Insights from Complexity Theory for Peace and Conflict Studies

This is a chapter in O. Richmond, G. Visoka (eds.), The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies, that was published in July 2020.

The Encyclopaedia is available here:

The chapter is available here (DOI):


The use of complexity theory is growing in political science and international relations (Axelrod 1984; Rosenau 1990; Jervis 1997; Kavalski 2015). It has had a faster uptake in related fields such as Development Studies (Rihani 2002; Jones 2008; Ramalingam 2013), and it is increasingly applied to International Conflict Resolution and Peace and Conflict Studies (Hendrick 2009; Körppen, Ropers and Giessmann 2011; Millar 2019). Apart from those that consciously make use of complexity theory, many others have been influenced by the premises and insights derived from the study of complexity. These influences can be traced, amongst others, by the contagion throughout the social sciences of many of the key concepts of complexity such as feedback, bifurcations, self-organization and emergence. 

Peace and conflict studies are ultimately about influencing the behaviour of social systems that have been or are at risk of being affected by violent conflict. A society is managing to self-sustain peace when its social institutions are able to ensure that political differences are managed peacefully, and that no significant social or political group uses violence to achieve its ends (Caplan 2019:22). Peace and conflict studies want to assist societies to prevent and mitigate the risk of violent conflict. When violent conflict has erupted the United Nations or others may intervene through stabilization or peacekeeping operations that attempt to influence the behavior of those opting to use violence through persuasion, inducement and coercion (Howard 2019). This can, however, at best only serve as a short-term alleviation of the problem. For peace to be self-sustainable the society needs to have sufficiently strong social institutions to identify, channel and manage disputes peacefully. 

Insights from complexity theory about how best to influence the behavior of complex systems, how such systems respond to pressure, and how to avoid unintended consequences, should thus be valuable for those involved in understanding and undertaking conflict resolution and peacebuilding (Clemens 2001; Hunt 2017; Ramalingam and Jones 2008).


Complexity theory describes the characteristics and functions of a particular type of holistic system that has the ability to adapt, and that demonstrates emergent properties, including self-organizing behavior. Such systems emerge, and are maintained, as a result of the dynamic and non-linear interactions of its elements, based on the information available to them locally, as a result of their interaction with their environment, as well as from the modulated feedback they receive from the other elements in the system (de Coning 2016: 168; Cilliers 1998:3).

Societies, or social systems, are empirically complex (Byrne 1998). This means that they demonstrate the ability to adapt, and that they have emergent properties, including self-organizing behavior (Kaufmann 2013). As social systems are highly dynamic, non-linear, and emergent, it is not possible to find general laws or rules that will help us predict with certainty, how a particular society or community will behave (Cilliers 2002). We cannot undertake a project, for example, a reconciliation initiative in Somalia, and predict with any certainty what the outcome will be. Nor can we use a model that was assessed to have performed well elsewhere, for instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and expect that it will have the same effect in another context, or even in the same country, but in a different context. 

This uncertainty is an intrinsic quality of complex systems, not a result of imperfect knowledge or inadequate analysis, planning, or implementation. Recognizing this uncertainty when attempting to influence complex social systems has significant implications for the way we think about peace and conflict and undertake conflict resolution and peacebuilding. 

Until fairly recently the peace and conflict community were confident in its ability to diagnose the problems affecting a society emerging from conflict, and to prescribe the steps such a society needed to take to achieve peace (World Bank 2011). The outcome was believed to be more or less guaranteed if the design was followed, and uncertainty was seen as a risk that could be managed with good planning (Eriksen 2009: 662). Complexity provides us with the theoretical framework for understanding the hubris of these assumptions. Recognizing uncertainty as a starting point is what Barnett refers to as cultivating ‘a spirit of epistemological uncertainty’ (quoted in Benner et al 2011:225). Hughes (2012: 116) specifically applies it to the peace and conflict context and argues that “an explicit, reflexive awareness of the incompleteness of our understanding is (…) vital so that decisions are taken with a large degree of caution (and humility) while at the same time demanding that we think through the possible ramifications.” 


Peace, Complexity and Epistemology

One of the primary insights from Complexity is thus the recognition that our ability to gain knowledge of the complex social systems we are dealing with is inherently limited (Byrne 1998).  Insights from Complexity indicate that the study of complex systems may improve our understanding of social systems but cannot help us to predict or control the behavior of a specific complex system (Cilliers 2002). Complexity reminds us that any insights or knowledge we may have gained about any given complex system is provisional, because the non-linear and highly-dynamical nature of complex systems implies that the system will continue to change in unpredictable ways. 

In hindsight it may be possible to connect the dots; however, it remains impossible to predict future events, even if the circumstances appear similar to others already encountered, because complex systems are non-linear and dynamic (Cilliers 1998). In other words, causality can be traced looking back, but it cannot be used to project forward into, or to predict, the future – at least not beyond a very short horizon. Complexity does not generate definitive answers to policy problems. In fact, it clarifies why, in the context of complex phenomena, the search for definitive answers and the pursuit of imagined definitive solutions are flawed. Coleman (2004: 226) notes that one contribution of a complex-systems approach is “that it shifts our understanding away from static, simplified views of conflict” and helps us to appreciate the “complex, multilevel, dynamic, and cyclical nature of these phenomena.”

It is not just the conflict systems that are complex; the international peacebuilding instruments share the same messy characteristics (de Coning 2016). It needs to be recognized that the international peacebuilding system does not have a superior claim to knowledge about managing specific transitions. There are no off-the-shelf solutions and neither is there a single theory of change or model of state transformation, such as the liberal peace model, that can claim universal applicability. Complexity reminds us to be skeptical of results and findings, regardless of the method used to obtain them, because all methods are limited when considering highly dynamic and non-linear phenomena (Cilliers 1998).

Insights from Complexity suggest that one should not see peace as a problem to be solved. Peace does not, in any given context, have a stopping rule. There is no one right or wrong peace. Instead, from a complex-systems perspective, peace is emergent and thus has to be context specific. Making choices about a “good enough” peace and determining whether specific policy choices have resulted in a better or worse outcome can thus ultimately only be done by those embedded in a given context. From the perspective of a particular peacebuilding agent, one can perhaps talk about an undesirable state based on the negative impact such a state is perceived to have on, for instance, a society or parts of that society. One can also talk about better or worse approaches, i.e. a scale of policy responses that range from having improved the situation from the perspective of what the policy set out to achieve on the one end of the scale, to policy approaches that made things worse, on the other. In all these cases it will be important to consider who the agents that make these decisions are, and especially whether such judgements are made by the societies themselves, or by others on their behalf. The overall point, however, is that when it comes to complex social conflicts, one cannot talk about problems and solutions as if there is a right, correct or best solution for a problem that is just waiting to be discovered (Brusset, de Coning and Hughes 2016).


Peace, Complexity and Practice

Peacebuilding is essentially about stimulating and facilitating the capacity of societies to self-organize. Self-organization in this context refers to the various processes and mechanisms a society makes use of to manage its own peace consolidation process, i.e. the overall ability to manage its own tensions, pressures, disputes, crises and shocks without relapsing into violent conflict (de Coning 2016). The robustness and resilience of the self-organizing capacity of a society determine the extent to which it can withstand pressures and shocks that risk a (re)lapse into violent conflict. Peacebuilding should thus be about safeguarding, stimulating, facilitating, and creating the space for societies to develop robust and resilient capacities for self-organization (de Coning 2018).

International peacebuilding interventions should provide security guarantees and maintain the outer parameters of acceptable state behavior in the international system, and they should stimulate, facilitate and create the space for the emergence of robust and resilient self-organized systems. However, international peacebuilding interventions should not interfere in the local social process with the goal of engineering a specific outcome. Trying to control the outcome will, in all probability, produce the opposite of what peacebuilding aims to achieve; it will generate ongoing instability, and dependence, and it will undermine self-sustainability (de Coning 2016).

Many international peacebuilding interventions to date have made the mistake of interfering so much that they ended up undermining the ability of the local society to self-organize. The key to successful peacebuilding thus lies in finding the appropriate balance between international support and local ownership. 

Local ownership cannot be reduced to a type of hybridity where the international community gives some space to the local society to add local flavor to an internationally-designed model. Local ownership is not power, authority and legitimacy given by international peacebuilders to the local society (Donais 2012).  Local ownership is the recognition that peace can only be achieved if it is emergent from the local society. For peace to be self-sustainable, it has to be home-grown. Local ownership, therefore, is an essential precursor for self-sustainable peace. 

The role of international peacebuilders needs to be negotiated in every specific case to suit that particular context. They can have almost no role, as in South Africa’s transition, a minimum role, such as in Rwanda or Ethiopia, or a significant role, such as in Liberia or South Sudan, but they cannot have a dominant role, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, because that is incompatible with self-sustainable peace. 

Hybridity may thus be re-framed to refer to the role that would be appropriate for the international community to have in any given peacebuilding process. Local ownership needs to be understood as a necessary, but not necessarily a sufficient, condition for self-sustainable peace. In some cases, the assistance of the international community may be needed. The critical difference between this approach to hybridity, and the approach most generally associated with hybridity (Mac Ginty 2010; Richmond 2011) is that it is not the degree of local ownership that is regarded as the variable that defines the degree of hybridity in a given case, but rather the level of international interference. 

There may be cases where external parties have such a strong interest in seeing a particular norm adhered to, or a particular state of affairs maintained, that they are willing to sacrifice the goal of self-sustainability and accept the cost of continued interference. However, such a type of intervention could not be categorized as peacebuilding, even though, for political reasons of legitimacy and credibility, the countries involved may choose to frame it as “peacebuilding” and may include references to “self-sustainability” in their stated goals. One thus needs to draw a distinction in some cases between peacebuilding rhetoric aimed at creating a legitimizing narrative for an intervention that is aimed at norm enforcement, or that may pursue some other over-riding national interest, and peacebuilding interventions that genuinely pursue self-sustainable peace consolidation.

In addition, there may, of course, be exceptional situations where the international community chooses to intervene against the wishes of some parts of the local society in order to stop or prevent genocide, severe abuse of human rights or war crimes, such as was recently the case in Darfur, Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. These exceptional powers are provided for under the enforcement articles of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The interventions that flow from such authority are not peacebuilding interventions but are aimed at the protection of civilians, atrocity prevention and the stabilization of affected societies. However, once such situations have been sufficiently pacified, they typically change into a new phase where self-sustainable peace consolidation becomes the new goal of the operation, and when this happens, there has to be a significant shift in the ownership of the process from the international to the local for it to be successful.

The essential difference between the complex-systems approach and a determined-design approach like the liberal peace model is that, under the latter, the solution is understood to come from the outside. The agency to solve the problem resides in the international capacity to assess the situation and to design a solution and to then undertake an intervention where the solution is applied. The insight from Complexity for peace and conflict studies is that, for any society to live sustainably in peace, it needs to generate its own capacity to self-organize. This is a process that can be facilitated and supported by external peacebuilders, but it ultimately has to be a bottom-up and home-grown process. Self-organization cannot be imposed. Any attempt to make a society self-organize will constitute interference and disruption in the system, and the more you intervene, the more you will undermine the process of self-organization (de Coning 2016).

The essential difference between these two approaches is thus the recognition that self-sustainable peace is directly linked to, and influenced by, the extent to which a society has the capacity, and space, to self-organize. For peace consolidation to be self-sustainable, it has to be the result of a home-grown, bottom-up and context-specific process. In this understanding, the art of peacebuilding lies in pursuing the appropriate balance between international support and home-grown context-specific solutions. The international community has, to date, failed to find this balance. In the process, many peacebuilders have contributed to the very weaknesses and fragilities in complex social systems that they intended to address. 

Peace, Complexity and Ethics

Our understanding of how complex systems function has important ethical implications for interventions in social systems. Complexity holds that we cannot predict the future and cannot control future behavior, but it also argues that this does not mean that we are somehow powerless or without agency. Woermann (2010:121) explains that a Complexity approach implies a shift from trying to discover “the Truth” about given situations, to a process of making choices and developing strategies for living and acting, and for dealing with the often-unexpected outcomes of these strategies. An uncertain future can be meaningfully anticipated, influenced, adapted to, and engaged, but such engagement needs to be informed by an awareness of the limits of anyone’s ability to ultimately fully know complex systems, and that awareness has important implications for the ethical status of interventions into such systems. 

No party can claim moral superiority based on pre-determined models or lessons learned elsewhere, nor can anyone hide behind ignorance, because it is known that complex systems are non-linear and dynamic. Therefore, peacebuilders need to be careful, cautious and self-critical when considering and reflecting on the choices they make, because their actions may have negative consequences for the people affected by those decisions and actions (Aoi, de Coning and Thakur 2007).

 The dynamic and non-linear nature of complex systems implies that competing theories of change need to be contextualized before their validity and applicability can be judged. Choices will thus have to be made by taking a range of factors into account and the selection of a given approach ultimately would need to be a local and context-specific informed choice. 

It is the local societies who have to live with the consequences of peacebuilding operations, and who have to pay the cost of any lapses into violent conflict, who are best positioned to make such judgements. They should thus have the ultimate right to make decisions about their own future. Rights also imply responsibility, but local societies can only have that responsibility if they have agency over the outcome. The international community cannot expect a local society to take responsibility for the peacebuilding process when they continue to insist on a pre-determined end state. Local ownership implies taking ethical responsibility for the process and its results and thus implies that the international community must be willing to give up control over the outcome of the process.

The acknowledgement that the decisions made when choosing a given peacebuilding approach are the product of a deliberate choice, as opposed to a choice based on a proven optimal model, represents a significant shift in locating ethical responsibility for the outcomes of a peacebuilding intervention squarely with those exercising such a choice (de Coning 2018). The ethical responsibility thus clearly shifts from the perceived pre-determined virtue of a proven model or theory of choice to those that have the agency to choose which model or theory of change will be applied in a given context.

However, any local society is also part of the international system and, as such, cannot exist in isolation. Whilst the local society has the right and responsibility to control its future, it should also be recognized that their freedom to choose future paths is constrained by the international parameters set for responsible behavior in the international system. The international system will act to prevent, and may even use force to stop, mass abuse of human rights, genocide and war crimes. 

The implications are that the international peacebuilding agents have a role in assisting local societies to develop the capacity to become responsible members of the international community, but this role does not give them the agency to make decisions on behalf of the local society. The exception would be those extraordinary circumstances where local behavior crosses the parameters set for acceptable behavior in the international system, i.e. in cases where genocide, severe abuses of human rights or war crimes result in an internationally sanctioned intervention to protect civilians. However, when such a situation has been sufficiently stabilized and the focus shifts to self-sustainable peace consolidation, the agency has to shift again to the local.

The notion of local ownership raises several valid concerns, such as that local societies are not necessarily well informed about their options and that there seem to be persistent and challenging questions about who can legitimately speak on behalf of these local societies (Donais 2012). These are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, but the fact that it has been challenging to operationalize local ownership does not imply that the principle lacks an ethical foundation. The soundness of the principle, now also supported by the perspective of a Complexity-theory informed analysis, should inspire policymakers and practitioners to find new ways of engaging with, empowering, and giving space to local societies, so as to give practical meaning to the notion of local ownership. 

This does not exclude international actors from having a role in assisting local societies in understanding their choices and otherwise supporting and facilitating their transition, but it does imply that such actors offering assistance should stop short of taking decisions on behalf of local societies based on superior claims to knowledge about what is in the best interest of those societies. Hence, a much clearer understanding needs to be developed of what are, and are not, appropriate degrees of influence for international peacebuilders and how intrusive peacebuilding should be. 

Complexity thus implies that the peacebuilders, local and international, have to take responsibility – ethically – for their choices and actions. Taking responsibility means that peacebuilders need to think through the ethical implications of both their macro theories of peacebuilding and their specific choices and actions in any given context. They cannot base their decisions on the claimed superiority of one or other theory of change, because no one model, e.g. the liberal peace model, can be held up as inherently superior. They have to understand the choices they make and the potential consequences of their actions for each specific context and take responsibility for them (de Coning 2018).

Adaptive Peacebuilding

Conflict resolution and peacebuilding are delicate processes. There is an inherent tension in the act of promoting a process of self-organization from the outside. Too much external interference will undermine self-organization. From a complexity perspective one can say that every time an external peacebuilder intervenes to solve a perceived problem in the local system, they interrupt the internal feedback process and thus deny the local system from responding to its own stimuli. The result is a missed opportunity to contribute to the development of self-organization and resilience, and in its place such interruptions build dependency. Each external intervention thus comes at the cost of depriving the local system of an opportunity to learn how to respond to a problem or challenge itself. State and social institutions develop resilience through trial and error over generations. Too much filtering and cushioning slow down and inhibit these processes. Understanding this tension—and the constraints it poses—helps us to understand why many international conflict resolution and peacebuilding interventions have made the mistake of interfering so much that they ended-up undermining the ability of the local system to self-organize.

The Adaptive Peacebuilding approach provides us with a methodology for navigating this dilemma. It provides us with a process where peacebuilders, together with the communities and people affected by the conflict, actively engage in a structured process to sustain peace and resolve conflicts by employing an iterative process of collaborative learning and adaptation (de Coning 2018).

The adaptive approach for coping with complexity in conflict resolution and peacebuilding can be summarized in the following six principles of Adaptive Peacebuilding:

  • First, the actions taken to influence the sustainability of a specific peace process have to be context- and time-specific, and they have to be emergent from a process that engages the societies themselves. 
  • Second, Adaptive Peacebuilding is a goal-orientated or problem-solving approach, so it is important to identify, together with the society in question, what the peacebuilding project should aim to achieve. 
  • Third, Adaptive Peacebuilding is agnostic about how best to pursue its goals, but it does follow a specific methodology – the adaptive approach – that is a participatory process that facilitates the emergence of a goal-orientated outcome. 
  • Fourth, one half of the key to the adaptive approach methodology is variety; as the outcome is uncertain, one must experiment with a variety of options across a spectrum of probabilities. 
  • Fifth, the other half is selection; one has to pay close attention to feedback to determine which options have a better effect. Adaptive Peacebuilding requires an active participatory decision-making process that abandons those options that perform poorly or have negative side-effects, whilst those that show more promise can be further adapted to introduce more variety or can be scaled-up to have a greater impact. At a more strategic level, this implies reviewing assumptions and adapting strategic planning. 
  • Six, Adaptive peacebuilding is an iterative process. It is repeated over and over because, in a highly complex context, our assessments are only relevant for a relatively short window before new dynamics come into play. 

In the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach, the core activity of a conflict resolution or peacebuilding intervention is one of process facilitation. Conflict resolution and peacebuilding are about stimulating the processes in a society that enable self-organization and that will lead to strengthening the resilience of social institutions that manage internal and external stressors and shocks. It is not possible to direct or control self-organization from the outside; it has to emerge from within. However, conflict resolution and peacebuilding agents can assist a society by facilitating and stimulating the processes that enable self-organization to emerge (de Coning 2016: 175).

It is crucial, as captured in the first principle of the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach, that the societies and communities that are intended to benefit from a conflict resolution or peacebuilding intervention are fully involved in all aspects of the initiative. In other words, as highlighted in the 2nd principle of the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach, the affected community should be sufficiently represented in the processes that determine the aims and objectives of the initiative, as well as in all choices related to the analysis, assessment, planning, monitoring of effects, evaluation, and selection processes. 

While international or external peacebuilders can influence complex social systems by enabling and stimulating the processes that enable resilience and inclusiveness to emerge, the prominent role of self-organization in complex system dynamics suggests that it is important the affected societies and communities have space and agency to drive their own process (Burns 2007). This is why local adaptation processes are ultimately the critical element for inclusive political settlements to become self-sustainable. Adaptive Peacebuilding cannot be free or distinct from the dynamics of politics or power. The process is not technical or abstract. It is a process that engages with all aspects and elements of societal change that is needed for self-sustainable peace to emerge, and it lends itself to a relational approach that seeks to account for how power is distributed through and within relationships (Day and Hunt 2020).

The Adaptive Peacebuilding approach thus requires a commitment to engage in a structured learning process together with the society or community that has been affected by conflict. This commitment comes at a cost, in terms of investing in the capabilities necessary to enable and facilitate such a collective learning process, in taking the time to engage with communities and other stakeholders, and in making the effort to develop new innovative systems for learning together with communities as the process unfolds. 

Complex systems cope with challenges posed by changes in their environment by co-evolving together with their environment in a never-ending process of adaptation (Barber 2011). This iterative adaptive process, captured in the third, fourth and fifth principles of the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach, utilizes experimentation and feedback to generate knowledge about its environment. This is essentially the way natural selection works in the evolution of complex systems. The two key factors are variation (the fourth principle) and selection (the fifth principle). There needs to be variation, i.e. multiple parallel interventions, and there needs to be a selection process that replicates and multiplies effective interventions and discontinues those that do not have the desired effect. 

The analysis-planning-implementation-evaluation-selection project cycle is already well established in the development and peacebuilding communities. However, these communities of practice are not good at generating sufficient variation. They are also notoriously bad at selection based on effect, and they are especially poor at identifying and abandoning underperforming initiatives (Rosén and Haldrup 2013). To remedy these shortcomings the Adaptive Peacebuilding approach utilizes structured and iterative (the sixth principle) adaptation to help generate institutional learning.

An Adaptive Peacebuilding approach recognizes the role of entropy and cultivates an awareness that those interventions that appear to be effective today, will not continue to be so indefinitely. Even successful programs need to be monitored for signals that may indicate that an intervention is no longer having the desired effect or is starting to generate negative side effects. Jervis (1997: 6) observes that we often intuitively expect linear relationships. For example, if foreign aid increases economic growth, we tend to expect that more aid should produce greater growth. However, complex systems often display behavior that cannot be understood by extrapolating from the units or their relations, and many of the effects generated are unintended. Non-linearity, in this context, thus refers to behaviors in which the relationships between variables in a complex social system are dynamic and disproportionate (Kiel 1995). One must thus not only monitor for intended results, but also unintended consequences, and be ready to take steps to try to deal with the perverse effects that may come about due to an intervention (Aoi et al. 2007). 



The insights from Complexity for peace and conflict studies that were introduced in this chapter suggest that the way in which knowledge about any particular complex social system is generated needs to be based on the recognition that such systems are empirically complex, and that our ability to fully understand complex systems is thus inherently limited. Peacebuilding itself also needs to be understood as complex, and that this implies that we need to recognize that any particular peacebuilding system will be self-organized and emergent. This has implications for how assessments, planning, coordination, leadership, and evaluating specific peacebuilding interventions are undertaken. 

Complexity helps us understand how social systems lapse into violent conflict, how they can prevent or recover from conflict, and what can be done to strengthen their resilience. For a peace process to become sustainable, resilient social institutions need to emerge from within, i.e. from the local culture, history and socio-economic context.  External actors can assist and facilitate this process, but if they interfere too much, they will undermine the self-organizing processes necessary to sustain resilient social institutions. 

The most fundamental implication of complexity for how we understand and approach conflict resolution and peacebuilding is the realization that for a peace process to become self-sustainable, a social system needs to develop its own institutions so that it has the resilience to manage its own internal conflicts peacefully. The key to successful conflict resolution and peacebuilding thus lies in finding the appropriate balance between international support and local self-organization, and this will differ from context to context. A complexity informed approach to peace and conflict studies suggests that those engaged in conflict resolution and peacebuilding limit their efforts to safeguarding, stimulating, facilitating and creating the space for societies to develop resilient capacities for self-organization.

Adaptive Peacebuilding is an approach that can help to navigate this delicate balance. It is an approach where peacebuilders, together with the communities and people affected by the conflict, actively engage in a structured process to sustain peace by employing an iterative process of learning and adaptation. The Adaptive Peacebuilding approach is aimed at supporting societies to develop the resilience and robustness they need to cope with and adapt to change, by helping them to develop greater levels of complexity in their social institutions. 

We have to be sensitive to how complex systems process information, self-organize and adapt. Adaptive Peacebuilding can assist external peacebuilders to purposefully co-evolve with the systems they are attempting to influence. However, one needs to be very cautious of the assumptions that are made about the framing of borders and boundaries, and that the extent to which local societies can be judged to be fully self-organized and self-sustainable in a highly globalized and interconnected world is a matter of degree, rather than of absolute categories. 


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