Reconceptualizing the Policy Subsystem: Integration with Complexity Theory and Social Network Analysis

Zachary A. McGee and Bryan D. Jones


The concept of the policy subsystem is an essential building block for several of the basic frameworks of policy process studies. Over time issues have become more complex, crossing subsystem boundaries, and so subsystems have escalated in their complexity as well. It is increasingly insufficient to study just one policy subsystem and so scholars have turned to studying boundary-spanning regimes or policy networks. In this essay, we review the major contributions to developing the concept of a policy subsystem and trace its evolution into broader conceptualizations like issue and policy networks. We argue that the future for theories of the policy process is in more explicit integration of complexity theory and more effective modeling of subsystems with the utilization of social network analysis. In closing, we discuss the enduring nature of the concept of policy subsystems and highlight studies that continue using it in innovative ways.

KEY WORDS: subsystems, policy process, complex systems, governance, social networks, information processing, complexity theory, policy network