This paper is based on a desire for a consistent framework for understanding the mechanisms or generative processes underpinning the emergence of social systems, and the dynamical or behavioral dimensions of social systems. The proposed framework is a new approach to the consideration of social systems, a synthesis of autopoietic and complexity theory. This approach links both the constitutive (micro) and emergent (macro) dimensions of social organization.
The micro–macro problem in social science:
- Ontologically, what is the origin or nature of social phenomena and how do they emerge from the actions of individuals in particular contexts of action?
- Epistemologically, how is it that we can come to know about social phenomena?
A Synthesis of Autopoiesis and Complexity
Autopoiesis’s central statement is that living systems are characterized by their self-producing (autopoietic) nature. The elements of autopoiesis, which provide a framework for understanding the mechanics of sociality are operational closure, structural coupling, and language. It provides a model of how phenomena emerge from the complex interplay between the heterogenous agents (people) that make it up.
The key aspects derived from autopoiesis can be summarized as ‘humans exist in and through domains, which are the product of their structural coupling with an environment. This environment is the world around them…’ (p.605)
Complexity can help us understand the nature and origins of divergent dynamics as well as convergent dynamics when applied to a social theory derived from autopoiesis. It categorizes the range of behaviors from stable to chaotic systems.
In the synthesis of autopoiesis and complexity, we have a basis for understanding the mechanics and dynamics of sociality. Then, the theory offers a consistent framework for understanding dynamics at seemingly opposite ends of the scale – high stability and chaos.
- Describing the mechanisms by which social systems emerge in a way consistent with human biology;
- Describing the nature of language in a manner consistent with human biology and how language influences the emergence of social structures;
- Explaining how the distinct ontogeny of each individual gives rise to heterogeneity, and therefore, non-linearity, at the level of the social.
- Explaining the mechanisms that influence the dynamic potentiality of social systems in particular those that serve to regulate on the one hand and generate divergent change on the other.
As mentioned shortly in the paper, the debate on the legitimacy of treating social systems in a manner similar to natural complex systems is still questionable.