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Complex Systems Theory

A system is the interaction of different components to create structures that can be delineated from other structures, either physical or abstract. In complex systems theory, a component can refer to any element or process within the system that contributes to its unified structure, including spatiotemporal fields (i.e., time and space). Like a system itself, the individual components can be physical or abstract and can be viewed as “some overall state or form at a particular point in time” (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008, p. 26) even if that state is subject to change from one moment to the next. Systems can also be made up of completely natural and physical components, like the ecosystem of an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.They can also have components that include natural physical elements, engineered structures, and human agents, like the local mosque.

Systems can be both simple and complex. A simple system has a closed set of components and potential outcomes. A simple system might be, for example, a battery-powered vacuum cleaner that has only three power settings—the vacuum can only be off or at low, middle, or high power. The switch allows the user to go from off to low to mid to high, and back again, and so the vacuum only has these four states.

Complex systems that surround people in everyday life, on the other hand, don’t have a closed set of components and outcomes. There are an unfathomable number of possibilities for what the exact weather in Chicago might be like today, depending on the interaction of an immeasurable number of components. There might be regularities in the system—for example, with weather regularly cycling through a number of expected outcomes for spring, summer, autumn, and winter;

even so, depending on the interaction of a range of conditions, you may have a summer snow on very rare occasions.

Importantly, complex systems are self-organizing. Unlike the simple system of the vacuum cleaner, complex systems do not have designers and are not controlled by an individual person or engineer. They develop naturally with the interaction of the components resulting in emergent structures and behaviors. An ant hill, for example, with its complex physical structure, emerges from the interaction of a colony of ants over time, with each ant performing a seemingly rudimentary task. Even with no structural plans and no head ant telling members of the ant colony where to put their bit of dirt to build the ant hill, the natural interaction of ants results in a complex structure of tunnels and rooms that haven’t been mapped out in advance.

Interactions involving religious belief can also be seen as self-organizing complex systems, even in cases where there appears to be an engineer at work. The jumu’ah, the Islamic Friday prayer service at a local mosque, follows some set scripts which are ostensibly the same in every mosque throughout the world. However, different factors affect how Friday prayers are actually practiced. No two services are exactly the same from mosque to mosque or even in the same mosque from week to week.There are, again, innumerable factors that will affect how the service will proceed on any given week—what time of year it is, where the mosque is located, the social or political situation of the members, and the ethnicity or nationality of the majority of the worshippers. Although humans often think they exert control as agents in these systems, many factors limit the extent to which individuals can engineer specific outcomes, particularly when discourse is involved.

For language analysis, complex systems can be studied on different axes, taking into account the spatiotemporal components of the systems. First, complex systems can be viewed on what might be considered a vertical or spatial axis from the micro to the macro scale, from a specific instance out to larger structures. Complex interaction can also be viewed on different scales, often with individual systems embedded or “nested” in larger systems. In the prayer group example, you might look at the prayers of one person with a fine-grained analysis focusing on one interaction and thinking about the individual components in that individual’s life. Alternatively, you could consider the group as a whole, concentrating on the larger structure of a particular church and what sort of individuals within the church participate in the prayer group. At a broader level, the analysis could also focus on the church within a larger group of churches in a particular country or denomination. A premise of this approach is that the scope of analysis is not fixed, and how the research approaches any interaction or object requires consideration of a range of other factors in and around that interaction or object.

Second, complex systems exist in time. What occurs before and after any individual moment is important for how a system behaves and its trajectory, that is, its development over time. Timescales can be considered on many different levels, from the moment-by-moment interaction of people to the discourse event as one in a series of discourse events. In the example of group prayer, what an individual says will be influenced by what others have said before the prayer and by how, in the moment-by-moment interaction, their own prayer develops with the support of others. At the same time, the structure of the prayer meeting will likely be a part of a series of meetings held by a particular church or organization, and the meeting can therefore be analyzed as one event within that series. These events could also be understood in terms of a much longer history of prayer within a particular Christian denomination, with the etfects of events 50 or 100 years in the past affecting how people view prayer.

With this basic understanding of what complex systems are and how they might be delineated in terms of spatiotemporal components, some key terms and concepts are useful in thinking about the ways that complex systems interact.

With complex systems, there are usually a large number of elements, sometimes called agents, which interact with one another; these include living organisms with some amount of intention (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008, p. 27). The elements themselves may be considered complex systems on their own, like a human body. These elements interact as components within the complex system and can exert different influence at different times. Complex systems are also open; elements can enter and exit a system at different times.

Complex systems are made up of varied components. The individual elements and agents within a complex system have their own background and trajectories, with different experiences coming to bear at different points in time. The differences among even similar components in the system mean that no two components will be exactly the same, and the difference between them will have consequences for the behavior of the system.

Because of the openness of complex systems and the heterogeneity of components, complex systems are dynamic; that is, they change over time. These changes are nonlinear, and a clear starting and ending point of a complex system’s trajectory cannot necessarily be plotted. Complex systems can remain stable for a very long time and then change suddenly and unpredictably with the introduction of new components. Changes can occur in cycles with the buildup of certain elements at particular times or places forcing the system into a new state. Complex systems might show little or no stability and be in a constant dynamic state of flux with no perceivable patterns in the changes.

Changes in complex systems can occur in many different ways: sometimes in gradual shifts over time and sometimes in sudden, dramatic changes called phase shifts. Larsen-Freeman and Cameron use the metaphor of a ball rolling on a plane to describe these changes. A phase shift can be visualized as the process wherein the settled ball is disturbed and moves from one place to another to settle again. The places the ball settles are attractors, indents in the plane that the ball rolls into and stops. When the ball is settled in a particular place, it is stable until a change in the system moves it on to another attractor. The trajectory of the system is how it moves from state to state. Larsen-Freeman and Cameron go on to describe three kinds of attractors:

  • A fixed-point attractor appears when the system moves into one stable state and does not move from the place. In this state, the system has a fixed kind of behavior or stops a behavior altogether.
  • • When a cyclical or closed point attractor appears, the system moves between different attractor states in a cycle.
  • • Finally, a chaotic or strange attractor involves a situation where the system’s behavior has become unpredictable. The system may have numerous potential states, and any disturbance to the system may cause a phase shift.

As systems change and new elements and components enter and leave the system, different behaviors, processes, and structures emerge. Emergence describes the collective behavior of components within a system, beyond what any individual component is doing. Thus, emergence describes the properties of the system as a whole while keeping in mind that the system can be mapped and described backward in time and forward in time as a trajectory.

When interacting, components of complex systems emerge as organized structures. These can be actual physical or social structures depending on the affordances, or the action possibilities, of a particular complex system.The organization of components can occur on different scales and may have fractal properties, with similar organizational patterns on the micro scale also observable on the macro scale.

As complex systems are dynamic and open, changes in components require adaptation. Because all the components of a complex system are connected, change moves through the system. When one part of the system changes, other parts of the system are affected by those changes and adapt accordingly. This adaptation can lead to the emergence of new behaviors and collective attributes of the system. Adaptation can also include the splitting of systems or the consolidation of separate systems as different elements leave and enter. Co-adaptation occurs when two systems respond to changes in the other, and behaviors that are the direct responses of behaviors in the other system begin to emerge. In religious interaction, coadaptation occurs on a macro scale between Evangelical Christians and atheists arguing on YouTube, for example, as the arguments from one side are responded to by the other side. The behavior of one can’t be understood without paying attention to the behavior of the other.

Returning to the example of the prayer meeting, a complex systems model can be used to describe why and how language is used in the way that it is, with the potential that understanding the trajectory of the system may allow for some prediction regarding the nature of discourse in the meeting in the future.

Flaving already examined the spatiotemporal elements of the prayer meeting, the different elements of the system can now be considered by looking at one dynamic feature of prayer meetings: how the negotiation of topics emerges as the participants pray. Most obviously, the prayer meeting attendees act as agents in the system, and the heterogeneity of those agents will be important for understanding which topics emerge as they pray together. However, as the prayer meeting progresses, topics are likely to emerge via the interactions between each person’s contribution, with participants reacting to the prayers that came before them.The meeting might also have some components who act as agents within the systems, such as leaders who keep the meeting to time or introduce new topics in their prayers. There might be objects like written lists or electronic messages saying what should be prayed for, with the location of a request on a list affecting how long it remains a topic.

The topics that occur in a particular prayer meeting will also be affected by the spatial aspects of the meeting and the kinds of things that are prayed for within a particular denomination or a particular church. Prayers for financial success might be acceptable in some denominations but unacceptable in others. Some groups may be more comfortable describing personal, private issues, while others may not. The political position of members of the church and how particular public figures are viewed might also affect what emerges as a topic of prayer. How regularly the prayer meeting occurs will also likely affect the topic that emerges.

The topics will also be affected by the timing of the meeting: first, in terms of what occurs immediately before and after the meeting for the individuals who are present; and, then, in terms of what is happening over broader timescales, such as events within the national or political context, the occurrence of a natural disaster, or issues within the particular church. Longer-term temporal effects can be seen in the shift in practices and discourses of group prayer over time. Different topics, like prayers for financial success, may also come in and out of favor over time.

Thinking of attractors in the complex system of the prayer meeting, change might be observed in the ways that have so far been described. Gradual change in topics could occur over the course of a long meeting, or an abrupt change might occur within seconds. Meetings could become a very formulaic and stable system with the same topics and people making the same or similar prayers week in and week out, the result of the system remaining in a fixed-point attractor state. A single meeting might be described in terms of cyclical changes in the meeting trajectory: there might be phase shifts around cyclical or fixed-point attractors, going from one topic to the next, perhaps in response to celebrations and commemorations listed on a religious calendar. Or a single meeting may be described in terms of chaos or strange attractors when, for example, many people begin praying at the same time. In such instances, who takes the floor is not clearly determined by an orderly taking of turns, and small differences in how turns are negotiated may lead to divergent outcomes.

The examples here show how even a single element of discourse, in this case topic selection, can be impacted by a range of components within the complex system of the prayer meeting and how shifts in topics can be understood by thinking about attractors. Embedded in that system would be the individual cognitive processes of each person and how they experience and understand what others are saying. A complex systems theory approach to religious interaction therefore foregrounds social cognition and emphasizes the importance of considering the interplay of all the components present in interaction.

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