Complexity Theory as a Conceptual Construct for Understanding Client Change



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University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work


Every “science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement” (Durant, 1926, p. 2). This quote has particular import for the social work profession when considering the historic tensions between the broader pursuit of social justice within a community or organization and the targeted delivery of interventions to individuals, couples, or families (Gerber, 2007; Marx, 2004; Reamer, 1999). A prominent and fundamental feature of the social work profession at either tier, and the gaps between, is the commitment to understanding and effectuating change – a value-laden term that profoundly influences intervention frameworks and strategies, and the measurement of successful or unsuccessful outcomes (Ford & Urban, 1998; Reamer). For the social work profession, the epistemology of evidence-based practice [EBP] is, at its core, the application of systematic forms or structures to the scientific and clinical conceptualization of human change and adaption (Pollio, 2006). E The physical sciences have posited that organic and inorganic systems are never static, but exist on the edge of cooperation and turbulence at every level of adaption and re-organization (Butz, 1997). This phenomenon is identified in the literature as complexity theory, which provides a model for understanding the non-linear process by which diverse systems self-organize. The study and application of complexity theory to individual and organizational systems parallels the emphasis on EBP as a means of deconstructing the intersection between the effectiveness or efficacy of therapeutic interventions, the capacity for client change, and objective measures for that change (Pollio, 2006; Proctor & Rosen, 2008; Witkin & Harrison, 2001). An emphasis on EPB is not without its pitfalls precisely because positivist or reductionist concepts of evidence can potentially draw social workers toward linear cause and effect measures that may become so rigid as to neglect individual or cultural differences (Gambrill, 2007; Kirk & Reid, 2002; Pollio, 2006). For purposes of bridging this gap between intuition and induction or observation and deduction, however, social work educators and practitioners are conceptualizing the emerging science of complexity theory, rooted in biology and physics, as a paradigm for thinking about how individuals and organizations change through ever-evolving interactions and adaptions (Butz, 1997; Byrne, 1998; Halmi, 2003; Stevens & Cox, 2008). Indeed, it is this quest for a theory of what and how institutions and individuals change that has driven the achievements of social work for a century (Aldarondo, 2007; Marx, 2004). The earliest components of the social work tradition, as brokered by Mary Richmond and her contemporaries in the early 20th century, encouraged transformative change in social and political systems, as well as individuals living within these vibrant, adaptive, and chaotic systems (O’Connor, 2001; Tyson, 1995; Wolf-Branigin, 2009). In the clinic and the field, social workers developed and applied theories of change like imaginative sympathy, mindfulness, therapeutic alliance, or some other means of metaphorically describing a moment when the exchange of information thereby transformed an other (Anderson & Gehart, 2007; Castonguay, Constantino, & Holtforth, 2006; Duncan, Miller, Coleman, Kelledy, & Kopp, 2000; Madsen, 1999). What made Richmond’s work so important, however, was that valuing change was not enough. If the social work profession accepts the maxim that theory drives practice then the quest for empirical constructs that reveal and explain patterns of change within and through individual and organizational systems is the foundation for developing more scientific and ethical practices. Thus, professional social workers must understand and observe change within a scientific method that can be articulated and replicated (Padgett, 2009; Pollio, 2006; Tyson, 1995).



Perspectives on Social Work, Dana E. Prescott, Evidence-Based Practice, EBP, Complexity Theory, Social Work Practice, Perspectives on Social Work, Social work, Evidence-Based Practice, EBP, Complexity theory, Social Work Practice