From Qualitative Research to Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics

Feature article by Sarvenaz Balali, Texas A&M Commerce

Now commonly used in Applied Linguistics, qualitative research has been defined as “inquiry aimed at describing and clarifying human experience as it appears in people’s lives” (Polkinghorne, 2005, p. 137). Qualitative researchers scrutinize the complex details of human experiences. They record and report the complexity, diversity, and dynamism that surround the experiences they study. In this paper, I will first consider the major characteristics of qualitative research which enable qualitative researchers to embrace complexity in their studies. Then, I will indicate how we may use complexity theory to provide a coherent understanding of complexity and further the power of qualitative research for addressing the complexity in our field.    

Qualitative Research: Major Features

Qualitative research is immensely informed by constructivism. Constructivism became popular in social sciences in the latter half of the twentieth century. Constructivist researchers believe that truth or reality is not universal; rather, it is constructed socially and in a diverse variety of ways by individuals as they interact with their world (Croker & Heigham, 2011). Creswell and Poth (2018), drawing on the previous literature (on qualitative research), identify a few major philosophical assumptions that inform the design and development of qualitative studies. First, the ontological assumption holds that reality can be constructed subjectively through diverse subjective experiences of human beings. Second, the epistemological assumption acknowledges the validity and trustworthiness of subjective knowledge. Third, according to the axiological assumption, knowledge is value-laden rather than being neutral. Finally, the methodological assumption holds that qualitative researchers should study their topics within their natural contexts. Moreover, the methodology of qualitative research should be emerging so as to take different shapes as the researcher goes through the different phases of the research.  


Following these underlying philosophical assumptions, qualitative research has a fundamental difference from quantitative research, that is, qualitative research does not normally yield generalizable knowledge. In fact, qualitative researchers are often concerned with learning about experiences of a phenomenon as perceived by certain (often few) people in specific situational contexts, and, therefore, the findings of their research may not be generalized regardless of context (Pinnegar & Daynes, 2007). 

Through recognizing diverse subjective experiences and acknowledging the intricate interconnection between these subjective realities and their contexts, qualitative research strives to embrace the inherent complexity of social phenomena. Social phenomena are complex since they are interconnected with their context and may be illimitably heterogeneous. These phenomena may appear in a diverse variety of ways as they develop in different contexts and as they are experienced by different people. In each experience, however, only a few aspects of them or a subset of their features may find the chance to develop depending on the context. 

Qualitative research in applied linguistics aims to embrace the complexity of applied linguistics phenomena which include the processes of language education and language use. To this end, qualitative researchers are expected to scrutinize the experiences of these phenomena and produce thorough reports of the diverse, context-dependent experiences they study. Acknowledging complexity and reporting the diverse experiences of complex phenomena is, however, the first step in the process of coping with complexity. In fact, if we wish to manage complexity in our field, we need to develop a more coherent understanding of complexity.  

Complexity theory is a theoretical approach that has been put forward to account for complexity in any system or phenomenon in the realm of both natural and social sciences (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2012). This theory may, therefore, have the potential to address the observed complexity and interconnectivity of applied linguistics phenomena more effectively than previous offerings.

In what follows, l will first introduce complexity theory and the main features of complex systems. Then, I will illustrate how complexity theory can more adequately account for complexity in our research.

Complexity Theory

Complexity theory originated in physical and biological sciences. However, applied linguists have considered the possibility of applying this theory in their research since 1990s. Complexity theory attempts to explicate the essential features of complexity which may appear in different phenomena at different levels of existence (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2012).

According to complexity theory, complex systems have certain essential features in common. Complex systems are heterogeneous and have many different but interconnected components. These systems are nonlinearly dynamic; that is, their behavior may change in an unpredictable manner. In addition, complex systems are open to, interconnected with and adaptive to their contexts (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2012).

Complexity theory maintains that complex systems can have numerous states. These systems may exhibit widely diverse patterns of behavior in different states, that is, at different times and in different contexts. The states of a complex system may be significantly different from one another, but they all represent the same system or phenomenon. Moreover, while complex systems are immensely heterogeneous and have many different components, all their components are not always present in these systems and may appear only in certain states. In addition, we may not form simplified generalizations about complex systems and identify simplistic, one-directional causal relationships among their components since all these components can be simultaneously interacting. Instead, we may observe patterns of coadaptation among certain components and note that some variables reinforce one another over time (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2012).

From Qualitative Approaches to Complexity Theory

Qualitative researchers acknowledge the presence of complexity—limitless diversity and complex interconnectivity—in their research. In what follows, I will indicate that we may use complexity theory to theoretically justify and contribute to the philosophical assumptions underpinning qualitative research. 

The ontological assumption of qualitative research suggests that reality can be constructed in multiple different ways through our subjective experiences. The epistemological assumption acknowledges the validity and trustworthiness of subjective knowledge. Subjective knowledge is, in fact, the researcher’s subjective interpretation or construction of reality. Therefore, subjective knowledge is, in essence, the same as subjective reality. Hence, both the ontological and epistemological assumptions recognize the significance of subjectively constructed realities or subjective experiences that may be widely diverse and context dependent. However, qualitative research does not necessarily go further to make a connection among the studied experiences particularly across qualitative studies which investigate the same social or educational phenomenon. 

Complexity theory can, however, offer qualitative researchers a perspective that can help them translate their knowledge of context-specific experiences of social and educational phenomena into a general, context-independent understanding of those phenomena. Complexity theory may also enable qualitative researchers to form some generalizations about complex phenomena without dismissing their complexity.

The previous literature on experience clarifies that human experiences have both objective and subjective dimensions. (Dewey, 1938/2015). Furthermore, as Hiver and Al-Hoorie (2020) point out, the ontology of complexity theory which is referred to as complex realism acknowledges the objective dimension of reality. In fact, in any experience there is normally an objectively observable situation that exists independent of the subjective world of the experiencer. This objective situation is then subjectively interpreted in a wide variety of ways by people who experience it (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Moreover, while the objective situation may vary, to some extent, across different experiences of a phenomenon, there are central aspects of the situation that are fixed and unchanged in all individual experiences. 

Qualitative research should, therefore, have the theoretical tools to account for the objective dimension of the experience and its interaction with the diverse subjective interpretations constructed by individual experiencers. I believe complexity theory may provide us with a theoretical perspective that can help us explain the interaction between objective and subjective dimensions of reality. 

In order to describe the relation between subjective experiences and the objective dimension of experience we may view the objective dimension as a complex system. Similarly, subjective experiences may be regarded as contextual factors that surround the objective situation, or vice versa (see below). Therefore, the objective and subjective dimensions of reality are not disconnected or conflicting, rather, being our complex system and contextual factors respectively, they are interconnected and in continuous dynamic interaction. Due to this dynamic interaction, the objective and subjective dimensions may both inform and reflect one another. Consequently, we may argue that subjective reality and subjective knowledge are both valid because they are in continuous interaction with the objective dimension of reality and reflect that dimension. Complexity theory can, therefore, justify the epistemology and ontology of qualitative research and illustrate why subjective reality and subjective knowledge should be considered trustworthy. Furthermore, while subjective experiences of an objective reality are numerous and diverse, researchers can link them since they may all be viewed as reflections (or interpretations) of an objective situation whose central aspects are fixed and unchanged. 

Complexity theory can justify the axiology and methodology of qualitative research as well. To account for the axiological and methodological assumptions, we may shift our perspective and view subjective experiences as complex systems that are surrounded not only by the objective reality but also by other factors that are present in their contexts. Values, beliefs, feelings, cognitive abilities, and previous experiences of the individual experiencer may be viewed as additional factors that are present in the contexts of subjective experiences. Subjective experiences as complex systems are interconnected with their context. Thus, such factors as beliefs and values may inform the subjective construction of reality. Consequently, we may argue that subjective knowledge is not neutral; rather, it is informed by our beliefs and values that are present in the context and is, therefore, value-laden. 

In addition, the contextual factors that surround the subjective experiences may be multiple and variable. Subjective experiences as complex systems are interconnected with their context, and therefore, diversity and dynamism of the contextual factors may contribute to the emergence of unpredictable developments in these experiences. As a result, qualitative inquirers should employ methodologies that are flexible and responsive to the emergent developments in the process of their research.  

As applied linguists who adopt a complexity theoretical perspective, we may view processes of language education and language use as complex systems. These processes are complex since they are highly interconnected with their context and may develop indefinite number of new features as they develop in new contexts thus being limitlessly heterogeneous and diverse. Along similar lines, we may regard individual experiences of a language education process as different states of that process. Individual experiences may be substantially diverse because of transpiring in different contexts, but they are still different states of the same process and represent the same phenomenon. I mentioned above that complex systems are heterogeneous but in each state of their existence a subset of their features may be present in these systems. Therefore, in each state we may be introduced to features or components of a complex phenomenon that have been absent from previous states. Similarly, we may regard individual experiences as opportunities that may introduce us to new features (or variables) of the complex phenomenon we study. These features may only appear in certain contexts and be absent from certain other contexts but still constitute the complex phenomenon that we study since they show up in some states (i.e., experiences) of that phenomenon.  

Adopting the foregoing perspective, we can view codes that we identify in our qualitative analysis as features or variables of the studied complex phenomenon that has been experienced in a certain way by the participants in our research. Then, we can compare the codes identified in our research against the previous literature on the studied phenomenon to identify the variables that have appeared in our research and are absent from the literature. We may, then, add the newly identified variables to the list of the variables that characterize the phenomenon under study. These newly identified variables can broaden the scope of the heterogeneity of the studied phenomenon. They can also provide insight into the nonlinear dynamism that develops as the phenomenon is transferred from one context to another or, in other words, as it develops in new contexts. 

Complexity theory maintains that as we study a complex system, we may observe patterns of coadaptation between certain variables (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2012). These patterns of coadaptation, particularly when observed in several studies, may provide us with the power and confidence to generalize about certain aspects of the system. Therefore, as applied linguists, when we observe concurrence between certain variables in experiences of language education in several qualitative studies, we may hypothesize that these variables coadapt and may reinforce one another regardless of context. Thus, using the notion of coadaptation, as we conduct qualitative studies on complex social phenomena, we may form general hypotheses about their behavior in general. Consequently, while we embrace complexity, we need not necessarily give up hypothesizing, prediction, and control.


The acknowledgement of complexity is the first major step in the process of managing complexity which qualitative research strives to take. The second major step is making adequate sense of complexity to further theorize about complex language education phenomena without dismissing their complexity. In this paper, I have tried to explain how complexity theory may help us make sense of complexity that is an inherent aspect of qualitative research. 


Through my theoretical argumentation in this paper, I tried to illustrate the potential of complexity theory to advance the power of qualitative research. Several researchers and applied linguists have investigated similar ideas in detail in their work. Larsen-Freeman (1997) pioneered the application of complexity theory in our field. Since then, several applied linguists have explored and applied this theory in their research. Hiver and Al-Hoorie (2020), for instance, have scrutinized the contributions of complexity theory to both qualitative and quantitative research as well as how complexity theory may help researchers integrate these two approaches to research in applied linguistics. In this paper, I indicated that complexity theory may justify and broaden the ontology of qualitative research to embrace both objective and subjective aspects of the experiential reality. Complexity theory may also provide a theoretical ground for why subjective knowledge is both value-laden and valid and why the methodology of qualitative research should be emerging. 

In my discussion, I suggested that we may consider individual experiences of a social (or more specifically educational) phenomenon as possible states of that phenomenon. These experiences may shed light on new variables that constitute the complex phenomenon under scrutiny and enable qualitative researchers to develop a more comprehensive image of that phenomenon as a whole. This thorough image may then enable qualitative inquirers in our field to more confidently theorize about language education phenomena that appear to be widely diverse, context-dependent, and unpredictable.


  • Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  • Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles: SAGE.

  • Croker, R. A., & Heigham, J. (2011). Qualitative Research in Applied Linguistics: A practical introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Dewey, J. (1938\2015). Experience and education. New York: Free Press.

  • Hiver, P., & Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2020). Research methods for complexity theory in Applied Linguistics. Blue Ridge Summit. 

  • Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/Complexity Science and Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18(2), 141–165. 

  • Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2012). Complex systems and applied linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Pinnegar, S., & Daynes, J. G. (2007). Locating narrative inquiry historically. Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology, 3-34.

  • Polkinghorne, D. E. (2005). Language and Meaning: Data Collection in Qualitative Research. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 137-145.


Sarvenaz Balali is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Linguistics at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Sarvenaz’s current research focuses on socio-cultural aspects of language learning with a focus on “cultural discontinuity”. Her research interests span a broader range of topics including applying complexity theory to research in second language education.