The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis


Alasdair Anderson

Thesis title: Complexity and Complication in Evolving Spatio-Historical Processes

Primary supervisor: Mike Batty
Secondary supervisor: Peter Hall
Starting date: September, 2010
Projected completion date: TBC


Alasdair Anderson originally gained a BA in History from the LSE and later took an MSc in Information Systems. He joined CASA in 2010 to continue his PhD.

Synthesis of the two disciplines, through applying systems theory methods to the objects of history, served to stimulate his search for underlying structure in the human past, a field now known as Cliodynamics. As a by-product, he began compiling a database of historical events, which currently contains over 38,000 records.

Finding deficiencies in previous speculative philosophies, which alternatively viewed history as predominantly cyclical, linear, or random, he began investigating whether the new paradigms of chaos and complexity theory might more accurately describe the historical process.

Identifying key properties of complex systems studied by physical and natural scientists (emergence, self-organisation, complication, autopoiesis, feedback, nonlinearity, self-organised criticality, and computational irreducibility), his research examines their operation in history, with particular reference to that of the United States.

Rather than rely upon misappropriated metaphors from the natural sciences, (a recurring criticism levelled at philosophies of history), he instead deploys formal methodologies to demonstrate complex behaviour in historical systems.

For example, Zipf’s rank-size rule, used to analyse the evolving urban distribution, has provided evidence of self-organised criticality and its role in U.S. history.

Even more versatile is Q-analysis, which he has employed on U.S. presidential elections since 1796 to investigate the longue durée process of self-organisation between collectives (sections, states, and parties), physical environmental influences, memes (ideologies and institutions), and individual personalities. Similarly, this technique is favourable for identifying nonlinear transitions in history, such as the turning points of the American Civil War.

He has presented to the Regional Science Association on several occasions and in 2001 won 3rd prize at the Second Interdisciplinary School on Nonlinear Dynamics for System and Signal Analysis (Euroattractor) in Warsaw. 

Publications and other work

Complexity and Complication in History: Respect for Order (Achtung für Ordnung)

Published in Was für Zeiten. 8-ung! (Vol. 10), edited by Michael Steiner & Gerfried Sperl, Graz: Leykam, June 2008.