Category Archives: Complexity

On Social Upheavals

Daniel Little posted about “Social Upheavals“–riots, revolutions, financial crises, and similar such events. While I find Understanding Society fascinating generally, I took particular note of this post because I have been trying to model (across a variety of contexts) the social processes that produce the distributions that Little discusses. These distributions are leptokurtic and fat tailed. That is, social processes typically produce outcomes that fall within a highly compact interval–95 percent of the time, tomorrow is pretty much like today–but every so often the processes generate radical change. For instance, 45 years of public quiescence and regime stability in Soviet Europe gave way to two months of public protest and fundamental political change.  Or, the so-called “Great Moderation” of the 1990s and 2000s was disrupted by the global financial crisis and Great Recession. How do we theorize the underlying social processes that generate these distributions? Or, as a recent IPE paper asked, “How can we reconcile the assumption that social reality is structured by comprehensible mechanisms, presumed to produce patterns that make them recognizable, with the existence of sudden ruptures?” (Johnson et al 2013).

Little suggests that we ought not worry so much about these upheavals. “When there are crises — like the financial crisis of 2008 or the riots in London and Stockholm in the past few years — we often try to understand them as deviations from the normal…But really, our desire to perceive order in the things we experience often deceives us. The social world at any given time is a conjunction of an enormous number of contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the occurrence of crises, unexpected turns, and outbreaks of protest and rebellion. It is continuity rather than change that needs explanation.”

He continues, “social outcomes are always the result of a complex mix of influences. There are some broad underlying social causes that are relevant;… there are semi-random events that may serve as a flashpoint stimulating an outbreak; and there are countervailing efforts and strategies that are designed to reduce the likelihood of civil unrest or the spread of heterodox ideas. And this demonstrates that these classes of social phenomena are fundamentally indeterminate; they are best understood as being the consequence of a conjunctural set of processes and events that could have unfolded very differently” (my emphasis).

I am unsatisfied with both claims that Little advances. I don’t agree that “it is continuity rather than change that needs explanation.” The task of social science is to explain variation, and if the distributions we study are fat tailed and leptokurtic then (part of) the variation we need to explain is the shift from persistence to radical change. Failing to do so is to commit the same fallacy that financial engineers committed as they estimated the risk associated with real estate investment–they assumed that large events were unlikely. And that didn’t work out so well.

I also don’t agree that these “classes of social phenomena are fundamentally indeterminate.” The recognition that some phenomena are a product of a particular conjunction of processes and events need not imply that these phenomena are indeterminate. When the relevant conjunctions occur, the phenomena follows with some probability. Thus, conjunctural causality makes such phenomena rare (which may limit our ability to estimate the probability), but not fundamentally indeterminate.

Finally, I don’t agree that these social upheavals belong to a single class of events that occur only when a specific (and rare) conjunction of events or processes align. A large set of physical processes, such as earthquakes, exhibit the same distribution: years of stability and infrequent substantial upheavals. Yet, there is nothing conjunctural about the cause of earthquakes. They are the result of a non-linear process wherein the interaction between pressure and friction generates tension that is released through a series of events (tremblers, tremors, earthquakes), most of which are quite small, but a few of which are very large. The entire distribution, therefore, is generated by a single deterministic process. The only indeterminacy concerns the timing of individual events. If some social processes are like these geologic processes, then social upheavals need be neither conjunctural nor indeterminate.

It seems to me that the challenge social science faces is to explain why social outcomes that are typically stable sometimes change radically. And to meet this challenge it isn’t sufficient to assume that these radical changes are fundamentally indeterminate or occur in response to exogenous events. We need models of processes that generate such distributions. Some such work exists (see Baumgartner et al 2009 in particular), but it has had limited impact outside of American politics .

Johnson, Juliet, Daniel Mügge, Leonard Seabrooke, Cornelia Woll, Ilene Grabel, and Kevin P. Gallagher. 2013. “The future of international political economy: Introduction to the 20th anniversary issue of RIPE.” Review of International Political Economy 20 (5):1009-1023.

Jones, Bryan D., Frank R. Baumgartner, Christian Breunig, Christopher Wlezien, Stuart Soroka, Martial Foucault, Abel Francois, Christoffer Green-Pedersen, Chris Koski, Peter John, Peter B. Mortensen, Frederic Varone, and Stefaan Walgrave. 2009. “A General Empirical Law of Public Budgets: A Comparative Analysis.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (4):855-873.