group occupying a position within the system and evincing these characteristics: (1) sufficient mutual agreement or consensus about this position so that he or she or it is the object of expectations and actions from other members and (2) recognition on the part of the person or group of the legitimacy of the others' expectations and positive response to those expectations, at least to the degree required for maintaining membership in and avoiding expulsion from the system.

Differentiation of components is defined as the number of different social roles or positions within the system, based on the degree of mutual exclusiveness of the activities distributed among the roles in an organization. These differences are based, in turn, on those activities expected of a role occupant by other members of the system. To develop operational indicators of differentiation can become very difficult. Without accepting them as necessarily definitive, we could consider formal job descriptions to be such indicators; survey research instruments and techniques of analysis to determine high norm concensus might also be developed.

The most difficult element of our definition is the interdependence of components. It is by far the most important and the least developed. Interdependence among persons or groups assumes varying degrees of reciprocal relationships between them. Interdependence means an exchange relationship of at least one resource between at least two persons. Interdependent relationships can vary between any two members (a, b) exchanging resource r1 as follows:

1. member A dominant over member B, i.e., B depends on A for some desired resource [MATHEMATICAL EXPRESSION NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

2. A and B mutually dependent upon one another for a resource both parties desire [MATHEMATICAL EXPRESSION NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]


Our basic illustration contains only one resource; however, in many situations several resources may be exchanged with all three dependence relationships obtaining between two persons. For example,


when r1 is promotion, r2 is mutual protection, and r3 is expertise. On the operational level, determining the degree of interdependence requires that the persons in question perceive or recognize their relatedness. In behavioral terms, a person will not consciously behave in dependent or dominant ways with regard to another unless he recognizes this relationship. Independency of two parties, parenthetically, implies a nonrelationship, i.e., no connection between A and B.

In order to clarify this notion, let us consider three examples with different degrees of interdependence for systems composed of a number of components. Still dealing with only one resource, we can describe the most simple system as a "tree" or simple hierarchy. In general, a hierarchy is defined as "a system that is composed of interrelated subsystems, each of the latter being, in turn, hierarchic in structure until we reach some lowest level of elementary subsystem." More formally, a collection of elements forms a tree or simple hierarchy if, and only if, all elements in the collection are directly or indirectly connected to a single superordinate element, and elements are only directly or indirectly connected with each other through a common superordinate element. Figure 1-1 illustrates this form of dependence for one resource.

Figure 1–2 represents a system of completely reciprocal interdependence between members for obtaining a resource. The behavior of every member with respect to this resource is reciprocally related to and dependent upon every other member. Were we to describe this as a matrix it would be a complete or "full matrix" (Aij)r1; the other examples can be described as partial matrices. More formally, a collection of elements forms a full matrix (see Figure 1–2), if, and only if, each element in the collection is connected with every other element, and no element is in superordinate relation to any other element. In graph theoretic language this would be a complete and symmetrical digraph; a complete lattice in terms of lattice theory. The appendices to this chapter contain a discussion of these two formal languages and a short description of these structures displayed in matrix form.

Finally, intermediate between these two extremes is the incomplete matrix, termed "semilattice" in the language of lattice theory. These are systems of relationships between members that are characterized by overlapping or multiconnected relationships wherein some members are dependent upon several other members but no member is in complete control of the resource. Formally, a collection of elements forms a semi-lattice if, and only if, any single element in the collection may be connected directly to any other single element and no single element is in a super-ordinate relation to all other elements (see Figure 1-3).

Intuitively, in terms of one's own experience, the world is not overly populated either by trees or by "full matrices" of dependence. Very seldom are relationships as simple as in the simple hierarchy illustrated above. Similarly, our personal patterns of dependence upon others and theirs on us are rarely, if ever, so predominantly interdependent as in the "full matrix." We shall return to some of the reasons why this latter condition is not likely; first, however, a few more notes are called for on the relationships between the elements of our definition of organized complexity.

Social Complexity as an Independent Variable

Before organized social complexity is used as an independent variable or as the antecedent condition from which we may expect certain things to follow, a warning is in order. Comparisons between the complexity of different social organizations at the same point in time or of the same social organization over time present several analytical difficulties. McFarland, in discussing complexity similarly defined, asserts that the three dimensions of complexity are not additive, and therefore comparisons are likely to be methodologically rather tricky. Including in his definition degrees of change, he states, "[I]f one system has fewer components but greater interdependence and variability [i.e., changes in degrees of differentiation over time] than another, it would be difficult or impossible to determine which system is more complex, unless the system with fewer variables is identical to a subsystem of the second system." Thus he asserts that if we are to order and compare systems on the basis of complexity, we must demonstrate that "one system exhibits a greater magnitude than the other on all three dimensions of complexity." Although this view seems overly impressed with the difficulties of examining the effects of increases in one of the variable elements, while holding the others constant, it poses the necessary warning that operationalizing organized complexity is no trivial matter. Having observed the warning, let us go on to consider more detailed aspects of social complexity as an independent variable.


Excerpted from Organized Social Complexity by Todd R. La Porte. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • List of Figures and Tables, pg. xi
  • Preface, pg. xiii
  • Chapter I. Organized Social Complexity: Explication of a Concept, pg. 3
  • Chapter II. Complexity and the Limits of Human Understanding, pg. 40
  • Chapter III. Organizational Complexity in the New Industrial State: The Role of Technology, pg. 77
  • Chapter IV. Complexity, Planning, and Public Order, pg. 119
  • Chapter V. The Use of Systems Constructs in Simplifying Organized Social Complexity, pg. 151
  • Chapter VI. Analysis of Complex Systems: An Experiment and Its Implications For Policy Making, pg. 175
  • Chapter VII. On Studying the Future Behavior of Complex Systems, pg. 220
  • Chapter IX. Complexity as a Theoretical Problem: Wider Perspectives in Political Theory, pg. 281
  • Chapter X. Complexity and Uncertainty: Challenge to Action, pg. 332
  • Bibliography, pg. 357
  • Index, pg. 371

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews