Complexity Theory of International Relations: An Introduction

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Complexity Theory of International Relations: An Introduction by Mohammed Hemchi, examining complexity theory from within the framework of the ongoing debates in the Social Sciences.

The book argues that complexity is an essential aspect of global political processes and interactions, and has been for the last three decades, outlining the advantages of integrating this theory into the international relations discipline. It starts from an understanding of the international system as a complex and disorderly system (or a complex system consisting of many complex systems), rather than the traditional hypothesis that presents it as a system with a chaotic structure, which has been maintained by successive IR traditions. Here, Hemchi opens a discussion on several theoretical problems inherent in international relations, which fall within the two problems of causation and grand theory, and how complexity theory can provide possible solutions to the dilemmas that these problems create.

The book consists of thirteen chapters, divided into four sections. The first section constitutes an introduction to complexity theory, over three chapters. The author first presents a brief discussion of quantum physics as an introduction to complexity theory, examining the basic founding principles of quantum physics and listing a set of conceptual paradoxes to understand these principles. The chapter also explores a set of mathematically inspired portraits by painter Maurits Escher, which give a sensory impression of a set of ultra-abstract concepts that developed in physics and mathematics. In the second chapter, Hemchi outlines six basic concepts on which the theory is based, before discussing the theory in greater depth in the third. He believes that an obsession with simplicity and reduction is what motivated classical science to search for the primary unity from which the universe is formed; giving the example of the atom, which was initially believed to be the elementary unit, until it turned out that the atom actually represents a very complex system and is also capable of being divided. Likewise, the electron, is an undefined, complex unit that cannot be isolated from its surroundings. These scientific discoveries took place during the search for simplification and reduction and ended up more complex than could have been imagined.

The second section explores both the potential and limits of complexity theory for International Relations across three chapters. The fourth chapter examines the growing questions about the qualifier of “international” in the international relations discipline, which some arguments claim has become too narrow to describe the breadth of actors and interactions involved. It also focuses on James Rosenau’s contributions to the concept of “governance without government” that has become the basis for the concept of global governance, as an epistemological and ontological concept at the same time. In the fifth chapter, Hemchi discusses the three main topics to which complexity theory can contribute and the importance of transdisciplinary methods. Chapter Six examines the ability of complexity theory redefine the field and rethink the predictability of the nonlinear behaviour of the complex/chaotic international system.

The third section includes four chapters and looks at the problem of causation in International Relations. In the seventh chapter, the author presents a brief critical reading of the main interventions in the debate on the causes of war, as an aspect of the epistemological crisis that characterizes the problem of causation. In the eighth chapter, the author problematises the epistemological implications of in international relations. In the ninth chapter, Hemchi seeks to present the alternative concept of causation, which is based on the contributions of critical realism. He draws some lessons from complexity theory, and proceeds from the assumption that causal explanations should be sensitive to the (increasing) complexity that always complicates causality in the social world. Chapter Ten utilizes complexity theory to justify the transition from the concept of causal mechanisms to the concept of causal complexes.

In the third section, Hemchi examines complexity theory and the problem of grand theory in International Relations over three chapters. In Chapter Eleven, the author provides a reading of the main contributions to International Relations that problematise grand theory in, with a focus on the interventions of Chris Brown, who clearly argues that there is no single grand theory that develops according to consistent internal discussions. In the twelfth chapter, Hemchi discusses the concept of analytic eclecticism among theories in relation to the problem of the grand theory, highlighting the prospects of eclectic philosophy and the lessons that can be learned from complexity theory, and explaining why it deserves more attention in the Social Sciences. In the thirteenth and final chapter, the author presents a set of observations on how discussions of grand theory and analytical eclecticism, can help produce research that visualizes prospects for “de-problematising” epistemology, noting the emergence of critical realism in the field of international relations as a new and important trend.

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