by Judith Curry
How to go from reductionist thinking to action based complexity research.
A blog piece at Stockholm resilience entitled Habits of a complex mind summarizes the paper Fostering Complexity Thinking in Action Research for Change in Socio-Ecological Systems. Some context is provided in the Introduction to the paper:
As the world around us becomes more complex, our understanding of how to behave in it is changing fast, fundamentally, and with major consequences for our approaches to addressing present-day problems. Most researchers of social–ecological systems recognize the paradigm shift accompanying the advancing wave of complexity thinking that emphasizes nonlinear, context-, and contingency-specific interactions among emergent entities. Complexity thinkers eschew, to greater or lesser extents, traditional reductive thinking that assumes linearity in causal interactions between independent entities, but to what extent does the complexity “movement” go beyond this narrow frame of reference and what are the implications for embedding complexity thinking in the management of social–ecological systems?
The discourse on complexity can be found in the literature of many academic and professional disciplines. Strong discipline and cross-discipline peer groups now debate, embrace, and advocate complexity thinking as imperative to understanding and dealing with the pressing social–ecological challenges of the day. However, most of the literature, especially the academic literature, is about what the complexity philosopher Edgar Morin (2008) would call “intellectual complexity” and much less about “lived complexity,” which together provide a social ecology of knowledge and being, respectively. Morin goes on to assert that “Scientists who do not practically master the consequences of their discoveries, do not control the meaning and nature of their research, even on an intellectual level”. In other words, real or full understanding, including that of complexity, can only come from an internalized intersection of understanding (intellectual) and practicing (lived).
Action research is different because researchers and stakeholders design the research cooperatively and face to face. Their aim is to define a desired future and undertake well-informed actions that will expand their knowledge, enhance their competencies, and overcome challenges for moving to that future. Action research is, therefore, very much a process of generating personal and institutional change (Reason and Bradbury 2007) and with it comes the need for deep trust between all parties. That trust will not emerge if the parties themselves do not adopt a common frame of reference for decision making and “walking-the-talk” along the path that takes them forward. The researchers must practice what they preach if they are not to “mutilate knowledge and disfigure reality” as Morin, somewhat belligerently but cogently, phrases it.
How then do action researchers practice the complexity thinking they want to share with the other participants (stakeholders)? Many would brush this off as a simple matter of knowledge transfer (Roux et al. 2006) from researchers to users and stakeholders. Write a guide and give it to them to read! In action research, however, both researchers and stakeholders must actively engage new knowledge and its attendant behaviors if they are to transform their decision-making styles and skills.
The blog piece summarizes the recommendations from the paper:
In hindsight, one could forgive Descartes for not thinking about complex social-ecological systems when he argued that the only sound thinking practice was to isolate phenomena from each other and their environment and apply a process of reduction, simplification and clarification. Well, not anymore. As the world around us becomes more complex, our understanding of how to behave in it is changing accordingly.
Enter complexity thinking, an attempt to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world where humans and nature are connected on multiple scales. But what does it mean to apply complexity thinking?
But fostering a change in people’s frame of reference is much more than just adding to their knowledge base, it implies changing their mindset and behaviour.
Key to this is what Biggs and her colleagues call “habits of mind” which is a “pattern of intellectual behaviour that leads to particular actions”.
They recognise three broad frames of mind, each encompassing a set of habits of mind that are critical to participate planning and decision making in complex social-ecological systems. These frames of mind are openness, situational awareness, and a healthy respect for the risks associated with making decisions and taking action.
The first frame, openness, includes the following habits:
- Hold your strong opinions lightly
- Embrace surprise, serendipity and epiphany
- Accept everyone as co-learners, not experts or competitors
The second, situational awareness, includes habits such as:
- Be aware of contingencies, scale and history
- Consider the importance of relationships and interactions
- Reflect often: formally, informally, individually and collectively
The third frame, respect for the restraint and action paradox, includes habits such as:
- Seize the just-do-it moment
- Have courage to take action from which you can learn
- Avoid premature convergence – avoid being too quick to judge
“Most people rarely make it to complexity’s first base because they are trapped in a dominant linear, causal mode of thinking which is typical of the reductive mindset,” Oonsie Biggs warns.
“Intellectual acceptance of the characteristics of complex systems is the foundation on which to start building a new set of thinking patterns and behaviours. The challenge is to be explicit about the types of habits of mind that can help researchers and stakeholders to apply complexity thinking,” Biggs concludes.
This seems very useful for wicked problems, e.g. climate change. I have long argued that we have oversimplified both the problem and solution, and that the climate model command-and-control strategy for climate policy is dangerous.
The most provocative statement IMO is this one:
“Scientists who do not practically master the consequences of their discoveries, do not control the meaning and nature of their research, even on an intellectual level”
I’m not exactly sure how to react to that. But the elephant in the room is that the UNFCCC/IPCC agenda dominates climate research funding, largely in response to the climate model command-and-control strategy for climate policy. Without that understanding, scientists have little control on the meaning and nature of their research.
There are two main opposing paradigms for climate change:
- The linear model, whereby climate change is radiatively forced.
- Complex models, such as Tsonis’ climate shift model and the stadium wave, whereby natural variability (if not purely internal variability, then it is non-radiatively forced) is the fundamental climate signal, with radiative forcing projecting onto these modes of natural variability.
Research in the linear model is focused in a reductionist way on adding more and more details of physics and chemistry into the climate models to represent subgridscale processes. Not that this isn’t interesting and important, but I don’t think that paradigm will take us much further in understanding climate variability and change.
The connection of the research practitioner to action (i.e. decision making) is definitely an interesting one, and I agree that it enriches your intellectual perspective on your research problem.