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The Paradox of Intentional Emergent Coherence: Organization and Decision in a Complex World

Robert M. Cutler

This article elaborates a framework for evaluating the growth and decline of organizations and other systems, determining what leads some of them to respond adequately to demands imposed upon them by their environment, and others not. The framework synthesizes two apparently mutually exclusive taxonomies. The first taxonomy concerns how organizations survive. It emphasizes the creation of organizational structures to accomplish functional tasks and comprises two principal categories: internal functions and external functions. The second taxonomy adopts an “epigenetic” approach, concentrating not on established functions necessary for survival but rather on new behaviors that must be learned for growth and adaptation to occur. The functional framework is first-order cybernetic; the epigenetic, second-order cybernetic. Their integrated synthesis, which is denoted the “paradox of intentional emergent coherence,” lays stress on autopoiesis. This synthesis draws on wide literature in world politics and society, from state-centric decision-making studies to empirical work on international organizations. It generalizes the framework behind the author's published empirical work in decision-making analysis and organizational development. So doing, it concludes on a series of broader and more abstract-conceptual postulates that problematize the relevant theoretical questions. These in turn imply a coding scheme for assessing organizational development and performance that develops more deeply the mentioned empirical work and may be applied to any second-order cybernetic system.
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Robert M. Cutler, “The Paradox of Intentional Emergent Coherence: Organization and Decision in a Complex World[; Abstract],” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences (in press); available at <http://www.robertcutler.org/ar07jwas.htm>, accessed 25 March 2017.


  1. “Complexity Science” or “the Complex Sciences”?
  2. Functionalism and Organizational Development
  3. Epigenesis and Organizational Autopoiesis
  4. The Paradox of International Emergent Coherence
  5. Conclusion

The Paradox of Intentional Emergent Coherence: Organization and Decision in a Complex World

Robert M. Cutler[1]

The work presented here draws upon previous empirical research into the birth and development of a particular type of international organization, the international parliamentary institution (IPI), of which the European Parliament is the best known.[2]It generalizes the concepts framing that research to organizations at large, including political nation-states, by grounding it explicitly in the theory of complex systems as well as in the classics of the political science literature, especially works strongly associated with questions of international relations and change in the foreign policy behavior of states. By extending the original framework so that it is applicable to social systems in general, the present article includes nation-states in general and their foreign policy behavior in particular, within the scope of study. Its fundamental grounding in the theory of complex systems is what allows this extension.

Political scientists concerned with foreign policy analysis have spent a great deal of effort trying to define learning within their domain of expertise and also distinguishing this from types of change that may not be qualified as “learning.” For example, the categories of “change” and especially “adaptation” have received a great deal of attention in this context.[3] State foreign policy decision-making follows very much the same organizational and informational patterns that the epigenesis of international parliamentary institutions does also. In cybernetic terms, the tasks facing IPIs seeking to survive and grow on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the tasks facing states in international politics, are in fact similar; only the resources available to accomplish them differ. The general framework presented here provides a way to take that difference in resources into account, and so it is applicable to states as well as to IPIs, and by extension any political or social organization or system. This means, of course, that it is also a framework of analysis for the growth, development, and decisions of individual human beings.


[1]. Member of the Washington Evolutionary Systems Society. A draft of this article was presented to the Washington Academy Conference CapSci2006. The author’s first oral presentation of these ideas was to two interdisciplinary conferences sponsored by the New England Complex Systems Institute in Boston in October 1998 and March 1999.

[2]. Robert M. Cutler, “The Emergence of International Parliamentary Institutions: New Networks of Influence in World Society,” pp. 201–229 in Who Is Afraid of the State?: Canada in a World of Multiple Centres of Power, ed. by Gordon S. Smith and Daniel Wolfish (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). International parliamentary institutions (IPIs) have widely varying origins and legal status but enough in common to permit a general developmental framework to encompass and permit comparison.

[3]. See, e.g.: Lloyd Etheredge, Can Governments Learn? American Foreign Policy and Central American Revolutions (New York: Pergamon, 1985); John A. Vasquez, “Foreign Policy, Learning, and War,” pp. 366–383 in New Directions in the Study of Foreign Policy, ed. by Charles Hermann, Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and James N. Rosenau (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987); and, notably, Learning in American and Soviet Foreign Policy, ed. by George Breslauer and Philip Tetlock (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991), as well as Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Simon and Schuster, Free Press, 1986). However, the discipline has only begun to recover from the methodological-individualist reduction of state foreign policy learning to learning by individual members of the decision making elite, by Jack Levy, “Learning and Foreign Policy: Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield,” International Organization 48, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 279–312; see, e.g., Jeffrey W. Knopf, “The Importance of International Learning,” Review of International Studies 29, no. 2 (April 2003): 187–209.

Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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First Web-published: 24 December 2006
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