Political Complexity Overview

Updated: 18 hours ago

Politics can be seen to be holistic and complex in its very nature; as power dynamics and interdependence are in all human relations and all human institutions, every social interaction is potentially a political one. But until quite recently researchers were largely uninterested in the idea of complexity; systems that were complex were largely seen as just an extension of more basic systems. It was largely assumed that by studying more elementary organizations we would, in general, know everything we need to know. However, through new insights over the twentieth century – from physics, chemistry, ecology and other areas – we have come to increasingly recognize complexity as something that is both irreducible and very fundamental to our universe. Through such insights, we are increasingly coming to recognize that as systems go from being more elementary to more complex, they change in very fundamental ways – as new features, structures, and dynamics emerge that require new categories, descriptions, and methods to understand and model effectively.

Political complexity then deals with the complexity of political reality, that is to say, its holistic and dynamic nature, interconnectivity and interdependence. Advocates of complexity theory describe it as a new scientific paradigm. Complexity theory suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic emergent behavior. Such new insight helps us to better approach very complex sociopolitical phenomena, without limiting ourselves to reductionist methods; such phenomena as international politics, global civic organizations, terrorist networks, global social networks, political movements etc.

Political Science

Political science is the study of political systems, political systems are a set of social institutions through which a society makes collective decisions and implements them. Political science, “as a discipline lives on the fault line between the ‘two cultures’ in the academy, the sciences, and the humanities.” As a science, it uses theoretical models and tries to match them to empirical data. Like social science in general, political science has progressed by adopting a variety of methods and theoretical approaches to understanding politics and methodological pluralism is a distinct feature of contemporary political science. Despite considerable research progress in the discipline based on many kinds of scholarship, it has been observed that progress toward systematic theory has been modest and uneven. Formal languages are what makes a discipline scientific, but like the other social sciences, political science has never managed to developed formal systems akin to the use of mathematics in the natural sciences. This is an outstanding issue with the social sciences in general that some believe complexity theory may address as it is currently being adopted.

Political Systems

Political scientists study the many aspects to sociopolitical institutions, how they operate and how they should operate. Such political systems are complex and multidimensional in nature as the requirement for coordination and collective decision making on issues crosses all aspects of a society. Likewise, politics is inextricably intertwined with culture, social structures, and economics. Politics is always fundamentally grounded in the culture of any given community, it strongly shapes social structures, regulates economic activity and plays a central role in managing a society’s natural environment.

Sociopolitical systems, taken as a whole, thus engender a multiplicity of questions, that require some response before we can formulate any kind of a coherent theory of political dynamics. Primary and firstly among these are cultural and philosophical foundational questions. Normative questions about how should the system be. How should humans live together? In living together we have to coordinate our activities, we have to come to agreements but on what should the process through which we do that be based? Should it be on force, based on divine revelation, on tradition, should it be based upon reasoned argument? What is the legitimate basis of power over people, the legitimate use of force? The question then turns to more practical matters how do societies implement their cultural understanding within a set of social institutions? A system based upon force would naturally formulate an authoritarian hierarchical structure, one that is based on reasoned discourse would have an alternative structure that is better suited to that process.

Such questions lead in turn to an in-depth analysis of the set of political institutions through which decisions are made and implemented, the different bodies that constitute the government, the legal structures, the bureaucratic organizations that execute on decisions, the mechanisms for enforcing the implementation of those rules, for adjudicating in cases of dispute. Political scientists likewise concern themselves with how different political organizations interact with each other, how they find common ground, their similarities, and differences, this is the area of comparative politics and international politics.


Political science as a separate field is a rather late arrival in terms of social sciences, but it emerges out of a long, rich and deep history of political philosophy. Political systems are as old as human civilization and their study of them dates back to the work of ancient Greece and before. The first great work of political philosophy in Western history is Plato’s Republic. Plato was interested in the question: What would a just society look like, and what virtues must the people and the rulers have to make it just? Plato distinguished five types of regimes and held that the state should be organized in the manner of a person or organism, with the higher parts ruling the lower. Notice that this correlation of regimes with parts of the soul is the first example of the organic metaphor which holds that the state should be organized in the manner of a person or organism, with the higher parts ruling the lower. Plato believed that there was an ideal world, that the wise were capable of knowing that world, and the best political system would be one that put those wise people in charge of arranging society for others, in the way that the brain controls the body’s arms and legs and not the other way around.

Plato’s greatest student, Aristotle, disagreed with him deeply. Aristotle formulated the first republican theory of politics. Man is by nature a political animal. Only “beasts or gods” live outside the polis. Within the context of the good polity, humans are the best of animals; without law and polis, they are the worst. Aristotle thought that by definition, political society is self-rule among equals, and self-rule requires face-to-face meeting. Thus, the polis cannot be too large. Citizens share in ruling and rotate through offices. Each citizen must be capable of ruling and being ruled. Despite their disagreements, Plato and Aristotle both approach politics in the same way: They are seeking a polis that is both just and embodies virtue. And they believe that this can come about only if some group of people in the polis are themselves virtuous— the leaders for Plato and the citizens for Aristotle.

For about 1,000 years after the fall of Rome, medieval Christian European society was feudal. There were literally no public lands, roads, or institutions; government was in the private hands of the local lord. All people were bound to each other by a set of complex religious-legal and tradition based obligations, being legally unequal. Political theory in such a world was of little interest. The modern revolution in political theory is part of the long breakdown of the medieval world, brought on by a decline in power of the landed aristocracy, the discovery of a new hemisphere in 1492, the emergence of Protestantism, and the development of Italian cities as centers of commerce and banking. It is in this climate that the first modern political thinker arose, that of Niccolò Machiavelli.

Machiavelli redirected political thinking from the normative and philosophical realm – of what was the best form of government and how should government be realized so as to achieve certain ideals – and focused it upon the reality of exercising power. For Machiavelli the political world cannot be determined by ideal virtues alone, it instead requires an analysis of the real power dynamics at play, and if one is to be successful in such a world one has to maintain power and control at all expense. Machiavelli merges the ideal into the real and asks about the real costs and effects of acting according to ideals. In politics, what matters is the kind of state that is created and maintained. From Plato through the medievals, the idea that a just society could be constructed without virtuous citizens or virtuous rulers would be incomprehensible. But Machiavelli finds that political society often has to continue without moral virtue and find a way to be just and stable without it. Machiavelli’s very modern and realistic way of looking at political theory was a somewhat radical break from tradition that came to shape all later thought, but he also raised questions about the inherent immorality of politics, and such questions remain with us today.

Political theory then entered an intense couple of centuries of development during the 1700s and 1800s as our modern understanding of politics and governance structures was formed. Religious and Traditional foundations for governance were rejected and thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant formulated a new philosophical foundation to political organization based upon rational institutions. Political institutions that were explicitly designed according to reason making them rational, based upon the concept of the rational individual, who entered into a set of agreements with others to formulate the government that would serve in the interests of all. The emphasis shifted to the mass of individuals and government as a rational instrument for achieving their well being, duties and ethics become formulated in abstract principles of reason and based around the individual as exemplified by Kant’s categorical imperative.

Such an intensely productive period of political theory fed through to an age of political revolution as the modern nation state framework was born, reason based constitutional systems of government were formed with a rational set of institutions. The English, French and American revolution created a new paradigm in governance that proved successful as others followed and we moved into the modern political era, that we know so well. The idea of the nation state with a centralized government ruling over a large geographic area with a culturally homogenous population formed the new architecture for governance on a global level, as people around the world obtained freedom from colonialism and were encouraged to develop such political units of organization.

As the nation state system became the dominant modality for governance a spectrum of possibilities within that architecture formed, from left to right, as the 20th century saw tense battle and divisions over how governance should be conducted in this new modern paradigm. The development of the nation state coincided with industrialization as the two became merged; the strength of the nation became closely associated with the strength of its industrial base.


However, by the latter half of the 20th century, the relentless drive of technological change and the market system were becoming ever more important organizational structures within societies. Eventually, a revolution in information technology would unleash a powerful new force of rapidly escalating interconnectivity on all levels from the local to the global. And it is within such a context that the conceptual foundations and institutional design patterns that created our modern systems of governance are being eroded along many dimensions.

The turn of the 21st century is a time of profound sociopolitical disruption as power is shifting, it is moving upwards to a globally integrated economy and out wards to distributed peer-to-peer networks enabled by information technology. With the inextricable linkage between power and politics as the tectonic plates of power are shifting so too political institutions are being redefined. Old structures are being eroded and rendered paralyzed while with every new connection new structures are gradually being pieced together in a shifting landscape that is driving political disruption.

The challenge that political institutions face today is that of complexity, in all its shapes and forms. Challenges that are systemic, such as inequality and environmental degradation, challenges of interconnectivity, such as mass migration, of interdependence such as multiculturalism, of rapid change such as fast pace technology innovation. Such phenomena prevalent in our world today represent major challenges to nation states, calling into question their ability to handle such matters and threatening to splinter modern societies along new divides that such changes create. The rise of the liberal Republican nation state as a system of political organization may have been the story of the modern era, as it overcame the monarchs of Medieval Europe, the totalitarianism of fascism, of world wars, the threats of communism, but whether it is designed to deal with the complexity inherent to these issues and what other alternatives might exist is very much open for debate.

As we build out this infrastructure to a networked global economy, the unregulated spaces of connectivity in our economies and societies expands on a daily basis, and as always there will be no shortage of people eager to exploit those vacuums. The question remains though, what would political institutions that are relevant for an age of complexity look like? How would power be channeled and distributed out, who would make decisions and how would they be implemented? How could we build sociopolitical institutions that would connect all the way from the local to the global? Such questions are once again open to debate and remain unanswered. But answering such question requires, in turn, an evolution in our understanding of political systems and governance as traditional categorizations formed within the context of the Industrial Age will be of limited relevance within this new context.


All organizations change in fundamental ways as they go from relatively elementary to relatively complex. They go from being closed and well bounded to becoming open, from being linear and independent to non-linear and interdependent, from centralized and disconnected to distributed and interconnected, from being relatively static to become inherently dynamic. This is the same for political systems, their structure and behavior is always relative to the degree of complexity of the underlying social, cultural and economic systems; thus how we most effectively approach managing and studying them likewise changes. Political science as we know it is largely the study of closed political organizations that exercise power and how those independent organizations interact to resolve their differences.

Closed Systems

Most of political studies focuses on closed well-bounded organizations that exercise power within a society, most notably the formal political institutions of the government. Such an approach greatly simplifies the analysis, reducing it to a number of aggregate large organizations and how they interact. But the study of the closed aggregate formal political organizations gives us a some what self-limiting picture of the world. When we look at a map of the world we see it divided out into a limited number of closed political organizations defined by their boundaries. Such a model of the world, of course, blinds us to the true complexity of the interconnectivity between those systems; the many overlapping networks that enable modern economies to operate. Social and political organizations are always relational, they are nothing more than a set of relations between people. If we were to look at such a map of what one really looks like we would see a concentration of interconnectivity around certain areas, such as cities.

A map of political reality in such a world would really be a very complex set of social and economic networks. Thus political complexity tries to go beyond the somewhat reductive and simplifying approach of simply analyzing a finite amount of closed formal organizations, but instead looks more a the open and dynamically changing nature of sociopolitical organization. A world characterized by open systems defined by their dynamically changing connections. This shift from a focus on closed formal political institutions and the characteristics of their members to the open connections of interdependence within a social group presents a whole new set of insights and possibilities. It shifts our focus from the parts to the structure of the whole, and that is a paradigms shift.


Political analysis, as we know it, is very much focused on closed hierarchical organizations through which power is exercised in a downward fashion. We see formal institutions as the only means for achieving order and stability within society. Achieving a successful economy and social system in the Industrial Age was closely tied to the building of the formal institutions of the nation state, through which order was maintained. The mass of people enter into political discourse only during elections once every four years within democratic systems, or once every few decades within autocratic systems, when they overthrow the political regime. The mass of people play a rather passive role in the system, while those in the formal organizations are the ones who create the political system through which order is maintained.

In complexity science, we do not search for order as something that is given from above, but instead how order may, in fact, emerge out of the small distributed parts coming together to create organization. We stop focusing on the center and look instead at the distributed interactions within the system and how through those interactions the parts can self-organize to give rise to the emergence of organization through only local interactions. Thus instead of looking at the stable structures through which the order within the society is maintained, we are looking instead at the dynamic process through which it is continuously created. The concepts of self-organization and emergence recognize the constant interplay between order and disorder in the creation of political organization.


Traditionally political science is often understood as the study of power, however, such a restrictive definition offers only a partial insight. Power only exists within dynamics of conflictual agendas, it tells us how one actor or organization can control the agency of another, and the formal structures of political organization tell us how the power is distributed out. Such an analysis make certain assumptions about agents having divergent objectives and entering into conflict over those. It focuses on actors with independent agendas and how they realize those in the face of others who may have divergent objectives. It tells us little about how cooperation is achieved. It tells us little about the networks of interdependence between actors that foster and enable cooperation. We focus on the means through which disputes are resolved, but not the means through which the divergent agendas are first created. Things become focused on the formal methods through which people can realize their agenda while we take the divergence of agendas as a given. In a world of interdependence though, this requires us to look outside the box, asking how can interconnectivity and interdependence be used to foster an alignment of perspectives and interests before we even arrive at the formal political institutions for decision making. Such an analysis requires us to look not just at the formal institutions, but in fact at the broader social system within which they are embedded. To identify the broader social and cultural networks within society that feed into creating the context for the political system to operate within.

To understand the outcome of the political system one has to understand the types of interdependencies within the society at large that create the inputs. Where do the negative interdependencies that create divisions lie, and where do the positive interdependencies that create alignment lie. The formal political institutions of a society will only ever be able to deal with an issue on a relatively superficial level, while the real issues will involve a deeper set of dynamics defined by positive and negative interdependencies; to enable a functional political system it is required that those issues are dealt with on the appropriate social or cultural level. This requires a more holistic and comprehensive analysis, one that is not focused on the independent actors, their agenda and the means of power through which they can use force to realize that agenda, but instead an identification of the broader set of influences around the individual that shape their specific agenda; which in turn are a function of the dynamics of the positive and negative interdependencies within the broader sociocultural system. In a world of independence, the analysis can be on the individuals and their agenda, how the parts interact to create the outcomes. In a world of interdependence, the focus should shift to looking at the context that creates the actor’s motives and how connections can be altered to change the types of interdependence between the actors from negative to positive so as to align them.


A central tool for understanding complex systems is that of network theory and in a political context this translates into the study of political organizations as a form of social network. The central tool of standard political science is statistical analysis, through polling, surveys and the analysis of various data bases about citizens, we try to make statements about the whole system through reference to the properties of its parts. At a low level of connectivity within the social system, this approach may give us important insight and traction on otherwise difficult questions. However as we turn up the connectivity it comes to be the connections that shape outcomes, more than the individual characteristics of the members. In such a case making statements about the whole through statistical coarse graining aggregates of the parts can become misleading as it blinds us to how they are interconnected.

As the connectivity proliferates individual behavior becomes more defined by one’s connections within networks. For example, as opposed to people being defined by their specific location within a geographic area and the community based around this, it becomes more important what social networks they are connected into, their location within those networks, how things flow between different networks etc. As distributed interconnectivity increases and interdependencies increase, systems become nonlinear and the whole becomes something different from the parts. Methods that focus on the parts and assume the whole to be nothing other than an aggregation of those parts become misleading. Much of our statistical methods in political and social science make this assumption. In order to achieve a comprehensive understanding though, it is required to switch the focus to looking at the whole system; network analysis is one such tool that lets us do that. It helps us to understand processes of change through diffusion, to study how things spread across the network, how and where tipping points might exist, how social networks grow and disintegrate over time. It helps us to look outside the formal structures of political organization, to look at local community peer-to-peer networks and how the flow of social capital on those networks enables the community to function without formal organization. Network analysis helps us to see a wide array of informal social patterns that fall outside of closed organizations, or cut across them, such as international criminal networks, migration networks, urban networks etc. and to use formal methods to interpret their workings.


Finally, complexity theory involves a set of models surrounding evolution and adaptive capacity which can be used to understand the development of political systems and how they respond to major changes. The central question is how does the system adapt to the inevitable changes within its environment so as to successfully navigate change and thus be sustainable over time.

Political organization, as we know it, typically takes a centralized regulatory approach of defining closed borders and uses a centralized intelligence and decision-making authority to interpret the environmental changes, formulate best responses and then control the elements of the organization towards those ends. Such centralized regulation as a means of dealing with change becomes limited in its capacity within complex systems and the emphasis shifts to the development of distributed structures that enable the process of evolution. Complexity theory helps us to understand the workings of this process of evolution as it takes place within social systems through the production of variety, selection, and duplication.

In dynamic and complex environments the emphasis shifts from creating fix projections and controlling for specific outcomes, to that of enabling impersonal mechanisms of selection for developing the most appropriate response to the environment and thus ensure the system’s capacity to successfully respond to change. The emphasis shifts from optimal outcomes to resilience through adaptive capacity. Here complexity theory borrows many insights from ecology to understand the process through which ecosystems – and societies alike – go through the various stages of growth, maturity, collapse, and regrowth in what is called the adaptive cycle.


Political reality is certainly complex in that it pervades all aspects of social life, to date we have struggled to reason about it in a scientific fashion, as it has been divided into either philosophy and social theory on the one hand or the limiting tools of statistics, classical game theory, and algebra on the other. But with the increasingly coherent theoretical framework of complexity theory, social scientist now have access to the kind of abstract and powerful formal tools that have to date been the purview of the physical sciences. Although it will certainly take time for the models from mathematics, physics, and computer science to permeate into the social sciences, but with such tools, our understanding of sociopolitical systems can be taken to new levels of abstraction and rigor. Ideas that philosophers and social theoreticians have grappled with for millennia can be formalized in new aways that offer both deep insight and greater structure to our reasoning. Existing social theory frameworks like functionalism, conflict theory, complex interdependence theory etc. can be reconstructed out of more fundamental modeling frameworks. This offers exciting new possibilities within the social sciences and in this course, we explore the potential of complexity theory to rethink political analysis.

Systems Innovation

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