Classical operational research (OR) is mainly concerned with the use of mathematical techniques and models used in decision-making situations. The basic assumptions of OR presuppose that the structure of the world is one of order and predictability. Although this positivistic approach produces significant results when levels of certainty and initial conditions are stable, it is limited when faced with an acknowledgement of the complex nature of the real world. This paper aims to highlight that by drawing on a general understanding of complexity theory, classical OR approaches can be enriched and broadened by adopting an epistemology based on the assumption that the underlying mechanisms governing the world are complex. It is argued that complexity theory (as interpreted by the philosopher Paul Cilliers) acknowledges the complex nature of the real world and helps to identify the characteristics of complex phenomena. By aligning OR epistemologies with the acknowledgment of complexity, new modelling methods could be developed. In addition, the implications for knowledge generating processes through boundary setting, as well as the provisional nature of such knowledge and what (ethical) responsibilities accompany the study of complex phenomena, will be discussed. Examples are presented to highlight the epistemological implications of complexity thinking for OR.
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