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Complex Systems Science and Systemic Racism

A statement from The Complex Systems Faculty "Here at the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, we stand in solidarity with these efforts toward greater social justice and vocally oppose all expressions of bigotry and hate."


The unjust killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black Americans in recent years have spurred a national reevaluation of the nature and origins of systemic racism, discrimination, inequality, identity, and bias. 

Here at the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, we stand in solidarity with these efforts toward greater social justice and vocally oppose all expressions of bigotry and hate.  

In acknowledgement of this fact, CSCS as a community has committed itself to supporting and amplifying work at the intersections of systemic racism and complex systems.  The approach that we will take proceeds from a position that social issues must be approached and understood holistically, from a diversity of disciplinary perspectives that engage communities of practice.

Given that commitment, we will be developing programming, curriculum enhancements, and other initiatives in the coming years to address these critical gaps in our collective knowledge. We recognize that the practice of science itself relies on informal social norms shaped by historical biases, so we will be vigilant in challenging our own preconceptions as we proceed.

We make no claims to be experts in the areas of social justice or systemic racism. However, several of the concepts and ideas that we do study, such as: positive and negative feedback; dependence on initial conditions; systems effects; and network effects; all have relevance to the current situation.  

In this brief document, we provide a short background on the field of complex systems and links to some research by others in our field that we hope you find relevant as an entrée into complex systems thinking.

Complex Systems

The field of complex systems investigates populations of diverse, adaptive entities connected in networks.  These entities may be neurons, species, people, organizations, or nations.  As scholars, we seek to identify and understand phenomena that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.  

To give just one example, species in an ecosystem, people in an organization, and firms in an industry all construct and occupy niches.  We ask questions such as: how does one identify a niche?  How do niches emerge?  Are niches robust?  Do species create niches or do niches and species co-evolve?

In light of our appreciation of the unpredictability and causal depth of phenomena, complexity scholars view simple fixes skeptically.  As a community, complexity scholars tend toward humility when confronted with applied questions.  Hence, our reluctance to weigh in as experts.  

Yet, we also believe that what we study matters.  We passionately believe that if the core ideas, concepts, frameworks, and insights of complex systems were more widely understood by the public and the policy community, that we would live in a more sustainable, productive, equal world.

Complexity and Systemic Racism

With that background, given the recent emphasis on systemic racism, we would like to point out several strands of research within the broad field of complex systems that have relevance.  We do not presume to have the answers.  Instead, we believe in the power of solutions generated from within communities built from their experiences and local knowledge.

We have cultivated a short list of articles and book chapters from the field of complex systems that offer insights into the complexity of trying to make sense of the aggregated behavior of individual entities whether they be ants in a colony, neurons in our brains, or diverse people in a society.

These papers provide insights into how macro level phenomena such as segregation, structural inequality, and racial bias emerge, often unintentionally, from the micro level interactions of people, and how social structures are in turn, reproduced via their shaping of individuals’ behaviors and beliefs.

 Article #1 Control Without Hierarchy (Deborah Gordon) 

This paper explains how control can emerge among a collective within a colony of ants.  The paper teaches us how a systemic effect can be produced by individuals following rules.  That idea is central to complex systems: macro level effects emerge from the bottom up.

Article #2 More is Different (Phil Anderson) 

This article, written by a physicist, explains how aggregates of entities can possess properties that the individual components do not.  A single water molecule cannot be wet.  A single neuron cannot think.   This idea has implications for systems.  We may describe a system as discriminatory, supportive, or productive.  Those systemic properties need not reside directly in the individuals.  They may emerge.

Article #3 Schelling’s Segregation Model (Thomas Schelling)

This model shows how individuals with mild preferences for racial integration produce highly segregated communities.  As in the previous two papers, we see a disconnect between behavior at the micro level – a preference for integration but an unwillingness to be surrounded by those different from you - and macro level patterns - in this case widespread segregation. This paper provides one example of how a subtle effect at one level can amplify to produce a substantial effect at the next.

Article #4 Diversity and Prosocial Behavior  (Delia Baldassarri and Maria Abascal)

Article showing how the potential for pro-social behavior to create social cohesion in multi-ethnic societies.  The cooperative (pro-social) behaviors that produce thriving societies differ in homogenous and diverse societies.   The social positioning of minorities and immigrants plays a key role in whether an integrated society can emerge.

Article #5  Statutory Inequality: The Logics of Monetary Sanctions in State Law (Brittany Friedman, Mary Pattillo)

Explains how legal monetary sanctions which seem logical when considered in isolation create a system that reinforces inequality.   This paper demonstrates the importance of thinking systemically about policy.  Attempts to improve society that proceed issue by issue, policy by policy, may produce a poorly performing system.

Article #6  Understanding COVID-19 Risks and Vulnerabilities among Black Communities in America: The Lethal Force of Syndemics

Syndemic theory describes how multiple negative impacts collectively reinforce poor health and exacerbate its negative consequences. Black communities in the United States are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Syndemic theory provides a useful framework for understanding interactions between health and social disparity.   The takeaway from this paper is that we must focus on the system of problems not just a single dimension.

Article #7 Chapter 1 Reproducing Racism (Daria Roithmayr)

Legal scholar Daria Roithmayr provocatively argues that racial inequality lives on because white advantage functions as a powerful self-reinforcing monopoly, reproducing itself automatically from generation to generation even in the absence of intentional discrimination. Drawing on work in antitrust law and a range of other disciplines, Roithmayr brilliantly compares the dynamics of white advantage to the unfair tactics of giants like AT&T and Microsoft. With penetrating insight, Roithmayr locates the engine of white monopoly in positive feedback loops that connect the dramatic disparity of Jim Crow to modern racial gaps in jobs, housing and education.


Release Date: 10/08/2020
Tags: Complex Systems