Systemic Practice and Action Research

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 77–97 | Cite as

Science as Systemic Intervention: Some Implications of Systems Thinking and Complexity for the Philosophy of Science

  • Gerald MidgleyEmail author


This paper sidesteps the usual starting points for debate about complexity and the philosophy of science, which tend to assume that science is primarily about observation. Instead, the starting point is intervention, defined as purposeful action by an agent to create change. While some authors suggest that intervention and observation are opposites, it is argued here that observation (as undertaken in science) should be viewed as just one type of intervention. We should therefore welcome scientific techniques of observation into a pluralistic set of intervention methods, alongside methods for exploring values, reflecting on subjective understandings, planning future activities, etc. However, there is a need to explicitly counter a possible pernicious interpretation of this argument: intervention could (erroneously) be viewed as flawlessly preplanned change based on accurate predictions of the consequences of action. This is the mechanistic worldview that systems thinking and complexity science seek to challenge. Therefore, having redefined scientific observation as intervention, the paper revisits insights from systems thinking and complexity to propose a methodology of systemic intervention. Some brief reflections are then provided on the wider social implications of this methodology.

boundary critique complexity critical systems thinking methodological pluralism philosophy of science systemic intervention systems methodology 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Systems Studies, Business SchoolUniversity of HullHullUK

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