Complex Adaptive Systems and Radical Social Transformation

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 09:30
Oral Presentation
Christopher POWELL, Ryerson University, Canada
In dualist epistemologies, the division between subjectivity and objectivity provides scientific inquiry with a standard of validity that is fairly simple to define, although not easy to achieve: correspondence or fit between subjective cognition and objective reality. In relational epistemologies, however, subjects and objects of knowledge appear as mutually constitutive, making the notion of correspondence less meaningful. Likewise, complex system theory implies that the social world can be represented in multiple incommensurate ways with equal methodological rigour. Critical realism, with its assumption that the world has a singular nature, cannot quite do justice to this problem. Pragmatism offers an alternative, replacing correspondence with practical efficacy as the ultimately epistemological standard: knowledge is valid when it facilitates successful practices. But pragmatism must still contend with multiplicity: which practices, which evolutionary directions, are to be epistemically privileged? In this view sociology is always value-oriented. With this in mind, this paper outlines a research program which takes social equality as its paramount value, and co-operative decision-making as its specific pragmatic focus. In this program, complex system theory enables the reformulation of several problems on which classical critical theory has become stuck. Where workers align themselves with capitalism or women with patriarchal norms, for instance, we can replace notions of false consciousness and ideological hegemony with an empirically grounded analysis of local adaptations to perceived possibility spaces. The difficulty of achieving more egalitarian social relations shifts from being a problem of achieving revolutionary consciousness to a problem of goal-directed action in the context of emergent, nonlinear, autopoietic relational processes. Central to this investigation is the study of feedback loops as mechanisms for concentrating or distributing social goods, including power. Existing cooperative movements provide the natural laboratory for this line of research.