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Complex or complicated? How complexity theory is influencing evaluations by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
November 10, 2009, 11:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Complexity theory originally comes from science/biology and is just beginning to be applied to social sciences, including development.  It recognizes that the contexts in which we work are complex – multi-polar, diverse, often chaotic, etc., and that changes occurring within these systems are therefore usually non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and experienced or viewed differently for the various people and groups who experience it (i.e., multiplicity of knowledge).

The implication for monitoring and evaluation is to further emphasize methods that realistically recognize these complex social systems and the underlying unpredictability and diversity of outcomes and perspectives for the various actors within them, and looking for the changes that our programs can help trigger within these wider systems. This isn’t new to the field of evaluation: our traditional mixed-method evaluations which incorporate surveys, focus groups, key informant interviews and other methods, when done correctly, do often succeed in drawing out diverse viewpoints and effects on different individuals and groups.

However, there are other methods that fit more naturally with complexity and are being increasingly mainstreamed relief and development agencies.  These approaches distinctly recognize the complex and unpredictable nature of program contexts, and therefore seek to measure changes in ways that:

–          are beneficiary-led:

–          recognize and celebrate the diversity of actors/views/experiences;

–          look for emergent trends and evidence of change, often in unpredictable and unintended ways:

–          assess change from the distinct viewpoint of different types of individuals and groups,

–          do not seek to predict outcomes or pre-ordain indicators of success as viewed by outsiders;

–          look for “resonance” of certain themes or indications of change across groups and contexts; and,

–          lend quantitative and qualitative results through systematic analysis and interpretation.


Techniques which specialize in fitting into a complexity theory lens on evaluation and meet some or all of the characteristics above include:

–          Most Significant Change;

–          Outcome Mapping;

–          Participatory Impact Assessment (PIA) ;

–          Locally-developed indicators;

–          Self and peer-evaluation;

–          Photo voice;

–          Some applications of Appreciative Inquiry;

–          Other forms of participatory action research with emphasis on ongoing learning and reflection.


These techniques are gaining increased acceptance because of their unique ability to “tell the story” of how change really happens on the ground while emerging with a robust mix of quantitative and qualitative data.

For a more complete view on complexity theory and its application to M&E the following report by Wageningen International.  For additional background and presentations on suggested tools and approaches, you may also check out:  http://www.odi.org.uk/RAPID/events/Complexity/.


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