Editor's Note (4.3)

Michael R. Lissack


Much of the debate about US intentions about Iraq over the past few months have revolved around questions of framing or frames. Frames are patterns of organized information by which people make sense of the world. These “patterns,” “schemas,” or “frames” form part of the “discursive universe” in which people interact with each other.

People learn frames as they learn to use a language fluently and as they learn the narrative structures and ideologies present in the cultures that use that language. When people encounter new information or a new experience, they make sense of that information or experience by fitting it into an existing frame. They will generally be able to fit any given collection of information into multiple frames although, at the same time, they will also tend to perceive information selectively, focusing on details that most readily fit into the frames they know. As humans, we each seek to solve problems as presented; we acquiesce in one another's frames. Indeed, we become prisoners of the frame.

Situation theory reminds us that the acquisition of information from a situation depends on those constraints of which one is aware or to which one is attuned. Much of Daniel Kahneman's research (both with and without Tversky; c.f., 1992) suggests that we then compound the problem by a tendency toward “segregation”—isolating a problem from its global context. Or as Piattelli-Palmarini put it in his Inevitable Illusions (1994):

Having considered only the choices offered us, rather than considering the various global possibilities or probabilities available, we stare at our navels. In myopic fashion we take up only those actions and solutions that have an immediate effect on the situation, and always as they have been framed for us.

This can be tragic, as captured by Diane Vaughan (1996) in her book The Challenger Launch Decision:

They may puzzle over contradictory evidence, but usually succeed in pushing it aside—until they come across a piece of evidence too fascinating to ignore, too clear to misperceive, too painful to deny, which makes vivid still other signals they do not want to see, forcing them to alter and surrender the world-view they have so meticulously constructed.

Complex systems theories and their applications to the “real world” also suffer from a paralysis of frames and framing. Complexity zealots seem to believe that by re-“viewing” the world though the frame of complexity hard problems will become solvable, our addiction to sunk costs and path dependence can be overcome, and the resulting “wisdom” will lead to a brighter tomorrow. System theorists, by contrast, note that we have seen this all before and the hopes and beliefs of the zealots are misplaced.

The collection of articles in this issue suggests that complexity's frame problem be addressed by turning the concept of “complexity theory” inside out. They suggest that the notion of complexity theory be redefined as a set of catalysts or tools, such that complexity theory is used to ask questions that are revelatory of ontology rather than constituting an ontology unto itself. Such a redefinition would entail recognition of the fundierung relation between a given question provoked by taking a complexity perspective and the context of the social and ideational environment of which the question is an affordance and which it demands should be attended to. Complexity theory, it is argued, can succeed when its methods, questions, and perspectives are accepted and used as tools for the accomplishment of a communicative purpose. Complexity theory tends to fail when its own ontic status itself becomes a focus.

Complexity theory will have longevity only if it serves as a useful tool for a successful environmental niche. The fundierung of complexity theory to “reality” recognizes that the theory raises questions that themselves are efficient tools for evoking particular affordances to be attended to in situ. Such a fundierung can be consistent with both traditional and postmodern theories. It also suggests that the complex systems field has created an indexical (life = a complex adaptive system) that has exceeded its carrying capacity and thus lost its efficacy. Worse, that indexical is evoking images and affordances that stand in the way of the complex systems perspective making true progress.

It is perhaps time to recognize that the ontic status of complex systems has been misplaced. Complexity may be but an epiphenomenon—an important one for sure, but “epi” nonetheless.


Kahneman, Daniel (1992) “Reference points, anchors, norms, and mixed feelings,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 51: 296-312.

Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo (1994) Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule our Minds, New York: Wiley.

Vaughan, Diane (1996) The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.