Supercomplexity and Education Research: Six Scholarships

Supercomplexity and Education Research: Six Scholarships

Ronald Barnett (University College London, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1001-8.ch013
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Supercomplexity is that state of affairs that is characterized by multiple, conflicting, and proliferating accounts of a situation, in which there are no secure categories through which to anchor oneself in the world. Stated thus, understanding supercomplexity is at a fork: it can lead either to relativism or can be coupled to a realism. I opt here for the latter gambit, specifically marrying supercomplexity to (Roy Bhaskar's) critical realism and I do so by placing my reflections in the context of investigations of the university. Grasped as a site of supercomplexity, the university is open not just to multiple interpretations and ideas (ideas of the university now flourishing and conflicting) but to infinite possibilities. This is where the researcher-as-scholar comes into her or his own in discerning and imagining possibilities for the university in the 21st century.
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Two Kinds Of Complexity

Approaching twenty years ago (Barnett, 1990), the idea of supercomplexity was posited as a way of understanding some of the challenges befalling the world. The idea of supercomplexity was sharply distinguished from complexity. So far as – for instance – an educational institution was concerned, complexity worked at the systems level. It was concerned with inputs, systemic processes and outputs, all of which had their place in an environment that was complex, and which ranged from the local through the national and even – say for a university – to the global levels. These are open systems (Bhaskar, 2008a), in relation to which nothing can be predicted with any assurance, but which offer possibilities for “emergence” (Bhaskar, 2005/1979). “Complexity” here points to the instability and, thereby, the unpredictability of the interactions of the pertinent components but also the openness of their interactions.

“Supercomplexity”, in contrast, was still a form of complexity but arose from the presence of multiple conceptual frameworks through which individuals and groups interpreted their world. The very categories through which the world was understood were not only in dispute but were proliferating. For example, just what is it to be a university? Is it an institution for human development or for economic gain or for worldly power or for public understanding or for the provision of social goods or for cultural reproduction or cultural renewal? To say it is all of these things is to evade the matter at hand, for the categories of possible understanding cut across each other. Some could even be felt to be incommensurable with each other. And this presence of competing – and conflicting – frameworks is the nature of today’s world.

The difference between complexity and supercomplexity can be encapsulated in this way. A doctor is faced with increasing numbers of new drugs, new procedures, a surfeit of patients, an overload of data, growing audits of various kinds, and an insufficiency of resources to cope with the situation. Such a situation is not just replete with multiple entities but is characteristically complex. All the features just mentioned are sub-systems that are entangled with each other, producing unexpected happenings and events, which in turn demand a response. This complexity is (ontologically) real and reflects powerful underlying forces, both national and global: it exists in the world and it imposes considerable burdens; so much so that doctors experience much stress and even commit suicide.

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