Chaos Theory

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-li...
The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-linear dynamical system. Studying this system helped give rise to Chaos theory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With roots in the mathematics of Henri Poincaré (where very small initial system differences can produce significant variations in outcome) in sociology Chaos theory is a popular idea centering around the view that social organizations and businesses operate more like clouds in the sky than a railroad train (not to be confused with the recent and hip term, cloud computing).

Sociologically speaking, interactive Chaos theory systems can be perceived and predicted in a general, non-linear sense but precise numerical and linear-based predictions are beyond its reach.

Chaos theory is not about randomness. In Chaos theory causes and effects are taken as highly complicated, making prediction and control far less precise than in linear systems. This absence of linear precision, however, enables individuals to set off explosive social effects, providing they’re adept at perceiving trends. A small act within the right part of a system can create chaotic social reactions, not unlike an atom bomb.

An example of Chaos theory in nature would be the popular idea of the butterfly effect—could a butterflies’ wings at one side of the globe cause a chain reaction of events to bring about a hurricane at the other side of the globe?

The sociological notion of the butterfly effect actually borrows from mathematical Chaos theory, where name was first coined.

Like many new theories, the idea of universal morality is generally omitted in chaos theory, being replaced by the belief that cleverness, alone, is the appropriate criterion for social engineering. Allison Brown at the University of Chicago points out more issues concerning the sociological idea of Chaos theory: Has chaos theory found any useful application in the social sciences?

Not surprisingly, a Toronto fashion line called Chaos Theory has recently been launched. Like any catchy phrase that resonates in the social imagination, Chaos Theory will likely be reinvented in countless ways.


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