Continuity and Change in Socio-Economic Systems
Edited by Elizabeth Garnsey and James McGlade
1. The nature of complexity James McGlade and Elizabeth Garnsey BACKGROUND Over the past decades, theories of chaos, complexity and the idea of a new non-linear science have become increasingly prominent in leading edge research in the physical and biological sciences, and have diﬀused into the social sciences. Complexity driven research is currently engaging physicists, biologists, ecologists, geographers and sociologists alike, supported by a rapid growth of specialist academic journals and popular science books (see Edmonds 1996; McGlade and van der Leeuw 1997; and Byrne 1998 for useful reviews). However, despite its fashionable status and evident popularity, there is little consensus on just what is meant by the term. In fact, complexity has the unenviable distinction of meaning ‘all things to all people’ and is characterized by imprecise and generally ambiguous usage. The new interdisciplinary ﬁeld, which has somewhat confusingly been referred to as Complexity Theory, Complex Adaptive Systems or Non-linear Science, is essentially concerned with studying the general attributes of evolutionary natural and social systems. Whatever the terminology and speciﬁc concerns identiﬁed by these approaches, at the most general level they are characterized by particular attention to structural change driven by non-linear dynamics, as well as explorations of the propensity of complex systems to follow unstable and chaotic trajectories. Beginning in the physical sciences during the early 1970s, and gathering pace over the past two decades, ‘complexity thinking’ has moved beyond the natural sciences and has begun to penetrate the research agendas of the social sciences....
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