Institute for Advanced Study (IAS)

Complexity and Migration



We organise an exploratory meeting to discuss a potential new research theme: Complexity and Migration

Recent research in linguistics has revealed an interesting correlation between linguistic complexity and (intensity of) immigration. In situations in which a sufficiently large number of immigrants learn the language of the area they have arrived at, they will, as second language learners, tend to regularise the language they are acquiring, a process which in the long run may extend to the language of non-immigrants as well.

A comparison of German, Dutch, and English illustrates this phenomenon. While the area in which English was originally spoken experienced huge waves of immigrants in its history, this was true to a lesser extent for the Dutch-speaking area, while it was hardly the case for the German-speaking area. A linguistic comparison of the three languages reveals that German systematically has the more complex system, English the least complex one, while Dutch occupies an intermediate position.

A question that arises is: whether this type of development can be detected in other fields of human behaviour as well.

A quick scan of the existing bibliography shows that in anthropology the issue of complexity was addressed extensively by George P. Murdock (e.g. Murdoch and Provost 1973), who developed a framework to quantitatively measure the degree of cultural complexity of different societies using a wide range of variables. In archeology the issue of cultural complexity has been explored as well, with an emphasis on material culture, as discussed in Morris (2009). In linguistics, there has been a lot of attention for the issue of complexity in languages over the last decade, as for instance reflected in Sampson et al. eds (2009). Complexity also seems to have received a lot of attention in musicology over the last decade, as in Pease et al. (2018). It seems that only in linguistics, however, the link between the degree of complexity and the impact of immigration has received considerable and explicit attention.

If it turns out that there is indeed a correlation between degrees of complexity and immigration in the different areas mentioned above, then one would expect complexity patterns to correlate with genetic profiles. It is therefore of interest to also include de field of genetics in the research theme. In earlier research, Cavalli-Sforza (1997) already showed a very close connection between language families and the DNA patterns of the speakers of the languages within these families. More recent work (Pagel 2017) confirms this correlation, and the relation to immigration is shown in e.g. Lansing et al. (2017). We may predict similar correlations between complexity patterns and genetic profiles.

Finally, hypotheses developed within the research theme could profit from testing through computational modeling. The modeling of complexity has recently become the object of research in the field of humanities and social sciences as well, as in e.g. Youngman and Hadzikadic eds (2014).


  • Archeology: Vladimir Stissi
  • Computational Science/Complex Systems: Peter Sloot
  • Genetics: Guy Jacobs
  • Linguistics: Kees Hengeveld, Fred Weerman
  • Musicology: Henkjan Honing, Julia Kursell
  • Phonetic Sciences: Paul Boersma
  • Sociology: Jan Rath

Published by  UvA Institute for Advanced Study