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Fostering Complexity Thinking in Action Research for Change in Social–Ecological Systems

Kevin H Rogers, Centre for Water in the Environment, University of the Witwatersrand
Rebecca Luton, Centre for Water in the Environment, University of the Witwatersrand
Harry Biggs, South African National Parks
Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Sonja Blignaut, The Narrative Lab, Johannesburg
Aiden G Choles, The Narrative Lab, Johannesburg
Carolyn G Palmer, Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality Institute for Water Research, Rodes University
Pius Tangwe, Department of Social Work / Social Development University of Fort Hare


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Complexity thinking is increasingly being embraced by a wide range of academics and professionals as imperative for dealing with today’s pressing social–ecological challenges. In this context, action researchers partner directly with stakeholders (communities, governance institutions, and work resource managers, etc.) to embed a complexity frame of reference for decision making. In doing so, both researchers and stakeholders must strive to internalize not only “intellectual complexity” (knowing) but also “lived complexity” (being and practicing). Four common conceptualizations of learning (explicit/tacit knowledge framework; unlearning selective exposure; conscious/competence learning matrix; and model of learning loops) are integrated to provide a new framework that describes how learning takes place in complex systems. Deep reflection leading to transformational learning is required to foster the changes in mindset and behaviors needed to adopt a complexity frame of reference. We then present three broad frames of mind (openness, situational awareness, and a healthy respect for the restraint/action paradox), which each encompass a set of habits of mind, to create a useful framework that allows one to unlearn reductionist habits while adopting and embedding those more conducive to working in complex systems. Habits of mind provide useful heuristic tools to guide researchers and stakeholders through processes of participative planning and adaptive decision making in complex social–ecological systems.

Key words

competency; complexity thinking; consciousness; habits of mind; integrated learning framework; lived complexity; reductionism; tacit knowledge; unlearning

Copyright © 2013 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087