A number of evaluation methods draw on complexity theory because its key concepts are useful for understanding complex multi-stakeholder initiatives. In particular, complexity theory addresses irelationships and feedback between different actors and factors which can lead to emergent changes that are not possible to predict at the outset (something traditional evaluation is usually focused on).
The papers and books highlighted below introduce some of the key concepts and aspects of complexity theory. Several of the papers outline evaluation methods influenced by complexity theory and their value for assessment of development and social programmes in a field that is still in development.
Other Introductions to Complexity Theory
USAID Discussion Note, Westhorpe, Gill (2013)
This short guidance note highlights the need to address complex aspects of many social programmes, often overlooked in results frameworks or logical frameworks based on outcomes decided in advance. It outlines the difference between simple, complicated and complex contexts in order to be clear where attending to complexity is important. It also highlights the need to attend to relationships, differing stakeholder perspectives, and clarity about the boundaries of what will be assessed when evaluating complex aspects of programmes. Five complexity sensitive approaches to monitoring are briefly outlined.
IKM Working Paper 14, IKM-Emergent/Panos, (47 pages), Vincent, R (2011)
Reviews some of the ways that complexity theory has been drawn on in the evaluation of development interventions to date and how some of the key concepts in complexity theory such as emergence have been understood and applied. Introduces and summarises a range of evaluation methods that have roots in complexity theory.
CDI Practice paper Number 8, (10 pages), Burns, D (2014)
This short paper outlines how two methods rooted in complexity theory - Systemic Action Research and Participatory System Inquiry - can support a useful and practical approach to assessing impact in social programmes and initiatives. Design, planning, action and evaluation are merged in Systemic Action Research in a real-time assessment process that continually draws on empirical data for reflection, analysis and responsive action.
London: ODI (78 pages) Ramalingham B, Jones H, Toussaint, R (2008)
A broad summary and review of the key aspects of complexity theory and how they may apply to development and humanitarian interventions and programmes.
Dealing with Complexity in Development Evaluation
Navigating complexity in international development: facilitating sustainable change at scale
Rugby: Practical Action Publishing (180 pages). Burns, D and Worsley, S (2015)
This book focuses on Systemic Action Research and related approaches and provides a complexity informed account of how change happens in international development contexts. While evaluation tends to be collapsed with iterative planning and action in the method, key concepts from complexity help to illustrate how social changes and development unfold, and can be driven by a combination of participation, learning and relationship building. Covers similar ground to the Burns 2014 paper above, with a more comprehensive account of the method and related approaches and a wealth of case study examples.
Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: the state of the art
London: Routledge (297 pages) Byrne, D and Callaghan, G (2014)
Comprehensive and detailed look at the theoretical and methodological engagements with complexity theory by a range of social science disciplines, highlighting influential authors and useful empirical work. Includes a review of current developments in a wide range of fields and takes a detailed look at the implications for research and practice in the field of health.
Please note: this is a very selective list. The literature in this area continues to grow.
More resources on Complexity Theory and on Complexity Sensitive Evaluation can be found in the Mesh Complexity Sensitive Evaluation resources category.To see how this resource fits in with the rest of Mesh's evaluation resources, and to learn how to navigate them, visit the Mesh evaluation page.
This resource was developed by Robin Vincent as part of supporting the Wellcome Trust linked community of practice on evaluation of public and community engagement and was originally hosted on the eMOPs website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License