The Complexity Turn: Narrative, Science and Utility

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisMPhil


Keywords: complexity theory, learning history, narrative, tipping point, emergence, self-organisation, contingency, evolution, action research, worldview, post-modern science, ontology, realism, metaphor.Complexity theory is a scientific perspective that illuminates the nature of the inter-connected, diverse, path-dependent, complex world and stands in contrast to traditional deterministic scientific perspectives. This thesis explores whether, and in what ways, complexity thinking is ‘useful’. Is it useful as a worldview; does it provide a useful description of experience and can it shape thinking asto how to engage with the world in ways that are sustainable and just?Complexity theory is developed to include, more explicitly, the more subjective features of human existence – intention, values, the imaginal and the numinous. The tension between realist and postmodern perspectives is considered. This results in framing complexity as a post-modern science, with its emphasis on variation, emergence, contingency, narrative, inter connectedness, the intrinsicunknowability of the future and the need for pluralist methods of inquiry. The idea that narrative approaches can be regarded as scientific for certain types of complex and evolutionary problems is considered, thus widening the traditional definition of science.The research adopts action research methods, specifically a personalised narrative learning history, focusing in particular on inner processes of reflecting, theorising and reframing; and a process of coinquiry.The co-inquiry work into the ‘usefulness’ of complexity thinking points to the dangers of reification of complexity concepts and their use, too loosely, as metaphor. The ‘usefulness’ of a ‘turn to complexity’: the usefulness of embracing complexity as a worldview, to stand in contrast to themechanical Newtonian worldview, is recognised.Complexity theory, with its focus on path-dependency and the importance of variation and particularity, provides an ontological framing for the epistemology implicit within action research.The action research methodologies adopted have allowed exploration of complex situations in direct and fresh ways, independent of any particular conceptual artefacts and independent of mathematical modelling.Conclusions are:- Complexity is most useful when treated as a worldview: the detailed concepts can be ambiguous and misleading and distract from direct experience of the complex world.- Complexity thinking can be expanded to include more than the ‘real’ and easily recognisable aspects of the world – emotions, meanings, intentions and the numinous.- Complexity can be viewed most helpfully as a form of (non-relativist) post-modern science – but has other traditions which are realist, almost positivist; using complexity more loosely as a source of metaphor is another, less helpful, tradition.- Theorising is a process that engages the emotions as much as the processes of cognition; it is often led by the imagination or triggered by chance events.- People are attracted to worldviews which resonate with their psychological preferences and make then feel safe or understood. Reframing worldviews and beliefs affects identity and seems to be accompanied by a sense of loss.
Date of Award31 Dec 2012
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorPeter Reason (Supervisor)


  • complexity
  • action research
  • narrative
  • world view

Cite this

The Complexity Turn: Narrative, Science and Utility
Boulton, J. (Author). 31 Dec 2012

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisMPhil