Complexity and contingency

One of the more intriguing currents of social science research today is the field of complexity theory. Scientists like John Holland (Complexity: A Very Short Introduction), John Miller and Scott Page (Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life), and Joshua Epstein (Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling) make bold and interesting claims about how social processes embody the intricate interconnectedness of complex systems.

John Holland describes some of the features of behavior of complex systems in these terms in Complexity:

  • self-organization into patterns, as occurs with flocks of birds or schools of fish  
  • chaotic behaviour where small changes in initial conditions (‘ the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Argentina’) produce large later changes (‘ a hurricane in the Caribbean’)  
  • ‘fat-tailed’ behaviour, where rare events (e.g. mass extinctions and market crashes) occur much more often than would be predicted by a normal (bell-curve) distribution  
  • adaptive interaction, where interacting agents (as in markets or the Prisoner’s Dilemma) modify their strategies in diverse ways as experience accumulates. (p. 5)

In CAS the elements are adaptive agents, so the elements themselves change as the agents adapt. The analysis of such systems becomes much more difficult. In particular, the changing interactions between adaptive agents are not simply additive. This non-linearity rules out the direct use of PDEs in most cases (most of the well-developed parts of mathematics, including the theory of PDEs, are based on assumptions of additivity). (p. 11)

Miller and Page put the point this way:

One of the most powerful tools arising from complex systems research is a set of computational techniques that allow a much wider range of models to be explored. With these tools, any number of heterogeneous agents can interact in a dynamic environment subject to the limits of time and space. Having the ability to investigate new theoretical worlds obviously does not imply any kind of scientific necessity or validity— these must be earned by carefully considering the ability of the new models to help us understand and predict the questions that we hold most dear. (Complex Adaptive Systems, kl 199)

Much of the focus of complex systems is on how systems of interacting agents can lead to emergent phenomena. Unfortunately, emergence is one of those complex systems ideas that exists in a well-trodden, but relatively untracked, bog of discussion. The usual notion put forth underlying emergence is that individual, localized behavior aggregates into global behavior that is, in some sense, disconnected from its origins. Such a disconnection implies that, within limits, the details of the local behavior do not matter to the aggregate outcome. Clearly such notions are important when considering the decentralized systems that are key to the study of complex systems. Here we discuss emergence from both an intuitive and a theoretical perspective. 

(Complex Adaptive Systems, kl 832)

As discussed previously, we have access to some useful “emergence” theorems for systems that display disorganized complexity. However, to fully understand emergence, we need to go beyond these disorganized systems with their interrelated, helter-skelter agents and begin to develop theories for those systems that entail organized complexity. Under organized complexity, the relationships among the agents are such that through various feedbacks and structural contingencies, agent variations no longer cancel one another out but, rather, become reinforcing. In such a world, we leave the realm of the Law of Large Numbers and instead embark down paths unknown. While we have ample evidence, both empirical and experimental, that under organized complexity, systems can exhibit aggregate properties that are not directly tied to agent details, a sound theoretical foothold from which to leverage this observation is only now being constructed. 

(Complex Adaptive Systems, kl 987)

And here is Joshua Epstein’s description of what he calls “generative social science”:

The agent-based computational model— or artificial society— is a new scientific instrument. 1 It can powerfully advance a distinctive approach to social science, one for which the term “generative” seems appropriate. I will discuss this term more fully below, but in a strong form, the central idea is this: To the generativist, explaining the emergence2 of macroscopic societal regularities, such as norms or price equilibria, requires that one answer the following question:  

The Generativist’s Question 

*     How could the decentralized local interactions of heterogeneous autonomous agents generate the given regularity?  

The agent-based computational model is well-suited to the study of this question since the following features are characteristics. (5)

Here Epstein refers to the characteristics of heterogeneity of actors, autonomy, explicit space, local interactions, and bounded rationality. And he believes that it is both possible and mandatory to show how higher-level social characteristics emerge from the rule-governed interactions of the agents at a lower level.
 
There are differences across these approaches. But generally these authors bring together two rather different ideas — the curious unpredictability of even fairly small interconnected systems familiar from chaos theory, and the idea that there are simple higher level patterns that can be discovered and explained based on the turbulent behavior of the constituents. And they believe that it is possible to construct simulation models that allow us to trace out the interactions and complexities that constitute social systems.

So does complexity science create a basis for a general theory of society? And does it provide a basis for understanding the features of contingency, heterogeneity, and plasticity that I have emphasized throughout? I think these questions eventually lead to “no” on both counts.

Start with the fact of social contingency. Complexity models often give rise to remarkable and unexpected outcomes and patterns. Does this mean that complexity science demonstrates the origin of contingency in social outcomes? By no means; in fact, the opposite is true. The outcomes demonstrated by complexity models are in fact no more than computational derivations of the consequences of the premises of these models. So the surprises created by complex systems models only appear contingent; in fact they are generated by the properties of the constituents. So the surprises produced by complexity science are simulacra of contingency, not the real thing.

Second, what about heterogeneity? Does complexity science illustrate or explain the heterogeneity of social things? Not particularly. The heterogeneity of social things — organizations, value systems, technical practices — does not derive from complex system effects; it derives from the fact of individual actor interventions and contingent exogenous influences.

Finally, consider the feature of plasticity — the fact that social entities can “morph” over time into substantially different structures and functions. Does complexity theory explain the feature of social plasticity? It does not. This is simply another consequence of the substrate of the social world itself: the fact that social structures and forces are constituted by the actors that make them up. This is not a systems characteristic, but rather a reflection of the looseness of social interaction. The linkages within a social system are weak and fragile, and the resulting structures can take many forms, and are subject to change over time.

The tools of simulation and modeling that complexity theorists are in the process of developing are valuable contributions, and they need to be included in the toolbox. However, they do not constitute the basis of a complete and comprehensive methodology for understanding society. Moreover, there are important examples of social phenomena that are not at all amenable to treatment with these tools.

This leads to a fairly obvious conclusion, and one that I believe complexity theorists would accept: that complexity theories and the models they have given rise to are a valuable contribution; but they are only a partial answer to the question, how does the social world work?

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