Complex Theory



Interdisciplinarity and Public Administration: Implications for Integrating Communities

Complex systems theory offers a useful way to conceptualize the position of public administrators; interdisciplinary theory provides them with a process as well as pragmatic suggestions for functioning effectively in that position. The usefulness of these theories is demonstrated by applying them to issues emerging from the debate over community participation in public administration.

Note. This paper is to be published in a 2006 Symposium in Public Administration Quarterly.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Public Administration Theory Conference (PAT-NET) in Portland, Oregon on March 4-5, 1999.
(For further information contact Jack W. Meek)

What Can Public Administration Learn from Complex Systems Theory

Systems theory has become more colorful and much more bewildering since Kenneth Boulding introduced the notion of general systems into the social sciences in the late 1960s (Boulding, 1968). Thanks to the efforts of writers such as James Gleick (1987), we have become aware of terms like chaos and fractals, strange attractors and self-organization; the Santa Fe Institute (Waldrop, 1992) has introduced us to its visions of coevolution and emergent properties. We have admired the vivid paisley-like computer-generated patterns of the Mandelbrot set. Instead of general systems, we now hear about complex, nonlinear, dynamical, adaptive, self-organizing, chaotic systems. Systems theory it seems has turned into something strange and exciting that can bring together mathematicians, physicists, meteorologists, computer scientists, and evolutionary biologists. It is natural to ask how public administration might benefit from the application of these new theoretical developments, called here complex systems theory, to the study of human institutions and human behavior.

While there have been some studies of the general applicability of complex systems theory to the social sciences (Noye, 1987) of most direct interest to public administrators are several attempts to apply it to organizational management. Notable recent efforts include Senge’s The Fifth Discipline (1990), Stacey’s Managing the Unknowable (1992) Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science (1992) and Goldstein’s The Unshackled Corporation (1994). The task of this article is to summarize in non-technical language the key insights of complex systems theory, evaluate the recent attempts to apply them to organizational management, and conclude with an overall appraisal of the usefulness and limitations of applying them to public administration. Authors are William H. Newell, Miami University (Ohio)and Jack W. Meek, University of La Verne (Ca).

Note: This work is published Administrative Theory and Practice, Vol. 19, No. 3 1997, pp.318-330. Co-authored with William Newell. ,” and in Morcol, Goktug, & Dennard, Linda F. (Eds.). (2000). New Sciences for Public Administration and Policy: Connections and Reflections. Burke, VA: Chatelaine Press.

The oirginal version of this paper was presented at the 1997 annual PAT-NET national conference in Richmond Virginia.
(For further information contact Jack W. Meek)

The Practice of Interdisciplinarity: Complex Conditions and the Potential of Interdisciplinary Theory

This article illustrates the formulation of interdisciplinary process presented in William Newell’s paper, “The Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies”, by examining a “self-organized” community effort in building and implementing a leadership development program. This effort shows the power of interdisciplinary process, whether consciously or unconsciously applied, in a social setting. It also guides our understanding of the potential strengths and limits of the interdisciplinary process, especially in complex social systems.

Note: This work is published the journal Issues in Integrative Studies (2001). Vo. 19, pp. 123-136.

A draft of this article was originally presented at the 1999 Conference of the Association for Integrative Studies, September 29-October 1 at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.
(For further information contact Jack W. Meek)