In this short paper, which reflects on one of my contributions to the systems literature in 1992 (Pluralism and the Legitimation of Systems Science), I discuss the context at that time. Systems scientists were embroiled in a paradigm war, which threatened to fragment the systems research community. This is relevant, not only to understanding my 1992 contribution, but also because the same paradigms are evident in the complexity science community, and therefore it potentially faces the same risk of fragmentation. Having explained the context, I then go on to discuss my proposed solution to the paradigm war: that there are four domains of complexity, three of which reflect the competing paradigms. The problem comes when researchers say that inquiry into just one of these domains is valid. However, when we recognise all four as part of a new theory of complexity, we can view them as complementary. The four domains are natural world complexity, or “what is” (where the ideal of inquiry is truth); social world complexity, or the complexity of “what ought to be” in relation to actual or potential action (where the ideal of inquiry is rightness); subjective world complexity, or the complexity of what any individual (the self or another) is thinking, intending or feeling (where the ideal of inquiry is understanding subjectivity); and the complexity of interactions between elements of the other domains of complexity in the context of research and intervention practice. Following a discussion of the relevance of this theory for complexity scientists, I end the paper with a final critical reflection on my 1992 paper, pointing to some theoretical assumptions and terminology that I would, in retrospect, revise.
It is usually assumed in debates about systems thinking, complexity and the philosophy of science that science is primarily about observation. However, the starting point for this paper is intervention, defined as purposeful action by an agent to create change. While some authors suggest that intervention and observation are opposites, it is argued here that observation (as undertaken in science) should be viewed as just one type of intervention. We should therefore welcome scientific techniques of observation into a pluralistic set of intervention methods, alongside methods for exploring values, reflecting on subjective understandings, planning future activities, etc. However, there is a need to explicitly counter a possible pernicious interpretation of this argument: intervention could (erroneously) be viewed as flawlessly pre-planned change based on accurate predictions of the consequences of action. This is the mechanistic worldview that systems thinking and complexity science seek to challenge. Therefore, having redefined scientific observation as intervention, the paper revisits insights from systems thinking and complexity to propose a methodology of systemic intervention. Some brief reflections are then provided on the wider social implications of this methodology.
This paper is the text of a presentation to the 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Policy Analysis delivered by Gerald Midgley and transcribed and edited by Kurt Richardson. It charts the development of systems thinking since the 1960s, identifying a number of different systems paradigms. These are then compared with paradigms in complexity research, and significant parallels are identified. It is argued that there are several interacting research communities (including those writing about complexity, systems thinking and cybernetics) that have the potential to learn from one another. A research program on systemic intervention is then presented, focusing on the need to think critically about boundaries and values as a means of dealing with the inevitable lack of comprehensiveness in systemic interventions. A rationale for methodological pluralism is also given. All through the paper, the theoretical and methodological ideas are illustrated with practical examples.