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Complexity Science at a Crossroads: Exploring a Science of Emergence


Benyamin Lichtenstein

Complexity scholarship has flourished in organization science for many years, with important implications for managers, organizations, and networks. But the academic expressions of complexity-current publications using complexity science-is dwindling: only 0.2% of papers at last year’s Academy of Management meeting were complexity- based. Has complexity ‘petered out’ in some way? Rather than redouble energy in that direction, this paper argues for a focus on the core phenomenon that is studied by complexity, namely emergence. Two steps are suggested toward a ‘science of emergence.’ First, emergence can be seen as a process and as an outcome; both explanations are equally valid and important. Second, the causes of emergence are not unitary: research suggests that we should see at least four distinct causal mechanisms for emergence. This paper presents those four ‘prototypes’, and reflects on the duality of process/outcomes in emergence, with the goal of incorporating them within a single discipline. Overall, my emphasis is on the flourishing literature on emergence in organization science.

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