Expanding Paradigms

In my first post in this two part guest series, I presented an account of the contrast between ‘things’ and ‘people’ as it was framed in my 1997 book Whose Reality Counts? and as many people in the development sector still perceive it. As numerous responses – both here and on other fora – have noted, things aren’t as simple as all that.

The binary contrasts of things and people as I saw them back in have some very obvious limitations. In comparing the two columns in the table in my earlier post, there can be the temptation of the Animal Farm syndrome: ‘four legs good, two legs bad’.

Reductionism, on the things side, is for instance often painted as bad, and inclusive systems as good. However, this fundamentally depends on context and purpose. There are examples where the opposite holds true. There are also many useful cross-overs between the paradigms, applying things approaches to people, and vice versa. The binary is blinkered and misses much. It lacks subtlety and nuance. And there are many things that do not fit.  It disguises as much as it reveals.

And yet on so many levels it is appealing precisely because of these shortcomings. It is liable to set up a ‘them and us’. It is liable to place responsibility for failures on the ‘other’. Binary oppositions can harm when they polarise the way we see the world and how we determine what is important.

The emergence and evolution of complexity science – and its multifarious insights and analogies – span the physical world, digital computer technology, biology, ecology, economics and social domains. Besides edge of chaos (the idea which gives its name to this blog) other ideas and ways of thinking and seeing things from complexity science take us into a new realm. These ideas collectively make it easier to appreciate, legitimate and accommodate uncertainty and unpredictability – regardless of whether we are talking about things or people.

Because it finds patterns in many diverse phenomena, complexity science provides us with a means by which to read across and change our understanding of these different paradigms. Nobel laureates have argued that complexity thinking presents us with a new opportunity to bridge the divide between physical and social sciences – the world of things and the world of people. I suspect they might be right.

As a 2008 ODI working paper on complexity sciences (Ramalingam et al, 2008), notes:

scientists and thinkers [have been faced] with opposing paradigms since classical times right up to the present day, e.g. the contrast between the hard rock of Aristotle and the swirling mysticism of Plato, echoed in the differences between the approach of neoclassical economics compared with that of cultural anthropology.”

That paper concludes that complexity theory provides a means of ‘steering a middle ground’ between such polarities.

Among the more striking and relevant of the concepts are non-linearity, adaptive agents, co-evolution, and sensitivity to small differences in starting conditions. The paper cited above is a comprehensive introduction to many of these ideas. These concepts have illuminated and validated the creativity, diversity and unpredictability of the  paradigm of people and processes in combination with things. The world is not just things, nor is it just people. The world is not just physical, biological, social, behavioural, psychological, cognitive – it is all of these at the same time.

Complexity science has thus opened up new ways of seeing and understanding phenomena from an interdisciplinary perspective. It offers a lens to re-think the nature, utility and relevance of our work, wherever on the scientific spectrum we sit.

Bridging Paradigms

Revisiting the paradigms of things and people which I set out in the earlier post, we can now see that our conceptualisation needs to be adapted and allowed to evolve. There are new worlds between the certainties of the ‘things’ paradigm and the ambiguities of the ‘people’ paradigm. In fact, there is some astonishing common ground.

For example, characteristics of new technologies, deriving from the ‘things’ paradigm, are now to be found on the people side. Modern social media and communications technologies differ from the more fixed and more mechanical technologies of the past. Separately, new movements have emerged in participatory methodologies, for example, towards the use of numbers and measurement, leading to quantification of experiences that are normally considered qualitative, including empowerment and social change. Poor people can correct, validate and themselves generate statistics, and these can empower them in their relations with organisations and government. They can bring a rigour to evaluations that is all their own, if we or they are able and willing to facilitate good participatory processes and to be open to the outcomes.

Such paradigm-bridging approaches have a growing legitimacy in scientific endeavours, and need to be brought into the mainstream of development thinking. Participation underlies both the examples above, and this – to my mind – is no coincidence. Participatory methods are increasingly being seen as key to effectively navigate so-called wicked problems and as such play a central role in achieving such paradigmatic win-wins. But participation too needs to evolve in order to accommodate this dynamic new world. The methods we have long facilitated with poor people need to be brought into organisations to improve the quality of dialogue and collective problem solving. Facilitators and facilitation open up a win-win future. And the methods also need to adapt and transform to keep up with, and maximise the benefits of, new technologies.

Importantly, complexity can also contribute to reformulating paradigms themselves – giving us a different way of understanding what a paradigm is. From a complexity perspective, each paradigm is an interconnected and interdependent pattern that coheres through mutually reinforcing elements.

In the light of these reflections – the things versus people paradigms need to be redefined, expanded and re-presented.

Re-thinking paradigms

Today, then, we can see two broad paradigms at work in international development. On the one side are Neo-Newtonian practices – those processes, procedures, roles and behaviour which emphasise standardisation, routines and regularities in response to or assuming predictabilities. On the other side, we can see what I call adaptive pluralism, which demands creativity, invention, improvisation and originality in adapting to and exploiting change.

How these paradigms are presented also needs to shift in the light of understanding of complexity.  The diagrams below build on the definition of paradigms I set out in my first post. They suggest some of the ways in which  different elements of each paradigm are mutually reinforcing.

Elements in a Paradigm of Neo-Newtonian Practice


Elements in a Paradigm of Adaptive Pluralism


A whole book could be written in elaboration, justification and criticism of these representations. The details and contrasts are, to mix metaphors, flying kites, going out on a limb, and provoking bulls with red rags.

Readers can judge whether the kites fly, the limb breaks, or any bulls are provoked; and will I hope accept my challenge and invitation to do better. Through a plurality of ideas we may get closer to what will make sense of our rapidly changing world.

There are two points to make now. First, it is not an either-or. These ways of thinking about the world need to co-exist in a much healthier manner than they do currently. Rosalind Eyben has written about how the formal, reductionist side of the aid system often overlays the adaptive side of the system, resulting in cognitive dissonance. It must be possible to get a better, more honest, and realistic, balance between the two.

Second, and to build on this, establishing a better balance needs to be grounded in the challenges we face right now, otherwise it is likely to be abstract and meaningless. Let me ask for suggestions of approaches, things we know that can be done better, where we might attempt paradigmatic win-wins. Maybe it is about furthering the results agenda through participation and local ownership. Perhaps it is developing more socially grounded alternatives to the logical framework. Maybe it is about how large databases and social networks can be developed in tandem in order to enhance aid transparency. Perhaps it is about how uncertainty and context can be better addressed within planning frameworks of aid bureaucracies. In the wider world, areas come to mind where bridging the paradigms may be increasingly essential: climate change, urbanisation, HIV-AIDS, and the link between farming and animal health are some immediate thoughts. I am sure you will have your own examples.

However, here my own prejudices have to come to the fore. There is little doubt in my mind that the neo-Newtonian paradigm has become more and more dominant in development action, if not development thinking. It exerts a powerful influence – for better or for worse – on the way much of the system works. For balance, we need a countervailing pull. For the paradigmatic win-wins which I touched upon earlier to be recognised and acted upon, we need to understand better how adaptive pluralism can add value to development efforts, and how it can be accorded the status it deserves.

In general terms, we must each start by looking to our own paradigms and see what scope there is for challenging how we personally think about, approach and deal with a given problem. Do we feel our own paradigmatic preferences imposing themselves onto a situation before we have even fully understood it? Do we react strongly to a certain way in which development problems are framed and communicated? Is there a ‘them’ in our own organisation to whom we should be speaking but don’t because ‘they don’t see things the way we do?’ If we can answer yes to any of these things, we each have a good place to start.


I hope you have enjoyed this two part series as much as I enjoyed writing it and engaging with Ben in discussions around it (the extent of which really make us co-constructors and co-authors). I hope that at the very least, it will have triggered thoughts and provoked disagreements. I would appreciate reactions and reflections – not least on whether the concept of these paradigms works, whether their treatment makes sense to others, and suggestions for refinements or other articulations.

Let me conclude with a point which relates directly to the readers of this and other blogs. Email, internet, search engines like Google, mobile phones, Web 2.0, blogging, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter….these have already created a culture and practice of continuous adopting, de-adopting, adapting, learning and changing - demanding alertness, nimbleness and creativity. It has even led to adapting and revising this Guest Post series on the fly.

In this emergent aid blogosphere, we as people are all engaged in adaptive pluralism, using physical technologies that are built on neo-Newtonian principles. As such we are reminded daily that the world is things and people, all at the same time.

Let me hope that we in the development community can use the potential of this new space to explore new possibilities, to challenge ourselves and to push beyond our existing mindsets and attitudes, and to do so in ways which create more paradigmatic win-wins.

Our guiding philosophy can be a simple one – in words of the migrant worker, social philosopher and writer Eric Hoffer (pers. comm. Ruth Meinzen-Dick 2004):

In times of change, learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves well-equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

And one more, from Tom Stoppard:

It is the very best time to be alive, when almost everything you believed is wrong.

I am grateful to Ben Ramalingam for the idea of this blog, for co-constructing it, and for contributions to the adaptive revisions of an earlier draft.
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Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. [...] is taken from a longer two part piece by Robert Chambers on the excellent ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’ blog. Worth spending [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aid on the Edge, Aid on the Edge. Aid on the Edge said: Robert Chambers' second guest post now online – "Whose Paradigm Counts?" (2 of 2) http://wp.me/pGvZE-vL #smartaid #complexity [...]

  3. [...] « A Q&A on Positive Deviance, Innovation and Complexity Whose Paradigm Counts? Guest Post 2 of 2 By Robert Chambers [...]

  4. Dear Robert and all,

    Some of us working in measurement are very interested in exploring the synergies to which you gesture. You’re right it’s not either or; one needs comparable measures. But they are of necessity crude – and one also needs far more local and textured tools. Can measurement help at the more local level, and if so how?

    One concrete option I’d like to explore: the multidmensional poverty measurement work OPHI are doing at the moment might be an ‘open source’ technology – something useful for adaptive pluralism. Why? Because the dimensions, weights, cutoffs, and indicators can be chosen locally – to reflect the priorities and values communities hold. They also create a ‘measure’ that can communicate, imperfectly but concretely, some of these things.

    It might be very interesting (and not difficult) to join with those doing participatory monitoring/ evaluation, and just try out whether new measurement methods can add anything at all – or not.

    This would require collaboration (just at the right time, and driven by the local partner so that the measure was useful) to assemble the information in a measure, share it back with the community to see a) if it seems accurate; b) if it is adds value to what they do and know already.

    It would also be very interesting to explore participatory data as you had mentioned – and see if it can enrich more comparable analyses.

    I’m not sure what we’d come up with but it might open up a conversation.

  5. [...] a follow up post, Chambers described how to bridge these two paradigms with a complexity lens. He re-framed them in [...]

  6. [...] a follow up post, Chambers described how to bridge these two paradigms with a complexity lens. He re-framed them in [...]

  7. [...] (see Mintzberg’s books and the strategy safari under ‘related resources’). The blog post by Robert Chambers on ‘whose [...]

  8. [...] (see Mintzberg’s books and the strategy safari under ‘related resources’). The blog post by Robert Chambers on ‘whose [...]

  9. [...] one of Robert Chamber’s blog posts on this subject Whose paradigm counts part 2, he has made two illustrations which describe different aspects of the two paradigms: concepts and [...]

  10. [...] First a blog post by Dave Algoso on his blog “Find What Works”: in the article Kuhn, Chambers and the future of international development he talks about paradigm shifts from science to international development. This is interesting as I myself and many around me are saying that a paradigm shift is needed in international development that appreciates the complexities of the environments we work in. Algoso features two posts by Robert Chambers where he sketches out how such a new paradigm could look like (direct links here and here) [...]


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