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Guest editorial: Complexity and environment



Introduction to Special Issue on Complexity and Environment

Welcome to the E:CO special issue on Complexity and Environment. The genesis of this collection of papers was the Fourth Annual Organization Studies Conference, “Embracing Complexity,” during July 2008 in Pissouri, Cyprus. The call for papers for the seminar was grounded in Gregory Bateson’s complex understanding of environment, change and evolution.

Appropriately the “classic” article chosen for this special number was written by Bateson (1963). Bateson believed that the social / environmental degradation of justice, milieu and culture, is co-derived from cultural ideas of humans and that restoration is best accomplished by concentrating on these cultural ideas. The environment that we can see is the one that our ideas can produce; the human is always implicated in what we claim to ‘know’. Bateson was a theoretician of communication—thus, he saw the environment that we study as a communicative artifact. Thanks to how we communicate with ourselves and surroundings we see understand and manipulate those surroundings in particular ways and not in other ways. Bateson’s epistemic mutuality does not prioritize the knower or the known and thereby is a rich source for developing complexity insights.

Luhmann’s “Social Systems” (1995) has provided us with a useful complexity (autopoesis) inspired introduction to the concept of environment. From a systems theoretic perspective, an environment must exist for a system to exist, for by definition environment is everything outside the boundary of a system. Environment is the dual of system; expanding the boundary of a system will decrease what is considered environment, and decreasing the boundary of a system will expand what is considered environment. Any system will differentiate itself from its environment in a number of ways, including behaviorally and temporally.

According to Luhmann, an environment contains many other complex systems itself, thus any environment is always more complex than any system embedded in it. In a social system, this causes tension in the system. For control, a controller must be more complex than the system being controlled (Ashby, 1958). Thus if the environment of a social system is more complex than the social system itself, this implies that an environment is beyond the control of a social system. Environments must be grappled with: influenced and adapted to, but not controlled.

As no social system is closed, it must interact with its environment. The social system in turn treats its environment and its complexity as a contingency. If the social system seeks resources from its environment, resource dependencies emerge, whereby the social system and its environment coevolve. If the social system seeks information from its environment, information uncertainty emerges, whereby the social system seeks to either reduce uncertainty or mitigate its negative consequences (Luhmann, 1995).

Thompson’s “Organizations in Action” (1967) views the organization in relation to its environment from the perspective of input-core-output. The environment provides input into the organization (e.g., raw material, requirements information, demand) and the organization creates outputs (e.g., product, service, information, waste) that go back into the environment. For Thompson, uncertainty associated with both resources and information is key. Thompson suggested that organizations purposefully buffer their core activities from uncertainty by (e.g.) adhering to master schedules or vertically integrating to secure resources. If buffering is not possible, organizations use smoothing, forecasting, and rationing to attempt to mitigate losses from uncertainty.

Lawrence and Lorsch’s “Organization and Environment” (1967) took the notion of contingency one step further by suggesting that the manner in which one organized should be contingent upon the nature of the environment. Their work and others that followed, posited and found evidence to support that hierarchical organizational structure was fitter for companies in stable environments while organic organizational structure was fitter for companies in turbulent environments.

As complexity science emerged, different types of models treated environment differently. Computational and dynamical models, such as Kauffman’s NK model (Kauffman, 1993) or nonlinear dynamical systems models (Guastello, 2002) model the environment as a source of exogenous (often random) shocks. Agent-based models, such as Sugarscape (Epstein & Axtell, 1996), treated environment both as a source of exogenous shocks (i.e., a source of information uncertainty) and as a repository of resources that agents seek to acquire from some functional purpose. Self-organizing models such as autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1987) and far-from-equilibrium models (Lichtenstein, 2000) however have incorporated environment as a key theoretical construct. And via consciousness studies, fundamental reflection about the relationships between life and structure, self and organization are advancing.

More recently, environment has taken on a more literal meaning for organizations. As both market and regulatory forces push organizations to operate and create products and services with less negative environmental impact, the concept of environment has been used more literally. Life cycle assessment, which seeks to estimate the environmental impact of a product or system across its life cycle, treats environment as a source of resources (extractions) and as a receiver of emissions. As extractions indicate resource dependency, so too do emissions indicate information uncertainty, in terms of increased risk to future human or eco-system health.

In this issue we have compiled a strong set of papers that discuss organizations, environments, and complexity. The papers were invited by us, the issue’s coeditors, and went through the review process in order to improve.

Tom Eide explores organization/environmental definitions via analysis of an Ibsen play wherein the individual ethical, social-economic and political levels are explored as interlinked and contradictory. He is interested in whistleblowing and ethics, but also in multiple-perspectives. The situation analyzed is different for the actants than for the researcher. Contemporary social science methods often stress that the researched must agree to the data presented, Eide shows us a situation where this would never lead to honesty or insight. And he asks us if literary methods that can reveal such conflicts and paradoxes are not needed in the study of complexity.

The next three papers use the physical concept of the environment. In “Sustainable Supply Networks: A Complex Systems Perspective,” Liz Varga et al., use a case study of the evolution of supply networks in the UK aerospace industry to demonstrate how supply networks coevolve with their environment. They find empirical support that links environmental drivers to change in supply network structure and behavior. Their work highlights the importance of path dependency and coevolution with the environment.

“Social and Ecological Transitions: Winemaking in California”, by Greig Tor Guthey and Gail Whiteman, uses a case study of the northern California wine industry to show how environmental pressures affected regional planning and industrial practice. They use the concept of “ecology” to unify the physical environment and the organizations embedded with it. Their study emphasizes the need for an interdisciplinary approach when addressing these phenomena.

Kathryn Pavlovich’s “A Fractal Approach to Sustainable Networks” uses the concept of fractals to discuss the structure of sustainable inter-organizational networks. In studying ethnographic data concerning a tourist destination, she examines self-similarity in the networks that emerged, and finds evidence of volume-filling, reciprocity, and enfoldment, characteristics of a complex adaptive system. The paper demonstrates how the concept of fractals can provide a useful lens to understand the coevolution of environment and organizational system.

Our Complexity and Philosophy paper is “Making Room for Affordances” by Hugo Letiche and Michael Lissack. If the relationship between the entity (organization, organism, person) and its environment is as mutual as Bateson claims, how can we still describe and understand it? If we are always relationally implied in what we study, how can we still ‘study’ it? James Gibson’s concept of ‘affordances’ potentially cuts the Gordian knot of self/other, researcher/researched and organism/environment by focusing on the activity between the two instead of on the dualisms. Scott Kelso’s ‘complementary relating of contrarieties’ is a contemporary conceptualization of the activity of the in-between—i.e., of cognition that is situated and contextual, dynamic and relational. In this article these tools of complexity studies are examined and developed.

This issue of E:CO offers a post-Bateson(ian) exploration of thinking the identity/environment relationship. Neither ‘self’ nor ‘environment’ is an adequate concept any more—thinking their in-between and mutuality is a crucial challenge of our times.



Ashby, W.R. (1958). “Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems,” Cybernetica, ISSN 0011-4227, 1(2): 83-99.


Bateson, G. (1963). “The role of somatic change in evolution,” Evolution, ISSN 0014-3820, 17(Dec): 529-539.


Epstein, J.M. and Axtell, R. (1996). Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up, ISBN 9780262550253.


Guastello, S.J. (2002). Managing Emergent Phenomena: Nonlinear Dynamics in Work Organizations, ISBN 9780805831634.


Kauffman, S. (1993). Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, ISBN 9780195079517.


Lawrence, P. and Lorsch, J. (1967). “Differentiation and integration in complex organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, ISSN 0001-8392, 12:1-30.


Lichtenstein, B. (2000). “Self-organized transitions: A pattern amidst the ’chaos’ of transformative change,” Academy of Management Executive, ISSN 0896-3789, 14(4): 128-141.


Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems, ISBN 9780804726252.


Maturana, H.R. and Varela, F.J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, ISBN 9780877734031.


Thompson, J. (1967). Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative Theory, ISBN 9780765809919.

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