Looking back at the conference on Critical Realism & Complexity


The Realist Complexity between Causal and Complex Systems conference took place at the International Institute of Social Studies from 8-12 August 2022. It included four keynote speeches, over 40 presentations by critical realists of their current work, and extensive informal discussions.

What is critical realism?

In a few words: critical realism is a philosophical approach to social sciences that was developed by philosopher Roy Bhaskar (1970s). Some of its prominent authors are Margaret Archer, Phil Gorski, Colin Wight or Doug Porpora. At the core of critical realism lies a stratified ontology, or in other words, a philosophy of being.

According to critical realism reality encompasses:

1. the real, where entities, relations and processes exist in potentiality;
2. the happening of events/processes at the actual level;
3. the empirical, which means how we observe and experience these happening.

Each stratum is embedded in the former one, meaning that the real level encompasses the actual and the empirical, and the actual level encompasses the empirical.

Theme of the 2022 conference: critical realism and complexity

The conference took place against the background of previous attempts that have coalesced critical realism and complexity under the rubric of ‘complex realism’. This year’s conference aimed to clarify the ways in which critical realism & complexity theory can inform each other. Furthermore, to goal was to examine the limitations of ‘complex realism’.

Complexity theory emerged in natural sciences. Since then, it has been applied to diverse domains. Among which: cybernetics, mathematics, chemistry.

There is no common accepted definition of complexity that all complexity theorists agree upon. However, some common features of a shared definition revolve around self-organized systems that are characterized by their temporal irreversibility and non-linearity. Non-linearity refers to the inability to predict events. From this follows that systems cannot go back to their initial state. This is called temporal irreversibility. Temporality and time are defining elements of complexity.

The use of complex systems allows to “go beyond the old notion that the parts of a system make up the whole” by asserting that “each system takes all other systems as its environment” (…) “Likewise each set of social relations, for instance gender, ethnicity, class, is a system, taking all others as its environment” (Byrne & Callaghan, 2014). Complexity, according to Byrne and Callaghan, thus allows researchers to ground each social system or social relation they study into an ontological depth that accounts for different temporal and spatial reach. Or, in other words: complexity theory enables researchers to better grasp the many layers that reality consists of while accounting for temporal and spatial particularities.

Some authors point to the similarities between complexity theory and critical realism. They argue that both pay attention to time and its irreversibility (Forbes-Pitt, 2013). Furthermore, both philosophies entail the relational take on explaining continuity and change, where “relations- rather than entities- [are] their subject matter, and relations between relations [are] the explanans for both” (Archer, 2013: 15).

Differences between critical realism (CR) & complexity theory (CT)

Complexity theory has been criticized by critical realist scholars for its reductionist tendencies, related to the absence of a subject-object distinction (Yang, 2019). Yang argues that “the concepts of systems and agents have been used interchangeably by CT scholars” (Yang, 2019) and relates CT to a Giddensian understanding of social systems which is therefore susceptible to similar critiques by critical realists. Furthermore, the opposition to the extension of natural sciences notions to social systems can be seen as problematic as “the three [human relations, human actions and human ideas] make social theorizing non-naturalistic » (Archer, 2013: 4). Overall, complexity theory “has developed by and large in a meta-theoretical vacuum” (Kate Forbes-Pitt in Archer, 2013: 106). In sum, complexity theory, Archer argues, is nothing but “another misleading metaphor applied to the social” (Archer, 2013: 155).

Main conference questions

The animated debate amongst critical realist scholars on complexity theory thus raises many questions. Some of the following questions were addressed during the 2022 IACR Conference:

  • Does realist ontology refer to the ontological dimension of complexity? Or does it entail a commitment to ontological complexity? What is the difference?
  • What kind(s) of causality is (are) envisaged under realist complexity? What kind of open system is envisaged under realist complexity? Is there a need for a system? What is a system?
  • What is systemic causality?

Debate and reflection

In forthcoming blogs, we will discuss the debates that ensued from these questions more in depth.

The entire programme of the conference can be seen on the IACR website.



Associate professor

Dr Karim Knio

More information


  • Archer, M. S. (2013). Social morphogenesis. Springer.
  • Byrne, D. and Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The State of the Art. Routledge, London.
  • Yang, Y. (2019). Critical realism and complexity theory: Building A Nonconstructivist Systems Research Framework for effective governance analysis. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 38(1), 177–183. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2662
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