Complexity, Social Physics, and Emergent Dynamics in the U.S. Academic System

Hank Allen, Sociology, Wheaton College

Penrose (2005), Urry (2004), and others have demonstrated conclusively that complexity abounds in natural, physical, and social systems. Within the social systems of complex postindustrial societies, we have yet to unmask the salient features of complexity that produce scientific innovations in academic systems.

Academic systems—linkages of scholars, universities, departments, and professional associations—are core to the division of labor within postindustrial societies. A generation ago, the sociologist, Joseph Ben-David, alerted astute policymakers and citizens about the strategic nature of academic systems in sustaining postindustrial societies. More recently, Frank T. Rhodes, the former President of Cornell University, has posited that the creation of the future of this nation and associated societies depends upon nurturing the quest for esoteric knowledge within research universities, while Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, warns policymakers and benefactors against the incessant commercialization of universities. Even the National Academy of Sciences has explored the effects of new technological breakthroughs and transformations upon the operations of postsecondary education. In short, academic systems are dynamic, complex systems that are absolutely core to the welfare and scientific advancement of the postindustrial world.

At the same time, the sophistication of studies about academic systems and societies remains inchoate, suspect, and somewhat disconnected from the frontiers of current research on complex systems as well as from computational or mathematical approaches to probing the agents, social networks, and organizations comprising social systems. Few investigators have systematically analyzed these social systems as dynamic complex systems on a par with Bar Yam’s mathematical models and conceptualizations. This paper begins such a task as an initial conceptualization of the mathematical complexities of the academic system of the United States of America. Theoretical, methodological, policy-oriented, and practical concerns will be addressed as well. Research data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Research Council, and the American Council of Education will be examined pursuant to illuminating how academic systems can be investigated as complex systems. Comparisons with relevant research on complex systems will be noted as warranted.

Academic systems involve agents, social networks, decisions, organizations, information, resources, and environments as well as a variety of structural patterns and dynamic processes. Academic organizations and systems change, evolve, and adapt as agents enter and exit their boundaries. The aim of this heuristic paper is to lay the conceptual foundations for exploring the salience of scientific innovations as well as the impact of policies, administrative decisions (authority systems), demography, labor markets, and resource dependencies within and across academic systems in various societies.