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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 1, 1992 (UNU, 1992, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
Open this folder and view contentsA World of CHAOS
View the documentThe Interplay of Many Ideas
View the documentChaotic Movement in the Economy
View the documentThe Origin of Chaos
View the documentChaos and Social Order
View the documentPopulation Dynamics and the Arms Race
View the documentEnlarging Knowledge: The Road to Universality
View the documentImproving Earthquake Prediction
View the documentHow Ships Capsize
View the documentWaking from Dreams of Determinism
Open this folder and view contentsThe Body's Chaotic Rhythms
View the documentUNU Update

Chaos and Social Order

By Renate Mayntz

The neat and tidy determinism of Newton's view of the world has never really accorded with the global society's day-to-day realities - and a glance at the unrest and tumult reflected in today's headlines make that starkly apparent. The leading thinkers in the social sciences have all rejected determinism in one way or another, as they sought to explain how society organizes itself and copes with truth.

The issue essentially was how society moves from a state of disorder and confusion to one of higher order and rationality. The role that modern chaos theory might have to play in this process - and what its inherent limits are - was discussed at the Tokyo symposium by Dr. Renate Mayntz of the Max-Planck-Institute for Social Research in Cologne, Germany. - Editor

Over the past few decades, attention in the natural sciences has increasingly turned to phenomena which defy analysis in terms of the traditional world view, with its assumptions of linearity and reversibility. More and more, the concern has been with the behaviour of systems remote from equilibrium and with discontinuous processes resulting from nonlinearity.

Nonlinear systems display a number of behaviours which can be widely observed in the natural world. Their variables can change discontinuously, producing so-called "phase jumps" - for example, sudden changes of state as in the phenomenon of ferromagnetism or in superconductivity. In discontinuous processes, threshold or critical mass phenomena often play a decisive role. Such a circumstance exists where a dependent variable reacts very little or not at all to changes up to a certain point - beyond which it reacts suddenly and strongly.

Human societies display many of the characteristic features of nonlinear non-equilibrium systems: unpredictability, complex interdependencies, delays in response, transitions from one state to another and the importance of a critical mass in producing and sustaining change. Social theory has always started from the assumption that disorder is a natural state.

Sociologists have been primarily concerned with the emergence of social order from this basic formlessness. This was true of social philosophy well before the advent of sociology proper. Thus Thomas Hobbes explained how the state was created as a means to curb the chaotic war of all against all which characterizes the natural state. Emile Durkheim found the basis of social order in the conscience of the collective, while Max Weber pointed to traditions, values and interests as the factors producing social regularities.

The rapid and radical losses of a state of order can be found at every level of social reality - from marriage disruptions to the failure of businesses to the destruction of political regimes. A sudden collapse of the social order is followed by a period of turbulence, where future developments can be largely subject to accidental events. This insecurity of social order has meant that Newtonian mechanism has never really been an accepted model for the representation of social reality. Sociologists thus often focus on situations where a state of order suddenly breaks down. The very discipline of sociology, in fact, is rooted historically in the French Revolution.

Over the years, a number of theoretical developments in the natural sciences have increased the potential relevance of physical theories for sociology. Particularly common were attempts to picture society as an organism - such analogies, for instance, inspired Herbert Spencer in his 19th century analysis of social differentiation. From there, an unbroken line of sociological theorizing about the structure and development of social systems can be traced to the very present.

Catastrophe Theory

Recent efforts have sought to model discontinuous social processes with the help of mathematical catastrophe theory. This was meant to provide an instrument for dealing with situations where the continuous variation of one or more parameters leads to sudden changes in the outcome.


Obviously, the sociological application of catastrophe theory must have been very tempting - particularly in view of the observation that seemingly small disturbances will often cause a social or an economic system to enter into a state of instantaneous, radical change - or even collapse. However, it is obvious that a catastrophe in the mathematical sense bears only a superficial resemblance to real life - where catastrophe usually takes the form of a system breakdown with severe consequences for the people directly or indirectly affected.

Catastrophe theory can be applied, however, to situations where relationships can be given strict empirical meaning. John Casti, for example, has succeeded in developing a formal model of changes in the growth rate of housing units. He shows mathematically that with a specific combination of parameter values, the growth rate will enter into a nonequilibrium state, either increasing suddenly or crashing. In a second application, Casti takes military action as the behavioural output variable; here functions which do not lead to an equilibrium state represent conflict erupting into war.

Order and Disorder in the Modern World

Human actors logically seek to control the undesirable. They try to anticipate future system states, evaluate them, analyse their presumable causes, and set about changing the antecedent conditions of future negative situations. When market processes, demonstrations or mass movements appear to get out of hand, powerful corporate actors, such as central banks, police departments and governments intervene to check spontaneous processes.

It is conceivable that situations to which models of spontaneous, unintended generation of order and disorder can be applied are becoming more frequent in modern societies. The dissolution of traditional forms of group solidarity and the erosion of hierarchies might well mean that situations which are governed by the logic of markets rather than the logics of hierarchy or solidarity are increasing.

But still only a limited part of social reality is amenable to analysis by natural science models. This is basically so because human beings are capable of purposefully organizing for the pursuit of collective goals. For better or for worse, it is not only Adam Smith's invisible hand that governs society.

The capability to organize and to formulate collective goals is closely linked to the ability of learning consciously from experience and using such knowledge strategically - instead of being restricted to learn as biological populations learn, i.e. through selective survival. Thus both individuals and, more importantly, powerful corporate actors which dominate our highly organized modern societies intervene and try to control spontaneous processes if their anticipated outcome appears undesirable.

In consequence, only a few social macro evens are therefore really emergent phenomena of the kind analysed in natural science models of nonlinear dynamics. Nor can it be said that the unintended and potentially destructive macro effects are mainly caused by processes which follow the natural science paradigm of the breakdown of order.

The breakdown of social systems is therefore rarely the consequence of the unchecked dynamic of a given nonlinear system. A theory designed to explain the collapse of social systems would have to take into account the Interference between spontaneous developments and planned action. So far, no attempt has been made to integrate available research findings into an authentic sociological theory of the breakdown of social systems. The fundamental condition of social system breakdown is an imbalance between disturbances and coping - and not simply the irregular fluctuation of a given state variable.