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Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy (Complexity in Social Science)

Room, Graham
Routledge: London, 2016
ISBN 9781138959217 (hb)

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Reviewed by Hilton Root
George Mason University

Cover of book Graham Room’s brilliant book proposes a two-sided enrichment of complexity science and sociology. He rouses sociologists to new research frontiers they can access by paying attention to complex systems analysis. At the same time, he proposes to enrich the study of complex systems analytics by bringing into its orbit issues like the limits of rational action, positional competition, the dynamics of inequality, and libertarian paternalism. From this mixture, readers will gain an enhanced understanding of evolutionary concepts in accounts of social change.

Room’s analysis has three categories: transformative realism, agile actors and public policy.

Transformative realism, transports interests and power to centre stage and explores how social actors seek leverage over emergent macro level dynamics. The scientific study of complex systems offers a method for understanding how elements interact to give rise to global properties, while at the same time these global properties rechannelling and constraining agent level interactions. However, Room believes that complexity analysis in social science has an insufficient grasp of downward causation. A tendency exists for complexity models to infer causation as moving upward in a single direction, from elementary to more complex aggregates. Complexity-based social science smugly touts Schelling-like models of microscopic agents that evolve across time and space into complex patterns of interaction across a two-dimensional simulated grid. But this over emphasises agent-based relations, and the behavioural economics of interacting people and groups without providing a sufficient framework for dealing with organisational patterns in which macroscopic political and institutional power is lodged: Insufficient attention is given to power, conflict and privilege.

Room shows us that social knowledge does not arise out of any fundamental reality, there are no enduring “laws of economic growth” from which reality can be distilled. Complex systems exhibit different levels of hierarchy that are connected by feedback loops that move both up and down. It is misleading to study activities at one level without considering what takes place at other levels. In Room’s formulation, different institutional settings will mean different potential outcomes. Transformation refers to the struggle of the actors to gain positional advantage that allows each to shape the institutional settings of the future in the most advantageous manner.

Agile actors: Here the goal is an enriched sociology of political economy that diverges from abstract notions of individualism. Agile action refers to social actors searching purposefully for transformative macro dynamics to enhance their own position and capacity to influence subsequent change. The macro outcome is not simply the outcome for control waged at the micro level. Social actors draw on the macro to enhance their position and to increase their capacity to leverage change. Room gives special attention to the long jumps from one macro level environment to another that are critical to social evolution and depend on the agility of social actors. There is an inherent contradiction in Room’s analysis in that agile action occurs in the context of bounded rationality, in which biases and blunders contribute to uncertainty about outcomes.

An example of positional struggle in the contemporary political economy is associated with the rise of China as a global actor and its efforts to gain freedom of manoeuvre to block developments they oppose such as Western efforts to impose a code of liberal internationalism as a system wide ethos. China accumulates wealth not so much for eventual consumption, savings create capacity to engage in positional leverage in the struggle “to occupy the future” rather than having to march to the rhythm of others.

Another example of agility is the development of instruments by corporations, banks, housing, finance, health and education conglomerates, for purposes of private gain at public expense. Looting of the global political economy creating adversity for the most vulnerable results. Actor agility can be deleterious or enabling and this is where public policy must step in.

Current models show how micro actions can produce macro changes that self-organise. Room’s envisions complexity enabled policy as a means to equip political actors with analytical tools to civilize those processes, and to improve on natural outcomes and shape the future in accord with “fully human purposes” such as equity and cohesion. To do this policy must go beyond managing the aggregate level of demand and guaranteeing property rights to stimulate entrepreneurial creativity and it also must move beyond the organisation of the economy by the nation state. Room proposes the concept “arts of civilization” to explain how populations use reflection, learning and experimentation to rework the institutional legacy and produce variants that are suited to human progress. Civility does not self-organise but is politically constructed in the struggle over public policy. The future will depend on pooling the arts of civilisation in a globally shared endeavour.

Policy oriented social science, Room insists, is not introduced at ground zero but must take into account the tangled web of institutions that incrementally develop over time through a suite of political conflicts. Much of the book demonstrates methods to adapt an evolutionary complex systems science approach in which contingent historical data and models are constructed to observe agile actors and the policies they enact in real time.

Room’s analysis of how to shape political choices once we acknowledge actor agility and landscape transformation, opens up new questions and offers new methods for institutional and political analyses that exemplify the maturity of complexity science as it gains ground in policy studies broadly defined.


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