On Complex Open Systems

In my own quest to finding meaning and my own positionality in the world of ideas, the world appeared as an endless stream of uncertainty. Ambiguousness was always within me, nourishing my inclination to question and justify my actions constantly. Hitherto, my intrigue for the recent Research Methods Conversation on casual relations in complex, open systems. I will attempt to formulate my own understanding of some of the literature and ideas that were shared and adding some tips from my amazing chat with Prof. David Byrne (which I am very thankful for!). 

Coming from a country of the former Soviet bloc, a place so oddly-positioned in the realm of global affairs, boundaries have always been revealed to me as fuzzy-like chords, both delimiting and connecting. Embracing the chaotic manifestation of everyday life is certainly not new - we can find its roots in the Ancient dispute between Atomists and Holists. But how should we cross that disciplinary boundary to articulate the phenomenon? Do we need to construct a new reality, a new version of rationality in our pursuit to represent our reality? Our realities? 

I first watched Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi in preparation for one of my seminars, my initial reaction being an absolute sensory overload: time-lapses of newyorkese crowds, assemblage lines, unnerving representations of exacerbated consumerism and the occasional natural scenery meticulously arranged to a musical score so unsettling that I had to pause multiple times to allow my brain to take a rest. I thought I partook in a good amount of experimental and avantgarde art, from concept theatre plays based on extinct bird species to Mamoru Oshii’s cryptic anime Angel’s Egg. But, for some reasons, Koyaanisqatsi caused a visceral reaction for a doubt that was already there. Where do we draw the boundary between people and nature? How can we think of the interaction between these two complex systems? Have we, as a species, created a technological matrix where we reside in order to have that ‘shield of protection’ against nature, only to become tortoises over night? 

It has become somehow engrained in our philosophy to almost ‘hunt’ for the contingent nature of complex systems. We encounter complexity every day, and, to a certain extent, it has become a matter of acceptance whether we endorse complexity to arise in our research. So many other past labels failed, and we still have no guarantee new discourses will work. At the moment, we have no settled semantics in our conversation, partly because of the ‘language’ barrier between disciplines. In the end, approaching reality demands a broader, multidisciplinary perspective, as Lemon et al (1999) suggested, but the end product of the research still needs a category, a label - eventually creating more discourse to refer to the same, old wicked problem

Rittel et al (1973) talk about the wicked problem, referring to dilemmas in spatial planning, an idea that can extend to other social issues. A wicked problem is an exponent of arbitrary causation and feedback loops, and, because the problem-solving process overlaps with the understanding of the issue, a complex system is often understood only through the means of irreversible change. We get to see the levers of society when we attempt social movement: getting back and forth, in a continuous, multidirectional and multi-layered metamorphosis. 

Adopting a multi-layered perspective could be easily translated through the metaphor of the archaeologist: we could see how humans and non-human entities co-exist, intersect, get entangled, how their deeper levels possess a similarity, as Khalil and Boulding (2015) pointed out. In the natural world causation appears to be cumulative, technology being a sheer mirror of natural systems, oversimplified to provide a more predictable, referential structure. While this way of recapturing the world might seem obsolete for researchers who are inspired by a more intersectional writing philosophy, from an outsider's point of view, it appears that there is nothing left but to proclaim the death of causality and the anarchy in the UK (Academia). 

I would like to think that we have not ruined all chances to hybridise our fields, rather than either searching for the ultimate model or retraining ourselves in an ivory tower of jargon. When defining complexity, it is best to start with the agreement of what is not complex. Playing the game of exclusionary definitions is unsatisfactory, but the longer we conduct our observations, we realise that we cannot make a priori assumptions based on the perceived complexity. It is assumed that a complex system is self-organising and in a continuous state of change, but as observers, we are prone to labelling these changes - calling them ‘progressive' or ‘regressive’ might not be the best approach in trying to achieve a deeper understanding. 

Robert Rosen (1987) advocates for understanding science as experiment-driven, a quest to manipulate variables and isolating them in a second stage, in order to treat them as case studies. This methodology is adopted not to cut ties with the global framework, but to act in anticipation and proactively towards a particular issue. This ‘troubleshooting’ approach allows, for example in the context of urban planning, focus on a personalised solution by identifying community needs, analysing why former proposals were not as successful and aiming for making technology such as public transport more inclusive. 

Rosen briefly mentions the idea that the main discourse in science is based on a standard jargon, which is discipline-bound and can generate divergent interpretations from lay persons or from experts outside that specific discipline. This discrepancy in language is often observed and rarely addressed further. As authors such as Castillo and Puri (2016) have invited researchers to become undisciplined (to borrow theory and methodology from multiple fields without necessarily committing to one of them) in order to analyse complexity, surpassing the language barrier is a requirement that still cannot be fulfilled by many scientists. What I would suggest is to stop thinking of social analysis and scientific research as binaries and of knowledge as a monolithic structure, and to preserve the experimentality Rosen proposes through (re)imagining our material as a story. 

The conclusion that everything is, ultimately, a narrative, is so close to me that I sometimes forget I am trapped into the narrative framework too. Most of science is textual, conveying a discourse and unravelling the demonstration by following a ‘plotline’ - the scientific process. I started this post sharing encounters from my personal story, unconsciously grounding my analysis into my own personal experiences. Narratives are inevitable, being one of the ways in which we can work around and depict complex systems without oversimplification or reducing them to a mechanism. They allow us to showcase our knowledge and attention on a singular record, on our case study, collecting data using either qualitative or quantitative methods, to create the main product which remains, ultimately, the storytelling. And this pursuit will never stop being fascinating. 

This post expresses the author's views in light of the research methods conversation. 

Sorina Avadanei is a MSc candidate in Sustainability, Energy and Development in the Anthropology Department, working on a dissertation on the post-industrial phenomenon in Eastern Europe. You can find her on Twitter @sorina_avadanei.

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