Defining and Test Complex Social Systems

As regular readers of this blog know, I am currently working on a community health study with my colleague, Galen Buckwalter, wherein we are testing to see if the complex system definition used by current researchers has any degree of cohesion and if this definition, in its totality, applies to the typical community of study. I am also working on a study of public school systems with my brother, John Castellani, who is at Johns Hopkins, to see if and how best a public school system can be conceptualized as a complex social system.

In my literature review, I came across the following article. In the 2010, Volume 70Issue 10 edition of Social Science and Medicine, Keshavarz, Nutbeam, Rowling and Khavarpour published their empirical article, “Schools as Social Complex Adaptive Systems: A New Way to Understand the Challenges of Introducing the Health Promoting Schools Concept."

The article fits with my recent discussions about definitions because the goal of the article is to determine the “relevance and usefulness of the concept of ‘complex adaptive systems’ as an approach to better understanding ways in which health promoting school interventions could be introduced and sustained” (p. 1468).

To arrive at their definition of a complex social system, they reviewed the literature. For them, a complex social system—which they call social complex adaptive system—is comprised of a key set of characteristics, which they list on page 1468 of the article. I will not review these characteristics here. Suffice to say, they did what I have been talking about: they outlined a definition and proceeded to use empirical data to determine if their system of study (a school system) meets the criteria of their definition. They used two data sources: public school reports and qualitative interviews.

Using this data, they went through each component of their definition to see if it provided them an empirically relevant and useful way of thinking about their educational system of study. Related, their ultimate goal was to see if the utility of each component lent itself to an improved way of understanding how health promotion programs should be implemented. In other words, if schools can be adequately framed as complex systems, then what does each component of their definition add to their understanding of how health promotion should be effectively accomplished.

In addition to their attempt to empirically examine the utility of their definition, toward the end of their article they outline many of the issues I have been discussing lately. On pages 1472-1473, they state:

"Utilising complex adaptive theory to guide enquiry into a discrete phenomenon (such as a health promoting school) is a challenging task, in part due to the complexity of the theory itself, and in part because of the continuing uncertainty on a clear definition of complex adaptive systems (Rickles et al., 2007; Wallis, 2008). While there has been a recognition of complexity, and steady increase in the use of complexity theory in the study of health care and public health interventions (Keshavarz, Huges, & Khavarpour, 2005; Resnicow & Page, 2008; Shiell et al., 2008) there has been relatively little critical analysis of the concept, and no single and clear account of the components of complex adaptive systems theory and how these components relate to each other (Dooley, 1997; Rickles et al., 2007; Wallis, 2008). Furthermore, as Chu et al. (2003) argue there are few experimental studies that test complexity theories, and there exists even less research into practice informed by the insights that might be provided by complexity science. Correspondingly, application of a complex adaptive systems framework to a social system requires considerable caution, but suggests the need for continued exploration."

What makes the article by Keshavarz, Nutbeam, Rowling and Khavarpour even more important to read is that it was followed by a Commentary by Tamsin Haggis, who provided her own very sympathetic yet useful and critical reading of their article. In turn, the first authors were allowed to published their response to Haggis' critique.

Rather than make a case for which argument I think wins out in the end, I recommend others go read the articles and decide for themselves. Actually, I think both sides have some important points to make, and it is not really a matter of who wins, but how their arguments work together to help make some important advances.

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