Complexity and Method in the Social Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Centre for Interdisc. Methodologies


Over the past two decades, there has been a growing interesting in applying 'complexity theory' to think and learn about the real social worlds in which we all live. This is a particular kind of theory on how to see the world and study it--which has a history in Physics and Mathematics, but is also now taken up across all the sciences and increasingly the social sciences and even the arts and humanities. In a nutshell, complexity theory involves trying to detect, understand and explain particular kinds of patterns of change and continuity across dynamics systems.

In social science, complexity is particularly relevant given the open dynamic nature of all social systems. Indeed, we live in a world in which never-ending, real-time data has quickly built upon itself, generating a virtual "database" on each of us, as individuals, and the political, economic, geographical, environmental, technological and cultural networks and systems in which we live, from the global all the way down to the local. Furthermore, all of these data-driven complex networks are colliding into one another, at multiple levels, shaping and being shaped by factors and actors, structures and agents--as the whole global world and its myriad of interdependent, contextualized communities evolves across time, space and place.

All of this complexity has created serious methodological challenges for social scientists. For support on these methodological challenges, we can turn to the burgeoning complex systems literature. The call to look at methods and methodological concerns is reflected also in the ERSC's 2008 International Benchmarking Review of UK Sociology, which expresses concern over the methodological preparedness of social scientists.

Yet, complexity sits at the intersection of various intellectual traditions, ways of knowing, theoretical traditions, and interdisciplinary concepts and methods. In terms of complexity social science, this complex intersection has created several timely and highly important questions that revolve around various UK funding council priorities (e.g., ESRC, EPSRC) regarding data and interdisciplinary research. Examples include issues of big data, integrating qualitative and quantitative methods, and studying the complexities of time, space and place.

It is these key, timely questions that drive the Complexity and Methods in the Social Sciences (CaMSS) seminar series forward. CaMSS uses its three-year seminar and existing collaborations to create an established, interdisciplinary list of 18 leading scholars (including key UK social scientists in complexity, such as Prof. Paul Ormerod, Prof Sylvia Walby, and Prof. Nigel Gilbert) to address the methodological challenges that complexity presents to the social sciences.

CaMSS will address the following three themes:

THEME 1: What is the state-of-the-art in complexity method?
A. My kingdom for a function: What is gained by quantifying social science research to study complexity?
B. Time, temporality and patterns of change and continuity
C. So, what does the qualitative sociologist have to say? The value of metaphor and qualitative method in complexity

THEME 2: Different approaches to complexity
A. Multiple perspectives: The epistemology of complexity science method
B. Modeling complex social systems: A case-based perspective
C. Modeling cognition and social understanding: a topological approach

THEME 3: Putting it all together
A. Creating the complexity social scientist's methodological toolkit: Needs, desires and futures
B. I've got to teach them what? Improving how students are taught complexity social research methods
C. What next? Where is the state-of-the-art in complexity method heading?

Planned Impact

It is intended that the impact of the proposed seminar series should extend beyond the academic community to users or practitioners and to the general public. The impacts we seek to accomplish are as follows:

(1) Changing organizational culture and practices regarding the perception of complexity within social science and science.

(2) Contributing towards issues of representation and policy-planning intervention at a local, regional, national and international level.

(3) Influencing and potentially transforming applied social science research for the purpose of informing practitioners and professionals in policy planning.

(4) Shaping and enhancing the effectiveness of interdisciplinary research, as it is used in the public and private sectors.

(5) Enhancing methodological expertise within the academy and beyond, specifically relating to conducting complexity social science research.

(6) Improving how practitioners address issues of social welfare, quality of life and health and well-being.

(7) Enhancing the research capacity, knowledge and skills of businesses and organizations.

(8) Advancing public awareness and understanding the role of complexity and method in science, economic and societal issues.

(9) Enhancing the efficiency, performance and communication amongst academia and governmental organizations including public services.

(10) Promoting UK competitiveness around issues of complexity and social science method.

In addition to these ten goals, publicity for the seminar amongst the general public will include the following: (1) Dedicated website; (2) Active Twitter account and live feeds to website; (3) Selected discussions and findings from the seminar series disseminated in the form of an edited book and/or through a special issue of an appropriate journal (e.g. Complexity, Emergence, Journal of Social Complexity); (4) Organized/lead themed streams at relevant international conferences (e.g. British, European or International Sociological Associations); (5) Practitioner-oriented bulletins summarizing findings and recommendations; and (6) Establishment of a post-seminar series, international, academic network involving scholars to continue sharing knowledge on complexity and method in the social sciences.
Description This ESRC Seminar Series consisted of 9 1-day seminars across three years (2014-17). This attracted a wide interdisciplinary audience. We discovered a whole series of methodological insights and developed projects that revolved around these themes/seminars: 1.What are you working on? The state-of-the-art of complexity method?; 2. My Kingdom for a function! What is gained by quantifying complex social science research?; 3. Qualitative Complexity; 4. Policy and Mixed Methods; 5. Epistemology and Method; 6. Change and Method; 7. Pedagogy and Complexity; 8. Complex Cases; 9. Complexity and Time.
Exploitation Route The website ( has almost all the Powerpoint presentations freely available for all 9 seminars. More importantly in terms of high end scholarly outputs, the co-organisers of this ESRC seminar series have secured a 10-year Book Series with Routledge on Complexity in Social Sciences Book; this directly come out of this seminar series and will be a long-lasting and exciting set of outputs in which the findings of the seminar series will be reflected for years to come (see here for more information of the book series The book series includes monographs and edited books on the subject of complexity in the social sciences, the focus of the seminar series. So far, there are already 2 books under contract due out in 2018. More importantly, 4 fantastic interdisciplinary books have already been published as part of the Book Series, including:

1) Brian Castellani: The Defiance of Global Commitment

2) John A Smith and Chris Jenks: Sociology and Human Ecology: Complexity and Post-Humanist Perspectives

3) Phil Haynes: Complexity and Post-Humanist Perspectives Social Synthesis: Finding Dynamic Patterns in Complex Social Systems

4) Graham Room: Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport,Other

Description We had colleagues who came to almost all seminars and they worked in Industry, government and the public sector, in particular prison, health, development and education. Essentially the findings have been used in 3 main ways: 1) theoretically, complexity was take up as a framework for decision-making; 2) methodologically, new evaluation methods were introduced, for example, public health, management and information science, creative arts industry, and hospitality; 3) knowledge-transfer with regards to methods to model complex social in new ways and new subject areas.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport,Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description ESRC Nexus
Amount £3,000,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 03/2019
Title The SACS (Socioloigy and Complexity Science) Toolkit 
Description The SACS Toolkit is a method for quantitatively modeling complex social systems, based on a case-based, computational approach to data analysis. The SACS Toolkit is comprised of three main components: a theoretical blueprint of the major components of a complex system (social complexity theory); a set of case-based instructions for modeling complex systems from the ground up (assemblage); and a recommended list of case-friendly computational modeling techniques (case-based tool-set). Developed as a variation on Byrne (in Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods, pp. 260-268, 2009), the SACS Toolkit models a complex system as a set of k-dimensional vectors (cases), which it compares and contrasts, and then condenses and clusters to create a low-dimensional model (map) of a complex system's structure and dynamics over time/space. The assembled nature of the SACS Toolkit is its primary strength. While grounded in a defined mathematical framework, the SACS Toolkit is methodologically open-ended and therefore adaptable and amenable, allowing researchers to employ and bring together a wide variety of modeling techniques. Researchers can even develop and modify the SACS Toolkit for their own purposes. The other strength of the SACS Toolkit, which makes it a very effective technique for modeling large databases, is its ability to compress data matrices while preserving the most important aspects of a complex system's structure and dynamics across time/space. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The published articles outlining how the SACS Toolkit works have been regularly cited and used to conduct research in such areas as community health, stress and coping, grid reliability, public health, and mental health. 
Title The COMPLEX-IT App 
Description COMPLEX-IT (a free R-Studio App) improves the user-centeredness of computational modelling (CM) by opening-up its 'black-box' in two key ways: functionality and interface design. COMPLEX-IT's functionality is unique because it runs a specific suite of techniques that support case-based data exploration, multi-agent modeling and prediction. Second, COMPLEX-IT's tab-driven interface provides users a seamless, simpler and visually intuitive platform. Also, advanced users can examine, download or modify COMPLEX-IT's algorithms, results, and code. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2017 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact The creator of COMPLEX-IT (Brian Castellani) was awarded a fellowship with CECAN to further develop the App in terms of multi-agent modeling for policy evaluators and civil servants (See The App is also starting to be used by policy evaluators.