Anthro Complexity, to be or not to be?


This article looks at the emergence of Anthro-Complexity as a school of thought for better understanding human decision-making in complex adaptive systems. It responds to Dave Snowden's post, "Naturalising Narrated", and some associated debate. This article is not a criticism or a critique; I am writing as an observer on the ground watching a plane flying overhead and this is what I see.

Anthro-Complexity, a thumbnail sketch by Dave Snowden

Complexity for beings who are "not ants, or birds"

"Complexity science is there and important, but so to are the cognitive sciences, aspects of biology such as epigenetic, string and constructor theory in physics and several others […] human systems are different, and that symbolic language is a critical aspect off that difference which links back into the narrative and other work that is so much a part of what we do" - Dave Snowden, 2015

The 3Is of Anthro-Complexity

Anthro-complexity starts with homo-faber (the maker), homo-ludens (the player) and homo-narrans (the storytelling animal). At the very least, this means addressing the 3Is:

  • Intelligence - because no matter where we stand on human cognition being embodied, embedded, enculturated and enabling, and perhaps also enacted and extended, we need to allow for reflection on experience, for abstraction from experience, and for all else that we associate with higher levels of cognition.

  • Intentionality - because in recognising that how humans are attracted to different opportunities for action goes beyond responding to stimuli, Anthro-Complexity foregrounds matters relating to purpose (or priorities) in ways which highlight our facility with abstraction and which introduces deliberative choice and goal setting.

  • Identity - because our awareness of the fluidity in how we "show up" in different contexts, and of the way we hold lightly or tightly to any coherence we perceive in how we take things as unfolding, means those of us navigating Anthro-Complexity must delve into notions of recognition, respect and dignity in ways which we commonly find difficult to convey outside of our narratives.

Taken from

Here I am, looking up at the contrails of Anthro-Complexity as it speeds towards an unknown destination.

anthropology-complexity thinking like building a plane in flight

What follows neither supports nor rejects the concept of Anthro-Complexity. I intend to add another layer to the parallax narrative to demonstrate that there to be no 'right way' to make sense of decision-making in complex adaptive systems. Each view is more or less useful than any other, and it is in the synthesis of views that we reveal more of the unknowns that serve to influence our journey.

Imagine a large box. Looking inside, you can see a single layer of red and green glass balls that occupy about 30% of the surface. The box sits on an oscillating plate, and the balls move, colliding with each other and the box's walls. You decide that you want to understand their movements to predict the future position of a given ball or group of balls. You have heard about a filter that scientists use to analyse such patterns and choose to place that filter over the box's top. You make your observations and champion the filter's power to enhance the predictability the movements. However, unknown to you, the filter blocks out the green balls. The filter and its exclusion properties is a problem here. To understand the possibilities offered by Anthro-Complexity, we need to understand what else exists.

Complexity and the parallax narrative of justified true belief

I want to be clear on three facts - my justified true beliefs - that are influencing my observations at this time and underpin what is to come:

  1. Humans cannot achieve the all-seeing eye in a complex adaptive system because humans, even aided by technology, can never know the entirety of the system's unknowns (e.g. nodes, connections, connectivity, speed, accelerations).

  2. It is not possible to both know the current state of the system and its momentum.

  3. Any view of a complex adaptive system's 'current state' is a fallacy because you can only be looking at the past, where the present is unknowable.

Anthro-Complexity is, at first sight, an exciting proposition focusing on studying human behaviour and behaviour patterns linked to decision-making in complexity.

Anthropology seems to be a natural fit for understanding decision-making in an environment governed by the actions and non-actions of collaborating and competing human agents - people! However, cast your mind back to the box and the glass balls. In positioning anthropology as a lens - a boundary - to view decision-making in complex adaptive systems, the lens potentially distorts or excludes important factors from view.

Without being overly simplistic, suppose you are interested in decision-making in complexity and suppose your view of the world sets a limit, a boundary that creates exclusion instead of all-encompassing inclusion (holism). In that case, it seems fair to say that you increase the likelihood of unintended consequences in your actions to influence an anticipated future state.

Is Anthro-Complexity a plane that can't land?

Unknowns create anxiety; anxiety drives fear, and fear stimulates our freeze-fight-flight response. Offering a lens that frames complexity in such a way that boundaries and nodes, including their connections and connectivity, speed and acceleration, can be known is comforting. However, falsifiability ultimately determines its usefulness because we need to be interested in the circumstances where the concept can be proven wrong. In other words, we observers need to be interested in the conditions under which Anthro-Complexity stresses and fails in practice.

Where opinions are many and spoken in tongues, science is the candle in the dark

Before we depart on Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket's philosophical twin, Anthro-Complexity's claims need to be clearly defined, and warrants for these claims put forward for scrutiny by the wider community. Some might argue for pragmatic validity. I hear you. However, we observers need more than opinions; we need facts. For me, that means conducting experiments and providing access to their findings. We can then explore the confirmability, credibility, transferability and dependability of Anthro-Complexity's claims and supporting warrants. I want to know it is safe to get on the plane. If it's not metaphorically safe, then Anthro-Complexity needs to be grounded and hopefully faster than Boeing's 737 MAX!

In seeking to create a paradigm shift toward Anthro-Complexity - a pioneering and 'right' way to approach organisational complexity and decision-making - it is necessary to engage in a wide-ranging discussion on, for example, what has been excluded - cast aside - from this school of thought and why.

From my observation point, I'm asking why Antrho-Complexity as opposed to Actant-Complexity? I'll explain what I mean by this in a moment, but in dismissing Actant-Complexity, what are the points of convergence/divergence between the two concepts and what do these points of departure potentially teach us about Anthro-Complexity and its founding claims.

Anthro Complexity and or ANT, what is to be or not to be?

Caveat emptor, what is to come is not a stealth introduction to a competing school of thought; what follows is taken from Actor-Network Theory (ANT). I am only introducing the concept to demonstrate another voice in the parallax narrative that contributes to our understanding of decision-making in complexity.

One of Anthro-Complexity's core tenets is homo faber, the belief that human beings can control their fate and environment by creating tools. Ultimately, as you will see from the three things influencing my thinking (above), this is problematic. I'll add a further fly to the ointment, where people have agency. As self-determining agents in a complex adaptive system, people will have varying views on their fate, which will bring them to either compete or collaborate with other agents in the system. From this perspective, I introduce ANT not as a 'right tool' but as a competing tool.

Anthro-Complexity is ultimately interested in the social:

-soc-, root.

-soc- comes from Latin, where it has the meaning "partner;

comrade.'' This meaning is found in such words as: associate, association, disassociate, social, socialise, society, socio-, unsociable.

Soc. or soc.,an abbreviation of:

  1. society.

  2. Sociologysociology. (

ANT is a body of work founded by the likes of Latour and Callon. As with Anthro-Complexity, it came from dissatisfaction with traditional approaches in sociology and, as such, shares similar beginnings with Anthro-Complexity.

Sociology is the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. Sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organisations, and societies, and how people interact within these contexts.

ANT makes a departure from traditional thinking where knowledge production dynamics - the way we make sense of the world - are investigated, considering human and non-human actors. In other words, the complex adaptive system within which we exist comprises human and non-human nodes. A non-human actor can be of human origin (e.g. a Standard Operating Procedure or your smartphone) or a non-human origin (e.g. wind or rain). The node can be tangible (the Standard Operating Procedure) or non-tangible (e.g. your knowledge of network theory).

ANT considers our environment as a network, a sociology of heterogenous associations between humans and non-humans. This sociology of associations does not attempt to bring certainty in complexity; instead, it shines a light on the uncertainties of the nature of groups, their actions, objects, facts and the way of making sense of complexity - of knowing and writing about the social. Fundamentally, ANT is about revealing associations, thereby revealing the networks constituted through alliances, flows and mediations.

I have been speaking of Actors as system nodes, but in ANT what is interesting is the Actant, meaning all that generates an action, which produces movement and difference (momentum and impact).

And this is where I reach the point of my brief introduction to ANT, does Anthro-Complexity and embrace or reject the notion of human and non-human, tangible and non-tangible, nodes. If so, where is it acknowledged in its claims? If not, what is it that brings Anthro-Complexity to reject ANT?

Here lies the challenge to Anthro-Complexity, because, at the moment, it can only be said to be in a state of becoming. Observing from the ground, it seems like Dave is both building and designing the plane in flight, and my concern is that he doesn't have all the parts he needs to successfully land it.