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Action Research, Complexity and Policy Change

Policy Analysis
Methods
Policy Change
P009
Koen Bartels
University of Birmingham
Miren Larrea
Instituto vasco de competitividad

Abstract

Complexity is at the heart of action research, but has received little conceptual and methodological attention. Complexity-inspired approaches have become increasingly popular in public policy. However, it needs to become clearer what complexity-inspired approaches have to offer to those who seek to harness complexity in practice. Therefore, the main aim of the panel is to improve understanding of how theories and methods oriented to complexity aid policy actors and action researchers to collaboratively intervene in complex policy processes and achieve policy change. It is widely agreed that action research can help to address complex societal challenges and governance systems in the pursuit of sustainability transitions (Bartels & Wittmayer, 2018). Policy processes involve a multiplicity of values, knowledge, discourses, emotions, practices and power relationships that not only render them complex but proliferate the differences, conflicts and inequalities that make a sustainable and just world an exceedingly elusive ideal. It has therefore been suggested that action research can aid policy actors in “exploring preference differences, agreeing on problem definitions, and jointly designing solutions … [that are] problem-driven and aimed at enhancing reflexivity, reshaping relations, and increasing evolutionary learning” (Li and Wagenaar 2019, 581). Up to now, General Systems Theory has inspired action research to focus on the dynamic change processes emerging from the relationships and interactions between actors and with the system. (Greenwood & Levin, 2007; Flood, 2010). It celebrates this complexity by enhancing the diversity and adaptive capacity of actors to facilitate sustainability transitions. In the field of education, it has also been recognised that complexity theory can inform action research (Phelps & Hase, 2002; Phelps, 2014; Davis & Sumara, 2005). However, there seems to be little empirical application of this cross-fertilization. There are several recent conceptual developments about complexity in policy analysis. Deliberative Policy Analysis has been reinvigorated by using complexity theory and General Systems Theory to reconceptualize contemporary governance in terms of complexity (Bartels et al., 2020). This is both an ontological move that allows us to understand the social and policy world as complex adaptive systems and an interventionist argument for participatory governance (Wagenaar, 2007) and pragmatist institutional design (Wagenaar and Wenninger, 2020). Systems theory has been employed to transform natural resource management and water governance through systemic co-inquiry (Foster et al., 2019; Allen et al., 2020) and analyze public deliberation as a dynamic practice across diverse spaces (Ercan et al., 2017). Complexity theory also resonates with the increasing spread of relational approaches in public policy (Bartels & Turnbull, 2020; Lejano, 2020) and concern with sustainability crises and transformation in transition studies (Grin et al., 2010; Kok et al., 2020). The papers in this panel build on these and other conceptual and empirical developments to explore how complexity-inspired approaches to action research work, what makes them distinct, and what they can achieve. The papers include both conceptual and methodological discussions of complexity-inspired approaches grounded in empirical explorations of action research aiming to promote systems change, sustainability and transformation.

Title Details
Ecological transitions and the welfare state. A pragmatist-systemic approach in eco-social policy research and design View Paper Details
Asset-Based Action Research: Transforming Complex Wellbeing Relationships View Paper Details
Ways of being (usefully) critical in complexity-based sustainability research View Paper Details