Mapping degrees of complexity, complicatedness, and emergent complexity

Timothy F.H. Allen*, Preston Austin, Mario Giampietro, Zora Kovacic, Edmond Ramly, Joseph Tainter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


© 2017 Elsevier B.V. This paper assesses the conceptualizations and analytical uses of complexity. Throughout the paper, we carefully eschew ontological issues, and sort out the epistemology of complexity. We try to explain why the ontology of complexity makes no sense to us, much like significance is neither material nor ontological. Our tool of choice is levels of analysis. First, we analyze the conceptualization of complexity. Much discussion of complexity is confused because complexity is mistaken as a material issue. Complexity arises from the way the situation is addressed, and is not material in itself. Even so, complexity does seem to have material ramifications without being itself a straightforward material distinction. We use an illustrative parallel example where genetic dominance is shown not to be material while having material consequences, but only after a gene is asserted to be dominant on normative criteria. Secondly, the paper compares two analytical approaches based on complexity, namely Robert Rosen's work and Joseph Tainter's work. In Rosennean complexity a system is complex if not all its constituent models are simulable, if certainty is denied. In that sense, complexity cannot be defined. Rosen's distinction is between simple and complex systems makes complexity an all or nothing proposition. Complexification is seen by Tainter as a device used by societies to solve their problems. This leads to complexity being a matter of degree in successive societal complexifications, perhaps from Neolithic hunter-gatherers to industrial societies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-44
JournalEcological Complexity
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2018


  • Complexity
  • Complicatedness
  • Emergence
  • Level of analysis
  • Rosen


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