SOCIAL WORK 5214 & 4919

Complexity Lens for Social Work Practice

Social Work 5214 and 4919

ATAC 2004    Friday 1-4

An interdisciplinary setting for exploring complexity science

Course Description: 

Complexity science is a broad term that is inclusive of a number of theories on the workings of dynamic and complex systems, such as complex adaptive systems theory, dynamic systems theory, chaos theory, and others. The complexity science perspective is useful in understanding the emerging properties of complex, dynamic social-ecological systems including human cognition and behaviour, social, economic, and cultural dynamics, ecological, climatic, and geographic systems, as well as the interactions among these nested systems. This course will provide the student with a foundational and critical understanding of the complexity perspective and key principles such as non-linearity, self-organization, attractors, and resilience. From this foundation, students will explore applications of the complexity perspective to research and practice in their own areas of interest.

Learning Goals:

  • Students will be confident in their foundational understanding of complexity science and key principles such as non-linearity, self-organization, resilience, and adaptation.
  • Students will begin to adopt a complexity mindset in their approach to research and practice.
  • Students will be able to identify the limitations of both linear and complexity thinking.
  • Students will be able to approach social and environmental issues from a complexity perspective, identifying attractors of positive and negative resilience and key actions for social change.
  •  Faculty may also add learning goals specific to the disciplinary focus for specific students


Will be determined by the faculty supervisor in discussion with the student(s). Assessment should include a presentation to the class that is worth a meaningful proportion of the overall grade.

Meeting Outline:

Foundations: For each foundation topic, one faculty member or student will present a 10-15 minute summary of the key concept including definitions and examples. This will be followed by a 10-15 minute discussion by the group in which alternate definitions, understandings, nuances, critical perspectives, or applications are shared. These are meant to build a common foundation of key principles in complexity science. It is important that everyone come to class having read, and critically reflected upon, the foundations topics for the day. Additional foundations topics may be added throughout the course. If there is a foundation concept you would like to add, please bring it to the group’s attention, or email Mirella.

Topics: These are more in-depth presentations on particular aspects or applications of complexity science. The presenter will have 15 to 45 minutes to present (undergraduate student presentations are typically on the shorter end of this range), followed by 15 to 30 minutes of seminar discussion. Presenters are encouraged to provide a reading to the group in advance.

* Student topics and foundations presenters are to be determined and scheduled immediately after first class meeting. A revised outline of meetings will be shared thereafter.

Common Foundational Required Readings:

  • Walker, B. & Salt, D. (2008). Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems in a Changing World. Island Press. ISBN: 978-1597260930
  • Resilience Alliance webpage: particularly the section on key concepts; also note the glossary and searchable bibliography (focus is on sustainability in complex social-ecological systems)

  • Social Innovation Generation webpage: particularly the pages under the social innovation tab, the Social Impact Webinar Series shown on the main page, and the material under the Resources tab. Note that you can select public, private, community, and academic sector (focus is on social change in complex social-ecological systems)

Additional Resources


Gunderson, L.H. and C.S. Holling (eds.). 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems.

  • Hurst, D. (2012). The new ecology of leadership: Business mastery in a chaotic world. Columbia Business School Publishing.
  • Lipmanowicz & McCandless (2014). The surprising power of liberating structures: Simple rules to unleash a culture of innovation.
  • Westley, F., Zimmerman, B., & Patton, M. (2007). Getting to maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto, ON: Random House of Canada.
  • Waltner-Toews, D., Kay, J.J., & Lister, N.E. (2008). The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability. New York, NY: Columbia University Press
  • Bergendorff, Steen. (2009).  Simple lives, cultural complexity:  rethinking culture in terms of complexity theory.  Lexington Books.
  • DeLanda, Manuel.  (2006). A new philosophy of society: assemblage theory and social complexity.  Continuum.
  • Fisher, L. (2009): The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  • Goldstein, Jeffrey.  Complexity Science and Social Entrepreneurship: Adding Social Value through Systems Thinking.  ISCE Publishing, 2009.
  • Goldstein, Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership.
  • Homer-Dixon, T. The Upside of Down
  • Johnson, Neil F.  (2009). Simply complexity: a clear guide to complexity theory.  Oneworld.
  • Lewis, M. & Donaty, P. (2012) The Resilience Imperative: Co-operative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy.  NewSociety Publishers.
  • Ludwig, Ramona.  (2010). Understanding complexity in organizations: behavioural systems.  Routledge.
  • Meadows, D.H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. London, UK: Earthscan.
  • Miller, J. & Page, S. (2007). Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life.  Princeton University Press.
  • Mitchell, Melanie. Complexity: a guided tour. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Morin, Edgar. On Complexity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Hampton Press, 2008.
  • Norberg, Jon. (2008). Complexity theory for a sustainable future.  Columbia University Press.
  • Tafoya, Dennis W.(2010). The effective organization: a practical application of complexity theory and organizational design to maximize performance in the face of emerging events. Routledge.
  • Waldrop, Mitchell M.  (1993). Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. Simon & Schuster.
  • Zolli, A. & Healy, A. (2012). Resilience: Why things bounce back. New York, NY: Free Press.


  • Redman, C.L., Grove, J.M., & Kuby, L. H. (2004). Integrating social science into the Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) network: Social dimensions of ecological change and ecological dimensions of social change. Ecosystems, 7, 161-171. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-003-0215-z
  • Liu, J., et al., (2007). Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science, 317, 1513. DOI: 10.1126/science.1144004
  • Holling, C.S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4, 390-405. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-001-0101-5
  • Fazey, I. (2010). Resilience and higher order thinking. Ecology and Society, 15, 9. [online] URL:
    • Armitage, D., M. Marschkeand R. Plummer. 2008. Adaptive comanagement and the paradox of learning. Global Environmental Change 18(1): 86-98
    • Hornborg, A. 2009. Zero-sum world: Challenges in conceptualizing environmental load displacement. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50(3-4): 237-262. And rebuttals at Resilience Science (search “Hornborg”).
    • Pahl-Wostl, C., E. Mostert, and D. Tàbara. 2008. The growing importance of social learning in water resources management and sustainability science. Ecology and Society 13(1): 24. [online] URL:
    • Kirmayer, L.J. Dandeneau, S., Marshall, E., Philips, M.K., Williamson, K.J. (2011). Rethinking resilience from Indigenous perspectives. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(2), 84-91.


Resilience Alliance Bibliography:


Simplicity in Complexity:


(animated version):

Social Innovation and Resilience Webinar:

Web 2.0:

Vision of students today:

Complexity – Secret Life of Chaos, BBC 2010

Jared Diamond: Why societies collapse

Quantum physics –  A beautiful new theory of everything

21st Century Pedagogy:

Tipping Points and How to Start a Social Movement

Murmuration (collection of starlings in flight):

Vandana Shiva on the Problem with Genetically-Modified Seeds

Introduction Video to the Santa Fe Complexity Course:

I Am documentary on self, complexity, and the bigger questions

Film “Mindwalk” which contrasts Systems Thinking and other approaches to big questions: (part 1 of 9, all on YouTube)