SocioPolitical Complexity

Sociopolitical complexity can be seen to be a function of the number of members in the social group their degree of autonomy, degree of interconnectivity and interdependence

The term sociopolitical complexity refers to the underlying structural complexity of a sociopolitical system. Complexity is a general feature of systems that have many autonomous parts that are interconnected and interdependent.1 Such systems have novel and qualitatively different behavior from systems that are considered simple; such as the capacity for self-organization, emergent properties, distributed control, nonlinear dynamics etc. The degree of complexity within a socio-political system can be seen as a function of the number of members and institutions within the system; their degree of autonomy and freedom; the degree of interconnectivity and interdependence between them.


Politics can be seen to be holistic and complex in its nature – as power and politics are in all human relations and all human institutions, every interaction is a potentially political one – political complexity, however, typically deals with the study of complex political systems such as international politics, global civic organizations, terrorist networks, political movements. We can then ask what makes these systems complex? What are the essential characteristics of such systems that differentiate them from what we might call simpler political systems? Until quite recently researchers were largely uninterested in the idea of complexity; systems that were complex were largely seen as just an extension of more basic systems and thus in studying more basic systems we would, in general, know everything we need to know. However, through new insights from physics, chemistry, ecology and other areas, over the twentieth century, we have come to increasingly recognize complexity as something very fundamental and irreducible about our universe.2 Through such insights, we are increasingly coming to recognize that as systems go from being more basic to more complex they change in very fundamental ways – as new features structure and dynamics emerge that require new categories, descriptions, and methods to understand and model effectively.

The complexity of a system can be defined along a number of parameters, including the number of parts in the system; the degree of autonomy and adaptive capacity of those parts; how interconnected they are and how interdependent they are. A simple system – what may also be called a linear system – is one that has a limited number of parts that themselves have a limited number of degrees of freedom; a low level of connectivity between them and limited interdependence. Such systems have specific behavior that can be described through linear systems theory. A complex system, in contrast, is one that has many autonomous parts that are highly interconnected and interdependent. A more compact and abstract way of stating this is that complex systems have both a high degree of differentiation and integration.3 All systems that are complex have a high degree of differentiation to their parts and also a high degree of integration between them. This feature to complex systems is a product of a sustained process of evolution.4


Due to the most basic laws of science – that nothing can come from nothing – all systems start simple and if sustained can evolve to become more complex. Complex systems do not just pop into existence, evolution is the only way they come into being. This evolutionary process is driven by a constant interplay between the parts of the system on the micro-level and the whole system on the macro-level. The micro-level parts generate a diversity of possible new solutions while the macro-level of the whole organization has to perform a downward selection on them based upon their contribution to the whole systems operation within its environment. It is the interplay between bottom-up differentiation and top-down integration that drives the process of evolution and systems that can successfully navigate this process evolve over time to have many autonomous and differentiated parts that are also integrated and interdependent within the whole system.5

Complexity theory understands the process of evolution in the abstract, seeing it as a constant force acting on all kinds of systems through a process that involves the production of variety, selection, and duplication

This evolution of complexity is the story of the development of matter from the origins of the universe composed of simple elementary particles to the formation of atoms, to molecules and polymers. This is the story of the evolution of biological creatures as we have gone from unicellular organisms to the complex systems of today’s mammals; it is the story of technology as we have gone from simple hand tools to the vast interconnected technology infrastructure that supports our modern economies, and it is the story of social and cultural institutions as we have gone from small hunter-gatherer tribes to today’s burgeoning global society. Likewise, this ongoing evolution in complexity is certainly the case for political systems.6

Systems that are complex exist at a dynamic interplay between integration and differentiation – what we call the edge of chaos – and it is out of that interplay between the two that they evolve through adapting to and navigating change. For a system to be what is called viable or sustainable, its internal complexity has to match that of the environment within which it operates, thus as systems evolve to become more complex this evolution enables them to operate viably within broader, more complex environments.7 Complexity is a structural feature of systems, it is systemic. It does not tell us much about the parts in the system, it simply tells us about the overall nature of the structure of the system and from that the way it behaves. Systems that are complex are in no sense better than those that are simple. However, because of the requirement of complexity in order to operate viably within a given environment, all systems are limited by what they can potentially do by their level of complexity. Only complex systems have the potential to perform the sophisticated functions required to operate in broader environments. A large global corporation requires a certain degree of complexity to operate successfully in that environment which a small organization would not have.7

As systems evolve to become complex they exhibit new behavior of a qualitatively different nature to those that are more basic. Systems that are simple are mono-dimensional while complex systems exhibit the emergence of new patterns of organization on different levels making them multi-dimensional. Simpler systems exhibit linear proportionality between cause and effect while complex systems display the butterfly effect; meaning small effects can create large outcomes. Simpler systems are governed more by the properties of their parts while complex systems are governed by the structure of the network wherein those parts are embedded. Complex systems are dynamic in nature often existing at a far-from-equilibrium state while linear systems tend towards a static equilibrium over time.8


In attempting to trace the evolution of political complexity over the course of the past millennia one could potentially use many different schema or models given the expansive and general nature of such a phenomenon. This change in political complexity is approached from many different domains with anthropologist, sociologist and political scientists all using different categorizations and terms. A classification system for such a subtle and often gradual transformation will inevitably be somewhat arbitrary and limited in its attempt to convert a continuous ongoing massively distributed process into a series of discrete stages. However, here we will look at one such recent classification system developed by David Ronfeldt call TIMN.9 We will do this for illustration purposes only, using the model as a schema to support our reasoning and not presume that it actually captures the underlying subtleties of past and present socio-political evolution.

The acronym TIMN describes four stages in the evolution of sociopolitical complexity from tribes, to hierarchical institutions, to markets to networked organizations.9 Given that the potential level of political complexity to a society is dependent upon its technological and economic base these different systems of political organization correspond loosely to the various changes in the overall technological and economic paradigm of advanced civilization; namely that of the Neolithic Revolution, the Agrarian Age, Industrial Age and the ongoing transformation into a post-industrial society. Although the sociopolitical complexity of a society is not determined by its economic substructure, it is though dependent upon it. Greater social complexity requires greater energy or at least energy of a higher quality.10 It also requires a greater capacity for communications and information processing. Thus Mr. Ronfeldt’s schema also equates the various changes in social structural complexity to the various underlying changes in information and communications technology. From the development of early language to writing and printing to the advent of the telegram and telephone to today’s internet. And of course, we should note that such an evolution is never a linear process, it is cyclical and oscillatory in nature; one that is often messy without clear distinctions.


Picture of a tribal group of Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert

In the TIMN model, the first major form to define the organization of society and its political structure is what we call the tribe. A tribe is a relatively small group of distinct people, dependent on their land for their livelihood and who are to a large extent self-sufficient.11 In anthropology, a tribe is a form of human sociopolitical organization based on a set of smaller groups, known as bands. A band is usually a very small, group that is connected by family ties and is politically independent. Bands are oftentimes nomadic, moving from place to place, usually, in search of food. Such bands are most often made up of hunter-gatherers. Due to their small size and their tendency to move around, bands usually have little to no formal leadership and exhibit a very low level of formal sociopolitical structure. Important collective decisions such as when to move and when to stay are usually based on group consensus rather than one governing official. As a cause bands are usually referred to as being egalitarian societies, societies in which all persons of the same age and gender are seen as equals; though inequalities between different genders and age groups are often present.12

Tribes have temporary or permanent political integration and are defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology.12 Such social organization emerged in the Neolithic era some 5000 years ago. In such a context, members of a tribe typically share a territory, working collectively in such joint activities as trade, agriculture, house construction, warfare, and ceremonial activities; and they composed of a number of smaller local communities such as bands or villages. In keeping with the primacy of kinship and the codes of conduct that stem from it, the classic tribe is egalitarian—its members share communally. It is segmentary—every part looks like every other part, and there is little or no specialization and classic tribes do not have strong, central leaders. As a social organisation, its key principle is kinship, it renders a sense of social identity and belonging, thereby strengthening a people’s ability to band together and survive. The maturation of this form defines a society’s basic culture, including its ethnic, linguistic, and civic traditions. Indeed, we can recognize that the tribal institution has remained a basis of cultural traits well into the modern period; it can also be seen as the basis of nationalism.13

Tribes should not just be seen as a thing of the past, the are pervasive within virtually all forms of sociopolitical systems. People in many parts of the world remain often identify firstly with their local group, and only partially with larger systems of organization. Some dictatorships that seem to rest on a strong state are really grounded on a particular predominant clan, such as in Iraq or in Afghanistan, where we can see currently that the centralized government is struggling to implement a national system in the face of enduring tribal loyalties and institutions. In many developed economies urban gangs like those of El Salvador or the Los Angeles area represent in part a recurrence to clannish, combative brotherhoods by youths who lack strong nuclear family ties and do not see a future for themselves in the state, market, or in the other more complex sociopolitical structures around them. The level of social complexity to tribal organization limits its development. It is vulnerable to clan feuds and resource scarcities. The tribal form is particularly limited and inefficient for dealing with problems of rule and administration, as in attempting to run a large agricultural activity or govern a conquered tribe.13

Chiefdoms as a form of social organization are seen to be more complex than a tribe or a band society, but less so than a state and are thus often identified as a transitional phase between tribes and early states. A chiefdom is a political unit headed by a chief, who holds power over more than one community group. With more than one community involved, chiefdoms are usually more densely populated. Also, as the name chief implies, chiefdoms are not egalitarian but instead have social ranking, with the chief and his family holding power. Chiefdoms have the beginnings of hierarchical political organization usually based on kinship, and in which formal leadership is monopolized by the legitimate senior members of select families or ‘houses’. These elites form a political-cultural aristocracy relative to the general group and thus forms a significant degree of differentiation within the political system.14

Chiefdoms practice redistribution and thus exhibit economic centralization, in which goods are accumulated by one central person or power, who then decides how to allocate them among the people. Adding to this, many chiefdoms believe their chiefs are endowed with some supernatural power that gives the right to rule. However, despite this powerful force, chiefdoms usually have no form of bureaucracy or written laws that help support the chief. This typically comes with the formation of hierarchical states.15

Hierarchical States

Hierarchical forms of organization attempt to externalize many aspects of complexity by creating a linear, or near linear, ranking of elements

With the agrarian revolution, sedentary agriculture led to the development of property rights, domestication of plants and animals, and larger family sizes. It also provided the basis for the centralized state form by producing a large surplus of food, which created a more complex division of labor by enabling people to specialize in tasks other than food production. Early states were characterized by a significantly stratified social structure, with a wealthy and elite ruling class that was subordinate to an emperor or monarch. The ruling classes began to differentiate themselves through forms of dress, architecture and other cultural practices that were specifically different from those of the subordinate laboring classes and used as symbols of class identification.

Mesopotamia is generally considered to be the location of the earliest civilization or complex society, meaning that it contained cities, full-time division of labor, social concentration of wealth into capital, unequal distribution of wealth, ruling classes, community ties based on residency rather than kinship, long distance trade, monumental architecture, standardized forms of art and culture, writing, and mathematics and science. It was the world’s first literate civilization and formed the first sets of written laws. High points of this form of hierarchical organization are the ancient empires—especially the Roman Empire—and later the absolutist states of the sixteenth century, where all of society was supposed to assume its place under a top-down ruling hierarchy. The major result of this form’s development is the state, which came to supplant the tribal pattern. Today, government and corporate organization charts depict what an institutional system looks like. As seen in traditional institutions like the army, the monarchy, and the Catholic Church, the essential principle behind this form is hierarchy. It enables a society to address problems of power, authority, and administration, and to advance by having a center for decision, control, and coordination that is absent in the classic tribe.

The hierarchical form excels at activities that are stable, predictable and routine like building standing armies for defence and conquest, imposing religions, organizing large economic enterprises such as irrigation schemes, enforcing law and order over a large territory, ensuring successions, and running imperial enterprises—all activities which the tribal form could not undertake. Hierarchical institutions are typically centralized and built around chains of command; bureaucratization occurs as they become more elaborate and technically oriented. As Weber (e.g., 1947 [1922]) has noted, the development of authoritative institutions to govern a society involves, among other things, administrative specialization and differentiation, professionalization of office roles, replacement of ascriptive by achievement criteria, and the development of sanctioned instruments of coercion that spell an end to the egalitarianism of earlier political systems.

As in Western Europe the two main hierarchies that of the Church and State attempted to dominate all manner of economic, political, social, and other affairs, they came into conflict. By the 17th century, the State managed to displace the Church, and the nation-state became the dominant actor in Europe. The Treaty of Westphalia solidified the State as the dominant social organization.16 Following this concept of citizenship and individual rights would emerge to eventually replace regimes based on feudalism and absolutism. Additional concepts would also arise surrounding the separation and balancing of different powers, political representation and the rule of law. All of which would eventually lead to a reduction in the rigid hierarchies of the Middle Ages and the emergence of the liberal democratic institution’s that are characteristic of the modern era.

Like all political systems, the hierarchical structure has limitations to the complexity that it can deal with effectively. The hierarchical design is limited in its capacity to deal with nonlinear distributed exchanges and information flows. This is illustrated in the realm of economic transactions, which become too complicated for monarchies and their bureaucracies to control in detail. These centralized organizations come to have increasing difficulty dictating terms and prices in an efficient fashion. Thus, this institutional paradigm of governance begins to fail in the economic realm and gives way to the rise of the next great form: the market system.16

Market System

Image of a fish market in Athens Greece. Markets often involve many distributed interactions without the single central point found in hierarchical organizations.

The birth of the modern era is marked by the rise of merchants, the professional and middle class engaged in commerce, who combine with the monarchs to displace the power of the feudal aristocratic system in Europe. The modern nation-state system formed with an eye to doing business over a large geographic area.17 As people moved into cities and the traditional self-sufficient ways of rural peasant life based on agriculture were displaced people came to depend on the market system for their daily subsistence. At this time we see a transition in Europe from mercantilism, where the state dominates the market, to capitalism, where market actors may try to dominate state actors—and in the process, mercantilism is outperformed. We also see a separation of the state and market realms, and of the public and the private sectors. Just as the state began to solidify into the modern day absolute sovereign form a new modality for the organization of social and economic life was emerging, that of the market.17

Its essential principle is open competition among private interests that are supposed to behave freely and rationally. Its strength is that it enables different actors to process diverse exchanges and other complex transactions better than they could in tribal and hierarchical systems. This happens to be appropriate for trade, commerce, and investment; and the result is the formation of the market economy as a centerpiece of modern societies. 

Large industrial societies formed with common markets, regulatory policy, culture and political unity formed around the nation state. As the modern nation-state became internally interconnected with the process of economic industrialization and the development of the market system, nation building became intertwined with the development of an industrial technology infrastructure and a market economy. At its best, this form leads to a productive, diversified, innovative economy, overcoming the preferences of the prior forms for collectivism and statism. Whereas the ideal institutional system was hierarchical, the ideal market system is competitive and atomized.18 The new concept meant that property, products, services, and knowledge could be traded across great distances at terms and prices that reflected local exchange conditions rather than the dictates of rulers.

It meant that people were entitled to act in terms of personal interests, profit motives, and individual rights that ran contrary to traditional notions of duty and responsibilities within a hierarchy. Thus, the market concept entailed new ideas about how a society should be organized. As with all evolutionary processes, the previous structures remain to support the new structures. Basic sociopolitical structure, like law, is still provided by the bureaucratic state. However, the market system involves new principles for relating specific institutions to each other. In a hierarchical system, there should normally be only one of each specific institution, that is to say, a society should not have more than one health care system or one army.18

But in a market system, multiple competing actors may be the norm – there can be many companies trading a given product or service and competition between them is seen as a good thing, from a societal perspective. Whereas hierarchies involve linear chains of command to reduce conflict through conformity and homogeneity, markets promote more nonlinear interactions between a diversity of actors. While the market was not supposed to supplant the institutional system, it does displace it from dominating the economic realm. It limits the institutional system’s scope of activity and increasingly confines it to the realm of the state.18

The market system brought with it a new level of sociopolitical complexity as people came to occupy ever more specialized roles within an ever larger society, where people were ever more interdependent with each other. This new organizing principle within modern societies was most clearly seen in Emile Durkheim’s illustration of organic solidarity, which likens individual workers to specific bodily organs and a group of people to a body. Different bodily organs serve different functions; without these organs, the body would die, and so would the individual organs. Similarly, in a society characterized by organic solidarity, individual workers perform different kinds of labor, without which society could not function, nor could individual workers thrive. This increase of differentiation and coordination represented by the market system profoundly altered the social and cultural fabric of societies.19

The idea of the market as an organizational structure within society was most clearly expressed in the work of  Adam Smith. In his famous conception of the invisible hand, we get a glimpse of a very modern idea that order could, in fact, be created through the distributed interaction of many different actors without need for centralized control. Part of Smith’s insight surrounded the differentiation of labor within industrial economies.20 How through coordination within the market – and with limited need for specific order to be defined by the state – this could benefit all with increase efficiencies and the resulting wealth of nations that he was interested in.  We can see how far removed this idea of spontaneous order and self-organization are from a traditional conception of the divine creation of order with the social hierarchy reflecting that order and being endorsed by it.

Not all market-oriented systems are democratic, but every democratic system is also a market-oriented system. Apparently, political democracy has been unable to exist except when coupled with the market and today the two are seen to go hand in hand.21 With the rise of the market system a new powerful and dynamic force had been unleashed and as communism fell under its own weight a new hegemonic global order rapidly came to coalesce around the free market ideology and the ideals of liberal republicanism.


Networked organizations based on information technology come to exhibit key characteristics of complexity.

In the market system, we can see key characteristics of social complexity; a massively parallel, distributed, self-organizing system without centralized control. Of course, this is an idealized version of the market, what is called a pure market, when in reality most markets are far from pure. The Industrial Age market system is still dominated by centralized hierarchical organizations. It would take another revolution in technology and economy before truly complex systems of sociopolitical organization would become prevalent.

Today we live again in an age of profound political change, as a new organizational paradigm that has been latent for thousands of years, becomes explicit and moves to center stage, that of the network. Informal networks as a means to achieving social organization have long been seen as inefficient and inferior compared to centralized hierarchies. Peer-to-peer Networks historically involve high transaction costs, require dense communications, need high levels of mutual trust and reciprocity, are vulnerable to free riders, and often result in slow, complicated decision-making processes as all members try to have an input.22

Networked social systems have existed throughout history, but they are now able to gain strength and mature because of new information technologies that let small, distributed, autonomous groups interact, coordinate, and act jointly across greater distances and across more issue areas than ever before. Information technology has drastically reduced the cost of interaction and collaboration while putting powerful tools for the production and dissemination of knowledge and ideas in the hands of many around the world. Combined with this is the proliferation of open online software platforms that greatly facilitate the formation of new socials and political organizations whose maintenance is largely automated by the software. Through such innovations, the capabilities of networked organizations have grown massively and can increasingly compete with, and even displace mainstream, hierarchical organizations as effective means of social and economic organization; as illustrated by such project as Wikipedia and the Linux Foundation or Facebook.23

This new form of hyperconnectivity that information technology is ushering in is working to erode hierarchical structures, diffuse power, transcend boundaries, and generally compel closed systems to open up. This does not mean that the hierarchical institutional form is in demise; hierarchical institutions of all types – including especially the state – remain essential to the organization of society, but faith and trust in such institutions become reduced, likewise, their capabilities become relatively diminished as networks become more capable actors. The effective, responsive ones will adapt their structures and processes to the information age. For example, many multinational corporations have in significant ways already evolved internally from strictly hierarchical toward new, flexible models that mix hierarchies and networks.24

Networked organizations are proliferating on all levels, from small local social networks to global political networks and this is resulting in a profound shift in political power. As we have all seen from the Arab Spring to Wikileaks new technologies are enabling more people everywhere to discover and share information and opinions. It is becoming exponentially easier to make more information more transparent and to subvert traditional forms of political control and organization, as larger and larger unregulated spaces open up, both within societies and on the global level.

As the British politician, Paddy Ashdown noted:  “What’s happening today is that the power that was encased, held to accountability, held to the rule of law, within the institutions of the nation-state has now migrated in very large measure onto the global stage. The globalization of power – we talk about the globalization of markets, but actually, it’s the globalization of real power. And where, at the nation-state level that power is held to accountability subject to the rule of law, on the international stage it is not. The international stage and the global stage where power now resides: the power of the Internet, the power of the satellite broadcasters, the power of the money changers…the power of the multinational corporations now developing budgets often bigger than medium-sized countries. These live in a global space which is largely unregulated, not subject to the rule of law, and in which people may act free of constraint.”25

A new form of society is developing on a new level of complexity, what the sociologist Manuel Castells defines as the network society “a society whose social structure is made up of networks powered by microelectronics based information and communications technologies.”26 Such socio-political organizations have the key characteristics of complex systems. They are often globally distributed with limited centralized top-down coordination. They are built out of and around the interdependencies between members who share common interests instead of being based on a shared homogenous cultural or territory. The are systems in the sense that the whole is greater than any of its parts as Manuel Castells puts it “The logic of the network is more powerful than the powers of the network.”27

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