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Getting started in complexity

By Dave Snowden  ·  February 14, 2008  ·  Comments

A very old friend of mine from the 70's, Mary Condren dropped me an email asking for recommendations on where to get started in reading about complexity.  I just finished off the answer and decided the answer might have general utility.  I reproduce it below with the original request.  To give you the context (to understand some of the language), I had planned to see Mary in Dublin this Saturday for the first time in over thirty years, but the need to be in Cardiff for first thing on Sunday prevented it.  Mary was replying to my note saying we could not meet.  For those interested Mary is one of the most interesting people I know on feminism in general and feminism and theology in particular.  Her recent book  The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland is worth the read.

Original request:

That’s a pity.  I read your Harvard Business Review article.  Well done!

I am wrestling with similar issues in my current writing - on sacrifice, war and gender, and have compiled a critique of traditional causality, especially in the light of psychoanalytic perspectives.  Seems I will have to grapple with complexity theory now as well! Where would you recommend a start?  I have access to online electronic journals.

It also has other uses.  I have been teaching professional and business writing now for many years, given the antipathy of theology colleges to my feminist work. These days I teach research writing to medical senior house officers etc. in preparation for their publishing careers as medical consultants.

I use Mindgenius to help get them started, using the various parts of their intelligence: activist, theoretical, reflector and pragmatic. Are there other software systems that you would recommend that would open up complexity theory and widen the variables?  They are only one day courses, so it would have to be very user friendly.

Hope to see you when you come to Ireland this year.  Let me know

My response

The HBR article was a bit of a compromise.  If it had not been for Mary I could never have written at the required level of abstraction! There is more academic stuff on the web site under "Literature" in particular the two articles by Kurtz and Snowden which stand up to academic criticism.

Complexity theory is a broad church, so here is a summary

  • You have the computational guys who think everything is about agent based models and computation.  Birds fly around the sky on three rules (fly to the centre of the flock, match speed, avoid collision) so we just need to sit down and work out the rules for human systems.  Best here is Axelrod & Cohen Harnessing Complexity which covers a lot of the basics and recognises some aspects of the difference in Human Systems.  Not the best but a good starting point.
  • Some of the early work on the application to management theory is associated with Stacy and there are a whole series of books by him and the group at Hartford.  He is in effect bringing Meade back into play using complexity theory and does a good job although I think he is extreme in rejecting all systems thinking.
  • Some of the most intelligent material comes from Paul Cilliers whose Complexity and Post-modernism is an early classic.  Interesting guy Paul, Engineer turned professor of philosophy, father a Dutch Reformed Minister who opposed Apartheid so a minority in both his communities.  Paul is in the continental tradition of philosophy.
  • Alicia Juarrero  wrote Dynamics in Action which I think is one of the best (probably the best).  Original Cuban, now a professor at a community college Maryland in part because she upsets the philosophical establishment.  If you are not interested in the philosophical stuff around intentionality then skip to section II which stands on its own. Alicia worked with me on the some of the work we did on fitness landscapes and is a delight (intellectually and in person)
  • There is a recent sociological take via Smith and Jenks Qualitative Complexity which I am half way through and which looks good.  It fits complexity into the intellectual tradition of sociology, while most of my material is philosophy.
There are others.  Peter Allen (Cranfield) is a pioneer and his work on fisheries if you can get it is excellent.  Anything by Bill McKelvey from UCLA is worth reading (I just keynoted at the Organisational Science Winter Conference for him) from an economics and strategy perspective.  Anything by Tsoukas is worth reading (he is close to Stacy).  After that I would start looking at people like Freeman (how brains make up their minds) and Deacon (The Symbolic Species) along with Clark (Being There) all of which are related from a cognitive position.

My own approach, known as Contextual Complexity links CAS with Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Psychology and narrative work (narrative is after all a complex system and myths are strange attractors) but that is available in the web site material.

There is a lot in complexity that we could have done with back in the 70s.  You might be interested to know that Alistair McIntyre's work is often cited (along with the pragmatists) and I have found myself re-reading Rahner and Reuther from time to time with a new lens.

Software to understand complexity - interesting question.  We have created a whole suite based on complexity theory and its use gives people understanding, but its not for a short training course.  I would look up things like strange attractors on the web and use some of the simulations there as well as those that you can find with a google search on Boids Algorithm.  There are some other workshop techniques (look up predator prey and the butterfly stamped in the methods section of our web site and you will get instructions and material that you can use.  There are some good web based tools on fractals that you can get for free.  I find one of the most effective explanations is by the use of pictures of the Magic Roundabout near Swindon, contrasted with a set of traffic lights.  If you look at the podcast and slides from KM World last year the material is there (again on the web site).

Hope that is useful and I will be in touch as soon as I can sort out a trip to Dublin to talk.