The authority of complexity

Nico Stehr, Reiner Grundmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The assertion about the unique 'complexity' or the peculiarly intricate character of social phenomena has, at least within sociology, a long, venerable and virtually uncontested tradition. At the turn of the last century, classical social theorists, for example, Georg Simmel and Emile Durkheim, made prominent and repeated reference to this attribute of the subject matter of sociology and the degree to which it complicates, even inhibits the development and application of social scientific knowledge. Our paper explores the origins, the basis and the consequences of this assertion and asks in particular whether the classic complexity assertion still deserves to be invoked in analyses that ask about the production and the utilization of social scientific knowledge in modern society. We present John Maynard Keynes' economic theory and its practical applications as an illustration. We conclude that the practical value of social scientific knowledge is not dependent on a faithful, in the sense of complete, representation of social reality. Instead, social scientific knowledge that wants to optimize its practicality has to attend and attach itself to elements of social situations that can be altered or are actionable.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-329
Number of pages17
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2001


  • complexity
  • social
  • sociological knowledge
  • knowledge application
  • social and economic theory


Dive into the research topics of 'The authority of complexity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this