In the twilight of social transformation


Since the turn of the millennium, uncertainty has become the only constant of the now irrevocably complex era. Recurring shocks, from terrorism and financial market collapses, to mass migrations of the impoverished and the novel Coronavirus pandemic, world changing events are occurring at an ever-increasing pace of transformational metacrisis. They are leaving behind the foundations of the old order and normalcy in ruins. We find ourselves helpless between two epochs, in the twilight of transformation. It is getting harder to understand what is going on, while the image of the future is already completely blurred. In the storm of centuries, have we suddenly been left to wander blindly among the swirls of our own delusions? In fundamental uncertainty, can we still keep the reins of the future in hand and hope for a favourable resolution of the metacrisis in the unforeseeable future?

The question is complex and so should be the answer. The key problem of the present generation is not yet the metacrisis itself but the inability, or at least the unwillingness to comprehend and deal with complex phenomena in a complex way. Complexity is conventionally identified as a serious threat to social stability that is nevertheless manageable by improving standard routines.

The science of complexity does not present itself in very favourable light either. How the study is organised today, with sharp division between opposing approaches, already says a lot about the inadequacy of the current organisational approach to the study of complexity. The main schools, general and special, have authors who publish in separate journals and do not even meet at conferences. Each school often ignores the other or treats it antagonistically. This is particularly disturbing since the prime mission of complexity is precisely to bridge contradictions.

The predominant interpretations of the concept of social complexity are firmly anchored in the old ways of understanding the world, which see everything as polar: micro or macro, linear or nonlinear, systemic or random, binary or relativistic, etc. When dealing with complex phenomena, binary approaches remain binary, and relativistic ones relativistic. Antagonistic approaches do not speak the mother tongue of complexity, which is the language of the middle between opposites, and so they cannot penetrate into its core. In turn, one must carefully distinguish between the dominant interpretations of complexity that reproduce existing philosophical and scientific divisions from new explanations that aim to bridge them from the middle.

In order to understand the concept of complexity as a hybrid construct, one needs to start with a polar opposition, for instance between the economic (competitive) and social (egalitarian) development of society. Bridging is made possible by the introduction of a third, hybrid category in the middle, such as socio-economic development or social entrepreneurship. A hybrid contains part of each polarity so it can translate between them and harmonise between order and disorder. This is particularly helpful for governing societies that are ruled by uncertainty.

In the famous matrix diagram, professor Stacey accordingly placed the concept of complexity in the middle between complete certainty and complete uncertainty. Simplicity and chaos are opposite theories in his matrix, but similar in one important detail: they are conceptually pure, either linear or nonlinear. Complexity, however, is a hybrid concept. Complete dependence between components would turn a complex situation back into order, and complete independence into chaos (Heylighen).

To remain complex, components must be both separate and connected, on the one hand autonomous, on the other dependent, behaving rationally as much as irrationally, both in the same moment. The example illustrates how this is possible and indeed very common. Regardless of the fact that it will never be possible to grow an orange tree from an apple seed, a cocktail of the two juices can achieve harmony. On the periphery one can add apples and oranges, even though they are incompatible at the core. The idea of simultaneous connection and separation of things is not meaningless but irrationally-rational: no longer logical in a scientific manner but evaluatively, by intersecting facts and values or the visible and invisible in comprehension of complex situations.

The issue can be illustrated with another example by inverting the teachings of an ancient Sufi legend about blind men and an elephant. When after heated debate, the subjects could not agree on some important common cause, the king stepped in. He invited six blind men who had never met an elephant to reveal what he had placed in front of them just by touching its different parts. The first blind man described the trunk as a snake, the second explained ears as a carpet, a tusk as a spear, and a leg as a tree trunk. In the end, the king sums up the moral: people translate their direct but only partial experience into the only valid truth, which plunges them into insurmountable contradictions and prohibits them from seeing the kingdom’s concerns holistically.

The wise king is of course deceitful. He always finds ways to show how indispensable he is in deciding what is best for all. In this case by demanding a holistic answer from the fatally constrained on an indefinable matter. Their handicap is not blindness, for in fundamental uncertainty, no one can be omniscient and impartial. In complex conditions blindness, as an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance, can become an advantage. The fatal lack lies in the indeterminacy of the situation, which is precisely that you cannot know the unknown from its parts. The King deliberately directed the holistic aspirations of many against each other, with certainty against uncertainty, instead of helping each other to see in the darkness.

If any of the blind men were to think evaluatively, he would approach the recognition of the elephant differently. The evaluator would take the empirical observations of the blind with extreme caution. He would have been aware that they were dealing with a complex challenge, so no one could recognise the essence of things empirically. The meaning of what is objectively known by touching and measuring can, in a fundamentally uncertain situation, only serve as an approximate description. Every empirical observation may be entirely correct but its meaning will nevertheless completely change with better understanding of the whole.

The evaluator would not look as the king wanted, by assembling partial direct observations like the shards of an old vase, something one already knows. The blind can further their understanding of the unknowable only by organising similarities and differences between one another as partial and entirely provisional answers. The evaluator would no longer seek the answer as blinded, but as evaluatively blind, in line with the radical uncertainty of the challenge. Even with the evaluator’s assistance, blind men will never be able to get to know the elephant as it is ‘really’. Nevertheless, they can quite quickly locate similarities and differences and connect their findings into a solid description that would not be too far from the truth, at least for immediate practical purposes — proving to the king that even blind men can think holistically about the unknown if only allowed to think as blind.

In the absence of certainty, the mesoscopic evaluation must remain blind to one-sided descriptions of truth. Like a bat that sees through the darkness with ears, not eyes, the evaluator learns about complex matters through facts about existing things but also through what is missing.

The evaluative view from the middle decisively expands the understanding of complex social issues. The arguments for this are supported by three case studies. They test the ability of mesoscopic thinking to solve three eminent problems of contemporary societies, aggregation, integration and organisation that have been brought to the fore by complex conditions.

The aggregation problem (Scriven) is introduced by comparing different ways of synthesising detailed assessments of the public investments’ effects to the solution of a certain social problem. Effects assessed in different units of measure are of course not cumulative but incommensurable. Leopold properly recognised this so he left assessment results in a disaggregated form. However, he failed to notice that cross-sectional effects as hybrids are only weakly incommensurable, so they are to some extent aggregatable. Ekins and Medhurst have acknowledged this but did not implement the finding consistently in both dimensions of their assessment matrix. When the inconsistency is removed, fragmented assessment results first partly aggregate into a square input-output matrix of effects on the meso level and then synthesise correlatively (A to B vs B to A, …). Finally, their results are evaluatively interpreted. The three step methodology of synthesis is circular. It can produce only provisional holistic results so they can never assert themselves as totalising and dogmatic.

Mesoscopic methodology discovers the origin of the standard (vertical) aggregation problem in exclusion of radical difference (horizontality). Mesoscopic synthesis does not dismantle qualitative difference in forming broader understanding, so its holistic aspirations are considerably less exclusive. It is less determinate in terms of universality but nevertheless more connective and explanatorily rich. The mesoscopic methodology is evaluative: not aiming to enhance truth but to orient one in indeterminate conditions. Evaluation is obviously a constructive enterprise but also deconstructive since it routinely purges old knowledge as a prerequisite for the emergence of more insightful understandings.

The second case study starts with recognising social disintegration as one among the most urgent problems in postmodern societies. Durkheim showed that integration is either ‘organic’ pursued from below, from individuals to the whole system, micro to macro, or ‘mechanical’, imposed from above (macro to micro). However, practicing divisive strategies of integration in complex conditions is among the main drivers of further social disintegration.

Giddens dismantles the divisiveness of the classical formula by approaching integration with his circular structuration theory, which relates the macro system as a whole to the microscopic level of individuals, and its parts to the whole. The theory explains integration with a chaotic principle where micro and macro spontaneously accommodate one another, similarly as to how demand and supply spontaneously balance in a free market. Theoretical models of integrating polar oppositions are useful only in perfect conditions; in a vacuum with no friction or resistance, such as in an ideal democracy or a perfectly free market. Otherwise theoretical models produce highly skewed outcomes in the favour of more powerful agents. One way or the other, there is an integration problem: efforts at the micro level, at the macro level or between micro and macro levels often produce perverse results.

The Case Study instead approaches integration at the meso level of complexity. It proposes three measures of integration. The first is ‘strong balance’, which measures mechanic integration between domains of integration (territorial, in this case) — Physical, Social, and Economic. The second is ‘cohesion’ as a correlatively obtained measure, which expresses the strength of peripheral overlaps between integration domains. The last is the newly introduced ‘weak balance’, which measures the mutuality of relations — if cohesive ties are woven in an emancipatory way for all included. This is a hybrid category: it is obtained correlatively (organic aspect), but it nonetheless measures how balanced the connections are (mechanical aspect). Weak balance differs between two types of cohesion: the first is one-sided and asymmetrical, as in a globalised market, imposed on everybody leaving all without workable alternatives, the other is symmetrical and mutual between essentially diverse but equally valued domains, as between trusted partners, friends or lovers.

The Case Study concludes that mechanical and organic integrations can become effective only to the extent that they in parallel enhance the weak balance. Vertical integration needs to become less exclusive for radical difference horizontally and enrich the range and multitude of social possibilities for all. Analogously, the most valuable horizontal integration must in parallel reaffirm the core concerns of vertical integration, for instance that people voluntarily adopt in their free interactions a more responsible attitude to the commons, to public goods and to the legitimate expectations of others (intra and inter)generationally.

The first two case studies relate to the complexity of systems (institutions) and their rather primitive holistic strategies, aggregation and integration, aimed at connecting similar or synergetic phenomena. Yet, the book’s purpose is to explain social complexity, not complex systems. Social complexity as a hybrid formation is a systemic as well as an antisystemic phenomenon. The latter applies an alternative holistic approach that does not enhance the inclusion of the excluded but exclusion of the excluders.

The most vocal representatives of the antisystem are the social movements (reformist, revolutionary, or autonomist; RRA). They are protagonists of the third case study. These movements want to change, transform or even abolish the official system. This is not an easy task, especially since antisystemic social movements suffer from a severe organisational problem. On the one side, they refuse vertical organisation, as their exclusion is precisely the enforced result of over structured society. On the other side, their preferred organisational approaches, horizontal networks, are incapable of structuring large-scale actions to ignite meaningful social change.

The Case Study first postulates that to resolve the problem, these movements need to abandon programmatic similarity as a connective principle and instead institute their obvious inconsistencies as the common denominator. Social movements are usually more radical in program than in action or vice versa. Their program-action footprints are inconsistent unless they enter into coalition with movements that have symmetrical opposite footprints. Coalition reconstructs their internal consistency but only in a hybrid manner, in this way maintaining their principal distinctions. Three coalitions arise among RRA: quasi-, semi- and orto-antisystemic. They complement one another in the mobilisation of followers, the production of alternatives to the system, and in their capacity to defend the boundaries of achieved autonomy.

The organisation problem eventually resolves with the establishment of the Antisystem structure between antisystem coalitions. The Antisystem structure exists temporarily, as a fluid, often as a latent setup that emerges only when necessary and dissolves afterward to reappear in a modified setup somewhere else. The structure is not always visible but it must always be accounted for by the System as very much alive and operational.

Emergence of the Antisystem structure decomposes the initial antisystem conflict between society and the system (institutions), between freedom and order or ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ (Pasquino). Initial antisystem conflict decomposes into two separate confrontations: first, a conflict between two competing structures (system vs. antisystem, as order vs. order, bad against bad) and second, between competing social concerns (good against good, freedom vs. freedom). Deantagonisation of social relations will free enormous co-operative potential among members searching for a middle-ground between different manifestations of the good instead of against the bad.

After radical rearrangement, complex society obtains the freedom to oscillate between different structural orderings (systemic, antisystemic) and between different exclusion principles according to the specific needs of the narrower communities and their members for freedom or order.

Antipostmodern society must remain emptied in the centre. The centre is inhabited only by service personnel, by agents of the middle or mesoscopic agents, who develop the safe space where binary opposites can meet and translate into mesoscopic ones. The agent of the middle cannot find a solution to the contradictions in the world, but only create conditions for the protagonists to achieve partial bridging between themselves when identifying the vagueness, bias, and even partial overlap of their opposing views on the margin. What was previously ignored as absent and void, mesoscopic framing transforms into building blocks of coherence.

Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology wrote that self-reflexive identification of one’s own bias is the best approach to discovering the bias of others. In radical uncertainty the middle agent strives to become aware of their own biased convictions and imperfect knowledge. An agent aims ‘to see itself seeing’ (Ankersmit) paying attention to the effects of its own predispositions and set of internalised structures, and how likely these are to distort judgment (Bourdieu). A self-reflexive person runs themselves through their own logic to advance insights after recognising their own limitations and bias without eliminating them simply by deantagonisation and decentering their positions.

To comprehend socially complex situations, the agent must develop knowledge about the world but also self-knowledge. Mesoscopic comprehension leads the seeker of truth to self-recognition (James) as a subject who is being self-transformed by enhancing self-aware intelligence (Kierkegaard). The agent develops knowledge about the world through self-knowledge, and self-knowledge through knowledge. Knowledge and self-knowledge must co-evolve because the reality is only one, in which ‘we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve’ (Max Planck). In this perspective a mesoscopic agent is most appropriately seen as a self-transforming agency of complex world (trans)formation.

Yet, there should be no doubt that the mesoscopic concept of complexity leads society nowhere. It does not forward any concrete solution of the metacrisis. The present generation has found itself blind in an epochal uncertainty with a variety of options opened, including some really bad ones. However, our blindness is not a fatal constraint as long as the present generation can establish mesoscopic coalitions between radically different answers to nascent transformative challenges. This would already provide a solid guarantee that the future, whatever it may be, will witness strong alliances between radically diverse positive social visions.

From “Complex Society: In the Middle of the Middle World”, Vernon Press, 2021, Radej, Golobič, ).

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A methodologist in social research from Ljubljana; Evaluator. Slovenia. Author of "Social Complexity" Vernon Press, 2021.

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Bojan Radej

Bojan Radej

A methodologist in social research from Ljubljana; Evaluator. Slovenia. Author of "Social Complexity" Vernon Press, 2021.

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