It’s probably a good idea to begin an introduction to complexity theory and the philosophical study of education on a sceptical note, by taking note of the comments of the physicist, Philip Ball (2004, p. 5): We have been here before. In the 1970s, the catastrophe theory of René Thom seemed to promise an understanding of how sudden changes in society might be provoked by small effects.

Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education: Mason, Mark ...

This initiative atrophied rather quickly, since Thom’s phenomenological and qualitative theory did not really offer fundamental explanations and mechanisms for the processes it described. Chaos theory, which matured in the 1980s, has so far proved rather more robust, supplying insights into how complicated and ever-changing (‘dynamical’) systems rapidly cease to be precisely predictable even if their initial states are known in great detail.

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Chaos theory has been advocated as a model for market economics, … but this theory has not delivered anything remotely resembling a science of society. The current vogue is for the third of the three C’s: complexity. The buzzwords here are emergence and self-organization , as complexity theory seeks to understand how order and stability arise from the interactions of many components according to a few simple rules … . But very often what passes today for ‘complexity science’ is really something much older, dressed in fashionable apparel.

The main themes in complexity theory have been studied for more than a hundred years by physicists who evolved a tool kit of concepts and techniques to which complexity studies have added barely a handful of new items.

Nevertheless, having pointed out that ‘[a]t the root of this sort of physics is a phenomenon that immediately explains why the discipline may have something to say about society: it is a science of collective behaviour ’ (ibid., p. 5), Ball goes on to suggest (ibid., p. 6) that … even with our woeful ignorance of why humans behave the way they do, it is possible to make some predictions about how they behave collectively. That is to say, we can make predictions about society even in the face of individual free will.

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The physics might then not be new, but the substantial development of and rapidly increasing interest in complexity theory in the social sciences certainly is. As Mason indicates in the third chapter in this collection, complexity theory offers some useful insights into the nature of continuity and change, and is thus of considerable interest in both the philosophical and practical understanding of educational and institutional change.

Complexity theory’s notion of emergence implies that, given a significant degree of complexity in a particular environment, or critical mass , new properties and behaviours emerge that are not contained in the essence of the constituent elements, or able to be predicted from a knowledge of initial conditions. These concepts of emergent phenomena
from a critical mass, associated with notions of lock-in , path dependence, and inertial momentum, contribute to an understanding of continuity and change that has not hitherto been readily available in other theories of or perspectives on change.

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