Complexity and Method: Bridging the Divide

In May this year, Power to Persuade Moderator Luke Craven participated in the Little Heresies in Public Policy seminar series at Newcastle University. Drawing on his experience researching 'wicked' policy problems, his talk explored how systems mapping can be combined with focus group techniques to analyse the strengths of different patterns of relationships within complex systems. Doing so can help us more effectively understand the relationships between complexity and evidence-based policymaking. Listen to Luke's talk here.

In the last decade, there has been a significant push in the UK and further afield that policy must be based on evidence and, crucially, ‘good’ evidence. In its many forms, the ‘evidence’ behind evidence-based policymaking is focused on identifying the causes and consequences of policies, programmes, and social conditions more generally. At the same time, there has been a renewed focus, both in the academy and bureaucracy’s long corridors, on ‘systems-thinking’, ‘system-based approaches’ and complexity, broadly defined, as being key to making policy in a messy, wicked world.

Yet, for the most part, qualitative researchers remain tightly wedded to their traditional methodological tools – the interview, the focus group, the ethnography – in order to make sense of social phenomena. Can these tools, in their most common manifestations, help us make assessments about causal complexity? And, if not, why not? Playing devil’s advocate, this talk took the position that we must be willing to adapt our traditional qualitative tools to make them complexity-sensitive if qualitative evidence is to be seen as ‘good’ evidence. Some strategies that might sensitise them were suggested along the way.

Listen (and watch!) here.