Complexity and Theory in IR

As someone trained to place theories of change and stability (TOCS) at the center of futures research, as well as someone taught the importance of seeing the world through the lenses of systems and complexity, I am simultaneously excited and conflicted about the recent post “Crude Thinking – 7 Ways of Dealing with the Complex in IR.” In it the author critiques the dominant academic and theory-based focus for decision-making in international relations and offers some guidance for “crude thinking” as an alternative for dealing with complex systems.

I don’t have much in the way of critique for the suggestions themselves; they certainly accord with what I’ve picked up over the years about operating in situations of complexity. My ambivalence (or confliction) perhaps has more to do with the emphatic advocacy for a “crude thinking” approach over other approaches to sense-making and decision-making in the real world. Trying to understand and anticipate the future of IR (or regional conflict or industry structure or whatever…) usually benefits from a variety of approaches and frameworks.

Towards the end of the piece the author also seems to reference cynefin, whether or not he realizes it. The Cynefin framework of course is the sense-making framework from David Snowden that helps to differentiate simple, complicated, and complex systems from each other and from true chaos. The framework helps decision makers recognize the type of context they’re in (e.g. simple vs. complicated) and prescribes different decision making heuristics based on the context.

The challenge with seeing the complex systems at play in the world is in fact to distinguish between contexts of complexity in which the approaches the author advocates are truly valuable from other contexts in which approaches like theory-building, model-thinking, and reductionist thinking (among many different approaches to interpreting the world) in fact provide a great benefit to a decision-maker (to which the author seems to allude – albeit with very light support – at the end of the article). It seems to me that no one approach is ever the single-best approach in all situations, and so too with approaches calibrated to success in complexity.

And some minor things:

  • How I wish people would stop talking about “futurology.” Every time I see it in print the authors are implying (or outright asserting) that “futurists” are positioned somewhere close to astrologers. Either they are in fact no familiar with genuine, academically trained futurists, or I’m just not practicing with their talking about.
  • The article addresses what professional futurists have long thought about and deal with on a daily basis when working with clients: the role of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophesy in decision-making and the creation of the future.
  • With regard to the issue of actors in complex systems able to change their strategies based on knowledge of other actors’ strategies (and theories), the author mentions that actors in China are trying to strategize their way out of modernization theory (which anticipates an end to their rule in China) while also trying to strategize their way out of the Thucydidean trap. I’d agree, but add that from what I’ve gathered, actors in China are also, absolutely, explicitly buying into the core of power transition theory and certainly trying to make its overarching patterns come to pass. We as actors can absolutely be selective about the theories we discard, embrace, attempt to thwart, and attempt to maintain.


Crude Thinking – 7 Ways of Dealing with the Complex in IR,” by Daniel Clausen

A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone.


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