A Larger Whole: Complex Systems in IDS

Think about the materials you used in school as a child. Pencils, paper, picture books – these are all simple items. Now, think about how the materials given to you changed over time; paper became a laptop computer, pencils became keyboards, picture books; novels. You went from studying “History,” to “20th Century Wars,” from “Math,” to “Applied Calculus.” What happened? Your knowledge expanded, and your tools increased in complexity.


This is a key concept of Interdisciplinary Studies, as explained by William Newell, author of  “A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies.” He outlines a theory that is already engrained in our core as academics. We’ve studied multiple disciplines, used intricate tools, and at one point or another, blended ideas and concepts across fields.

However, the “blended” approach is not always our go-to solution when we’re faced with problems. We tend to “study the individual facets or sub-systems,” rather than “developing specific, whole, complex systems to study such phenomena,” (1). In other words, we have trouble with the cohesion of the facets we study.

A complex system, as suggested by Newell, can be likened to a map with multiple GIS layers, sub-systems, components and non-linear connections. It is, in short, complex. It’s how we recognize these connections, and how we understand the links between our work in this system, that matters in solving problems.
Take climate change, for example. That’s a problem and a half. There are billions of stakeholders, some concerned with budgets and spending, some concerned with the natural world, some concerned with the wind turbines that are going to block their backyard ocean view. This is a complex system. And there’s no simple solution. There’s this “distinctive self-organizing, overall pattern or set of patterns of behavior that gives the system its identity,” and to csm_melting-ice-polar-bear-on-2063111_16391916d7isolate this/these, and then integrate, is no easy task (7).

Yet, with a problem such as climate change, it’s imperative to look at the sub-systems like economics, natural capital, and human happiness in order to find a solution. Each system has to be considered and then integrated with the others.

Newell closes by assuring that if “complex systems theory indeed permits us to visualize each step in the integrative process and to determine how well we integrated, it will have amply demonstrated its usefulness for inter disciplinarians,” (22).

Now we march forth in our expansion of knowledge and tool building. We will progress in our methods, welcome the integration of ideas and disciplines into our problem solving, and become fruitfully aware of the efficacy of such an approach.

Works cited:

Newell, William. “The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies.” (n.d.): n. pag. Miami University. Web.


Climate change responses are up to us

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


One thought on “A Larger Whole: Complex Systems in IDS

  1. Bill visited our campus last year, and talked with our IDS majors, so it was great to see you bring this work back to us again! I appreciated the clarity of this summary, too. Thanks!


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