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How Change Happens: The Implications of Complexity and Systems Thinking for Action Research

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Burns, D., 2015. How Change Happens: The Implications of Complexity and Systems Thinking for Action Research, in: The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road London EC1Y 1SP, pp. 434–445.
Thematic Area
Development studies
Action research is about stimulating change,
and learning from it, and stimulating more
change and learning from it. This is not a
straightforward process. Sometimes we take
action and nothing happens, sometimes we act
and something quite different to what we
expected happens, sometimes our action
seems to be successful, but over time things
start to look just like they looked before,
sometimes what we think is success is quite
different to what someone else in the system
thinks is success. Systems thinking and complexity
theory help us to understand why this
is. They help us to understand the nature of
change, and what it is that we should be looking
for. Many action researchers unconsciously
think systemically and have an
instinct for nonlinearity. This chapter is a call
to make this explicit and to explore the implications
for how we organize and facilitate
our action research processes.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This book chapter on complexity and systems thinking for action research builds on experiences within the area of iternational development. It line up the important concepts of complex systems theory and relate them to easily understood examples. Through this fundamental understanding of how systems work and what kind of investigations are needed to understand how they change and how they can be changed, the author distill some recommendations for the design of action research projects.

The recommendations include:

understand that the perceptions of the system differ among the actors and that individual interviews may create a better understanding of the system and its, properties and tensions.
how to understand positive and negative feedback loops
understanding of emergence (unintentional, positive and negative) from events and responses within the system
Understanding of leverage points for change  and who or what that can trigger them
Understanding energy points, often emotional reactions around some properties
Understanding the role of tipping points -  what kind of small changes build up to bigger changes
Understanding attractors - and how they are reinforced or how new ones could be built.
Aim for changes of system dynamics rather that particular system properties.
Point of Strength
The chapter gives a straigthforward view on how social systems can be understood and provides inspiration for design of action research. The design ideas can be used in various situations, including in classroom labs on systems thinking.