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Social Systems

A group of friends forms a type of social systems through their set of interdependencies

A group of friends forms a type of social system through their interdependencies

A social system is a set of individuals and relations between them through which they form part of some interdependent organization as a whole.1 The basic model of a social system consists of social actors, called agents and a set of relations between them that bind them into some state of interdependence where the actions and state of one effect the state of others. Social actors have what is called agency meaning an individual or organization that acts to produce a particular result and their interactions can be defined by game theory in terms of positive, negative or zero-sum games that give rise to different relations of cooperation, conflict or exchange with associated social structure and dynamics that derive from this. The idea of a system is central to dealing with social complexity as it offers us a very abstract model and solid basis on which to structure our reasoning about complex social systems.

Social Systems

A system is a set of parts called elements and the connections between these parts called relations. Through these relations, the elements are interdependent in affecting a joint outcome. By interdependent, we mean that if we change the state of one element this will affect the state of other elements within the system.  We can contrast a system with a set where a set consists of a group of independent elements such as a bowl of fruit. If we change one of the fruit, this would not affect any of the others because the variables associated with each element are independent.
A social system is then a set of social actors and the relations or ties between them. Again, we could contrast a social system with a simple set of people, such as a group of people waiting for a bus, which are simply a collection of unassociated individuals. But now imagine when the bus arrives, there is an elderly lady who needs help to get on the bus, so one person comes to hold the door open and two others give her support on each side. Now, we have a social system because the individuals are interrelated and interdependent in affecting the joint outcome. All the individuals are arranged in a particular fashion or occupy a particular state in order to perform a collective function; as such the individuals are interdependent. And this is the same for all social systems, such as a corporation that has well-defined roles and relations between those roles through which they perform a collective function of producing some goods or services. A government is another example of a social system with well-defined differentiated roles that relate to each other and are interdependent in performing the collective function of social governance.

Social Actors

Social systems are made up of social actors or what are called agents within complexity theory. Agents are abstract models of individuals or organizations which have agency, meaning the capacity to make choices and to act independently on those choices to affect the state of their environment. In order to make choices, agents need some set of rules under which to make those choices. This set of instructions or rules can be based on some simple linear cause and effect model, such as a trader choosing to sell a stock if it goes below a certain price. This basic set of linear rules we call an algorithm. But these choices may be much more complex such as when choosing whether to change carriers or not. These more complex decisions are the product of many interacting factors. They are not the product of simple cause and effect dynamic but they emerge out of the agent’s representation of its environment and some set of values called a schema.  With this capacity of agency comes autonomy. In choices and actions, agents define themselves as independent from other things and thus define their own identity with associated responsibility for their actions.2


Social institutions can be seen a complex sets of interdependence between people's agency

Social institutions can be seen as complex sets of interdependence between the agency of its members

Agency is not then  just a property of an individual but organizations can have agency, that is to say, we as individuals can give over our agency to other people or organizations. For example, take the case of Kate who is a shop owner making an inventory she realizes that she needs more stock so she sends one of her employees James to make this order. James is now acting on the behalf of Kate; he is a legal agent, a party that is legally authorized to act on the behalf of another. Kate is considered the principal in this relationship, meaning she has given authority to another to act on her behalf, both principal and agent can be individuals or organizations. Or to take another example this agent-principal relation is the one that we have with our politicians within a democratic republic. We hand over our choices within the political decision-making process to our representatives.3 In the same way that we empower organizations with agency and in doing so, we hand over our choices and actions to them. The reverse is also true once organizations have agency, they then endow this upon roles within that organization. The individuals fulfilling those roles are then empowered with that agency; they can make choices and act on behalf of the organization. A commander of an army can tell his troops what to do because they have given that organization their agency, that is to say, their independent choices and actions and the organization has endowed anyone occupying the role of the commander with the authority to make choice and guide their actions for them.4

Complex Interdependency

Agents within social systems have agency; they act based upon their representation of the world or schema in order to affect some desired outcome. And thus, as soon as we have two or more agents, we may have some form of interaction between them as they both follow their agendas. In this interaction, agents become interdependent. This dynamic of interdependence is described within social interdependence theory, which posits two different types of social interdependence, positive and negative.5 Positive interdependence exists when there is a positive correlation among individuals’ goal attainments, meaning that individuals perceive that they can attain their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked attain their goals. Negative interdependence exists when there is a negative correlation among individuals’ goal achievements; individuals perceive that they can obtain their goals if the other individual with whom they are competitively linked fail to obtain their goals. Along with these two types of interaction, we may also have an interaction of simple exchange which is described within standard economics by ration choice theory. Here, agents are simply swapping one thing for another in a linear fashion.6 These interactions can be formalized within game theoretical terms. Positive interdependencies are zero or positive sum games, meaning the whole pie may get bigger through cooperation. Negative interdependencies are zero or negative sum games, meaning the whole pies may get smaller through the interaction. Exchange interactions give us zero-sum games; the whole is not changing, we are simply moving around who gets what. These different types of interdependencies create attractors towards fundamentally different types of interaction between agents; that of cooperation derived from positive interdependency and that of conflict derived from negative interdependency and trade from interactions of exchange.

Conflict & Cooperation

Conflictual relations are zero or negative-sum interactions where the interests of one are pitted against those of other, relations of conflict arise when agents with divergent agendas interact over some rival resource. By rival, we mean that the resource that each agent desires is exclusive where only one agent can own or occupy that resource at any given time. This may include some physical resources, some social status, ideology etc. This interdependence coupled with excludability means one agent can obtain more of some rival resources by reducing another’s access to it which creates a dynamic of conflict.7 When agent’s agendas are aligned towards a common outcome we can get cooperative relations. Cooperation is the process of groups of social actors working or acting together for their common mutual benefit or that of others. Cooperation is often the product of needing to perform some function that requires individuals with different capabilities to coordinate their activities towards a common outcome. In such a dynamic for any one agent to achieve the desired outcome, every other agent has to also achieve it, meaning that each agent will be equally interested in the fulfillment of their own role and agenda as that of other. For example, if a father or mother is interested in providing a good family context for raising their child, they will have to be equally interested in the fulfillment of their role as much as the fulfillment of the role of their partner and this creates a very strong attractor towards cooperation. When agents with different capabilities coordinate their activities we get what is called a synergy.


Exchange, involves a two-sided, mutually rewarding process involving a trade like transactions where agents simply swap things. It is formed out of the agent’s subjective cost-benefit analysis and their comparison of alternatives. As self-interest and rationality are central properties in an exchange interaction, social exchange theory features many of the main assumptions found in rational choice theory. Whereas the first two types of interaction will typically give us nonlinear results, meaning conflict or cooperation will add or subtract significant value from the whole system, Exchange instead will typically give near-linear results since we are simply swapping things around, no great value to the whole system is being added or subtracted through the exchange and the whole will remain more or less a simple summation of its parts. Because exchange can be best described with reference to linear models it is understood very well within standard economic theory.8

Social Structure

Social structures can be seen as recurring, enduring patterns within socials sytems

Social structures can be seen as recurring, enduring patterns within socials systems

Out of these different types of relations develop some form of enduring structure to that system called social structure. In the social sciences, social structure is the pattern of social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions and relations between agents. As enduring patterns of behavior and interaction, they define some form order to the overall system. Again, the type of social structure that emerges is largely a product of the type of interaction between agents.


With relations of negative interdependence, because the resource is excludable the net result will always be one of the agents assuming a dominant position while the other a subordinated position, thus defining a power dynamic. By power, we mean the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others irrespective of their personal agenda. The power dynamics that hold a particular social structure within a configuration are an organic product of agonistic interactions between agents over excludable resources. The social structure that emerges out of this competition will be the formation of some kind of stratified social system based upon access to the rival good. This may also be called a hierarchy which arises when members of a social group interact to create a social structure with a linear or nearly linear ranking system, with that ranking system directly correlated to the distribution of some underlining desired resources within the system such as economics value, social prestige etc. The conflictual relations that are an inherent part of this type of social system are a constant potential for disorder, and it is seen that there needs to be some counter prevailing force exerted in order to maintain the social structure. The order is seen to derive through the exercising of authority in a top-down fashion through some centralized control system.9


Cooperative relations give rise to collaborative organizations where agents self-organize around a common function. Cooperation gives rise to peer dynamics. When the realization of each agent’s agenda is recognized as been important in the realization of the combined agenda and when there are limited hierarchical structures based on consumption, then relations are horizontal in nature, creating a network structure. Order within this type of system is seen to derive from the interconnections and the positive interdependencies between agents. It is these interdependencies that bond the system into an integrated whole and thus maintain some form of structure and coherence. From this perspective, the greater the differentiation and specialization between the agents, the greater the positive interdependency between them and the greater the glue binding them into a state of order.
The net result of collaboration is what is called emergence. The synergistic relations are nonlinear, they add value to the whole system and out of this added value, we get the emergence of a new level of organization, a collective function. For example, through all the ants performing differentiated functions and coordinating these individual functions within the whole colony, we get the emergence of a complex society whose capability and structure is qualitatively different from that of any of its components, that is to say out of these synergies a new level of organization has emerged. This phenomenon of emergence is ubiquitous across all types of social systems, from families to communities to business organizations. This emergent phenomenon creates a structure that is not associated with any of the individual properties of the parts that form it.

Utilitarian Organization

Relations of exchange give us a market like social structure. This social structure will often have some centralized third party that mediates and facilitates the exchange, like a bank that takes in deposits and hands out loans. All three parties are engaging in this interaction out of their own interests and the net result is a market structure that has some kind of equilibrium representing a balance between all of the different parties self-interests, like that between supply and demand.


Social dynamics looks at how social systems change over time

Social dynamics looks at how social systems change over time

These different social structures have very different internal dynamics, that is to say, processes through which the internal social structure changes over time. The dynamics of hierarchical social systems composed predominantly of competitive relations are described within sociology by conflict theory. Conflict theory posits that the dominant strata within the hierarchy will use their position and resources to maintain their privileged position. In doing so, they will reduce social mobility and people of merit will not be able to rise, meaning those in the upper stators become less competent and there is also the accumulative effect called the rich get richer, as the whole system becomes more polarized, ultimately leading to an abrupt discontinuous change.10 As such conflict is seen as an inherent part of the social dynamic, as Karl Marx put it “without conflict no progress: this is the law that civilization has followed to this day.” From the conflict perspective societies develop, because for every action of oppression there is an equal and opposite force that accumulates over time as the two become more diametrically opposed, ultimately leading to a state of complete conflict and an ensuing regime shift. And this is considered the primary dynamic which drives this type of social system as it develops over time.


Cooperative relations can be adaptive when the ultimate aim is not to maintain one’s status and access to rival goods, but to enable the operation of a shared function, elements can adapt their role and relation to that of other agents in order to best facilitate the joint outcome. When the ultimate aim of the agent or organization is to perform some collective function, the emphasis is on a person’s competency in performing that function, resulting in a more meritocratic system, an important mechanism for social mobility and integration between different levels within the social system.


This whole social system exists within some environment and is subject to long term evolution as that environment changes. This change may be in technology and economic conditions, such as the rise of the capitalist system during the early modern era. It may be some change within the natural environment or changes within the culture and beliefs of that society, either way, the whole system goes through long-term processes of change where new functions are required to be performed while others become redundant.
Through this process of evolution the system has to adapt by producing new variance to see which of these are best suited to the changing context, new roles within organizations, new jobs and intuitions within society or new ideas within a culture, with those new social phenomena that are most functional in enabling people and organizations to adapt to the new context being retained, integrated and shared with those that are not becoming less prevalent within the future lifecycle of the system. In such a way the whole social system can evolve in a distributed fashion. Through this process of evolution, the society can successfully adapt to new changes and it develops new specialized subsystems, as it becomes both more differentiated and integrated leading to what we might call greater complexity.11

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Social Systems," in Complexity Academy, September 5, 2016,
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