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College of Social & Behavioral Sciences

Complexity, Society, and the Environment

Course Description

This course is intended to introduce students to the principles of complexity with specific emphasis on their relationship to sociology in general and environmental sociology in specific. The course will focus on the following key concepts in complexity studies: dissipative structures, autopoiesis, chaos, non-linear dynamics and geophysiology. The purpose of the course is to facilitate an understanding of the fundamental ideas within complexity studies while critically evaluating the possibilities and limitations of the application of complexity studies to the field of sociology. One application of this purpose is exploring the relationship between climate change and society. Each class period will be comprised of a short lecture period followed by class discussion. Students will be responsible for discussing the weekly readings and leading class discussion periodically.

Course Topics and Related Readings

  • Dissipative structures
    • Nicolis, Gregoire, and Iyla Prigogine. 1989. Exploring Complexity: An Introduction. New York: W.H. Freeman.
    • Sole, Ricard V., and Brian C Goodwin. 2000. Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology. New York: Basic Books.
  • Autopoiesis, Symbiogenesis and the Organism as Individual or Community?
    • Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: D. Reidel Pub. Co.
    • Margulis, Lynn and Ricardo Guerrero. 1991. "Two Plus Three Equal One: Individuals Emerge from Bacterial Communities" in Thompson, William Irwin (Ed.) Gaia 2: Emergence: The New Science of Becoming. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.
    • Harold, Franklin M. 2001. The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. 2002. Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species. New York: Basic Books.
  • Chaos, Nonlinearity, Uncertainty and Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions
    • Gleick, James. 1987. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking.
  • Geophysiology (Gaia Theory)
    • Lovelock, James E. 2000. Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. Stroud: Gaia.
  • Climate Change
    • Weart, Spencer R. 2003. "The Discovery of Global Warming" in New histories of science, technology, and medicine. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
    • Magdoff, Harry, John Bellamy Foster, and Robert W. McChesney. 2004. "The Pentagon and Climate Change." Monthly Review 56:1-13.
  • Noosphere
    • Vernadsky, Vladimir I. 1945. "The Biosphere and the Noosphere." American Scientist 33:12.
    • Samson, Paul R., and David Pitt. 1999. The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society, and Change. London ; New York: Routledge,.
    • Kelly, Kevin. 1995. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
  • Social Systems as Dissipative
    • Prew, Paul. 2003. "The 21st Century World-Ecosystem: Dissipation, Chaos, or Transition?" Pp. 203-219 in Emerging Issues in the 21st Century World-System: New Theoretical Directions for the 21st Century World-System, edited by Wilma A. Dunaway. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
    • Harvey, David L., and Michael H. Reed. 1994. "The Evolution of Dissipative Social Systems." Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 17:371-411.
  • Social Systems in Complexity Studies
    • Capra, Fritjof. 2002. The Hidden Connections" a Science for Sustainable Living. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Networks in Complexity Studies
    • Buchanan, Mark. 2002. Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Complexity Studies in Sociology
    • Byrne, David S. 1999. Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.
    • Worster, Donald. 1997. "The Ecology of Order and Chaos." Pp. 3-17 in Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History, edited by Char Miller and Hal Rothman. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Additional Readings

  • Capra, Fritjof. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Faber, Jan, and Henk Koppelaar. 1994. "Chaos Theory and Social Science: A Methodological Analysis." Quality & Quantity 28:421-33.
  • Geyer, R. Felix, and Johannes van der Zouwen. 2001. Sociocybernetics: Complexity, Autopoiesis, and Observation of Social Systems. Westport: Greenwood Press.
  • Gregersen, Hal, and Lee Sailer. 1993. "Chaos Theory and Its Implications for Social Science Research." Human Relations 46:777-803.
  • Kiel, L. Douglas, and Euel W. Elliott (Eds.). 1996. Chaos Theory in the Social Sciences: Foundations and Applications. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: D. Reidel Pub. Co.
  • Prigogine, Iyla. 1996. "The Laws of Chaos." Review 19:1-9.
  • Straussfogel, Debra. 1997. "A Systems Perspective on World-System Theory." Journal of Geography 96:119-26.
  • Vernadsky, Vladimir I. 1998. The Biosphere. New York: Copernicus.
  • Zeleny, Milan (Ed.). 1980. Autopoiesis, Dissipative Structures, and Spontaneous Social Orders. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Zeleny, Milan (Ed.). 1981. Autopoiesis, a Theory of Living Organizations. New York: North Holland.

  • There are a couple of readings that would be helpful prerequisites
    • Capra, Fritjof. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books.
    • Foster, John Bellamy. 1999. "Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology." American Journal of Sociology 105:366-405.
    • Marx, Karl - selections from Capital, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
    • Engels - selections from Dialectics of Nature
2012 Paul Prew. All Rights Reserved. No reproduction or distribution permitted without written permission of the author.