Table of Contents

Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy

Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy

Handbooks of Research on Public Policy series

Edited by Robert Geyer and Paul Cairney

Though its roots in the natural sciences go back to the early 20th century, complexity theory as a scientific framework has developed most rapidly since the 1970s. Increasingly, complexity theory has been integrated into the social sciences, and this groundbreaking Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy has brought together top thinkers in complexity and policy from around the world. With contributions from Europe, North America, Brazil and China this comprehensive Handbook splits the topic into three cohesive parts: Theory and Tools, Methods and Modeling, and Application.

Chapter 9: Complexity theory and political science: do new theories require new methods?

Stuart Astill and Paul Cairney

Subjects: politics and public policy, public administration and management, public policy


A key argument in the complexity theory literature is that it represents a new scientific paradigm providing new ways to understand, and study, the natural and social worlds (Mitchell, 2009: x; Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 26; Sanderson, 2006: 117). Broadly speaking, its opponent is ‘reductionism’, or the attempt to break down an object of study into its component parts. The broad insight from complexity theory is that reductionism is doomed to failure because complex systems are greater than the sum of their parts. Elements interact with each other to produce outcomes that are not solely attributable to individual parts of a system. In political science and policy studies this argument is used, in a similarly broad way, to challenge particular brands of ‘positivism’ associated with the attempt to generate ‘general laws’ about the social world. The generation of laws is problematic because complex systems are associated with often volatile arrangements and unpredictable outcomes even if long-term, regular patterns of behaviour can be identified in many areas.

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