Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy
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Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy

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.
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Chapter 24: How useful is complexity theory to policy studies? Lessons from the climate change adaptation literature

Adam Wellstead, Michael Howlett and Jeremy Rayner


The use of metaphors is widespread in policy studies (Morgan, 1980; Dowding, 1995). These root metaphors provide a central theme to a policy framework and allow analysts a starting point in advancing their understanding of policy phenomena (Mio, 1997). But not all metaphors are as useful as others in informing research, knowledge and action. As Zashin and Chapman (1974) pointed out, a long-standing problem in political studies, for example, is the constant issue whereby much relevant experience and accumulated knowledge of political processes and phenomena is ‘excluded from the mainstream of the discipline by its commitment to the use of a vocabulary modeled on that of the natural sciences’. This is true of complexity theory, viewed as the application of a metaphor from system thinking applied to the study of public policy. When metaphors such as complexity are used in social science research, the ‘empirical referents, more explicitly their connections with the experience of real people, seems even more tenuous than those of the traditional theoretical concepts’ such as arguments, interests and positions (Zashin and Chapman, 1974: 292. In place of these older concepts – and traditional political theory constructs such as rights, power, authority or legitimacy – the use of cybernetic metaphors such as equilibrium, feedback, input, transactions, games, and the structural-functional models they often entail, have limitations when it comes to analysing policy-related activity and behaviour.

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