Harold Pliszka, Structural Social Worker LinkedInTwitterWordPressabout.me
Home | Profile | Practicums| Practice Models | My Articles | Resources | References | Contact
Practice | Structural Social Work | Anti-Oppressive Practice | Feminism | Queer Theory | Chaos and Complexity

Chaos and Complexity

In community development, I have come to appreciate the theories of chaos and complexity.

Chaos "theory shows with mathematical precision that for many relatively simply problems (let alone complicated ones) there is no sure way of finding a single and definite answer - no matter how well we have proceeded" (Eve, Horsfall, & Lee, p. xxviii).

Complexity theory is "about reaching critical mass among the diverse range of factors, elements and agents that constitute a particular environment" (Mason, 2009, p. 117).

Chaos and Complexity Diagram

As a part of a group assignment, I created the diagram to the left (click for PDF version) to present my understanding of the theories in relation to community development. The black portions speak to chaos and the grey portions represent complexity.

Systems like communities are described as processes moving in and out of chaos and in and out of the edge of chaos. Negative feedback creates stasis and positive feedback creates change by pushing systems further along the process. One or more events can send a system into and out of chaos.

Complexity theory comes into play as systems learn from moving in and out of chaos.

For me, these theories emphasize that the knowledge is in the communities and that my role as a social worker is to facilitate that knowledge into action. Part of that facilitation involves creating greater connectivity with social institutions and with the larger world. Gilchrist (2000) suggests that low connectivity creates stagnancy while greater connectivity creates change.

As with anti-oppressive practice, feminism and queer theory, complexity offers a level of liberation against oppression. With complexity theory, community workers focus on the processes (Gilchrist, 2000) rather than the demands of external forces.


Eve, R.A., Horsfall, S., & Lee, M.E. (Eds.). (1997). Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology: Myths, Models, and Theories. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Gilchrist, A. (2000). The well-connected Community: Networking to the ‘Edge of Chaos.’ Community Development Journal, (35): 3 264-275. doi:10.1093/cdj/35.3.264

Mason, M. (2009). Making educational development and change sustainable: Insights from complexity theory. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(2). 117-124. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2008.09.005

“Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected.” (Fractal Foundation)

Related links:
Chaos & Complexity Diagram in PDF