by Fábio Pinheiro

Social Systems and System Complexity

In my last article there was an exploration about complexity and the use of language. Patterns, not the number of actual connections between elements, were indicating system complexity.

Patterns are Structures in Systems

Structures in this case does not mean pre-defined forms that “structure” systems but rather the pool of possibilities of action of a system that itself can recognize. A system has (or recognizes) only a limited amount of possibilities in order to reduce complexity in its operation.

In any system the identification of patterns are really useful to describe them objectively and systematically. This act of describing is slightly different in social systems because they are based on meaning. Describing in social systems is an act of giving meaning, an act of re-creation of the system itself.

This recursive description/re-creation shows that identification of patterns or structures in social systems are acts of re-creation of the system and not objective selections. It also shows that although social systems depend on structures to reduce complexity, they can’t be truthfully described in advance by those structures/patterns.

Recursiveness of Meaning Generation

In common with natural systems, social systems would also contain a selection of element relations to reduce complexity. Language, for example, has a structure of meaning making and without it we couldn’t coordinate understandings and actions.

The act of description of a social system is also the act of its re-creation.

It is the recursiveness of meaning generation in social systems that indicates a difference from natural systems. Here the communications that are elements of meaning in social systems are not restricted by patterns identified in advance, but patterns can be re-created as we communicate.

A very simple description of social matters can embed high complexity and still be presenting its full meaning (as opposed to a simplified explanation of a natural phenomena, for example). An easy process of deciding between two places to go on holidays can be easily described, but may not be a simple scientific task.

Social Systems and System Complexity

Social systems hold a paradox — it contains a structure in form of meaning patterns so complexity can be reduced and allow a more reasonable predicability in social interaction. On the other hand, the selection of structures makes the description and re-creation of meaning a more complex task.

The reduction of complexity of the system immediately generates higher system complexity. Communications and meaning, when restricted to identified patterns, allow us to visualize and predict, but it also increases complexity and unpredictability because it represents a chosen fraction of the whole system.

The paradox can be juggled with, of course. As we need both the predicability and the re-creation of meaning, there is space for both structured and poetic communications. It is our job to sense when those conversations are needed and to host spaces for them.

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