Cover Image
close this bookThe Impact of Chaos on Science and Society (UNU, 1997, 415 pages)
close this folder16. Chaos in society: Reflections on the impact of chaos theory on sociology
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentI
View the documentII
View the documentIII
View the documentIV
View the documentV
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences


Human societies obviously display all the characteristic features of nonlinear non-equilibrium systems: unpredictability due to complex interdependencies and recursive processes, hysteresis, phase transitions, and critical mass phenomena. Even where sociologists have tried to establish and measure causal relations between two phenomena, e.g. between a specific social condition and a specific kind of behaviour, they have at best discovered stochastic regularities, with correlation values that very rarely move into high ranges. As for the phenomenon of chaos, social theory has always started from the (implicit) assumption that due to the existence of human volition, disorder is the hypothetical natural state, and has consequently been concerned primarily with the emergence of social order. This had already been true of social philosophy before the advent of sociology proper; thus, Hobbes explained how the state was created as a means to curb the chaotic war of all against all that characterizes the natural state. Later, the sociologist Emile Durkheim found the basis of social order in the conscience collective, while Max Weber pointed to traditions, values, and interests as the societal factors producing social regularities - without need to refer back to physio-psychological concepts such as fixed, innate reaction tendencies.

Social order, moreover, has always been considered precarious, not only in sociology but in age old practice. Transitions, and often very sudden transitions from order to disorder are ubiquitous in social life. From time immemorial, man could not fail to see that social order is permanently in danger of collapse. Rapid and radical losses of a state of order can be found at every level of social reality - from marriage disruptions over company failures to the destruction of political regimes. In contrast to gradual transformations, such a sudden collapse of social order is followed by a period of turbulence. Social processes become erratic, patterns of conventional behaviour dissolve, latent forces become manifest, and mass behaviour reigns where social interactions used to be normatively controlled; in such a turbulent state, future developments are largely undetermined and subject to the influence of accidental events. This insecurity of social order has not only motivated attempts to control disorder and turbulence. The ubiquitous experience of social discontinuities has also meant that the world view of Newtonian mechanics has never been an accepted model for the representation of social reality.

The dominant concern of sociologists with the problem of social order has indeed meant that they have often focused on the preconditions of stable social states. Nevertheless, they have also dealt with many instances where a state of order suddenly breaks down. At the macro or societal level, the outbreak of revolutions has attracted the attention of sociologists - whose very discipline, sociology, is rooted historically in the French Revolution, an event that most of the first generation of sociologists explicitly dealt with. More recently, political scientists have studied the breakdown of democratic regimes (Linz 1978). Simple social discontinuities, i.e. the irregular change or sudden break in one particular variable, have been the object of research on various kinds of collective behaviour - panics, mass mobilization in political campaigns, social movements, and the outbreak of violence (see Tilly 1978). At the social meso-level, the breakdown of organizations, man-made disasters and catastrophic disruptions in the functioning of large socio-technical systems have been analysed (see for instance Turner 1978; Perrow 1984). The extensive literature on such phenomena, however, is largely qualitative, inquiring into the causes of such events and the basic social mechanisms underlying them. It is therefore an open question to what extent natural science models of discontinuous processes in nonlinear systems can be used to describe the kind of social processes alluded to.