What is the relationship between complexity theory and systems thinking?2019-04-20T16:30:22+00:00
DWQA QuestionsCategory: Complexity TheoryWhat is the relationship between complexity theory and systems thinking?
Danilo VazDanilo Vaz Staff asked 1 year ago

What is the relationship between complexity theory and systems thinking?

Benjamin TaylorBenjamin Taylor Staff replied 3 weeks ago

Yes, I don’t think it’s compex (haha) – systems thinking includes complexity, complexity doesn’t include all forms of systems thinking.
In practice, I asked here: https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/02/02/are-there-any-developed-methods-specific-to-complexitytheory-other-than-agent-based-modelling/
‘are there any developed methods specific to #complexitytheory other than Agent Based Modelling?’

my own conclusions are:
I often come back to David Ing’s point that the ultimate decider of this discussion is really that there are only systems thinkers, practitioners with their own universes of influences, theories, and their own history etc.

What is emerging just from this little inquiry is that there’s a broad divide – most of what uses hard maths is called ‘complexity’ (though anyone who does dynamic VSM modelling or sophisticated SD would of course disagree). But then there’s a lot of philosophical, even poetic work in the name of complexity – and some ideological position-taking (an overlap with post-modernism, I suppose – ‘nothing can be predicted’). Of course, my query is motivated (as you have rightly read it) – but it’s interesting in this context that nobody has come back with ‘complexity is the step beyond old-fashioned mechanical systems thinking’ 🙂

Later, I made the point:

t’s fascinating to me a lot of complexity techniques seem to call on no fundamental systems (or complexity) theory or rule (QCA seems to be statistics, and I’m struggling to categorise CBR but it’s some form of naming of a quasi-logical category of reasoning / problem solving). And both of these seem to be subject to arguments about the limits of rationality.

I am of course coming to this with a bit of bias – but while I want these ‘complexity’ techniques used, and used deeply and practically in the world (and I recognise that they raise important philosophical issues), the various responses to my request here seem to be confirming my suspicion that *a lot* of what is *called* complexity theory has less philosophical and critical depth than what can more easily/obviously be categorised as ‘systems thinking’, particularly second- and third-order cybernetics (though I would claim that *critical analysis* and deep philosophical insight are there from the very start – certainly in the Macy Conferences, certainly in Smuts) – not that that excuses the practitioners who practiced before the term ‘complexity theory’ was coined from all kinds of cognitive errors, motivated thinking, and sheer mistakes and oversight…


I even wonder if the philosophical/poetic aspect of ‘complexity thinking’ (please take every label in this discussion as belonging within scare quotes!) is an attempt to respond to / correct / compensate for the tendency of ‘complexity methods’ to be rationalistic/deterministic?

[In other words, might we dare to say that metarationality in the sense I use the word, after David Chapman (www.meaningness.com) is not built in to a lot of complexity work? But it is more likely to be inherent in a bit more of what we called system thinking/cybernetics?
Or is it simply that because there’s a ‘new science’ gloss to complexity (and in some documented cases, a blindness to the wider history), it is more likely that they are in an early stage of the development of the meta-narrative – i.e. complexity has had less time to complicate and in a sense deepen itself with boundary critique and the like? (And of course all the AI/driverless cars stuff gets easily pulled into pop philosophy rather than deeper conversation).
Concession: it is certainly the case that an ‘expert’ level of framing is common – perhaps predominant – in both practices!
One obvious problem with this tentative argument is that all these categories *really* need scare quotes, because they are both incredibly nebulous categories and highly contested categories… I would never want to claim that all or the majority of complexity thinkers are weighted in this paradigm… Edgar Morin and Hasan Ozbekhan immediately spring to mind as complexity thinkers who, to me, seem as weighty and deep as any systems thinker to me (though of course that could just be obscurantism and exoticism – i.e. I don’t understand them).]

So I’m just gonna say for the time being that I’ll consider whatever I call the deeper stuff as deeper stuff, and the applied work that seems to exist on a predominantly naive rational level I’ll just call something else, probably implicitly damning with faint praise 😉

1 Answers
Joss ColchesterJoss Colchester Staff answered 1 month ago

I would say that systems thinking is more general in that it studies all kinds of systems, while complexity theory deals with those systems that are considered complex and thus have specific futures and dynamics to them, such as nonlinearity, self-organization, distributed coordination, high levels of connectivity etc.