8 August 2010

Complex Phenomena and the Social Sciences

       One idea propounded by Hayek is central for the understanding of the Social Sciences: the notion of complex phenomena. This notion was originally introduced in his paper “The theory of the complex phenomena” published in Studies in 1967.
      In that paper, Hayek propounds that the degree of complexity of a phenomenon depends upon “the minimum number of elements of which an instance of the pattern must consist in order to exhibit all the characteristic attributes of the class of pattern in question…” In this sense, almost all the phenomena studied by the Social Sciences are complex phenomena, since the number of interdependent variables that should be represented in their models is so large that only some of them could be observed and studied. Moreover, it would be impossible to test all the combination of elements and then, to make predictions with complete information. In conclusion, the only kind of predictions that we would be able to produce in Social Sciences is pattern predictions, that is, predictions about when or under which circumstances certain kind of regularity could emerge.
      In relation to this, it is interesting to see the relation proposed by Hayek between the notions of “order” and that of “complex phenomena”. In fact, he states in the first paragraphs of the chapter on “Cosmos and Taxis” (Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 1, Chap. 2, p.35): “Order is an indispensable concept for the discussion of all complex phenomena, in which it must largely play the role the concept of law plays in the analysis of simpler phenomena” And then he introduces a footnote with the citation of his own paper on complex phenomena. Can this be understood as if he is subsuming the study of the spontaneous orders to the study of the complex phenomena? I will return on this point later, but meanwhile I am looking forward to your comments!


  1. Eliana,

    Two things:

    i) Perhaps the notion of order is somehow implied by that of complex phenomena in the sense that since all variables involved in a phenomena cannot be isolated, order is a prerequisite which allows one to pick a set of variables as those by virtue of which the an instance of the pattern exhibits all the characteristic attributes of the class of pattern in question.

    ii) Would you say that Hayek's notion of complex phenomena relies upon that of emergence?



  2. Thank you Pablo for you comment!

    In relation to your first point, yes, I agree that the notion of order is, in some way, related to the one of complex phenomena.

    Some years after the paper on Complex Phenomena, in his book "Law, Legislation and Liberty", Hayek explains that an order is “a state of affairs in which a multiplicity of elements of various kinds are so related to each other that we may learn from our acquaintance with some spatial or temporal part of the whole to form correct expectations concerning the rest, or at least expectations which have a good chance of proving correct.” (Hayek, 1973: 36)

    But I think that the notion of order (or at least that of spontaneous orders) is understood by Hayek as a type of complex phenomena. For example, when he refers to Law as a spontaneous order, he cites his own paper on Complex Phenomena. I agree with you about the idea that the notion of complex phenomena relies upon that of emergence. The idea that certain regularities, such as institutions, rules and even orders, are the non-deliberate outcome of this kind of phenomena is based on the notion of emergence. I would like to analyse this notion more deeply and elaborate further. Do you have any notion of emergence that would like to discuss? Cheers! Eliana

  3. For Hayek it is about patterns of behavior, meaning that it is imprecise and ever-changing. Individual economic interactions, for example, give rise to the emergent market economy, which in turn affects the economic behaviors of the individuals making up the economy. One cannot predict what will happen, or what the economy will produce, or what specific patterns will emerge, though we can predict that certain kinds of patterns will exist under certain conditions/institutions.