Complexity, Social Complexity, and Modeling

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55 Scopus citations


Social complexity has long been a subject of considerable interest and study among archaeologists; it is generally taken to refer to human societies consisting of large numbers of people, many social and economic roles, large permanent settlements, along with a variety of other marker criteria. When viewed from a more general complex systems perspective, however, all human societies are complex systems regardless of size or organizational structure. Complex adaptive systems (CAS) represent systems which are dynamic in space, time, organization, and membership and which are characterized by information transmission and processing that allow them to adjust to changing external and internal conditions. Complex systems approaches offer the potential for new insights into processes of social change, linkages between the actions of individual human agents and societal-level characteristics, interactions between societies and their environment, and allometric relationships between size and organizational complexity. While complex systems approaches have not yet coalesced into a comprehensive theoretical framework, they have identified important isomorphic properties of organization and behavior across diverse phenomena. However, it is difficult to operationalize complex systems concepts in archaeology using the descriptive/confirmatory statistics that dominate quantitative aspects of modern archaeological practice. These are not designed to deal with complex interactions and multilevel feedbacks that vary across space and time. Nor do narratives that simply state that societies are characterized by interacting agent/actors who share cultural knowledge, and whose interacting practices create emergent social-level phenomena add much to our understanding. New analytical tools are needed to make effective use of the conceptual tools of complex systems approaches to human social dynamics. Computational and systems dynamics modeling offer the first generation of such analytical protocols especially oriented towards the systematic study of CAS. A computational model of small-scale society with subsistence agriculture is used to illustrate the complexity of even "simple" societies and the potential for new modeling methods to assist archaeologists in their study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)306-324
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • Adaptation
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Complexity
  • Computational model
  • Emergence
  • Subsistence agriculture
  • Tipping points

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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