From Patrick Meier, PhD candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University
The term “complexity” denotes the degree to which a system is difficult to analyze, understand or manage. Complexity is said to arise when systems contain a large number of mutually interacting parts at many different scales. The more complex the system, the more detailed, and therefore lengthy, our analysis tends to be. The term scale refers to the level of abstraction we choose to describe the interacting parts of a system, which in effect depends on how far we stand from the system we seek to describe. For instance, we can easily provide a simple description of a forest by standing at a reasonable distance or instead describe with more intricate detail the masterful distribution of individual leaves should happenstance have us closer. What does this have to do with The Third Side? Far more than meets the eye at this scale. In what follows we take a closer look at the forest and draw on some basic principles from complexity theory to show why The Third Side is the most appropriate scale to prevent and manage violent conflict.
The complexity of social systems arises from the interactions between and among many individuals, communities, and countries, and so on at many different scales. At a high level of abstraction or aggregation the interacting parts of a social system could be called states or nation-states, cloaking more local events and internal interactions. At a higher level of abstraction, we might begin using the word civilization, which to a certain extent shrouds the internal character or polity of individual states. In contrast, communities and individuals represent a lower level of abstraction. The trade-off between complexity and scale is illustrated by the three curves in Figure 1 below.
Complexity as a function of scale for three kinds of systems: independent, organized and structured. The way a system is organized affects how it is seen at different scales. In social systems for instance, people in crowds move more independently than a structured army, while modern international companies reflect some organization yet less hierarchy (adapted from Bar-Yam 2004, 55).
Describing and managing systems in the world involves a decision about the level of detail we wish to provide—and plan to act on. As noted above, the amount of information necessary to describe a system is a function of scale or the detail we can observe from a given vantage point. In Figure 1, the horizontal axis indicates “how far away” we are from the system being described. In other words, it indicates the level of precision or scale of the description. The closer the object is, the greater the detail and the more precise the description. The vertical axis indicates the complexity of the system described by an observer such as The Third Side. This represents the amount of information we need to describe a system moving in time and space at different scales.
What are the implications of this complexity-scale trade-off for conflict prevention and management? “Like any complex social phenomenon, violent conflict does not result from the linear summation of a neatly defined set of causes, but from interactions among multiple phenomena in a complex system with several levels of organization (…) As complexity and chaos theories show, in such a system behaviors will not respond in a linear way to changes in one variable, however significant that variable may be” (Rubin 2004, 22). Attempting to prevent or mitigate violent conflict at the wrong scale or level of complexity may produce new problems in unlikely locations or scales.
Feedback and reflections are welcome.