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Complexity theory is a vacuous concept – fails to establish a coherent epistemology

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Complexity theory is a vacuous concept – fails to establish a coherent epistemology

NB: CT = complexity theory

Morrisson 2010 (Keith, “Complexity Theory, School Leadership and Management: Questions for Theory and Practice” Educational Management Administration & Leadership 38(3) 374–393)

This positive view of CT here is not without its critics, and some questions about CT are set out in the following discussion (see Morrison, 2002, 2006). CT is widely both considered and practised in leadership and management literature outside education, and its consideration for educational leadership and management is recommended. However, while acknowledging this, the argument here also suggests that advocacy of CT in educational leadership and management should also be mindful of its difficulties and limitations, important areas of which are considered below. These are discussed in the subsections that follow, and are intended to indicate the status and value of CT both per se and to contextualize its potential with educational leadership and management. The Challenge of Novelty Many of the concepts raised by this view of CT are not new.14 For example, the tenets of CT here can be regarded as a modern-day reformulation of the structure/function or the agency/structure dyads of pre-structuration-theory sociology (Lichtenstein, 2000). Morrison (2005) argues that CT overlaps with Giddens’s (1976, 1984) theory of structuration, and that it restates Bourdieu’s principles of ‘habitus’ (1977, 1986), ‘structuring structures’ and ‘structured structures’ (Arshinow and Fuchs, 2003; Fuchs, 2003a, 2003b). That said, to identify the pedigree of this view of CT is not necessarily a weakness, as emergent theories build on existing theories, paradigms and data. Many of the elements of the view of CT here are the everyday stuff of school leadership and management discourse and practice, for example: distributed control; self-organization and emergence; communication and networking; creativity and openness; empowerment and teamwork; bottom-up developments; relationships; dynamical systems; unpredictability and non-linearity; feedback and learning for development; redundancy and diversity; collectivity and connectedness; co-evolution, continuous development and adaptation; agency and structure (Gronn, 2002, 2003; Mansfield, 2003; Fullan, 2005). The attraction of CT is that some of its key principles, though not new, are drawn together in a conceptually neat package which may be useful for school leadership and management. Some novelty in CT is clearly demonstrated in much published work on leadership.15 However CT’s strength lies in this drawing together of existing areas of educational leadership and management into a coherent theory using several mutually reinforcing, and often familiar, concepts and constructs, rather than necessarily breaking new ground. Definitions and Coherence Houchin and MacLean (2005) argue that CT has so many different meanings that it is difficult to support its being a coherent theory at all, a feature redolent of emergent theories. Indeed Burnes (2005) suggests that the scientific community itself has doubts about the validity of CT; Schneider and Somers (2006) contend that CT’s assumptions ‘remain murky’, that this impedes its utility for leadership theory, and that its terminology is obscurantist and confusing. Several commentators16 hold that there is still no consensus on the key definitions, measures, descriptions and interpretations of complexity. This is indicative of a young theory and, indeed, the reading of CT adopted here is only one reading. CT here includes perhaps uncomfortable bedfellows: cooperation together with competition (Willis, 2004); individuality with collectivity; connectedness with separation; necessary deviance with necessary conformity; diversity with homogeneity; partial predictability with partial unpredictability; solipsism with the need to understand collectivities; similarity with difference; and centralization with decentralization (Hundnes and Meyer, 2006). There appears to be an epistemological tension at the heart of CT, It argues against predictability and law-like (both universal and statistical), totalizing, standardized, positivist behaviour, yet it specifies its own laws: of emergence, self-organization, self-organized criticality, feedback, networking, connectivity, co-evolution, the inescapability of indeterminacy and nonlinearity in partially predictable and partially unpredictable environments (Ortego´n-Monroy, 2003; Parellada, 2007: 161). Indeed Smith and Humphries (2004) write that complexity theorists such as Brown and Eisenhardt (1998) accept instability and uncertainty with too much certainty. This rehearses the postmodernist’s dilemma of proscribing fixity and firmness yet holding such proscriptions fixedly and firmly. This view of CT is trapped in a double bind: if it does prescribe and predict the future then it is unconvincing, it undermines its own tenets of unpredictability. Yet, if it does not prescribe and predict the future then it has limited value. It is caught.17 Ortego´n-Monroy (2003: 387–92) suggests that CT’s several ‘theoretical incoherencies’ include that it: (1) regards change and diversity in schemas as liberating yet adheres slavishly to one schema; (2) recognizes pluralist societies yet often suggests unitary interventions; (3) encourages a structuralist approach to intervention while simultaneously advocating social constructivist approaches to such intervention; (4) mandates self-organization that may be directive, manipulative and mechanistic; and (5) does not address the problem of how to replace command and control without using command and control. There is a possible contradiction in the view of CT adopted here: it proscribes laws yet has its own laws. It is simply replacing one set of laws with another. If the view of CT here is to stand as a robust theory then these inconsistencies need to be resolved. Without such resolution, school leadership and management practices may be castles built on sand. It was argued in the opening part of this article that CT can offer considerable purchase on understanding and managing change; this remains the case, notwithstanding the trenchant criticisms here. While CT may be valuable as an overarching set of constructs, these are not without their internal inconsistencies. Prediction, Description and Explanation CT offers post hoc explanations of change and evolution, with limited prospective or predictive power (Davis and Sumara, 2005). CT can describe and theorize what has occurred and what is occurring, rather than what will occur. It proscribes predictability other than in the very short term, regarding the future as largely unpredictable and emergent over time. As a post hoc theory, CT may explain but not predict, like doing intelligence after the war is over. This may limit its utility for school managers and leaders other than in indicating conditions that promote emergent selforganization. Further, to confuse prediction with explanation may be dangerous; CT may be explanatory but not predictive in any applied, prescriptive sense. The endeavour to derive predictions from explanations is to commit Ryle’s (1949) ‘category mistake’, confusing explanation with application. Why should school leaders commit themselves to an uncertain future on the strength of a theory or a faith that an acceptable order will emerge and, in the process, be prepared to tolerate potential confusion and unnecessary, perhaps avoidable, difficulty? As Stacey (1995: 492) asks: ‘what does it mean to lead when one can plan interventions without knowing their outcomes?’ (cf. Falconer, 2007: 139–40). Should school leadership and management take a leap into an uncertain future when the evidence is limited?18 Is that not irresponsible? How does one know which choices to make at a bifurcation point, and how does the view of CT adopted here assist school managers to make decisions on which road to take? Indeed, what does it mean to ‘know’ and to be knowledgeable in a climate of uncertainty and if knowledge is both a collective and distributed property? How can one tell whether feedback is positive or negative, particularly if the future is unpredictable? CT may be giving us a cold shower of reality, that is whether we like it or not, we do not know the future. Similarly CT may be overstating the case for unpredictability, or absolving leaders and managers of responsibility. However, CT is not arguing against the fact that leaders and managers—as do scientists—have to operate with the best evidence to date, rather than having perfect knowledge. It is saying that they have to recognize the limitations of their knowledge and that plans may have to change. It is not arguing for laissez-faire management and leadership. The Nature of ‘Theory’ in Complexity Theory A major concern amongst authors is the nature and status of the view of CT qua theory. There are several elements of a ‘good’ theory,19 for example: parsimony; falsifiability; operationalizability; predictive validity; internal coherence of its terms; precision; explanatory potential; greater validity than rival theories; outline of its conceptual framework; controllability; generalizability and universality; fertility and fecundity; ability to spawn a research enterprise and to suggest a research methodology and appropriate truth tests. In terms of spawning a research enterprise, fertility and fecundity, CT has affiliated itself with several others ideas, for example, network theory.20 However this sheds little light on itself, only its affiliates. There may be elective affinities between CT and other theories, but this does not validate the view of CT adopted here. Capra (2007: 14) argues that CT is not a scientific theory in the sense of offering empirically analytic accounts of phenomena (but Sotolongo [2007: 120] refutes this). Nor does it meet Popper’s (1963, 1992) requirement for a scientific theory to be falsifiable, as anything can count as evidence of CT (cf. Murray, 2003: 416). Falsifiability is a stringent requirement for CT if it is to become truly scientific (Gregson and Guastello, 2005). Practices as diverse as teamwork and necessary autocracy (for example to move a stagnant school) are sanctioned by CT, How can CT be shown not to explain a situation? How can it be falsified? Once one has become aware of the tenets of CT as interpreted here, one sees it everywhere. Connectedness, emergence and self-organization are all around. But so can one see examples of those practices that might lay claim to being interpreted through the lenses of Freudian or Adlerian psychology; this does not make them true. The observed phenomena may be examples of Freudian or Adlerian psychology, but equally they may be examples of something else, that is, naming them is an insufficient reason for believing their correctness. The question can be raised as to what counts as evidence for the explanatory potential of CT. Of course there are other types of theory, and this places on CT the onus of justifying itself qua theory and, if it is a theory, then what kind of theory it is. Is it essentially a ‘grand’ theory as in some social science theory, or a descriptive, explanatory, reflective or prescriptive theory, a collection of elements that run well together, a metaphor or exhortation or something else? Further, the generality of its terminology and its operational vagueness render it difficult to verify empirically; it lacks precision, and precision is, as suggested above, a key element of theory. Smith and Humphries (2004: 98) argue that CT lacks the coherence of a robust theory, and they reaffirm Cohen’s (1999) comment that it is more a framework rather than a theory. Smith and Humphries (2004: 99) suggest that CT has ‘little demonstrable empirical validity’, lacks operationally empirical definitions and contains inconsistent terminology, such that it is difficult to move from theory to empirical research (2004: 91). The view of CT adopted here argues that the organism interacts with its environment, and that they shape each other. However, this is so generalized as to be almost impossible to operationalize. How does one operationalize concepts such as self-organization or emergence (Sawyer, 2005)? Fitzgerald and van Eijnatten (2002: 406) remark that CT is more of a disparate collection of ‘concepts, premises and notions’. This is, perhaps, less of a criticism than a statement of the current situation of a nascent theory or disciplinary field; it clearly supports the ‘fertility’ criterion of a the


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