A New Systems Thinking: Implications of the Sciences of Complexity for Public Policy and Administration

By Morçöl, Göktug | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

A New Systems Thinking: Implications of the Sciences of Complexity for Public Policy and Administration


Morçöl, Göktug, Public Administration Quarterly


ABSTRACT

This paper discusses the implications of the sciences of complexity for public policy and administration. It is argued that the sciences of complexity have implications for our thinking in mainly three areas. First, they revise our conceptions of systems, causal relations, and determinism and depict a picture of mostly indeterministic reality composed of open systems. Second, they offer an "endophysical" and phenomenological view of system - observer relations. Third, although they are heavily quantitative, they illustrate the importance of qualitative interpretations in quantitative analyses and thus bridge the chasm between quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The insights of the sciences of complexity can help us improve our understanding of the complexities of public policy and administrative processes.

INTRODUCTION

The implications and significance of the sciences of complexity (1) have been matters of controversy. There are those who think that complexity theory offers only an improvement in scientific understanding, but does not revolutionize science or offer a new worldview (Eve, 1997; Wilson, 1998). Others (e.g., Kiel, 1992; Dent, 1999) see complexity theory as a new paradigm, an alternative to the old Newtonian paradigm. In Kiel's view, the new "nonlinear paradigm" has important implications for public policy. He suggests that the new paradigm both shows the limits of the mathematics of certainty (e.g., in forecasting) and enhances the power of analyses by revealing the patterns and degrees of stability in systems' temporal behaviour. It also shows the inadequacies of the prevailing theoretical approaches in public policy studies-the social engineering approach, which is based on a Newtonian notion of prediction and control, and the laissez faire model, which is based on the notion of an equilibrating invisible hand.

I agree with Kiel's assessments. In this paper I will give an overview of the epistemological and methodological alternatives complexity theory offers. I want to show that the sciences of complexity have implications for our thinking mainly in three areas: (1) characteristics of systems, particularly causal relations and determinism; (2) system observer relations, and (3) quantitative and qualitative forms of inquiry. As I will illustrate below, some of the concepts of complexity theory have equivalents in the social science theories and they resonate well with the epistemological concerns of some social scientists and public policy theorists.

The sciences of complexity are grounded in systems thinking, which is a theoretical framework used in both the natural and social sciences. Public administration and policy theorists use systems concepts too. We think of organizations and public policies as closed or open systems, for example. Complexity theory changes the traditional understanding of systems in important ways. Most significantly, it blurs the distinction between "simple" and "complex systems" (Cilliers, 1998: 2). First, it suggests that systems are dynamic and that during the phase transitions that systems undergo simple turns into complex and vice-versa. The deterministic nonlinear and indeterministic relations between the elements of systems generate these dynamic transformations. Second, complexity theorists argue that the simplicity and complexity of a system and what constitutes a system depend partly on an observer's definitions. Thus they pose a major challenge to empiricist epistemologies and proffer a phenomenological perspective for scientific knowledge.

In the next section I will discuss the systemic transformations described in different versions of complexity theory. In the following section I will address the phenomenological perspective it offers. I will discuss its implications for quantitative and qualitative forms of inquiry in a separate section.

SYSTEMS' CHARACTERISTICS

Determinism and Indeterminism

Newtonian science is based on the belief that the universe is completely deterministic. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A New Systems Thinking: Implications of the Sciences of Complexity for Public Policy and Administration
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.