Tag Archives: complexity

The Scenic Route

The Scenic Route (lemoyne.edu)

The Scenic Route (lemoyne.edu)

Would you believe it? After ten years teaching at Georgetown University, I got lost, yesterday, on my way to graduation. For some, being lost is not a major issue. Not so for me! Suffering from a mild form of dyslexia, getting lost instills in me a momentary sense of panic, as well as embarrassment, even at my stage in life. It is only recently, and with hindsight, that I have come to view the architecture of my brain in a new, and more positive, light. Now I realize that, while others, with more disciplined brains, may go straight to the quick, I meander along the scenic route, gaining serendipitous insights and experiences along the way. Graduation day was a reminder for me.

Let me say first that it is very easy to get lost on the Georgetown campus, especially if one veers off the beaten path. For, as the photograph below shows, the university buildings are nested on a hill, so that each appears to sit atop the others, as in a honey comb. In between, there are many nooks and crannies, connected by long staircases, which appear seemingly out of nowhere. When joined, they form a very elaborate maze. In such a 3-D environment, negotiating the landscape requires spacial skills as well as a good topographical map. Neither were at my disposal on graduation day.

Georgetown University (courtesy planetware.com)

Georgetown University (courtesy planetware.com)

Graduation has always been a rather straightforward, well scripted event. Absent rain, it has traditionally taken place right in the middle of the campus, in front of the main hall. This year, however, it took a different form; instead of one ceremony, in which both Masters and Doctors walked across the stage to the accolades of all, there were now two. The first, which celebrated the PhDs, took place as usual on the main campus, while the second set of ceremonies, featuring the Masters candidates, was distributed, according to degree, in different locations throughout the campus.

It was on the way to the ceremony for the Communication, Culture and Technology Program that I lost my way. The event took place in a large tent, situated on one of the terraced areas at the bottom of a long staircase. Locating it was problematic–at least for me. According to our instructions, we were to find the spot by following the faculty procession as it exited the main campus. However, even though the faculty members were clad in an array of brightly colored robes, within moments their two continuous lines dissipated, and blended into the crowd. Not knowing where to go, or how to get there, I meandered around asking directions, but to no avail. At last, I found a sign pointing to the disabled route, which–under the circumstances–seemed quite appropriate for me. Following the sign, I entered a main building where some very helpful people, although unfamiliar with the site, were able to trace out my destination on a map, and set me on the right course.

So it was that I arrived at the second graduation ceremony, and in time. The effort was well worth it. Not only was I delighted to see all of my students pass in front of me across the stage; I also relished the comments of the speaker, Ed Seidel, Assistant Director at the National Science Foundation, who talked about complexity, and the future challenge that it presents for our brains! According to Seidel, in the future scholars will be overwhelmed by so much data that they can only make sense of it with the help of computational tools, and–as importantly–the collaborations of multiple scholars from widely diverse disciplines. As he said, solving the problems of tomorrow will require a community.

(courtesy of causesdyslexia.net)

(courtesy of causesdyslexia.net)

At this point a light went off in my head. In such an environment, people who are somewhat dyslexic may be at a considerable advantage in addressing future issues. For, their brains do not simplify. To the contrary, the pathways that a dyslexic brain follows are highly complex. Moreover, the dyslexic brain actually resembles a collaborative community, such as that described by Seidel. Working up to four times as hard as normal brains, its neurons interact and share information across a myriad of sources, creating in the process a holistic and, therefore, more realistic picture of the world. For those of us who follow circuitous routes such as these, the key is not to get too caught up in the scenery.

Creating a Creativity Curriculum

My Muse Sparky

Believe me! Never in my life have I had to turn so much to my muse– my ever faithful dog, Sparky. The reason for seeking his inspiration on this occasion was my decision to teach a new course on Networks and the Creative Process.

As in all creative efforts (Austin 2003), this decision was, to a large degree, a matter of chance.  Initially, I had planned to teach a course on networks and cooperation–a topic that, with hindsight, seems relatively bland. However, flying home from a trip to Utah, I began reading Keith Sawyers insightful book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Deflating prevailing myths that circumscribe present-day thinking about creativity, Sawyer lays out the case for viewing creativity as an emergent, collaborative process, in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind.

Reading Sawyer’s book, I was enthralled. My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind. I intuitively knew that a course on creativity would bring all my interests together in the context of complexity science. However, gut feelings aside, I knew very little about the subject of creativity. Nonetheless, I eagerly signed up to teach the course.

Operating in the dark, I delved into whatever literature I could find, contributing significantly–I think–to Amazon’s profit margin. There I sat, in my office chair, piles of books strewn all around me, in the vain hope that I might absorb some of the content through osmosis. To no avail! So I began to read, and read and read–books about neuroscience, personality disorders, flow, improvisation, serendipity, audience reactions, the new, creative economy, Florence and the Di Medici, and more.

Old Woman Reading

Digesting all of this reading, I learned that creativity required passion and hard work in mastering a field; an open mind able to tolerate ambiguity; a willingness to take on risk, and to persist, even as an outsider; curiosity when confronted with anomalies; as well as flexibility to capture the opportunities afforded by chance and serendipity. And so, inspired by this charge, I moved on. . .

When the time came for me to put together the syllabus, I had a skeleton of an idea. Building on the work of Sawyer and his mentor Mihaly Csikszentmihali, I looked at creativity as an ongoing, iterative process in which the creator is but a single element within a larger system, which includes the creator, a field, and an authoritative domain. My hope, however, is to go beyond Csikszentmihali’s characterization of a system, and to flesh out each element–beginning with the brain and extending outward to the cultural arena–showing how each element is itself a complex system, nested and linked within a larger complex system.

My syllabus is, however, a working document at best. It serves, merely, as a starting point and set of guidelines for a classroom improvisation. My students are highly creative, each in their own ways. They not only bring their own diverse experiences to class; they also actively participate in developing the evolving narrative. Truly, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Or so says my dog Sparky!

Another Day of Reckoning

Day of Reckoning courtesy of Erik Kolstad

Day of Reckoning courtesy of Erik Kolstad

Driving to the airport to catch a plane to Utah, where my husband Brock was scheduled to have his semi-annual multiple myeloma check-up at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s famous quote:

A coward dies a thousand deaths a hero dies but one.

Perhaps then, I am a coward: for although we have been undergoing tests for almost seven years, each time we do so, my heart is in my throat.

for although we have been undergoing tests for almost seven years, each time we do so, my heart is in my throat.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we settled into our hotel, our headquarters for the three-day evaluation procedures. The staff of the Cancer Institute inspires confidence. My husband–a former Marine–compares it to an elite military unit. I concur; but I would add that the people at the Huntsman center are as caring as they are competent. Clearly, they are accustomed to working with people on the precipice of death.

Day one is devoted to tests–urine collection, a pet scan, a bone marrow aspiration and extraction (ouch!), as well as a series of blood draws. Even though some of the procedures cause considerable pain and discomfort, our anxiety is kept in check by our efforts to adhere to the tight schedule. Over the day, patients move–as if playing a game of musical chairs–from one medical station to another. Reflecting the various stages of the disease, some are in wheel chairs; some wear protective masks; while others don a variety of headdresses. As we repeatedly encounter each other, we begin to bond, becoming distracted by conversation and gaining confidence and support from our shared, death-defying stories. Meeting others who are in the same boat, we are reminded that we are not alone. Never again can we say, why did this happen to us? Touched not only by the situation at hand, but also by the openness and intimacy with which we engage each other, I sense I am in a holy place, experiencing something sacred.

Raising the Roof At Ely Cathedral, from antonychammond

Raising the Roof At Ely Cathedral, from antonychammond

On the second day, however, our fears surge, driving our blood pressures to new highs.

On the second day our fears surge, driving our blood pressure to new highs.

While grateful that the day of poking, pricking, and prying is behind us, we feel helpless in the void. All we can do is wait, asking ourselves what if? and trying not to let our imaginations run away with us. Afraid of only exacerbating each others concerns, we deny our worries, turning to television for distraction. By evening, mounting tension shatters the silence. Holding hands, and lying side by side on the king-sized bed, we let go, sharing, yet one more time, our thoughts about life and death. Through tearful eyes, I describe to Brock my feeling that I am a prisoner in a room filled with echos of death, from which there is no escape. He reassures me, noting how we have transcended this situation before and will do so again. As he says, whatever happens, in whatever time we have left, we will spend it painting a beautiful mural on Death’s chamber wall, depicting our truly wonderful lives. With that thought in mind, I fall asleep.

Finally, the day of reckoning arrives. We meet our doctor, Guido Tricot, to learn our fate. Much like Heinrich Schliemann searching for the lost city of Troy, Dr. Tricot has been vigilant in his search for a cure for the dread disease, multiple myeloma, considered only seven years ago to be fatal. Over the past few years, he has changed this prognosis. Employing a protocol that entails carefully timed tandem stem cell transplants, together with a variety of mysterious chemo potions, Dr. Tricot has saved any number of lives. What about us? Reviewing the data from our medical tests, he turns to us, and in his gentle, dignified manner, announces the results. “Perfect, couldn’t be better, we are very pleased,” he said. Brock and I are also elated, as well as very grateful.

Red Canyon, Utah: The Land of the Gods, from Linda Garcia

Red Canyon, Utah: The Land of the Gods, from Linda Garcia

Reflecting on this topsy turvy world, in which life and death are so delicately balanced, I am reminded of complexity–that place situated between chaos and order. Thinking about the recent paper I have written with my colleague Garrison LeMasters, I recall too the romantic perspective of the world, which places the Gods and their shenanigans at the center of our fates. So I think: Perhaps the doctors represent the rational and orderly side of this equation, while the Gods represent randomness and chance.

What next? How to celebrate? Having paid our due to the doctors, we are off to Utah’s canyon country to pay our respect to, and play with, the Gods.

Blogging the Networked Economy: Students Have Their Say!

Nonna e nipote - Grandmother and grandchild by luigi.carrieri

Nonna e nipote - Grandmother and grandchild by luigi.carrieri

For their last blog in my Network Economy Class, I asked the students to pretend that they were grandparents who–having lived to a ripe old age–had witnessed everything from the depression era to the present. Imagine, I said, that your grandchild, age 20, comes to you asking for advice about how to best prepare for the future. Having done all the readings for the network economy class, and having participated intensely in all of the discussions, what might you advise? Here are some excerpts from the students’ blogs.

Here are some excerpts from what students’ blogs.

According to Corinna Wu,

always prepare an alternative/alternatives for your goal, either for the sake of a fall back plan, or just for insurance, because nothing is certain, even if you are on top of your game. Be humble, and listen to all outlets, do not close any doors.

Jimalyn Yao might agree. Sitting around the kitchen table with her grandchild–a familiar occurrence in her household–she would emphasize that our deep involvement in our environment does not necessarily imply that we have a deep individual affect on it. Citing Beinhocker, she says:

economics truly is an evolutionary process, and by that same token, it rides the tide of collective change, and not specific ones.

Sherri Berman assumes that by the time she reaches 90 or so, she will be nostalgic for the good old days when life was simple. She would tell her grandchild: 1) Be multifaceted; 2) Be flexible; 3) Do NOT live in a vacuum!

Christina Politi wants her grandchild to think big and to move forward notwithstanding the vicissitudes of changing times and complexity.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road by Crystal ♥

Follow The Yellow Brick Road by Crystal ♥

Emily Zwelzer would serve her wisdom up with tea and crumpets, saying:

Think of the fitness landscape as the yellow brick road in mythical Oz, adapting to the bumps, and terrain of this path will allow you to survive in uncertainty. The road will undergo phase transitions, sometime perilous (as in time of economic crisis, war, or crisis) but as long as you change along with it you will not be left behind.

Mark Wenger would employ the phrase, Whatever will be, will be. As he says:

This phrase accomplishes two very helpful things: 1) identifies that the larger fitness landscape is beyond your individual control .. and 2) that you do the best given the circumstances you are in. . . its straight out of Beinhocker’s evolutionary economics.

Whatever Will Be Will Be by Gale Franey

Whatever Will Be Will Be by Gale Franey

Matthew Tyrrell’s advice is to be true to oneself. As he says:

Find strength in your imagination; it’s what makes you special. Look for the good in people. Put value in relationships. Listen to those who disagree with you. Find what you stand for and stand in it; be the structural hole. The world changes at a constant rate but we need energy (in the form of love, heat and food) that will remain the same.

Jake Landis would caution his grandchildren against a belief in equilibrium, noting that:

Equilibrium by Ivan Makarov

Equilibrium by Ivan Makarov

Equilibrium is true for baseball players hitting above average, and umbrella sales when its raining, but the human element is unpredictable. Evolution is about surviving challenges and adapting, not returning to the center.

What about reading Erik Beinhocker? Will his book, The Creation of Wealth be out of date? Not according to Rebecca Jacob who drew upon a case, which occurred decades ago–the Soviet Union 5-year manufacturing plan that produced shoes no one wanted. She advised:

Prepare for uncertainty and risk. This might seem counterintuitive, [as] a step by step plan for the future may appear the better thing to do. But what if the future doesn’t fit the plan, as is so often the case?



In her blog, Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst, and Expect the Unexpected, Lauren Alfry cited her own grandfather’s advice. He was a taciturn man, so when he spoke it had all the more impact. As he advised Lauren:

Success is where preparation and opportunity meet!

Many students have been affected by the recent economic crisis, and what it bodes for the future. According to one, achieving success in the future will require challenging conventional views, especially the advice and analysis of pundits, equity analysts, and popular economists. Juliette Arnaud, who brings a French skepticism to her writings, might agree. As she urged:

Evolution does not always mean progress. Embrace it! As [her] great grand-father used to say: life is unfair.

NEED I SAY MORE? Imagine how my students might affect the fitness landscape.

Preparing CCT Students for Complexity


Last Thursday night, I taught my last class for the semester on The Network Economy. One of my favorite courses, it strives to explain, as well as transcend, some of the anomalies of neoclassical economics, by considering what other theoretical/disciplinary perspectives might have to say about the economy. I ask the students not necessarily to buy into the theories, but rather to try each of them on for size, to see if they fit the situation at hand, and add new insights to their understanding of the complex array of events taking place about them.

So, over the course of the semester, we take a tour, and work our way through the territory of behavioral economics, socioeconomics, Schumpter’s reasoned history, innovation theory, transaction cost economics, networking, complexity theory, as well as evolutionary economics.  We bring all of these theories together in our last class, when we read the final section of Eric Beinhocker’s The Creation of Wealth. As my students and I discussed, this book is not only an introduction to complexity economics, it is–-at one and the same time–-a good guide for living in the modern world.

. . . this book is not only an introduction to complexity economics, it is–at one and the same time–a good guide for living in the modern world.

Although, in his book, Beinhocker aims to characterize complexity, and it relevance for the world today, his message is decidedly simple and straightforward: Do not put all your eggs in one basket! Experiment instead, he says.

All the eggs in one basket by Sunni J

All the eggs in one basket by Sunni J

Accordingly, businesses should avoid committing themselves to one big strategic plan, based on a linear projection of how the future may unfold. To the contrary, business must embrace uncertainty, spreading their resources across a variety a strategies, which are flexible enough so that, if necessary, they can be easily scraped  or readily adapted to meet the demands of changing contingencies. Likewise, individuals must prepare themselves for an uncertain future by appropriating a wide variety of talents and skills and investing in a process of life long learning. In the same fashion, government policy makers must work at one and the same time on a variety of fronts, developing strategies that can be employed under a number of diverse circumstances. As importantly, in each of these situations, these experimental approaches must be structured so as to provide constant feedback and learning, which can then be incorporated into future strategies.

While teaching my Thursday might class, I was suddenly struck by the realization of how well the Communication Culture and Technology Program adheres to Beinhocker’s guiding principles.  For example, our course offerings are modular components, which together comprise one of seven potential clusters of interests.  Students draw upon these course offering to develop a curriculum that is uniquely suited to their needs.  Like complexity, the process is non-linear. Students rarely end up in the place, or mind set, where they started.  One might even say that their interests co-evolve together with the course material, insofar as they learn what they like as they go, and mix and match courses to build out a unique curriculum of their own. Equally important–at least from my point of view–they learn to draw on a wide range of disciplines with the greatest of ease.

I am always saddened when a class come to an end. In the Network Economy Class, we were just getting to know one another. Fortunately, there is another semester, and another year. I look forward to seeing you all at CCT, whether as a student, an alumni, or just out of curiosity.

Communications and Complexity: The Need for a Policy Interface

communication by Guacamole Goalie

communication by Guacamole Goalie

Tomorrow, the Communication Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University will join together with the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law, Michigan State University, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and University of Konstanz, Germany,
in hosting a conference on Applying Complexity Theory to Improve Communications Policy. The conference is based on the premise that the field of communication constitutes a complex adaptive system, such that we need new regulatory approaches and tools that can take this complexity into account. We plan to cover four topic areas: 1) the value added of complexity theory; 2) tools and methodology for using complexity theory; 3) applying complexity theory to national broadband policy; and 4) building support for, and incorporating, complexity theory into communications policy.

I have been thinking about how one might structure the policy environment so as to foster greater interaction of policy actors and their diverse approaches and ideas

Having been assigned the task of facilitating the final panel, I have been pondering structural approaches to promoting complexity analysis–in particular, I have been thinking about how one might structure the policy environment so as to foster greater interaction of policy actors and their diverse approaches and ideas. My assumption is that to analyze complexity adequately, the policy structure must, itself, reflect it.  Some thoughts come to mind in this regard. 

For example, building on Ron Burt‘s characterization of good ideas, it would appear that policy organizations should be structured in such a way that policy actors benefit not only from strong ties among like-minded associates, but also from weak ties across diverse associations. As Burt notes:

Opinion and behavior are more homogeneous within than between groups so people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which give them more options to select and synthesize from alternatives (http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ronald.burt/research/SHGI.pdf)

One might conclude, therefore, that–for complexity to be attended to–the  architecture of the policy making arena must provide links across diverse policy domains. 

This conclusion coincides with the conclusions of a paper that my colleagues Ellen Surles, Qi Chen and I wrote for the Social Science Research Council, entitled Fostering a Communication Policy Dialogue: The Need for a Sustainable Communication Interface. In this paper, we adopted  John Kingdon‘s description of policy making as a non-linear process, which entails the convergence of three different streams–identifying problems, identifying solutions, and making political decisions. Kingdon argues that when these streams converge there is a window of opportunity when policy outcomes can occur. In our paper, my colleagues and I sought to identify the structural properties that would allow such convergence to take place. Viewing these three policy streams as distinct worlds, each with its own habitus, we identified the need for a policy interface, that would help policy actors to communicate with one another. As we argued:

The policy debate can become inhibited and muted in part because many players lack the resources and skills to communicate across these fields of policy activities. It is especially helpful when a number of diverse actors interact and engage with one another to the extent that they create a space where they can find common ground. We call this space the policy interface. Issues rise on the policy agenda when [policy streams] converge in such a way that ideas are translated and actors come to value each other’s perspectives and therefore perceive policy issues in a congruent way.

Much as in the case of Burt’s notion of good ideas, the architecture of the interface that we described provides for both weak and strong ties.  It allowed policy actors from different activity fields to maintain their individual perspectives, while coming together in a common space where they might have a productive–and far richer–dialogue. 

The US communication policy arena lacks such an interface, and policy making suffers as a result.  Jurisdiction is divided among numerous agencies, whose independent actions often lead to conflicting outcomes.  Issues are not considered to be complex; rather they are typically reduced to approximate the specific mission of the agency in which they are resolved.  

Time to Push the Restart Button for OTA

Time to Push the Restart Button for OTA

The outstanding question, therefore, is where might we look for such a policy interface?  Not surprisingly, given my own background, I would look to a government agency such as the Office of Technology Assessment, which not only brought diverse actors together, and incorporated their perspectives in the agency’s research results. As importantly, OTA translated complex problems into narratives that both Congress and the public could grapple with.

Interdisciplinarity and the Iron Cage

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

When Max Weber portrayed bureaucracies, he characterized them as iron cages (Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978: 1403). This metaphor reflected his belief that, because bureaucracies were so efficient, all organizations would have to conform to them, if they were to survive in a competitive, capitalist environment. Organizations would become isomorphic as a result. And so they did!

Thinking about this argument in today’s terms, we might view Weber as an early complexity theorist, based on his claim that changes in the socioeconomic environment, or as we might say now–(the fitness landscape)–require appropriate adaptations in organizational behavior.  On the other hand, the very notion of an iron cage, secured by rule-based self reinforcing feedback, suggests that bureaucracies are especially prone to lock in.  One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and all the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

Dealing with complexity requires continuous feedback from, and adaptation to, an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. For this reason, Beinhocker, in his book The Origin of Wealth suggests that the best way for organizations to cope with complexity is to incorporate it within. However, this is a daunting task. Bureaucracies tend to be relatively closed systems, in which behavior is reinforced through daily reenactment. For this reason, many businesses employ monitoring systems and change mechanisms, such as benchmarking, large scale interventions, and the use of outside consultants. 

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

But what about universities, a type of organization that–as one might imagine–is very close to my heart? Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail. As a result, change is incremental, at best.

Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail.

In their book, The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown warn against assuming that resistance to organizational change is evidence of Luddite behavior. Doing so, according to the authors, will lead to unintended, and undesirable, consequences. They suggest, instead, to look at the substance of resistance for clues about how to build upon the existing organizational context to better design a plan for change.

How might this insight pertain to universities? Let’s consider disciplines. Perhaps nothing is more entrenched in the university setting than academic disciplines. Functioning much like communities of practice, academic disciplines provide a shared sociocultural environment (habitus to use Bordieu‘s terminology) that serves to govern and maintain a set of beliefs and code of behavior. Efforts to relax the boundaries separating disciplines have typically focused on fostering collaboration among them. However, in an increasingly complex environment, in which enhanced feedback is critical, perhaps collaboration around points of interdisciplinary agreement is not what is needed. Instead, we might look to academic disciplines to challenge each other’s assumptions, and thereby enhance the  overall pool of knowledge–what Beinhocker call the design space. Organizations such as the Santa Fe Institute have demonstrated the rewards of this kind of cross training. Ironically, efforts such as these have typically taken place outside of the university environment. It is time to bring complexity inside!

The Longue Durée (The Long Time Span)

The former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan has had a long and distinguished career in public service, providing economic guidance to both Republican and Democratic Administrations alike.

Nevertheless, this explanation makes me question Greenspan’s–as well as his cohorts’–naiveté. 

And surely, his shock at the economic situation as well as his explanation as to why he failed to anticipate the problems with the market resonated with many other key decision makers: the economy had continued to perform well for forty years. Nevertheless, this explanation makes me question Greenspan’s–as well as his cohorts’– naivete.

Unfortunately, Greenspan’s lack of foresight reveals a major lack of hindsight. Forty years is but a blink of the eye in the course of time. Had Greenspan and others looked at the performance of the economy from the perspective of the longue durée— an approach advocated by the great French historian Fernand Braudel in his book On History (University of Chicago Press, 1980)– he certainly could have fathomed the market crash, even if he were unable to predict it.

One need only consider the insights of Eric Beinhocker, in his recent book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. (Harvard Business School Press, 2006) Beinhocker’s evolutionary approach is consistent with Braudel’s notion of the longue durée insofar as he emphasizes the on-going cumulative processes that converge in the course of history to yield discernible patterns over time. Pointing to the collapse of the English economy in 1315, Beinhocker notes, for example:

Depressions, recessions, and inflation are not exclusively modern phenomena: they are patterns that have recurred since the beginning of recorded history. There are other patterns in economics that are equally old, including the long-run growth in wealth per person. . . and the distribution of wealth. . . For these patterns to be so old, they must be the result of causes that are deep in the workings of economics, cases that are independent of the technologies, government policies or business practices of a particular age. (p. 161)

As the market crash makes clear: the time for interdisciplinarity is here!

Today’s understanding of the present market crisis should not, therefore, be attributed solely to the failure of politicians to regulate the market so as to promote not just profits but also the public interest. Academia is also partially at fault. As Geoffry Hodgson has argued, in How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Specification in Social Science (Routledge 2002), understanding the economy as it has evolved over the longue durée requires not just a dialogue among disciplines but also new theoretical approaches that build on a long view of history and, thereby, provides a more realistic, while at the same time more complex, level of analysis. As the market crash makes clear: the time for interdisciplinarity is here!

Reducing Complexity; Avoiding Responsibility

Columbia University Campus (courtesy of PauloGyensfan)

Columbia University Campus (courtesy of PauloGyensfan)

Back in the Sixties, I studied political science at Columbia University. It was a time of considerable turmoil, especially on university campuses. As students coming into maturity in the late fifties and early sixties, we had been imbued with the idea that, by participating, we could make a difference.

I was encouraged in this regard by my efforts in Berlin, New Hampshire,

we had been imbued with the idea that, by participating, we could make a difference.

campaigning with some of my fellow students on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy for president. Devoted to the cause, we went Clean for Gene. We slept on church floors, attended local hockey games, trudged from house to house through the snow, shaved our beards, and even put on brassieres. On returning home, we discovered that President Johnson had decided not to run for another term, based on the election returns in Berlin. Never before had we felt so empowered!

Our confidence in participation became somewhat tenuous, however. In the months that followed, we witnessed the shooting of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the continuing descent of the US into the Vietnam morass; as well as what we perceived as the great betrayal of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Meanwhile, at Columbia, student participation was intensifying, culminating in Mark Rudd and his followers’ siege of the administration and math buildings. In the chaos of the moment, it was hard to know where to take a stand. So, many of us positioned ourselves in the middle ground, that is to say, in a line encircling the math building, between the police and the protesters, opposing the siege but supporting amnesty. To our dismay, the line broke, as the policemen–some on horseback–charged through the crowd and entered the building. Most disturbing to me was the vision of one of our professors–who taught international social forces–being tossed over a hedge; apprehended by the police; and taken to jail.

Most disturbing to me was the vision of one of our professors–who taught international social forces–being tossed over a hedge; apprehended by the police; and taken to jail.

On campus, the response to this eruption was very mixed. According to rumors circulating around campus, a number of our professors stopped speaking to one another, and–as I came to understand it–they did not do so for several years. These tensions were mirrored in heated disputes among students walking on the quad, engaging in the classroom, and debating over lunch. At issue, first and foremost, was what, in a democracy, should be the limitations on participation. And, as a corollary, what role should academics–in particular–play in political affairs? For those of us who aspired to become future scholars within the academy, the burning question was whether or not it was appropriate, or even possible, to be value free in times such as these.

The answer, according to a majority of social science faculty, was to rise above the fray by turning to positive, quantitative analysis. And so it happened. The Department of Public Law and Government, which had a long tradition of performing institutional analysis, changed its name to the Department of Political Science. Mirroring this change at a more global level was the shift in the American Journal of Political Science from qualitative articles to those based on quantitative analysis. Disgruntled rumblings were stirring in another camp, however, where a revolt against scientism and the rise of post-modernism was beginning to take form.

Of course, debates about the proper role of social science have had a long and continuous history, dating back to the origins of sociology, and August Comte, who vigorously called for a new, positive and empirically based science of human behavior. As Bruce Mazlish points out in his contemplative history, The Uncertain Sciences — Comte raised the flag for positivism in reaction to the horror and chaos of the French Revolution. As Comte argued, to search for the real truth, the social sciences had to rise above ideology by mimicking the physical sciences. The complexities of the Industrial Revolution led to a similar effort to simplify the world, in this case by drawing on the lessons of the machine age to develop a science-base management program. Focused on specialization, standardization, and rationalization, the efforts of these social scientists culminated in the automated work place, Taylorism and–as Max Weber called it–the iron cage of bureaucracy. As might be expected, critics redounded ranging from Marx and Nietsche to Rathenau, Mumford and Ellul.

Once again we are, today, confronted with problems of great uncertainty, brought about by increased interconnectedness and speed of interaction on a global scale. Robert Axelrod calls it a complexity revolution. Much as in the past, the scholarly community–when fraught with uncertainty–has tended to remain aloof by simplifying–dividing itself between those who seek to contain the situation through the use of rhetorical and ideological categories and those who seek to distance themselves through abstraction in numbers. However, as Mazlish reminds us, neither perspective can–on it own–address the complexities of an environment in which human beings and natural phenomenon are continually co-evolving. To encompass these interactions, both approaches–the positive and the interpretive–are essential to understanding. Hence, academics, if they are to be relevant, cannot–as in the past–employ reductionism in whatever form to circumvent difficult situations. Rather, they must work together, looking both from within and from without, to gain a more coherent and decisive perspective.