The Concept of Complexity in Sociology: I
AN INFERIORITY COMPENSATION OF SOCIOLOGISTS
WHEN sociologists are criticized for their failure to deal with social phenomena scientifically, one of their commonest excuses is that their data are the most complex and intangible of all natural phenomena. They bemoan their inability to devise instruments of precision comparable to those that have made possible the astonishing achievements in astronomy, physics, and chemistry. They complain that controlled experiments are almost impossible in sociological research. They assert that sociology "depends" upon other sciences such as biology and psychology and, since they have not yet solved the problems that are basic to sociological understanding, sociology is helpless. All of these statements and legions like them are really corollaries of the concept of complexity.
Needless to say, some scientists in other fields heartily agree with the lamenting sociologist. Many are ready if not eager to go further and claim that human social phenomena are so complex and intangible that a science of sociology is impossible. These men mean by "science," the mechanical manipulation of instrumentally observed materials in laboratories under experimentally controlled conditions. But such an inadequate conception of science is held only by routine technicians and men on the street. Scientists who are at all familiar with the logic, history, and methods of science agree that all phenomena that can be observed by the senses, classified, and generalized according to tested logical and mathematical canons may be treated scientifically. Obviously, social phenomena fulfill these requirements.
But the fact remains that sociologists and other social scientists are not so productive of unquestionable scientific results as the physical scientists are. In compensation for this, they often plead the "complexity" of their data. Pseudoscientists and engineers aid and abet them. The common man, taking his cue from these self-appointed High Priests of Wisdom, is thoroughly convinced that social phenomena cannot be dealt with "scientifically," in spite of the fact that almost every social act he performs demonstrates the repetitive uniformity of associational phenomena. Instead of being "complex," most of these acts are so simple, obvious, automatic, and matter-of-course that he is no more conscious of them than he is of the air he breathes.
It is the purpose of this paper to examine the concept of the complexity of social
( 223) data and to advance the thesis that they are no more complex than other types of natural phenomena.
Discussions of the complexity of social data seldom appear in formal treatises on sociology. The term is not found in Eubank's study of "The Concepts of Sociology." But this does not prove that I have sentenced a straw man to execution. Rather, it is evidence that we have a ghost or malign spirit to deal with, a gesture of the not yet "Dead Hand." It is evidence of the "intangibility of social phenomena" only in the sense that we have not yet dealt with our data scientifically. The idea creeps into many sociological treatises as an unconscious evasion of the fact that much of their content is folklore, speculation, ethical preachment, literary composition, and commonsense observation, rather than scientific knowledge. It is by implication and insinuation that the concept of complexity exercises its obscurantic and soporific influence.
One of the most eminent American sociologists states the idea in these words: "Go through a forest and count the species of deciduous trees, or of pines. These are all highly heterogeneous fields, but their heterogeneity is as nothing by comparison with the variegation of the pluralistic fields that make up human society. Most writers merely accept it as a fact and so propagate and perpetuate the idea of the almost incomprehensible complexity of social phenomena. The advantage of this is two-fold. If they fail to be scientific, or to go beyond the "sociology" of commonsense, it is because of "complexity." If they do not fail, obviously they must be very superior men. But certainly this is a kind of charlatanry or fantasy-thinking in which no man of science should indulge. Most of them would doubtless deny that they do. It means that they are willing to make a pretense of scientific knowledge which they do not possess. The upshot of this is that the man on the street refuses to credit the findings that are valid because he does not regard sociology as a "real" science. In short, the myth of complexity deludes the sociologist and at the same time diminishes the influence of such scientific work as he succeeds in doing.
Several years ago, Henri Poincaré remarked, "Nearly every sociological thesis proposes a new method, which, however, its author is very careful not to apply, so that sociology is the science with the greatest number of methods and the least results." Unfortunately, this still remains true in general, although sociologists have produced more scientifically valid results in the fifteen years since Poincare's death than were produced in the preceding seventy-five years.
There is only one method for the natural sciences, viz., observation, classification, generalization, with the proviso that subsequent competent observers, using the same methods, shall get the same results. Tested by these criteria, it is obvious that most sociological writing is not science. Much of it is still in the realm of poetry, philosophy, and prophecy. It is argued herein that the conception of social phenomena as being more complex and intangible than other natural phenomena is a major factor in producing this condition and is also the sociologist's flight from the reality of his scientific ineptitude.
The historical development of the idea of social complexity is due largely to the Comtean hierarchy of the sciences. Spencer's theory of evolution fitted into this pattern. Ward's views were not greatly different. The objections to this view are so patent that no discussion is warranted, but the factors which produced the doctrine are still operating to maintain it. The Comtean Hierarchy and Spencerian Evolution have thoroughly filtered into the popular and semi-scientific mind. This is a good example of the much discussed "Dead Hand." It is very obvious that any hierarchy of sciences is in the realm of values. It is not a scientific classification at all, but an expression of wishful thinking. Any scientist can give many "good reasons" why his science is the most important.
But we are concerned here with the Comte-Spencer view that social phenomena are more complex than other phenomena. It is true, of course, that the subject matter of the various sciences may be roughly arranged in a chronological order of cosmic appearance. There were probably inorganic compounds before there were organic compounds. But it is not at all true that the sciences dealing with these data developed in a chronological, methodological, sequential series; nor that the "later" ones are dependent upon the "earlier." This view derives from ''The false idea . . , . of nature as a mere aggregate of independent entities, each capable of isolation." It is a hang-over of the materialistic monism of honored memory.
THE MEANING OF COMPLEXITY
When we address ourselves to the task of analyzing the concept of complexity as applied to social phenomena, we are at once faced with the vagueness and con fusion that surrounds it. Like so many terms in constant use by sociologists, it means all things to all men. It is one of those indefinite blanket-terms that serve to conceal our scientific inadequacy. It is this practice of hiding our ignorance in terms that gives validity to such remarks as that of Poincaré quoted above. It also gives rise to such definitions of sociology as "The science that deals with things everybody knows in terms nobody understands." It is also the reason we are so sensitive to the jocular and serious criticisms of sociology as a science. Our emotional behavior is evidence of the conflict and confusion in our own minds. We are victims of what might be called "an oppression neurosis." The concept of complexity is part of the psychological camouflage that conceals our misapprehensions of the nature of nature, of the nature of social phenomena, and of the method of science.
For the purpose of analysis, I have stated five propositions which seem to me implicit in the concept of the complexity of social phenomena. There are many other reasons that are often given. Some of these will be adverted to in the discussion of the five propositions. Some of the'` common fallacies regarding the nature of natural phenomena and scientific method which have a bearing on the confusion of thought implicit in the concept of complexity will also be discussed.
It is often argued that social phenomena'' are more complex than other natural phenomena because they are: (1) More numerous; (2) more unstable; (3) more disorderly; (4) more intangible; (5) more difficult to understand. As thus stated, all five propositions are denied, although, stated a little differently, there is some truth in the last one.
ARE SOCIAL PHENOMENA MORE NUMEROUS?
Obviously, there are no known phenomena aside from the responses of human beings. We may postulate "realities" which we cannot experience but what we do in that case is to experience the postulation, i.e., what we "know" is the verbal activity of ourselves or others. In so far as the postulation is known, is a phenomenon, it is a human response,--usually an implicit or explicit verbal response. It is clear that we classify certain types of phenomena and regard them as autonomous. As a matter of fact, this is merely a useful kind of abstraction. All objects, all phenomena, are abstractions. That is the only way in which we can know them. Whenever we convey meaning about an event, we must treat it as an object, i.e., as an abstraction. This is merely to say that we find other people who are able and willing to ignore all of the unique characteristics and possible relations of the objects under consideration except those upon which we mutually are centering our attention, i.e., responding to in a similar manner. An experience never becomes objective, or an object, until it takes on this repetitive similarity in the responses of a number of people. For them, the event is an "object." To others it may be an illusion. In other words, all meanings are abstractions. Experience to be meaningful must be abstract. Hence, every event in the sensible universe may be an indefinite number of objects. There are no identities or exact repetitions in nature, except in the realm of abstraction, and even here we are usually conscious of the incomplete nature of the assumed identity. Dewey, Sellars, and Whitehead, as I interpret them, substantially agree with this view. 
Now all responses of men are not social phenomena. In the process of classifying phenomena as belonging to different categories, or "levels," there has come to be practical agreement that social phenomena are those types of behavior exhibited by human beings in their group relations. By common consent the disciplines which study these forms of behavior are called social sciences. Sociology is one of these. It differs from the specialized social sciences only in that it is interested in the more general aspects of group behavior: in the "forms and content of socialization," as Simmel said; in the "processes and products of group life," as American sociologists are inclined to say.
Suppose we consider the numerical aspects of social and non-social phenomena. Let us take the botanical field. Is it simpler or more complex than the social field? How many plants are there? How many species? How many varieties? How many individual differences between the units of any selected class of botanical objects could we enumerate? How many human responses to botanical objects are possible? Suppose we ask the same questions regarding social phenomena. Which field is the more complex? To ask is to answer. From the standpoint of the number of objects, number of units, number of possible human responses (relations), both fields are incommensurable and infinitely "complex." The term has no meaning if we are centering our attention on the number of data.
In both cases, and in any other similar case, the number of factors involved all depends upon the kind of classificatory scheme that may be adopted. If we take
( 226) human beings as units, and divide them into male and female, it would probably be as simple a task to enumerate all the specimens on earth as it would be to take plants as units, divide them into flowering and non-flowering, and undertake to enumerate all the individuals in the two groups. But in both cases, a complete enumeration is practically impossible. It would be easier to enumerate all the cultural traits in the world than it would to enumerate all the lengths of all the leaves of all the apple trees. It is argued here that any possible logical manipulation of the objects, or data, in any "field of science" would give the same result. If the idea of "numbers of units," or "factors involved" is to be part of the concept of complexity, social phenomena would prove to be much less complex than chemical, physical, botanical, zoological, astronomical, or any other "field" or "level" of natural phenomena. But in all cases, the possible human responses are innumerable. It is true that most of the objects of the social sciences are too inclusive, i.e., too few in number, to give us significant types of uniformity, and so we are continually engaged in making our scientific social objects more numerous. If complex means more objects, social phenomena are rapidly becoming more complex. But instead of saying "we do not understand because social phenomena are so complex," we should say, "we are making social phenomena more complex (i.e., formulating new objects) so that we can understand them."
But it is also true that the data become meaningful only when we have found a classificatory device that adequately describes the relatively uniform similarities of the described objects. This gives us a new "scientific object" which is inclusive and may be treated as a unit for purposes of generalizations. This "simplifies" the y "complexity of numbers" by enabling us to treat all the previously defined objects as if they were exactly alike. In this sense we are continually increasing the number of scientific social objects, but we are also decreasing their "complexity" by increasing our comprehension.
To summarize, social phenomena are not more, but possibly less "complex" than other types of natural phenomena if by "complex" we mean more units, factors, relations, and possible human responses. But we are increasing the number Of scientific social objects and units as rapidly as we reach valid generalizations of relatively stable repetitive uniformities in human social behavior. Likewise, it follows that this process of increasing "complexity" also increases scientific understanding of social data. It is also obvious that such an "increase of complexity" is not what is usually meant by "the increasing complexity of modern social life."
ARE SOCIAL PHENOMENA MORE UNSTABLE?
The identification of complexity with instability is doubtless a vestige of Spencerian evolution. The absurdity is at once apparent when we examine it critically. It is based upon a failure to observe the first canon of science, viz., that the scientist must be impersonal and nonethical. Empires do rise and fall; but so do coast lines. Scientifically, the first phenomenon is no more nor no less important than the second. For the scientist, the only significance of these events is the
( 227) conditions under which empires and coast lines rise and fall and the conditions resulting therefrom. At present, "explanations" of both types of phenomena are more speculative than scientific. It is true, seismologists can tell us where coast lines are likely to be modified in the near future. But social scientists foretold the fall of the Russian Empire and are now foretelling the fall of the British Empire-if it has not already "fallen."
But this is beside the point. The fact is, all natural phenomena are unstable. Scientific facts are uniform, universal, stable. When they cease to be so, they are not scientific. Natural phenomena are all unique, local, unstable, whether they be human historical events or geological ones. As Dewey says, "(Reality is) a mixture of the precarious and problematic with the assured and complete." The "assured and complete" are merely those natural phenomena which have been observed, classified and generalized into empirical principles and scientific "laws." Outside of this, all is "problematic and precarious." Wherever activity occurs, there is instability.
One reason we hear so much about the instability of social phenomena is that most people are still extremely anthropocentric regarding this type of natural phenomena. Their unit of measurement of time, for example, is sixty or eighty years--a human lifetime. They see their own youthful ideas replaced by "new-fangled" notions; the accustomed mechanical devices replaced by up-to-date ones. The conclusion is that social phenomena are impermanent and unstable. The mountains and rivers remain; the stars are fixed; the sun continues to rise and set. But when we examine these "fixed" systems closely, their fixity disappears. The only permanent aspects of them are the generalizations we have made about them. From our limited, special time and space frames of reference, things both great and small seem changeless and stable and only human relations precarious. For daisies in a cow pasture, life is precarious and unstable. So is it for bacteria in the blood stream. It is probable that if electrons were as big as base-balls, they would appear at least as impermanent and unstable as base-balls and their behavior would be as erratic as that of a hot grounder on a rough infield.
Modern physics perhaps has done more than any other science to shake our faith in the stability of non-social natural phenomena. But this disturbing conviction has been forced upon us by the development of all physical and biological sciences. Astronomy shows us worlds forming and dissolving; geology shows us continents rising and falling; biology shows us species appearing and becoming extinct; Mendelian units become complexes of genes; hereditary traits are modified by hormones and vitamines; instincts fall before conditioned responses; the eternal stability of elements dissolves in the acid of radioactivity. But here comes the electron,-surely, it is stable! Just why this inference should be made in the face of the fact that all other defined sensible objects are unstable is a mystery to me.
Let us look at the electron. If it is a stable energy unit, the whole theory of universal instability and an indeterminate universe obviously is untenable. There is substantial agreement upon the instability of the atom. Thirty years ago, Rowland said "I do not know what an atom of iron may be, but it must be as
( 228) complicated a structure as a grand piano. "  Millikan has recently said that atom-building is probably going on all about us, continually, even on the earth. By the phenomena of radioactivity we know atoms are continually being destroyed. So the instability of the atom is admitted. But what of the electron? It would seem a reasonable inference that if atoms, like star systems, are unstable, and are made up of electrons, that the latter must also be unstable. Almost every atomic theory makes an implicit admission of this. Bohr's Theory, until recently the "best," emphasized the dramatic electronic "jumps" from orbit to orbit which implies a variable charge of electricity. The motion of the electron must also mean that at successive instants the atomic energy system is different because the internal relations are not the same. This certainly implies a very variable electron, perhaps as "complicated as a grand piano"--and as unstable.
Shrodinger's more recent theory, and in some respects the most satisfactory, leads to the same conclusion. If anything, his atom is more tenuous than Bohr's. His theory does little to assure us of the stability of the electron. "The electrons in Bohr's atom were in rapid motion in their orbits, while in the Shrodinger atom, the electric charge does not move about. It does, however, change its intensity at different points in the sphere at different instants of time. This fluctuation in the strength of the electric charge sets up light waves in the surrounding space. In conversation with the writer in 1924, Dr. Millikan stated that while physicists work with electrons as if they were stable, replaceable, identical, non-varying units, they probably are not. This, of course, is the case with all scientific objects, i.e., abstractions. We treat them as invariable constants. But for all units except those for which our sense-aiding instrumental means of observation are inadequate, it is quite obvious that the units are all unique and unstable.
It is easy to demonstrate that physical "constants" are all abstractions, and in a sense, fictions. Planck states that the principal constants in physics are: the velocity of light in a vacuum (but there are no vacuums); the electric charge and mass of an electron at rest (but electrons do not rest); the elementary quantum of action obtained from heat radiation (but this implies that quanta are not built up and do not diminish, which seems doubtful); the laws of gravitation (but objects never fall in vaccuums, at sea-level, for there are no vaccuums and sea-level itself is a variable). (Parentheses are mine, not Planck's.  )
The constants of physics are merely a species of scientific facts. They are statistically determined uniformities of bebehavior, that is, averages, probabilities. That is all "natural necessity," or "scientific certainty," means,-a high degree of probability. That is all it ever can mean. [l3]
Now all our frames of reference are terrestrial and anthropomorphic. The business of science is to purge itself of anthropomorphism, as Planck says. All natural phenomena are unstable,-social natural phenomena no more or no less so than physical. There are innumerable types of uniform, repetitive social phenomena admitted by commonsense. The business of sociology is to reduce these to quantitative statement, to make them into statistically determined constants, so that within the limits of definition, "these quantities have a real meaning, since their values are independent of the condition, standpoint and view of the observer. "
It is now clear the assumption that social phenomena are more unstable than physical phenomena is based upon a misconception of the degree of stability of physical phenomena, a mistaken notion of the nature of physical constants, and a failure to eliminate anthropomorphic, subjective frames of reference.
As most physical energy-systems betray their instability upon close observation, so many social phenomena that seem unstable to the casual observer fall into relatively stable patterns when regarded from a certain point of view. We are continually increasing our list of relatively stable social phenomena. Those social energy patterns that are relatively permanent, we are accustomed to call "social structures." When we pay closer attention and find flux and instability, i.e., when the changes are irregular, (unclassified) and rapid (from our life-time-span point of view) we speak of "process," and look for "trends," i.e., generalizations that emphasize uniform continuity. Thus, stability and instability may characterize the same data, whether physical or social, depending upon our point of view, or frames of time and space reference. Dewey has expressed it neatly. "As we can discourse of change only in terms of velocity and acceleration which involve relations to other things, so assertion of the permanent and enduring is comparative. The stablest thing we can speak of is not free from conditions set to it by other things."
So the assertion that social phenomena are more complex than physical phenomena because they are more unstable does not seem valid. Both types are infinitely unstable and this "instability" disappears only when statistically derived, unanthropomorphic constants are found for relatively permanent types of repetitive uniform behavior. This leads us to the third question bearing on the nature of complexity.
ARE SOCIAL PHENOMENA MORE DISORDERLY?
The idea of the greater complexity of social than of physical phenomena is intimately bound up with the popular delusion that social events are unique and non-repetitive while physical events usually occur in uniform sequences. In other words, social phenomena are regarded as disorderly and physical phenomena as eminently orderly. There is law and order in the physical world, but anarchy and chaos in the social world. If the argument of the foregoing sections is valid the absurdity of this "disorderly" view is at once apparent
The concept of the fundamental instability of all energy systems leads ineluctably to the conclusion that the universe
( 230) is indeterminate, and that all "orderliness" in it is superimposed by man. This process of "making natural laws" is possible because of the differential rates of change in energy structures. "Orderliness" appears when certain energy systems, whether social or physical, are relatively permanent compared to man's brief and limited time and space span. The greater the permanence relative to a human life-span and a day's travel, the more "orderly" the phenomena. The more unanthropocentric the generalizations of sense-experience become, the fewer there are. The business of science is to make "laws" that will hold "true" for a frame of reference that transcends the time and space limits of one man's life-time. Hence, these "laws of the orderliness of nature," aways have to assume conditions that never exist: (1) That defined units are identical; (2) That they do not change. Both of these assumptions are false; hence, "law and order" is merely an abstraction that proves to be useful, or logically valid, for a given time and place. "The constant is the demand for assurance and order, and the demand is met only by ignoring a vast number of things that nature presents to us. 
It requires very little commonsense observation to see that there are innumerable physical sense data which are very "disorderly." These are what Giddings calls "turbulences." The falling of leaves from trees, dust whirls, biological variations, tire punctures, etc., are examples. But weather phenomena, Mendelian recessives, and most all other "orderly" physical and biological occurrences were once in the category of turbulences. The history of science is the story of how man has imposed law and order on his universe by "ignoring a vast number of things" presented to his senses. Sense observations that do not fit into these categories of "order" are often ignored until they become so numerous, so well vouched for by a multitude of competent observers, that new "laws" have to be formulated to preserve the "orderliness" of the universe. A fine collection of such data is presented by Charles Fort in his Book of the Damned. It is safe to say that in both the physical and the social sciences, the numbers of sense experiences that cannot be fitted into orderly and lawful categories at the present time vastly exceed those that can. Science reduces the number of these turbulences, or "damned sense-facts," by abstractional classification and generalization of the relatively uniform behavior of these hypothetical (scientific) identities.
It also requires little observation to demonstrate the orderliness of many types of social data. Every commonsense generalization, every justified anticipation of human behavior, every social organization, every statute, every adage, every fashion, custom, and every word, are evidences of this relatively repetitive "orderliness." The business of social science is to extend, quantify, dean anthropomorphize these and to find others that commonsense, limited by time and space, cannot perceive.
Some orderly sequences of human behavior are just as universal and permanent as those of physical behavior. For example, it appears that mankind has always
(231) mated in pairs. Of course, there are exceptions, but there are also special cases in which objects do not fall toward the center of the earth, and no objects fall exactly according to the Newtonian formula. A better example is the generalization that all human beings transmit certain well defined culture patterns to their offspring. The exceptions are probably no more frequent than the actual observation of rocks falling upward. No scientific prediction is possible except in terms of probability, and under assumed conditions which never exactly exist. With this understanding, it is obvious that much social behavior is "orderly" enough to be predicted with a high degree of precision. All of us make such predictions every day. The "orderliness" of social phenomena is becoming greater and more accurate and being extended into realms hitherto undreamed of by scientific sociology and the other social sciences.
The conclusion, then, is that social phenomena per se are no more nor no less "orderly" than any other type of natural phenomena; that all "law and order" is supervenient in an indeterminate universe of unstable energy complexes; that man makes the "laws of nature" by postulating as identical, certain relatively stable and uniform events, classifying them, and generalizing from them; yet he is perforce always "ignoring a vast number" of uniquenesses, and individual differences. There are probably much greater numbers of physical than social turbulences because there are more physical than social objects. It is also probable that we shall never be able to reduce all turbulences, whether physical or social, to lawful, orderly, repetitive uniformity. It will be impossible if the universe is an indeterminate congeries of unstable energy systems as it appears to be.