The Challenge of Complexity in Society: Meaning Making at the Edge of Chaos


  • Marty Jacobs Saybrook University


meaning making, chaos, complexity, transformative learning, dialogue, complex adaptive systems, far-from-equilibrium


The pressing social problems we have are demanding that we build our capacity for meaning making to address them effectively. Meaning making at the edge of chaos is the type of meaning making we engage in when our current worldview is profoundly challenged by new information and experiences and, when the world is complex and chaotic, we are continually challenged and disoriented. This paper introduces the concept of meaning making at the edge of chaos and its theoretical basis in transformative learning theory, logotherapy, constructive developmental theory, complexity theory, chaos theory, and complex adaptive systems. In particular, it focuses on the concepts of disorienting dilemma, critical reflection, and the components of a meaning system derived from transformative learning theory. From logotherapy, it draws on the notions of will-to-meaning, meaning of life, and freedom of will. This paper includes the theory of the socialized, self-authoring, and self-transforming minds from constructive developmental theory. Finally, the concepts of nonlinearity, self-organization, emergence, learning, adaption, the butterfly effect, dissipative structures, and far-from-equilibrium are some key aspects from the world of complexity. These theories are integrated and form the basis for a model of meaning making at the edge of chaos.

Author Biography

Marty Jacobs, Saybrook University

Marty Jacobs is currently a doctoral student in Organizational Systems at Saybrook University. Her research interests are in dialogue, meaning making, and transformative and organizational learning in multi-sector transformational change, as well as complex adaptive systems and system sciences. She has been teaching and consulting for over twenty years, applying a systems thinking approach to organizations. Marty has served on a variety of nonprofit, professional, and school boards over the past twenty years and has also written for the OD Practitioner, The Systems Thinker, Vermont Business Magazine, American School Board Journal, Leverage Points Blog, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, and Confident Voices for Nurses on topics related to organizational learning, leadership, systems thinking, workplace culture, board governance, and community engagement.



How to Cite

Jacobs, M. (2018). The Challenge of Complexity in Society: Meaning Making at the Edge of Chaos. Proceedings of the 62nd Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2018 Corvallis, OR, USA, 1(1). Retrieved from



Organisational Transformation and Social Change