Complexity of Social Construction: Bridging Contemporary Meta-Theories in Social Sciences

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Sociology


The aim of the project is to identify the similarities and differences between fundamental assumptions underlying complexity theory and social constructionism. This is an important task because both complexity theory and social constructionism have brought about important theoretical and methodological innovations. There are also connections between some of the main insights emerging from the two meta-theories, such as those between heterogeneity and multiple realities, path and history dependence, social networks and social embeddedness.

Yet researchers following these meta-theories have very different research orientations and use different methods. Hence, it is not always obvious how researchers at both sides can benefit from each others' work, or work together synergistically in interdisciplinary projects. For clarifying if the two meta-theories can be linked, this project will aim to identify the similarities and differences between fundamental assumptions underlying complexity theory and social constructionism. It will also aim to facilitate development of mixed method research carefully designed for this particular purpose.

This project aims to initiate a dialog between 80 early career and senior researchers working on complexity theory, social constructionism or new institutional economics. There are already established networks of researchers in these separate domains. This project will connect these separate networks by linking researchers with methodologically innovative research agendas. The applicant manages a research centre (Centre for Research in Social Simulation) and research projects that bring together researchers from the target domains. Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, which has long-standing strengths in complex adaptive systems and institutions, will also take part in the project. The project will aim to develop this potential further with national and international connections.

The dialog between the network members is expected to produce research outputs that identify the institutional links between the two meta-theories and clarify which research approaches are most suitable for establishing empirical links. By shedding a light on the pathways between complexity theory and social constructionism, the project will promote the 'creative destruction' of the wall between researchers working in these fields.

Planned Impact

The project is expected to create impact at three levels. Firstly, it will initiate cooperation between influential scholars and research groups. It is envisaged that some of the joint work in the workshops will turn into productive long-term collaborations. Development of joint research proposals will be one of the aims of the workshops and the network members will be supported for identifying potential research partners before, during and after the project workshops via mailing lists and web-based discussions.

Secondly, it is expected that the academic outputs of the project will improve clarity of methodological debates relating to social constuctionism and complexity theory. It is intended that the discussion groups in the workshops produce short outputs such as position statements, comparative literature review tables, and conceptual frameworks. These research outputs will explain similarities and differences between the meta-theories, identify important and open methodological questions and elaborate on possible connections. The participants will have the opportunity to present the collaborative outputs that are turned into research papers at the final conference.

Thirdly, the network and the workshops will aim to contribute to development of early career researchers. The workshops and the conference will bring early career researchers into contact with more senior scholars. By participating in group and panel discussions, early career researchers will have the opportunity of thinking more thoroughly about ontological and epistemological issues, discuss these issues with other scholars, develop their own perspectives and increase their awareness of state-of-art research methods.


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Description This project aimed to identify conflicts or differences as well as links and similarities between complexity theory and social constructionism. The project organised 4 international and interdisciplinary workshops and established a popular project blog.

These activities confirmed that approaching social complexity as socially constructed is an interesting, novel and timely perspective that can improve our understandings of complex social phenomena. In terms of finding pathways between the two meta-theories, the project experience and outputs showed that a route via institutions and institutionalisms is a viable and fruitful research approach. The current gaps on possible pathways are not logical or epistemological but circumstantial. Research that would bridge certain parts of a pathway happens to be missing or conducted with different objectives and assumptions.

In this respect, the process of organising the workshops was also informing. The organising committee needed to engage in an unusually active editorial role of scanning recent literature in search of scholars whose work may shed light on parts of the pathway, discussing with them how their potential contributions fit the project. As a result of these efforts, the workshops initiated intense discussions on ontological and epistemological aspects of social construction, institutions and social complexity, as well as disseminating state-of-art research approaches in a broad range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, international relations, political science, economics and geography.

While broad, explorative and critical discussions were encouraged in line with the innovative nature of the project, the participants were also invited to produce short notes tackling some of the questions the project raised. These outputs as well as highlights of some workshop presentations were disseminated via the project blog that was viewed around 9,500 times by around 2,600 users in around 80 countries. The Facebook page of the project that promotes the blog entries continues to be liked by new viewers even though the project activities stopped months ago and it has 577 'likes' to date.

The project also elucidated that pathways have dynamic and discipline-specific appearances. Well-accepted approaches on the pathway may lose their contemporaneity in time and their impact may be endemic to different disciplines. For example, new institutional economics, which is closely associated with complexity theory, is being substituted by critical institutionalism that is closer to social constructionist thought but further away from complexity theory. Hence, shedding light on possible pathways between the two meta-theories not only require interdisciplinary dialogue but also a critical review of old as well as new ideas.

In addition to theoretical and methodological connections in the existing literature, practical research needs that make the project objectives more relevant were also identified. In particular, it was noted that studies of social complexity related to environment and sustainability were increasingly employing mixed methods combining social simulation models with qualitative research. Following these approaches the project placed a special emphasis on environmental issues as a potential domain where possible pathways can be revealed through methodical innovations.
Exploitation Route This methodological innovation project was expected to create impact in a broad range of academic disciplines by initiating cooperation and joint research proposals, producing short academic outputs, and supporting early career researchers.

The project achieved these objectives. It initiated collaborations for research proposals including an EU Horizon 2020 proposal approaching the role of Turkey in the EU with a constructed complexities perspective and continuing work on a proposal for studying the impact of institutional changes in academia in early research careers. The short outputs that the project produced are uploaded in the project blog and throughout the project, travel support was provided and presentation slots were allocated to early career researchers. The blog and Facebook page disseminated the project ideas to relevant interest groups both in and outside academia.

Overall, the project outputs captured considerable interest and facilitated novel ways of approaching social issues. One limitation of the current project was the lack of funding for researchers' time. Given the continuing popularity of the blog, the impact of the project could be enhanced if the project blog can be maintained. The project team will search for new funding opportunities with this aim.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The project confirmed that approaching social complexity as socially constructed is an interesting, novel and timely perspective that can improve our understandings of complex social phenomena. In terms of finding pathways between the two meta-theories, the project experience and outputs showed that a route via institutions and institutionalisms is a viable and fruitful research approach. Outreach was achieved through a project blog and a Facebook page. The latter was very widely read and had been 'liked' 828 times by June 2016, and 947 times by March 2017. The blog achieved international exposure for the project. Statistics collected from the blog show views by year: 2013: 6072 views, 1435 visitors 2014: 2694 views, 884 visitors 2015: 1030 views, 414 visitors 2016: 207 views, 125 visitors And by country (with views > 100) UK: 2264 views USA: 1083 views Germany: 419 views France: 330 views Turkey: 281 views Netherlands: 202 views Italy: 174 views Canada: 118 views Brazil: 113 views
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Website 
Description Website with materials relating to the Constructed Complexities seminar series 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact 822 Facebook "likes" for the website at time of writing (28/2/2016) 
Description Constructed Complexities and Surrey Sociology Department Joint Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Constructed Complexities project and Surrey Sociology Department organised a joint seminar within Surrey Sociology Departmental Seminar Series. Dr Didem Buhari Gulmez from Oxford Brookes University, gave a talk about World Polity School from International Relations perspective and about the so-called Dorothy Complex, a major criticism towards social constructionist thinking. The interdisciplinary seminar was attended by members of Sociology Department as well as postgraduate students from and outside the university.

The seminar initiated a dialogue about institutions as they are represented in sociology and international relations. In particular, the diffusion of institutions at a global scale was compared to Veblen's idea of conspicuous consumption at the level of individuals. The highlights of the seminar was uploaded to the project blog.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014