In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Complex Systems Approaches to Global Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Security Studies
  • Peace and Conflict Studies
  • Critical Theory
  • Policy and Governance
  • Environment and Energy Governance
  • Political Economy, Development, and Finance
  • Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Science

International Relations Complex Systems Approaches to Global Politics
Scott Janzwood, Jinelle Piereder
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0278


The first attempts to integrate concepts from complexity theory into the study of international relations (IR) and global politics began in the early 1990s. Since then, adoption of complexity approaches to explain outcomes in global politics has grown significantly, particularly in the last decade. Complexity theory (or complex systems theory) describes a range of approaches aimed at addressing the perceived shortcomings of conventional approaches for explaining the behavior of physical and social systems. Complex systems approaches highlight the nonlinear, adaptive, coevolutionary, networked, and emergent behavior of systems. Increasingly, these concepts are being applied to systems implicated in the study of global politics by scholars of IR and its related disciplines, including global governance, public policy, security studies, critical security studies, peace and conflict studies, political economy, and environmental governance. Complex systems approaches have been used to critique conventional IR theories like realism, liberal internationalism, constructivism, and critical approaches that have dominated the field since the mid-20th century. While the application of complexity science methodologies has been relatively limited (with the exception of agent-based modeling), complexity concepts like emergence and coevolution have gained traction among scholars seeking to understand the myriad factors that lead to outcomes such as peace, violence, cooperation, system destabilization, and effective policymaking. Network approaches have also been commonly used to understand systems with many actors that have dynamic and distributed power structures. Complexity is sometimes flagged as an empty “buzzword” – which is certainly the case for some of the literature that claims to apply a complex systems approach to global politics. Thus, the challenge was to focus on scholarship that engaged earnestly with complexity theory rather than to simply applying a “complexity sheen” to conventional ideas. Beginning with General Overviews, three subcategories of literature are then presented that use complex systems approaches to critique and engage with IR theory: Paradigmatic Critiques, World Order, and Topic-Specific Theoretical Critiques. The remaining sections present literature from several subfields: Security Studies; Peace and Conflict Studies; Critical Theory; Policy and Governance; Environment and Energy Governance; Political Economy, Development, and Finance; and Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Science.

General Overviews

A recent essay collection, Orsini, et al. 2019, published in the International Studies Review, summarizes the extent to which the topic of complex systems has been applied in the field of IR and discusses its prospects going forward. While a bit outdated now, Kavalski 2007 and Lehmann 2012 provide a useful review of the early literature connecting IR and complexity science. A special issue in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Bousquet and Geyer 2011, highlights and advances several key discussions within this growing area of scholarship as well. While not specifically intended to serve as broad overviews or introductions to the literature, two other edited collections—Harrison 2006 and Albert, et al. 2010—also serve as excellent starting points for the uninitiated reader. Both collections cover a wide range of topics in IR, surveying different ways that systems approaches and complexity concepts are being applied to global politics.

  • Albert, Mathias, Lars-Erik Cederman, and Alexander Wendt. New Systems Theories of World Politics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    An essay collection on systems approaches to world politics drawing from complexity science, cybernetics, and quantum physics.

  • Bousquet, Antoine, and Robert Geyer, eds. Special Issue: Complexity and the International Arena. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 24.1 (2011).

    A collection of articles that advance the debates around complexity (and its tools and methods) and its relevance and/or applicability to IR theory and various studies of international politics.

  • Harrison, Neil E., ed. Complexity in World Politics Concepts and Methods of a New Paradigm. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

    An edited collection that surveys complexity concepts and methods being applied across a variety of topics in global politics, including violent conflict, ozone depletion, and international development.

  • Kavalski, Emilian. “The Fifth Debate and the Emergence of Complex International Relations Theory: Notes on the Application of Complexity Theory to the Study of International Life.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 20.3 (2007): 435–454.

    DOI: 10.1080/09557570701574154

    A highly cited article that examines and synthesizes literature on complexity theory in IR and argues that this intersection outlines the emergence of a fifth IR debate.

  • Lehmann, Kai E. “Unfinished Transformation: The Three Phases of Complexity’s Emergence into International Relations and Foreign Policy.” Cooperation and Conflict 47.3 (2012): 404–413.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010836712454274

    Assesses the impact that complexity has had on IR and foreign policy debates about change in international politics. The author argues that while complexity frameworks have been successful in explaining change, a lack of complexity-informed alternative strategies for improving policy outcomes is ongoing.

  • Orsini, Amandine, Philippe Le Prestre, Peter M. Haas, et al. “Forum: Complex Systems and International Governance.” International Studies Review viz005 (2019).

    DOI: 10.1093/isr/viz005

    An interdisciplinary collection of essays that discusses the value of complex systems approaches to understanding the dynamics of global governance. They also explore several ways these approaches can be practically implemented. Available online by purchase or subscription.

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