In the field with complexity

Causal Mapping with Jody Aked

Blog post by Jody Aked, reflecting on “complexity-aware action research.”

How are networks for collective action built? Which network experiences motivate individuals? Which build the momentum of the collective? How is effort on long-term environmental projects sustained? These are some of the questions that emerged in the Philippines from the initial phases of the Valuing Volunteering project – a multi-country action research study exploring how volunteering contributes to positive and sustainable change.

What struck me about these questions was the complexity of the relational and psychological processes underpinning them. Complex systems theory talks about the importance of emergence, interrelatedness, feedback, attractor basins and path-dependency to make sense of human systems. But it wasn’t obvious how to do research in a way that could surface these dynamics.

A few years – and some direct experience – later, here’s how an awareness and appreciation of complexity altered the way we designed a systemic action research project. With thanks to the 300 volunteers, institutional actors, members of people’s associations and young people on the island of Bohol in the Visayan region of the Philippines, who got involved.

To capture new possibilities and capabilities that arise in systems (e.g., a community network) from actors connecting and interacting in new ways (e.g., to incoming volunteers) we needed an approach that did not overly constrain what we are viewing at the outset.

We did three important things here: (1) we did not define a hypothesis and loosely used western research (e.g., into wellbeing) as a heuristic; (2) we ran a Participatory Systemic Inquiry over six months that built from the generic to the more specific (3) we searched high and low for complexity-aware research methods capable of capturing systemic, relational and psychological dimensions of the context. We loved and adapted Marc Maxson’s storytelling technique used by Global Giving to keep the research process open.

To identify which factors and attributes of volunteering promoted the status quo and which triggered new forms of organising in the social-ecological system, we blended World Café with Causal Mapping.

Each table at the café was given a storyboard which summarised an insight in key words, photos and quotes. Actors discussed the issue on the storyboard and mapped how contributing factors interrelated, drawing arrows to capture key dynamics. Actors then moved from one table to another, building on each other’s causal maps, with the host in place to capture evolution of thought in the final discussion. Standing on the shoulders of giants (!) we had built a methodology for deepening group reflection on complex system dynamics.

A complexity-aware researcher is seeking patterns of connection and activity which explain why behaviour is consistent (e.g., inaction on environmental issues) and when the thoughts, feelings and actions underpinning the behavioural consistency are disrupted.

To identify patterns with “general applicability” we used multi-stakeholder sessions after actor-specific ones. We could abstract insights to make them safe enough for a more public discussion, broadening understanding about how collective action was experienced from different actor perspectives – and where commonalities in motivations lay. We used spaces beyond the local research site (e.g., global convening spaces on volunteering) to test emerging insights for wider resonance.

To differentiate more general rules of thumb from artefacts of highly specific change trajectories we seeded the insights that emerged from Participatory Systemic Inquiries into an Action Research process with a local youth group. This allowed us to see whether simple interaction rules which seemed to explain collective action behaviour in one network could create a qualitative shift in the collective action tendencies of actors in a different network. If we could pick up and use insights about feedbacks and positive disturbances in an intentional way, perhaps we were onto something more fundamental about complex social behaviours like cooperation and collaboration.

You can learn more about the findings of the research in my PhD thesis and publications from the Valuing Volunteering project where I discuss complexity aware action research, including the principles of interrelatedness and sensitivity to starting conditions.  The recording is available from a seminar I gave as part of IDS’ Complexity and Development Seminar Series

Please share your thoughts, ideas, or experiences with our community in the comments below so we can continue this discussion!  Jody may be reached at:  j.aked@ids.ac.uk.

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