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Epistemological Foundations of Complexity Theory

Miguel Bustamante-Ubilla
1,2 and
Felipe Arenas-Torres
Faculty of Business and Economics, Universidad de Talca, Talca 3460000, Chile
Posgraduate System, Universidad Católica de Santiago de Guayaquil (UCSG), Guayaquil 090150, Ecuador
Centro de Investigación y Estudios Contables (CIEC), Faculty of Business and Economics, Universidad de Talca, Talca 3460000, Chile
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(20), 13316;
Submission received: 3 September 2022 / Revised: 7 October 2022 / Accepted: 10 October 2022 / Published: 17 October 2022


The present investigation studies the evolution of complexity based on the epistemological analysis of various documentary sources, some related to changes in society as a whole and others with the new concepts that have progressively been shaping and content to the concept of complexity. For this, the multisystemic conformation of society, the relationships and interdependence of its parts or subsystems, and how they operate in interdependence, promoting new spaces for growth, development, and new complexity, were studied. The work makes a systematic approach to the concept of complexity, seeking to achieve an epistemological synthesis that relates the theories that interpret society as an empirical construct and the various theories that seek to explain it, distinguishing those that address the micro-social level from those that refer to the society as a whole. Among the findings, it can be seen that the concept of complexity has evolved, moving from the fundamental concepts of systems theory to those that analyze the origin and behavior of societies. For this, the sources of complexity are identified, some from people, others from subsystems, and finally from society. Conceptually, new terms such as particles, waves, waves, and surges appear, seeking to explain the genesis of complexity and those factors that describe its evolution through attractors that move between order and chaos, generating structures catalytic or dissipative as required by society. Finally, based on complex thinking and available analytical tools, this work contributes significantly to the study of complexity theory.

1. Introduction

The present work analyzes the theory of complexity to systematize its foundations and describe some components of the evolution of the concept of complexity, which in the words of Blaikie (2007) [1], refers to the so-called turn of complexity [2], according to which it is possible to advance within a particular mental model, which describes the change as a process whose conceptual innovations reveal the range of complexity [3]. This complexity is manifested in the social sphere, providing new tools for social-scientific research, for example, in studies that seek to explain the term globalization and those that analyze the term co-evolution, describing the complex change in society [4]. Therefore, it is from these concepts that it becomes possible, on the one hand, to analyze the general systemic context of society [5] and, on the other, to identify multidimensional sections of constituent parts and pieces of the society analyzed from the complexity perspective [6,7].
In this context, when society is studied from the theory of complexity, it is recognized that particular subsystemic spaces of greater or lesser sociocultural attractiveness coexist in it, which are valued according to the conceptual models of the researcher [8,9], which give meaning to an already complex reality, and where each sector of society has different capacities for participation and assimilation, for example, of diverse social organizations that act in complementarity and interdependence [10,11].
Society, defined in a broad sense [8,12], represents a broad and generic space of singular or collective human expression, especially relevant for those who, from their particular perspective, seek to reduce the complexity of the environment [13], forming particular subsystems that absorb complexity [6], either through the maximization of social resources or through the adaptation of its components to new and changing contexts [5], which translates into the appearance of new subsystemic spaces [11], which, as explained later, progressively add greater degrees of complexity to society as a whole [14,15].
In general, the spaces that society spontaneously generates [12,16,17] allow the emergence of new organizations that try to reduce the complexity of the environment [18], contributing, through their existence and their performances, new complexity to the total system [1]. This process describes the environmental conditions that lead to the birth of organizations [19] and where each develops its activities to fulfill the assumed role or that socially determined one [11,15]. In this sense, a process of creation is evident—dynamic generation of complexity [17,20], to whose understanding, these pages seek to provide a conceptual approach, collecting contributions from its systemic origin and from complexity theory, which explains how subsystems reduce the complexity of the supersystem to which they belong [18,21]. Consequently, what social systems do is seek the best way to reduce the complexity of the subsystemic environment to which they belong [5] or in which they intend to participate [1,4], and because of their presence, they help to make society more complex, shaping society as a supra global system [12,22].

2. Towards a Concept of Complexity

Complexity is born under the wing of the social sciences, promoting the transposition of some contents of biology and natural sciences [23,24,25] to the social sciences and behavior of humans. Likewise, complexity gathers some ideas from systems theory, transferring some of its foundations to the reality that organizations live in the social context [16,21], which has given rise to a specific systematic secular evolutionary knowledge of society, beyond beliefs or values, in such a way that its analysis is progressively based on a verifiable reality [10,26].
Society then turns out to be a system that can be defined as self-referential, to the extent that everything that happens within it is due to the behavior of its components [27] because its existence and evolution are due to its constituent parts, which act in the domain of communication and relationships [15,21], consolidating a complex system, typical of the nature of society, in which its subsystemic parts establish interrelations and interdependencies that allow them to function [20,28]. In this way, the mutual subsistence of complex parts is facilitated and promoted [6,29], which recursively shapes new social spaces defined in the concept of autopoiesis [25], to say of the capacity for self-creation, which the subsystemic parts acquire as they learn from their relationships [21,24], about the unique capacity of the system to create and respond to the needs that arise from within and that its constituent parts can satisfy, making individual responses available to society that progressively differentiate them from each other [23,30].
Consequently, society is a complex system that evolves and progressively corrects itself [14,31,32] since it presents self-reference, interrelation, and interdependence characteristics subsystems that perform in their domains subsystemic, such as those defined by organizations and other groups for the exercise of their autopoiesis capacities [25], accounting for the dynamics of progressive redesign that complex systems possess [26,32].
In general, the social sciences have studied the progressive endogeneity capacity of organizational systems [24,33], re-conceptualizing and reorienting social reality in its various perspectives [32,34], extending the principles of the natural sciences to the social sciences, of course, seeking to understand the nature of active and unpredictable humanity that has been mistakenly located outside of nature [25]. Consequently, beyond the vision of science in its classical perspective [26], the analysis of social systems integrates two fundamental premises that unify reality [9,30,35,36], the first, which assimilates an eventual temporal symmetry that unites the past with the future, in search of certainties, but which contrasts with that vision that disintegrates the past of the future, in both coexist in a predefined eternal continuity in communication [23,37]. The second option, also dichotomous, is the one that applies dualism to the coexistence of the tangible with the intangible that comes from nature and the human mind, respectively [38,39].
The concepts described contrasting the physical world and the social world, crossing the intangible world with the concrete reality, such as that observed in the behavior of markets and that explain society as a whole [26,40], giving rise to the so-called scientific realism anticipated by Bunge (2010) [41]. However, to all this is added the mixed perspective of complexity [23,38], according to which society is a supra system with distinguishable essential characteristics that unify the world of natural sciences [25] with that of the social sciences [1,20,39], insofar as the principles of nature contribute to better explaining the human society that behaves in the space of communications and social relations [19,21].

3. Originating Sources of Complexity

The sources of complexity are diverse and often divergent [17,19], some coming from immaterial and subjective sources, such as those of the human mind [38,39], which implies appreciating behaviors and individual behaviors, for example, of men and women [42], and of groups that affect the global system [12,21], to which other sources that derive from the rise and fall of technologies that are expected to generate progress and social development [22,43], due to the effects that arise from science [44] and that technology progressively transfers [36] to society as a whole and that is observed, sometimes from a distance, by humanity, seeking to understand the behaviors of universal natural laws that manifest themselves as valid in human interaction [26,28].
To these sources of complexity, those coming from organizations are added as entities that determine their respective inter-systemic spaces of contact [6,32] and are part of the natural subsystems of society [19]. These entities are themselves systemic organisms with complex multidimensional characteristics [3,14], which analysts of complexity explore to understand and explain how the technological advance that comes from science is progressively transferred to social complexity [7,43].
However, by sequencing these concepts, the inevitable exhaustion of the traditional paradigm of modern science is appreciated. First, the eventual exhaustion may be due to the emergence and evolution of complexity theory [10,23,44], which is possible to confront and sometimes confront. On the one hand, the old model of modern science focused on the certainties provided by the method concerning the findings of the natural sciences [44], which propose evolutions and regulations of characteristics that are not necessarily linear [44,45]. On the other hand, because the theory of complexity [6,12,13] is capable of attenuating the contradictions between the natural sciences and the social sciences, integrating humanity into the supra-natural system [21,26] of which humanity is also its promoter [32,41].
Hence, the present work seeks to contribute with an answer about how complexity arises and the principles that guide it [32,44,45], validating the fact that complex systems, such as organizations and social groups, self-organize [13,37] and because from the point of view of this co-evolutionary dynamic, nature ceases to be passive [26], instead, it is an active part of society as a global supra system [6,21,22] and where its parts are subsystems in search of balance. However, society evolves at its own pace [16,19] through people, social groups, and technological organizations that are part of the world in its entirety and are sources of complexity [14,44]. However, these present predictable trends and, although they never become certainties, provide the members of society with acceptable degrees of stability [26,32].

3.1. The Complexity of People

In general, people, for biological and psychological reasons [25], are a source of complexity; on the one hand, because they assume behaviors that are very dissimilar from each other and, on the other, because, due to their diverse and even divergent nature, they assume attitudes and behaviors that can be described as complex [18,24]. This is why human behaviors are transferred from people to organizations, first, because it is evident that organizations are made up of people with complex behavior [13,39]. Second, as Maturana and Varela (1998) [25], human beings are living beings that exist in two different. However, complementary domains, one refers to the body dynamics that take place in the material environment, and the second, to the relational domain that integrates individuals in diverse groups and in specific contexts of belonging [16,32], according to Maturana and Varela (1998) [25], like the human beings that we are.
Complementing the above, although human beings live in a concrete and natural world, we do not operate directly and immediately on that world, but instead, we act within it, using the interpretations that each one’s conscience allows and that allows individuals to create mental maps [9], rational representations and simplified interpretations of the reality in which they live [19,23] and with which they interact in their natural complexity [6,13,20]. In this way, the concrete and the human converge, making people act coherently and based on their uniqueness [7,16].
Based on the above, the source of complexity that people [25] bring to themselves and to the system in which they participate [15,46] represents a different type of complexity that society integrates randomly. First, uniting diverse individuals and groups’ destructive and constructive capacities integrated into the global supra system [17,20]. Second, in their uniqueness, people provide diverse but complementary skills that allow them to learn and develop beneficial skills for themselves and the group to which they belong [16,39]. Moreover, third, based on what has been indicated, it can be said that for a social system, the sources of complexity turn out to be at least two, the external ones coming from the environment and the internal ones derived from the system itself and its human and technological components [6,8,14,38].
From the human perspective, the psychological characteristics of people who are part of social systems are emphasized [10]. In general, it is argued that the psychological characteristics of people are part of the environment [8,21,25] and that they cannot, therefore, be manipulated or reduced by the system [30]. However, the theory of Luhmann (1971) [47] and the observations of Habermas (1996) [13] confirm the fact that the psychological characteristics of identifiable individuals do indeed belong to the system [32] in such a way that the given environment, in its integrality, gives meaning to an environment or system of parts or subsystems that participate in it [20]. For the same reason, people, according to their natural singularity and consistent with their individualizable capabilities and limitations [16,17], may or may not be physiologically capable of being part of a more extensive system [7,15], to put it a didactic way, to become part of the system or environment to which one belongs or participates, the only part that the individual contributes must be able to adapt to the systemic order, in such a way that it can contribute effectively to their formation and maintenance of the supra system that shelters them [25,28].
It is then necessary to establish what is the practical limit in which the system reaches dominance, which presents a problem of logic solved through complexity theory [17,48], through the concept of limit of sense of Luhmann, which determines the borders of action of each one of the parts of the system [6,13]. Additionally, it is necessary to incorporate the evident and natural incidence of human behavior on the global system [28,32], which entails the recognition of the diverse and sometimes contradictory impact of people on the system, which can come from failures of regulatory and misconduct that generate effects that can be analyzed from the ethical perspective of human action [39,45], in terms of recognizing the links that occur in each person, in their rationality and emotionality [28] and, consequently, in their degrees of freedom, beliefs, and ideologies [12,41], since people, end up naturally transferring their behaviors to organizations [23,24]. So, it seems evident that the ethical dimensions of human actions, communications, and acts [4] generate and transfer complexity in the domain in which they operate, expressed in a diverse and sometimes divergent way within the general system [5,12,13]. However, the limits identified in the company beyond the breadth of the environment [24,38] allow it to be said that people’s psychological and relational characteristics [28] are a constituent part of the supra system. Additionally, as indicated, they are a source of the internal complexity of the system or subsystem in which people work [6,13,19].

3.2. Intra Systemic Interactions of Complexity

Based on the fact that complexity comes from the behavior of people [1,42], whether it occurs at the individual level or through groups [34], its effect has caused organizations to evolve by exploring the introduction of mixed methods of adjustment with reality [23,49], first, assuming the inherent complexity that derives from its processes and components [18], and internalizing the complexity that comes from the environment or subsystem in which it operates [6,13,35]. Complexity is, therefore, according to this way of expressing it, a measure of the number of states of the world that come from the complexity of the world [3,7], which are integrated into the number of states that the world can assume subsystem, giving rise to its complexity [6,42]. These two states of the world and the system assume and summarize the portion of the world in which organizations operate and have decided to serve [3,50,51].
By generalizing the relationship between both sources of complexity, own and world, it is possible to explain why the complex behavior of social systems [4,18], since the order of a social system as part of a complex system [5,13] is as impossible as the order of the more extensive system in which it is integrated [15,44]. Consequently, there is a relationship or link between the system and the subsystem, which refers to the fact that it is impossible to seek a one hundred percent effective relationship between the actions of organizations and their adaptability to the complex environment, as Habermas (1996) [13] states. Then, a link between the part and the environment is defined based on the principle of correspondence [8,52,53], which makes it possible to assume that there will always be degrees of consistent assimilation or spaces of incongruity in the decisions adopted by the subsystem, regardless of the organization or social subsystem analyzed [7,20,27].

3.3. The Complexity of Organizations

Without prejudice against the natural complexity that comes from people [25,28], it is necessary to complement the analysis with the study of organizations defined as constitutive subsystems of the social supra system [5,44]. First, given the multidimensional nature of organizations, their very existence and behaviors add complexity to the domain in which they act and, through it, to the social supra system to which they belong [46,51]. Second, organizations, depending on their endogenous diversity and complexity [43], can generate and consume various types of energy, which have random effects on the naturally complex behavior of organizations [4,45].
Based on the above, it is vital to recognize, on the one hand, that organizations operate in a subsystemic microenvironment that has limits established by the type of products, their respective brands, market share coverage, and returns achieved [7,21,50], and that it is complex to analyze, for example, industries, local or international territories included in the limit of the meaning of organizations [8,13]. Consequently, it is about the integration into a whole of various subsystems that are made up of different and varied parts or units of a social, economic, technological, and process nature, among others [41,43], each of which is, in turn also complex [5,6]. Therefore, based on this analysis, complexity should not be used as a simple adjective but should be elevated to a substantive concept [17,38,48], as it has the epistemological capabilities that allow analysis and highlights the conformation of systems, subsystems, and supersystems inserted in specific space-time contexts, which are in turn made up of subsystemic parts defined by their uniqueness [7,8,20,27].
About the subsystemic contexts and, depending on their relative complexity [19,20,54], it is possible to affirm that, within the global supra system, spaces are produced that explain the existence of different types of systems, some called open systems that evolve following the so-called arrow of time and others, called closed systems [3,43]. The former because they can progressively generate energy, and the latter because they tend to lose part of the energy necessary to interact in the more extensive system to which they belong [4,39,44]. These two characteristics are included in their dynamics by the concepts of negentropy and entropy, respectively [3,21,25], since some of the subsystems lose energy due to the increase in randomness and the irreversible disorder of the passage of time [48,55]. In contrast, other subsystems produce energy by internalizing capabilities and technologies into their internal processes [5,12].
Additionally, it must be said that the suprasystem also behaves in progressively changing states, on the one hand, increasing disorder and, as a consequence, giving rise to distortions that affect all its subsystemic components [3,38,41,46]. On the other hand, the supra system can generate the necessary forces to produce a new order within a new state of relations of its constituent parts [5].
Thus, for example, the new order can be located far from the equilibrium derived from the waves, waves, or surges generated by the subsystems within the general system [17,30,43] or generate the links and necessary parts that allow the subsystems to absorb the tensions and their effects, which is evidenced in the creation of the so-called dissipative structures suggested by Urry (2004) [55] and González (2009) [48], capable of restoring order or generating new subsystems that give rise to the creation of a new order, by the way, within a global system, which may still be in a particular state of the disorder [3,38]. This process is called the subsystemic source of negentropy [43]. Consequently, subsystems may be able to create spaces of localized order that allow them to float in a state of the general disorder [3,30,56] and where flows, waves, and stability are innovatively combined, emerging structure from chaos [7,48].
Based on the above, the concept of complexity [17,48] has its origin in the existence of open systems and the qualities of entropy and negentropy that vital systems possess to ensure their existence [7,48] in such a way that the systems acquire the capacity to rescue degrees of relative stability at the social and market level [4,36,43], establishing relationships, dependencies and incidences probabilistic within complex systems that intersect negentropy and entropy, creating subsystemic spaces of stability that overcome states of extreme randomness [38,43]. Consequently, if the systems analysis of the sciences of complexity is transferred to social groups, it is observed that they exhibit similar probabilistic latent capacities [28,57], in some cases, where their parts establish relationships and patterns [7,54], which behave in a non-linear way [48] and on other occasions, where the parties face uncertainty, for example, market or social, differentiating each other through their endogenous dynamic capacities and change [12,16].
At this level of analysis of intrasystem complexity, at least two social behaviors are verified at the societal level: those of small groups that achieve less diversity and those of larger open populations [24,36], which achieve new capabilities, assimilating talents and developing attributes that provide them with greater flexibility [51,52]. However, it is about the subsystemic spaces reaching some balance concerning the surrounding supra system [7,58], consuming a type of vital energy they use for maintenance or capturing other energies, which allows them to avoid the anti-reductionism of complexity to the extent that the parts contribute to the global system [8,48].
Explaining this process, the parts of the system contribute, on the one hand, in the form of particles or subsystems, which are added in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups forming waves that, together with other groups, are capable of transmuting into recurrent sequences giving shape to waves [48,55], which in their respective spaces generate movement, new energies, flows, and critical interrelationships of greater complexity [6,7,14]. All this process leads to new systems capable of intercepting the trends of order with those of chaos that coexists, transcending the absolutism of complete order and the randomness of chaos [51,52].
Finally, from a social perspective [17,36], complexity derives from the relationships and interdependencies of people in groups that go beyond individualism [28,49,59]. At the same time, they evolve beyond the holistic totality of collectivism [19,60], highlighting the person in their singularity and recognizing that as living particles, they are capable of progressively expressing themselves in their singularity and are a constituent part of the whole, for example of organizations immersed in the dynamics of social, industrial or market systems, of which they are a part [30,41,51,56].

3.4. Complexity of the Supra System

Luhmann’s theory (1997) [6,18] presents some essential foundations. First, the complexity of the environment must be understood, assumed, and summarized by the social system, so that it can effectively reduce the portion of the environment it decided to solve [8,17,49]. However, Habermas (1996) [13] proposes a broader alternative vision and constitutes one of his criticisms of the theory of meaning proposed by Luhmann. Habermas (1996) [13] states that, possibly, Luhmann did not realize that in social systems, there are two sources of complexity, those of the system itself and the people and that these may even be related. Thus, for example, the first is the complexity that effectively comes from the environment or system [20,37,61], which, as has been said, is learned and reduced through the definition of the sensing limit proposed by Luhmann. The second is the complexity that comes from the system itself, which derives from the endogenous learning that is progressively acquired, for example, by its personnel and which generates its transformations [27,30,56].
In social systems [6,10,18], their evolution can be seen with some clarity when analyzing the possibilities or difficulties of a system when it seeks to adapt to sudden changes in the environment [11,31,62]. In addition, these difficulties are also appreciated when analyzing less apparent sources of complexity [23,34], and which are also of great importance when assuming process and resolving implications of diverse nature and depth [35], such as the complexity generated by the constituent parts of the system [3,34,46], which in the case of organizations and their particular case of companies, they include the dynamic and complex components that come from social systems [5,6,18,44], and from people, essentially complex as been demonstrated in South America [60,61,62,63].

4. Towards a Concept of Limit of Meaning

Among the central principles of the sciences of complexity [5,38,53], complex systems are characterized by having autopoietic qualities and move between disorder and order [3,36], according to a logic of self-organization [4] and self-reproduction determined by its complexity and that must be monitored or supervised to maintain its unidirectionality [12,39,64]. In this context, systems show dynamic behaviors when they are inserted into subspaces of chaos due to the randomness of the spaces in which they participate [37,56], and that can produce an impact on other parts of the system through the so-called butterfly effect that is explained in various ways [3,38,63].
This effect occurs when a small or brief action on various phenomena, for example, mathematical and biological in terms of [24] or physical in the words of Becerra and Castorina (2018) [4], Becerra and Amozurrutia (2015) [43], affect other domain spaces that require vigilance [64]. Although these actions occur within a particular part of a system, for example, an organization, they cause unpredictable effects since their order escapes sight and produces random impacts in some other global system part [12,20,62].
These are accidental causes and effects of those constituent parts that establish random, dynamic, and non-hierarchical relationships, which end up forming an integrated system of network nodes, where contact nodes determine attractors [28], that is, that a dynamic system does not move through time and all possible parts of a potential space, but only occupies a restricted part of said potential space [30,37,50,56], which has been previously defined through the concept of the limit of the meaning of Luhmann, (1997) [18], however, these new spaces face strange attractors that can be made evident to the managers [27,32,64], making them face new unstable spaces. However, these can attract new trajectories that amplify their deviation [34] through positive feedback statements that generate complex non-linear dynamics and where its components acquire responsibilities [31,48].
From the perspective of the global suprasystem [2,7,48], it is evident that given its nature and scope, it is defined as the environment of the system it contains and consequently finds domain spaces within it that they define within their respective limits of meaning [3,18]. These systems, in turn, are established as related and unrelated subsystems which generate mutual interactions [4], which fit into the concept of complex adaptive systems immersed in multidirectional spaces defined as co-evolutionary [20,21,34], by the way, within a specific ecological domain that contains them and in which they produce a certain punctuated or graduated balance, about links and relationships of parts integrated into a specific ecological community [15,28,57].
The descriptions here seek to define the various application options, on the one hand, of the concept of limit of the meaning of Luhmann (1997) [18], as well as the dynamics of contingent systemic coevolution processes, which occur spontaneously [34,49]. Consequently, they exclude the unilateral imposition of a hierarchical subsystem on another subsystem and that acts through the concept of last resort, that is, within a total system that is evolutionary in itself [7,35,52], where interdependent subsystems coexist capable of creating nests of autonomous subsystems that establish interconnections and interrelationships that give meaning and existence to the global system [10,27,40].
In addition, a different look at the nature of the concept of complexity derives from contrasting the concept of suprasystemic change with that of subsystemic stability that occurs in environments, in one part convulsive and another, of an order [31,65] and that, as already mentioned, produce the so-called punctuated or graduated balance [3,7], according to which science, technology, society, politics and historical change collaborate to achieve a better understanding of the phenomenon of complexity that contrasts exclusive concepts such as globalization with glocalization [3,48,55]. Essentially, as predicted by complexity theory, both concepts need each other to give meaning to the coexistence of specific spaces of local complexity within global suprasystemic spaces [5,17,38,55].
In this way, based on these concepts, it is possible to reconceptualize, with due depth, the concept of a system [4,43] that is applied to complexity. In part, it allows for overcoming traditional, mechanistic, linear, and deterministic perspectives [12,65] and, on the other hand, emphasizes the unpredictable nature of suprasystemic phenomena [20,21,53], according to which there are self-poietic capacities, that is, self-creative or self-generative capacities in the subsystems that have the attribute of internal self-organization, for example, of their personnel, to face the inevitable dynamics of the environment [19,66]. Consequently, complexity theory provides a more profound and interdisciplinary understanding of reality in which complex open systems unfold, which, immersed in the fraction of reality that they determine as their limits of meaning, act in them according to the emerging transforming properties that provide stability [27,58].
According to the analysis carried out, complexity constitutes an attribute that refers to the system’s capacity to overcome the post-explanatory relativism of absolute spaces, validating the endogenous capacity for technological and social co-construction that allows each subsystem to assimilate and internalize reality by exercising its capacity for the endogeneity of novelties and knowledge that come from the environment [5,67]. According to this dynamic, systems acquire the ability to overcome the eventual chaotic conception of complexity [38,44] and the need to contrast the balanced conception proposed by general complexity with the unpredictable dynamics that present some intra-systemic spaces that have specific modes of complexity [28,57], which, as has already been explained, are defined through the concept of limit of meaning [3,18], precisely to avoid assimilating too much the chaotic conception derived from the whole, and progressively reduce the impacts that would probably affect them.
Consequently, the subsystems that make up society seek to achieve the best possible understanding of reality as an object of investigation, which behaves in coherence with a reality that is essentially dynamic and, therefore, requires its components to use some coherent and pertinent explanatory principle to achieve the adequate endogeneity of a given reality [15,28,57]. All in all, a theory of complexity, properly understood, provides the pertinent terms and concepts to analyze the scientific-technical and social evolution of reality [7,35,36], identifying processes, phenomena, systems, and relationships capable of collecting reality as it is [17,40], focusing on the underlying mechanisms of scientific realism [41,48], and with which it is possible to overcome the reductionism broadening its gaze towards global sustainability [16,35].
This is how an innovative method has emerged that incorporates constructivism to analyze emerging phenomena of a social nature, using the capacity of non-participant observers [28,57], who reconcile and integrate complexity theory with social theory [7,40] and where the diversity of human realities converge with the evolution of the world as a whole [3,12,68]. Consequently, the method of complexity unifies the concept of ecology of knowledge with that of knowledge-emancipation, emphasizing the joint construction of alternative knowledge [4,56,67], which affects social practices immersed in local realities, which, however, are inserted in global spaces of greater complexity and that are explained by the concept of the limit of meaning [3,18].
It is then perceptible to affirm that a system is a complex [5,38,53] when it is contrasted with another system and where it is observed that it is differentially and recurrently affected [19,37,58]. Likewise, there is also complexity when something does not work as expected for reasons generally passing as random in the first stage [27,32]. However, after a deeper analysis, it was verified that it was due to a problem of unforeseen internal or external relationships that come from complexity [10,48,65].
From the perspective of the supra system, the possibilities of determining all the valuable sources of complexity are reduced for the manager [7,34,52], making it impossible to enumerate them without resorting to generalizations that lead to the reductionism that is sought to be overcome [8,20]. Given this difficulty, the need to promote organizational learning arises about behaviors of relatively lasting change [12,28]. In this way, the need to study organizational learning trends arises, which is an exciting option for scientific analysis since it would allow identifying the learning stages and their evolutionary conditioning factors within a given organization [8,19].
As a corollary to what is stated in this conceptual sequence, complexity is generated systematically and recursively [5,38,44] at the moment when systems reduce the complexity of the environment, increasing their own [12,34,68,69]. This means that every time a system reduces by itself the complexity of the environment to maintain its organization [7,17], it increases its complexity, generating that all systems, both its operations and those of other organizations, in structural coupling [25], increase their complexity seeing each other, increasing the complexity of the space they occupy within the environment in which they are inserted [34,48,53].
Consequently, complexity is within the limits of the organization [3,18]. It is within its structure [7,49] and its processes [17,38]. In this way, given the components that make up, for example, their parts and pieces as well as their ones, they must always express less complexity than that which comes from beyond their limits [20,27,42,54], such as the one that naturally exists in a total market in which organizations are located [36,40], giving shape and structure to spaces or subsystems, for example, new industries and markets in society [18,61]. Then, a broad society is formed that gives meaning to a global environment [7,12,17] in which companies, as a particular case organization, also have complexity [10,51]. In this way, the change in business organizations is explained, on the one hand, due to actions motivated by psychological issues [28,52], followed by actions determined by the limits of meaning defined as the objective of each organization [3,6], endogenizing some of the disturbances that come from outside the borders of the organization [45,68,70].

5. Recursive Genesis of Complexity

Complexity is an inherent characteristic of all systems capable of maintaining two or more states compatible with their structure. However, the complexity of society, more than a space-time characteristic, is a broad-spectrum sequential and recursive process [12,58,59,69]. Consequently, it constitutes a natural process that comes from the foundations of the social supra system and derives from its evolution, which spontaneously generates complexity. The definition of complexity as a process allows us to explain the reason for Habermas’ (1996) [13] assertions that the environment is always more complex than the system since a system can never enter into perfect communion with its existing environment unwraps.
The creation of complexity is, therefore, a natural and spontaneous event that occurs systematically and recursively from the moment the system (subsystem) begins the process of reducing the complexity of the environment, thereby increasing its complexity [24,38]. However, the system’s complexity (subsystem) will always be less than the complexity of the environment (environment) because the system’s response to a change in the environment will always have a time lag that will not allow the perfect coupling between these two spaces of complexity since a social system (subsystem) can never encompass or participate in the entire environment (environment) in which it operates [3,5]. Consequently, the social environment or society as a whole assumed as a systemic totality, does not give rise to a more extensive system since there is no definable supra system beyond itself [12,48,58]. Based on the above, the recursion of the system is confirmed when it is possible to affirm that there is, however, for the subsystems, a stage of expression that represents a more remarkable instance of complexity so that, from this perspective, all social systems they are subsystems of some more extensive system, which in turn is a subsystem of another more extensive social system, and so on [8,20,21,28].
The recursion of the system turns out to be an essential and crucial constitutive element in explaining the origin of complexity and its role in the functioning of social systems, as it allows us to understand the critical nature of the conceptual concatenation that exists between the system and its subsystems [19,61]. Thus, for example, although there is no total certainty of the existence of a definable social supra system, such as the one we call society, the explained concepts and systemic relationships allow us to clarify how all systems are subsystems of larger systems that serve as an environment of other smaller systems [8,49].
From this recursive sequence, the fact is verified that when any system begins the natural process of reducing the complexity of the environment, it becomes necessary for the subsystem to seek to maintain its organization and its existence, which it progressively promotes in an endogenous process of creating the subsystem’s complexity [5,49]. This also translates into the fact that each time a social system is born, its natural process of complexity reduction is inevitably and systematically and recursively transformed into an increase in complexity for some other subsystem, which naturally took that first system as part of its structure its direct or indirect environment, recognizing it as a part or system that generates environmental disturbances that are considered within its limits of action, shaping its environment [3,7,15].
As an example, and to clarify this, we show the case of a system that we will call “α” that is born in a complex social space, which we will call supra system, but that, for explanatory purposes, for now, we will not take into account. The process begins when the α system begins its natural process of taking charge of the reality it attends to, which is expressed in the need to reduce the complexity of the environment and thus also begins the process of increasing its internal complexity. In this way, progressively, a minor system is born, which we will call the ß system, which takes the α system as its natural environment, fixing this system as constitutive of its limits of action. Therefore, the α system, when beginning with its natural process of reducing the complexity of the environment, which can be expressed in some state of chaos [16,24], progressively increases its internal complexity [33].
In short, and to generalize this explanation, it can be inferred that, to the extent that the ß system reduces the complexity of the environment, sacrificing its own, the environment, which in the example is defined entirely by the α system, is in a constant process of progressive complexity, which, as has already been said, corresponds to a consequence of its process of reducing the complexity of the environment [43]. In this regard, it should give a basic idea of how the processes of reduction, genesis, and origin of complexity work for social systems, where organizations and, in this particular case, the company identify two critical global stages within the so-called strategic thinking; firstly, problem-solving and, secondly, implementation planning, which correspond to the functions that companies perform [5,23].
By way of clarification, it is doubtful that a social subsystem has only one social system defined within its limits of action since social systems are born precisely by the natural process of increasing social complexity. Hence, the previous example is an absolute simplification of the process to be explained [33] since the complexity depends on the domain spaces, the coverage, and the depth of the spaces sought to be explained [31,34]. Consequently, social systems are born and developed in social space, so possibilities of interacting with other social systems and generating complexity are directly proportional to the complexity of the specific social space, industry, or market in which they are created [40,50]. Thus, and by way of example, it could be said that the birth of a social system within a primitive tribe in Africa will have a much lower level of complexity than that of a social system born in an urbanized city with regulations and characteristics much more complex or developed cultural systems since social systems will always have to relate to other social systems and their limits, most likely, will not be established on a single area or social organization [33].

6. Complexity Reduction as a Concept

Reducing the complexity of the environment or environment should not be misunderstood. Reducing the environment is an internal process of social organizations that seek to attend to a part or portion of reality, which they must adequately interpret and monitor [61,64]. Consequently, it is complicated for a social organization to change the organization of another social system to reduce the complexity of the environment, which the environment would define since a single social system does not give the environment. However, it can be made up of multiple individual or interrelated subsystems and attempts to change the environment are ineffective in reducing complexity [8,20]. On the other hand, and without eliminating the possibility that this could be possible, as it could happen, in theory, in small, essential, and primitive social systems such as families, groups and tribes, etc., the concept of complexity reduction refers to an internal process, to an intrinsic characteristic of each social system or subsystem, since the simplification of the environment is carried out mainly through a process of defining the limits of the organization that Luhmann (1997) [6,18], defines as the sensitivity limits of the subsystem. Consequently, the complexity reduction is carried out together with a process of structural change where the organization’s limits are changing. According to Habermas (1996) [13], by increasing the degree of learning that it implies, the assimilation of technologies and new resources that provide the flexibility subsystem and, with it, human and technological adaptability to the supra system in which they develop as a social organization [12,14,52].
A social organization that sustains itself to the extent that it has homeostasis [5,25,48] to stay alive requires learning and developing skills and, therefore, acquiring the skills that allow it to support the ravages of environmental change, the increase in the complexity of the environment, and their actions. An organization that is not capable of clearly identifying its limits that is not capable of learning from the environment, and reducing its complexity is an organization condemned to death [3]. In short, a social system unable to sustain itself in its environment and unable to reduce the complexity of the environment, and, ultimately, unable to learn [38,68] is a system that will lose its organization and die since the maintenance of the organization of the system is the life of the system.

Concept Synthesis

Complexity theory systematizes the foundations that, on the one hand, describe the evolution of society and its components and, on the other hand, transposes some concepts of the natural sciences to the field of social sciences insofar as society turns out to be a sizeable suprasystemic container of people, cultures, organizations, among others, which interact generating complexity.
Suppose the various components of society are related and depend on each other within the supra system. In that case, everything that happens in society defines it as a self-referential system where its subsystemic parts internalize, learn and summarize the relationships of mutual dependence that allow them to exist [5]. The subsystemic parts consequently exercise their progressive learning capacity, according to which they establish relationships, acquire energy from the environment, and transfer it to the system they are a part [33]. Society, from the perspective of complexity, integrates the physical world with the social world, as well as relates the intangible world that comes from the human mind with the concrete reality that makes up nature and the contexts in which the activities act—people and organizations in their respective domain spaces.
As explained, the sources of complexity are multiple, diverse, and divergent [17,19], some immaterial [38,39], and others concrete. Some come from people and others from organizations, each of which actors, for example, exist and evolve in their respective inter-systemic spaces of society [6,32].
People, for biological, psychological, and behavioral reasons [25], are a source of complexity [3]. However, from complexity theory, it is stated that people’s psychological characteristics should be considered part of the environment [8,21] since they cannot be manipulated or reduced by the system [30]. However, people as subsystems also learn in the section of the world where they work [50,51], for example, that which is given by organizational systems and, among these, by companies in which people exercise their talents and abilities. However, the complexity also comes from the system, which progressively generates its transformations [27,30,56] as a supra-global system [2,7,65], by the way, affecting the subsystems in various ways depending on their size and the domain spaces they possess inside, defined by the concept of limits of meaning [3,18].
It is then confirmed that there is a relationship or dependency link between the system and the subsystem, for example, society and people, which derives from the multidimensional nature of organizations [46,51], since that organizations depend on the endogenous diversity and complexity of their personnel [43], which allow them to generate and consume social energy [4,45]. Likewise, organizations operate in a subsystemic microenvironment of society, made up of industries and markets [7,21,50], which have their respective complexity, since they are also inserted in diverse national and international areas and territories [8,13]. Consequently, society is a supra system that contains and integrates the various subsystems that define society as its natural environment.
Thus, the subsystemic contexts [19,20] within the global supra system behave in singularity since, as open systems, they evolve by internalizing complexity [3,43]. However, they behave differently, given their entropic qualities and diverse vital systems that ensure their existence [7,48], achieving relative stability at the micro-social or market level, as appropriate [4,36,43], as well as creating subsystemic spaces that allow them to overcome the random states of the environment [38,43].
In short, complexity refers to the ability of the system to learn from the relative evolution of the environment, considering a specific endogenous capacity to learn and assimilate and internalize the reality that comes from the global macro system [5,67]. Complexity is an inherent quality or capacity of systems that enables them to assume two or more states compatible with the structure that allows them to exist. However, the complexity of society is a broad-spectrum sequential and recursive process [12,58,59,69] of natural characteristics that define it, fundamentally, as a supra system capable of spontaneously generating increasing degrees of complexity.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.B.-U. and F.A.-T.; methodology, M.B.-U.; validation, M.B.-U. and F.A.-T.; formal analysis, M.B.-U. and F.A.-T.; investigation, M.B.-U. and F.A.-T.; writing—original draft preparation, M.B.-U. and F.A.-T.; writing—review and editing, M.B.-U. and F.A.-T.; visualization, F.A.-T.; supervision, M.B.-U. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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