The unique complexity of social phenomena and the uses of social science knowledge

Reiner Grundmann, Nico Stehr

Research output: Chapter in Book/Published conference outputChapter


The assertion about the peculiarly intricate and complex character of social phenomena has, in much of social discourse, a virtually uncontested tradition. A significant part of the premise about the complexity of social phenomena is the conviction that it complicates, perhaps even inhibits the development and application of social scientific knowledge. Our paper explores the origins, the basis and the consequences of this assertion and asks in particular whether the classic complexity assertion still deserves to be invoked in analyses that ask about the production and the utilization of social scientific knowledge in modern society. We refer to one of the most prominent and politically influential social scientific theories, John Maynard Keynes' economic theory as an illustration. We conclude that, the practical value of social scientific knowledge is not necessarily dependent on a faithful, in the sense of complete, representation of (complex) social reality. Practical knowledge is context sensitive if not project bound. Social scientific knowledge that wants to optimize its practicality has to attend and attach itself to elements of practical social situations that can be altered or are actionable by relevant actors. This chapter represents an effort to re-examine the relation between social reality, social scientific knowledge and its practical application. There is a widely accepted view about the potential social utility of social scientific knowledge that invokes the peculiar complexity of social reality as an impediment to good theoretical comprehension and hence to its applicability.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiscourse on Applied Sociology: Theoretical Perspectives
EditorsSamir Dasgupta, Robyn Bateman Driskell
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)9781843312543
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2007


  • social phenomena
  • social science knowledge


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