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Complex Systems and Emergence in Action Research

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Lichtenstein, B., 2015. Complex Systems and Emergence in Action Research, in: The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road London EC1Y 1SP, pp. 446–452.
Thematic Area
Development studies
DOI 10.4135/9781473921290.n44
Emergence is a term often used in action
research, most commonly referring to something
that arises out of a complex system,
e.g. an emerging recognition, an emerging
pattern of action, or an emerging trend or
relationship. In qualitative research, a theory
emerges through the subtle detection of patterns
across the data, which lead to a deeper
understanding of the phenomenon. In a formal
sense, emergence occurs when a new structure
or pattern arises in the system of action.
In organization science more broadly,
researchers have described the emergence of
groups, teams, projects, alliances, collaborations,
and social innovations. In each of
these emergents, tangible outcomes are produced
that go beyond the actions of any of
the agents in the system alone. What emerges
is a new ‘unit of analysis’ – a social entity –
with boundaries and behaviors that are generated
by the system itself. For action researchers (ARs), knowing
about this range of emergents can be very helpful
for understanding the dynamics of social
groups and complex situations (systems).
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This bookchapter relates complex social systems to action research by focusing on emergence, that is, properties that arise out of the system but cannot be causually related to any of the individual elements or interactions. The emergent property is a new entity. Examples given are a company's products, despite being produced by individuals performing their tasks, the product belongs to the company.

The most common type of emergence, so called weak emergence, is defined as a system
property that arises due to the interactions of its parts, while not being embedded within any
one of them. Weak emergence occurs due to the organization of the parts – the recursive interactions between system elements – but it cannot be traced to any one of those parts. Such emergence is not predictable even with a full knowledge of the components, however it can be traced in hindsight.

In strong emergence the entity exists in some tangible form, as a social actor in the broader
system. This tangibility gives the emergent agency in the social system. Hence, the stronger
the emergence, the more agency it may be able to express.

The bookchapter identifies four criteria which together define strong emergence relevant to Action Reserchers:

Qualitative novelty – the emergent includes but transcends its components.
A group is made up of its members, but it transcends them through qualities that are
system- wide. These include norms, shared goals, group practices, and so on.
Nonreducibilty to the components, nor to their interactions alone
Mutual causality – downward, upward, and lateral (agent-to-agent) causation
Downward causation occurs when the elements in the system, i.e. the agents which create the emergent in the first place, are influenced or controlled by a macro-property of the system. A clear example is norms in a group. In strong emergence the causal power is generated from the group
downwards, to the individuals. This requires strong emergence, i.e. emergence that leads to a property or structure which transcends its individual agents.
Confers additional capacity – to the components and within the system
In terms of outcomes, this is a defining characteristic of emergence in biological and social systems, namely that the emergent has more capacity to act – to accomplish its goals and to sustain itself.

In complex systems, a whole lot of effort sometimes yields no result, but occasionally a single word or action can initiate a major shift in the entire system. Although it’s very hard to know what will catalyze change, complex systems are known to be non-proportional. The causes or drivers of an outcome are widely dispersed, some more visible and others nearly impossible to find. As most ARs know, really understanding a phenomenon requires an identification of multiple causes, all of which contribute in different ways the outcomes of interest.

Another key aspect of complex systems is that their elements are interdependent and mutually constitutive – each element influences the others over time. For example, each member of a group influences the others, who respond in ways that influence the first, and so on. ARs assuming interdependence and mutual causality can provide more degrees of freedom for innovation and emergence by everyone in the group or organization.

In many cases a system appears to be stable, but in fact it is gaining momentum for a significant shift – one small action just past a threshold will initiate an entire cascade of system-wide change. As ARs it is important to assume that complex systems are always
changing – always becoming  – and not be distracted by the appearance of stability.

Also, take into account feedback delays – situations in which the responseto an input occurs only after a delay.

ARs are familiar with two general types of adaptation and growth: incremental change and major transformation. Emergence, however, is a third category – a process that’s distinct from transformation or change. Emergence is creation – the invention of a new system, context, or entity and the structures within it. This difference is highlighted by the trigger
for change versus emergence. Virtually all management theories agree that the trigger for change and transformation is a crisis: a growing problem or a pending catastrophe that is revealed in lower performance. In contrast, the drivers for organizational emergence are aspiration and passion – the vision and enactment of a new idea that can lift the organization to a new level, to create more value than it currently does. The origin of emergence is a potentiality, a spark of creativity, an open-ended possibility that can be enacted in a myriad of ways.
Point of Strength
This bookchapter contributes to make complexity science and emergence
studies more accessible to Action researchers and to social change agents more broadly. By distinguishing emergence as a third type of qualitative and leapwise change process besides transformations and incremental change. Further by linking emergence in social context to creativity, aspiration and passion it show new avenues for how to identify opportunities.