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Why Society is a Complex Matter: Meeting Twenty-First Century Challenges with a New Kind of Science

Ball, Philip
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2012
ISBN 9783642289996 (pb)

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Reviewed by Paul E. Johnson
Ctr for Research Methods & Data Analysis, University of Kansas

Cover of book When this book arrived in the mail, I thought there had been a mistake. The book is so small-only 60 pages-that I mistook it for a publisher's brochure about a book. It is not a brochure, it is the book itself.

The book offers a high-level overview of complexity along with a spirited narrative endorsing a complex systems view of social problems and public policy. There are 12 chapters that offer brief, non-technical descriptions of some well known models of complex systems. We find discussions of traffic, bird flocks, public opinion, epidemics, small world networks, the spatial Prisoner's Dilemma, and power laws. The presentation is not formal, but neither is it simplistic. In order to follow along with the argument, the reader should have some background in research methodology and computer modeling. Much of the discussion is pitched at a relatively high level, exploring the on-going debate between advocates of complexity and traditional science.

This book has a pleasant, colorful production design that will attract readers. There is one or more color picture or graph on almost every page. The presentation strives to remain light, emphasizing a few important points about each topic. I think we could all quibble about the details, but I don't think many people will quibble with the following: Given a limit of 60 pages, it is hard to imagine an overview of everything in complexity that is more readable, and more pleasing to the eye, than this book.

Having concluded that this is a very nice effort to distill the pearls of complexity into one extremely tight package, I would like to advise the reader about possible audiences for this book. I don't think this book could serve as a textbook for a complex systems class, but it might be a very good assignment in a survey course on research design. This book might help some graduate students get their bearings and it might persuade them to explore computer modeling of complex systems in greater detail. Each chapter includes a list of well chosen suggestions for further reading.

While students can benefit from this book, it seems to me the primary audience is policy-makers, within or outside of academics. Within academics, I think this might be a very good reading assignment for deans or provosts who have not been active in research. Scholars who were trained before 1990 might wonder, "what is that 'complexity thing'?" This book casts the complexity enterprise in the most favorable light. The treatment in this book is not simplistic, it will not insult the intelligence of a thoughtful university administrator who has just an hour or so to do a little reading. The book might help us to persuade the administrators that we should hire professors who have studied complex systems. Similarly, I think legislators or public administrators would be a target audience. The book's dominant theme is that the traditional "top down" policy model is failing. I doubt that most policy-makers will be interested in "theory," per se, but I feel certain they will be interested in the examples. People who have to solve practical problems will respond well to the computer models, which seem to allow a clear, simple avenue to explore the impact of policy changes on a diverse set of actors.


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