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Non-Equilibrium Social Science and Policy

Johnson Jeffrey, Nowak Andrzej, Ormerod Paul, Rosewell Bridget, Zhang Yi-Cheng
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2017

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Reviewed by Andreas Koch
University of Salzburg

Cover of book In 2001, Dietrich Fliedner published an article in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, entitled Six Levels of Complexity; A Typology of Processes and Systems. The sub-differentiation of complexity he proposed was meant to facilitate an investigation of mechanisms and processes in social systems which help to understand the interplay of (relative) stability and (relative) change within these systems. Following one of the core principles in complexity research, which is the concept of autopoiesis, Fliedner delineates the methodological and semantic problem as follows: “It is […] difficulties such as these which prompt us to reflect on the connection between model and reality. The creation of a link between complexity research, which is based on simulation, and empirically obtained results appears to be more necessary than ever because indications are increasing that researchers who are engaged in work with mathematical models on the one hand and those whose work is based on empirical data on the other, are understanding one another less and less” (p. 1).

It is one of the main aims of the book Non-Equilibrium Social Science and Policy to bring together different theoretical, methodological, and epistemological approaches towards dealing with complexity. In doing so, the editors and contributors seek to create a space for achieving a mutual understanding of social scientific approaches to dynamic processes and complex structures. The general theme of most chapters is given with a notion and concept of equilibrium, while more particular disciplinary perspectives adopted in the chapters individually result in a valuable plurality of positions. The discipline that serves as a kind of a benchmark is economics due to its frequent adoption of a market equilibrium approach. Further chapters of the book, which represent disciplines such as psychology, sociology, geography, and political sciences, go on to critically contest to this approach – mostly in opposition to the idea of equilibrium – by describing how they deal with the notions of complexity and non-equilibrium. The disciplinary efforts of adequately representing and diligently analysing their research objects result in several common research themes that the editors conclusively list in their introduction chapter: the search for “realistic models of agent behaviour”, the consideration of “multi-level systems” and of “narratives and decision-making under uncertainty”, the application of “policy informatics” and a “global systems science”.

The reference to Fliedner, however, is also justified by the fact that he outlines different levels or types of equilibria, which are considered to be the main reason for establishing different levels or types of complexity. Moving from low to high complexity, the levels include the equilibrium, the flow-equilibrium, the non-equilibrium, and hierarchical and autopoietic systems. The hierarchical and autopoietic systems, then, constitute the most complex system levels, which comprise all lower-level equilibria, even though only to different extents and degrees of intensity. Such an elaborate sub-differentiation can only be found in some chapters of the book. Most contributions merely distinguish between equilibrium and non-equilibrium, or far-from-equilibrium, when reasoning about their research object. The distinction is made to justify why a non-equilibrium state could be regarded a more suitable approach for an interpretation of the underlying mechanisms and processes that take place in the respective domains of the social sciences. The fact that most chapters feature an essayistic style, as indicated by the book’s subtitle, may explain why some contributions lack a detailed consideration of different types of equilibria, or address them only implicitly. It thus seems that the authors assume their audience to be familiar with relevant definitions and conceptualisations of complexity and equilibrium. Yet, readers would not only have benefited from learning that cities, politics or social interactions are usually in a state far-from-equilibrium, but also from being introduced to what is actually understood by non-equilibrium (or far-from-equilibrium) as well as related concepts such as self-organisation, path-dependency, self-reference, and chaotic dynamics, to name but a few.

A particular advantage of the book is its clear and coherent structure. After an introductory section, which reviews the subsequent chapters and also explains the origin of the book, the first chapter introduces economics as a discipline that has for long been in favour of the rational agent and the (Nash-)equilibrium approach. In fact, complexity science has meanwhile entered the field of economics, and thus, previous assumptions have been proved erroneous or even false. Based on this disciplinary benchmark, the remaining chapters deal – in a comparative and partly competitive way –either with the disciplinary contexts mentioned above (also including information economy, economic policies, policy-making, and governmental politics), or with the relevance of ‘context’ itself and the methodology of networks in order to understand how and why (system) dynamics emerge, evolve, and transform. This juxtaposition of different perspectives is highly beneficial to gaining an understanding of the complexity of complexity science. Furthermore, it helps to partly self-elaborate the hidden links between stated facts and justified explanations. Also, most contributions put a strong emphasis on the application of agent-based simulation models since they are regarded as valuable methodological approaches to take complex interrelations among agents and between agents and their social and spatial environment into account.

It is an open secret that we are surrounded by complex natural and social environments operating at different spatial and temporal scales. Taking this for granted, a more differentiated and meticulous view on the (potential) effects of complexity and (non-)equilibria in different social spheres would facilitate a serious problematisation of these effects by the reader. Some essays, however, engage in concept-dropping at the expense of concise content, while others succeed in focussing on conceptual and empirical challenges with high precision. For example, inequality, diversity, division of labour or functional differentiation do not necessarily coincide with states far-from-equilibrium but can be understood as a political-economic stabilisation of existing class conditions, irrespective of the market behaviour of goods, labour, or education.

Finally, however, the essayistic character of the chapters allows for a wider reception beyond disciplinary boundaries and, eventually, a cross-disciplinary exchange about the definitions and (mis-) conceptualisations of the notions of equilibrium, dis-equilibrium, and complexity. In this respect, it would have been more productive – and, perhaps, more appropriate – to revisit and acknowledge the complexities of equilibria in a more elaborate way, instead of simply stating that sociology, geography, etc. is far-from-equilibrium. This conclusion, however, does not include all contributions to the same extent. Readers will nevertheless benefit from the different perspectives offered in this book.

* References

FLIEDNER D. (2001). Six Levels of Complexity; A Typology of Processes and Systems. In: Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulations, Vol. 4, No. 1. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/4/1/4.html.

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