11th FIS Discussion Session:
INTRODUCING SOCIAL AND CULTURAL COMPLEXITY
Joseph A. Tainter
Global Institute of Sustainability and School of Human Evolution and Social
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA
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Several years ago I began a fruitful collaboration with
Timothy Allen, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin and a leading
thinker on hierarchy theory. Many stimulating discussions and several
worthwhile products emerged from our work together, as well as a few
surprises. One surprise was to find, after writing together for five years,
that we meant different things by the term complexity. I suspect this kind
of discovery is not unusual in interdisciplinary collaborations.
How many kinds of complexity are there? Perhaps I should
phrase that as: How many concepts of complexity are there? There are, to
begin, social complexity and ecological complexity. There are algorithmic
complexity and computational complexity. A simple foray into Wikipedia
shows that computational complexity can be linear, logarithmic, or
exponential. Complexity classes can be P or NP. There are complex systems,
complex mechanisms, and complex behavior. Complexity can be specified,
irreducible, or unruly. To some ecologists, complexity is equivalent to
diversity, while to others complexity emerges through hierarchy (Allen and
Starr 1982; Allen and Hoekstra 1992; Ahl and Allen 1996). Complexity can be
hierarchical or heterarchical. Hierarchies can be simple and short, or
complex and elaborate. Complexity can occur within a system, or by
embedding types of systems. Organization in complex systems emerges through
constraints, which can be asymmetrical (Allen, Tainter, and Hoekstra 1999;
Allen et al. 2001) or symmetrical. Amidst all this conceptual fluorescence,
the irony of complexity is that it simplifies. Elaboration of structure and
organization simplifies behavior, making it possible for assemblages of
entities to function as systems.
I will cut through the conceptual diversity by describing how
many anthropologists, including myself, came to think of complexity. Two of
historys truisms are that most societies of today are more complex than
those of our ancestors, and that at least since the end of the Pleistocene
many societies have shown a seemingly inexorable tendency to increase in
complexity. But of what does this complexity consist?
One essential feature of the least complex societies is that
they show little differentiation in structure. There are few social roles
except those arising immediately from gender, age, and personal abilities.
Social and cultural complexity has meant, in part, the emergence of
differentiated roles and institutions. Hunter-gatherer societies may
contain no more than a few dozen distinct social personalities, while
modern European censuses recognize 10,000 to 20,000 unique occupations, and
industrial societies may contain overall more than 1,000,000 different
types of personalities (McGuire 1983: 115).
Is this differentiation of structure all there is to social
complexity? To conclude so would be like concluding that ecological
complexity can be reduced to species diversity. Differentiation in
structure is a useful starting point for understanding cultural complexity,
but it is only the beginning. In western North America, anthropologists in
the early 20th century compiled lists of culture elements among the
remaining native peoples. It was not a very sophisticated approach. A
culture element could be anything from the practice of a ritual to a
kinship category, as if all such things were commensurate elements. But
Julian Steward pointed out the quantitative contrast between the 3000 to
6000 culture elements documented among the native people of western North
America, and the 500,000 artifact types that U.S. military forces landed at
Casablanca in 1942 (1955: 81). The figures give an indication of great
difference in the complexity of these respective societies.
But such enormous differentiation tells only part of the
story. Complexity consists of organization as well as structural
differentiation. The challenge of the logistical train that headed for the
coast of northwest Africa was not just the great diversity in artifact
types, but also how they were packed aboard ship. In proper combat loading,
material should be stowed in reverse order from the sequence needed upon
landing. No doubt the U.S. military understood this in principle, but
failed to apply it in practice. Material cascaded into the docks
chaotically, and was loaded onto ships haphazardly. Soldiers broke the
windshields of stowed vehicles that they had to climb over to find items.
Explosives wound up in passageways, staterooms, and troop holds. Needless
to say, unloading under fire was chaotic. Guns arrived on the beach without
gunsights, without ammunition, without gunners. Important radio equipment
had been stored as ballast because it was heavy. Medical supplies remained
on the ships for 36 critical hours (Atkinson 2002: 34-35, 138-139). To find
any specific thing it was necessary to unload nearly everything.
The problem with the 500,000 artifact types shipped to
Casablanca is that they did not, in fact, comprise a complex system. The
system lacked organization. Differentiation in structure without
corresponding organization makes a system complicated (Allen, Tainter, and
Hoekstra 1999, 2003), not complex. In a complex system, certain elements
constrain others, making the behavior of the constrained elements simple
and predictable. This is the essence of the evolution of social and
cultural complexitydifferentiation in structure combined with organization
that increases to constrain the structure (Tainter 1988). As a human system
becomes elaborate and organized, the behavior of its individual
elementsinstitutions, social roles, or just individual peopleis channeled
and simplified. Where once in human societies most people could perform
most tasks, today specialization is the norm. Behavior is constrained and
Of what does human organization consist? Historians, working
with the records of kings and governments, have tended to emphasize the
evolution of one facet of organization, the social and political hierarchy.
The essence of hierarchy is asymmetric relations, in which some elements
constrain the behavior of others (Allen and Starr 1982). Certainly
hierarchy is a salient kind of human organization, but it is not the only
kind. In a human system, symmetric relations also constrain. Heterarchy is
a kind of organization in which elements are unranked relative to each
other, or can be ranked in a number of ways (Crumley 1979). The states
comprising the European Union are a heterarchy, for they are in principle
unranked, or ranked only temporarily. They constrain each other through
symmetric relations. The emphasis and guiding principle is common policy.
Hierarchy and heterarchy differ in the ways in which they integrate
elements, the speed at which they can operate and reach decisions, and
their effectiveness in various circumstances. The advantage of hierarchy is
that it can act quickly, uniformly, and over a large area. Heterarchy is
better suited to incorporating varieties of experience, but is slower to
act. The two organizing principles each perform best in different
circumstances (McIntosh, Tainter, and McIntosh 2000).
A new area of investigation is how structure and organization
emerge from the interactions of individuals. This is the basis of much of
the work done in the area of agent-based modeling. The advent of
telecommunications and electronic databases now allows social scientists to
identify small social networks, and see the structures that emerge from
them. Applied to the conflict in Iraq, researchers have employed
regularities in the formation of networks to conclude that the number of
contending factions has grown from 15 to 35 in 2003 to 100 to 130 today
So in a human system, structure and organization emerge from
top-down constraints, from the horizontal constraints of peers, and from
the atomistic interactions of gregarious individuals. The intersection of
these makes for the complicated, complex, confusing life that we all know,
and through which daily we try to navigate.
It was once thought that complex societywhat we
conventionally call civilizationemerged solely through human creativity,
or from the availability of surplus energy provided by agriculture and
fossil fuels. We now understand that this was naive: Complexity imposes
costs, and humans are frequently averse to it. Human systems often increase
in complexity through the mundane process of solving problems (Tainter
2000, 2006; Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra 2003). As problems increase in
scale and complexity (a phenomenon that is perhaps inevitable), problem
solving efforts must complexify correspondingly. Often the solution to a
problem is seen as differentiating structure (perhaps through technology or
formal institutions) or as increasing organization (to further channel
behavior). The best recent example is the response of the US government to
the attacks of September 11, 2001. The governmental response was to
increase structural differentiation, by forming new bureaus and rearranging
existing ones, and to increase organization, in order to constrain behavior
still further. The official commission convened to investigate the incident
issued a thick report that recommended still more complexity in order to
forestall possible future attacks.
In the world of complex adaptive systems, there is (to use a
colloquial expression) no free lunch. In any living system, complexity
costs. Once structure and organization increase, a way must be found to pay
for the increase. Complexity that emerges through problem solving typically
increases prior to the energy (or other currency) that is required to fund
it. Thus governments never have sufficient funds to pay for all necessary
programs, and firms, families, and individuals must always make choices
about which problems they will solve, and which they cannot afford to
address. Complexity that emerges through problem solving is a benefit/cost
function. It can enhance sustainability, but also undermine it (Tainter
1988, 2000, 2006).
Are there other concepts of complexity that can fruitfully be
applied to human systems? Deliberately I refrain from undertaking to answer
this question. Instead I pose it for our forum, in the hope that
interesting and worthwhile discussions will emerge.
Ahl, V. and T. F. H. Allen. 1996. Hierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary,
and Epistemology. Columbia University Press, New York.
Allen, T. F. H. and T. W. Hoekstra. 1992. Toward a Unified Ecology.
Columbia University Press, New York.
Allen, T. F. H. and T. B. Starr. 1982. Hierarchy: Perspectives for
Ecological Complexity. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Allen, T. F. H., Joseph A. Tainter, and T. W. Hoekstra. 1999. Supply-side
sustainability. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 16:403-427.
Allen, T. F. H., Joseph A. Tainter, and T. W. Hoekstra. 2003. Supply-Side
Sustainability. Columbia University Press, New York.
Allen, T. F. H., Joseph A. Tainter, J. Chris Pires, and Thomas W. Hoekstra.
2001. Dragnet ecologyJust the facts, maam: the privilege of science in
a postmodern world. BioScience 51:475-485.
Atkinson, Rick. 2002. An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943.
Holt, New York.
Bohannon, John. 2006. Tracking peoples electronic footprints. Science
Crumley, Carole L. 1979. Three locational models: an epistemological
assessment of Anthropology and Archaeology. In Advances in Archaeological
Method and Theory, Volume 2, edited by Michael B. Schiffer. 141-173.
Academic Press, New York.
McGuire, Randall H. 1983. Breaking down cultural complexity: inequality and
heterogeneity. In Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, Volume 6,
edited by Michael B. Schiffer, pp. 91-142. Academic Press, New York.
McIntosh, Roderick J., Joseph A.Tainter, and Susan Keech McIntosh. 2000.
Climate, history, and human action. In The Way the Wind Blows: Climate,
History, and Human Action, edited by Roderick J. McIntosh, Joseph A.
Tainter, and Susan Keech McIntosh, pp. 1-42. Columbia University Press, New
Steward, Julian H. 1955. Theory of Culture Change. University of Illinois
Tainter, Joseph A. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.
Tainter, Joseph A. 2000. Problem solving: complexity, history,
sustainability. Population and Environment 22: 3-41.
Tainter, Joseph A. 2006. Social complexity and sustainability. Ecological
Complexity 3: 91-103.
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