Making sense of the emerging conversation in evaluation about systems thinking and complexity science

Eval Program Plann. 2016 Dec;59:62-73. doi: 10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2016.08.004. Epub 2016 Aug 22.


In the last twenty years, a conversation has emerged in the evaluation field about the potential of systems thinking and complexity science (STCS) to transform the practice of evaluating social interventions. Documenting and interpreting this conversation are necessary to advance our understanding of the significance of using STCS in planning, implementing, and evaluating social interventions. Guided by a generic framework for evaluation practice, this paper reports on an inter-disciplinary literature review and argues that STCS raises some new ways of thinking about and carrying out the following six activities: 1) supporting social problem solving; 2) framing interventions and contexts; 3) selecting and using methods; 4) engaging in valuing; 5) producing and justifying knowledge; and 6) facilitating use. Following a discussion of these issues, future directions for research and practice are suggested.

Keywords: Complexity science; Evaluation practice; Evaluation theory; Systems thinking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Interdisciplinary Communication
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Problem Solving
  • Program Evaluation / methods*
  • Research Design*
  • Social Conditions*
  • Systems Analysis