What is ‘Evolution’? What is ‘Complexity’? [and How does it inform the study of policymaking?]

by Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling. Originally published at http://paulcairney.blogspot.co.uk on 13 May 2013

There is a long history in the social sciences of using the natural sciences as a source of comparison. Much of the comparison is based on little more than the (often very useful) metaphor. There is now an equally important but shorter history of trying to draw more direct parallels; to say that this process in a social system is directly comparable to a process in a natural or living system. The study of evolution provides the potential for that sort of direct comparison, and we can find the use of terms such as ‘complexity’ (or ‘complex systems’) employed partly to that end. However, there are two major obstacles to this sort of direct comparison (and indeed to the use of evolution-based metaphors):

1. We may not agree about the meaning of evolution. For example, when it is used loosely in everyday language, ‘evolution’ tends to refer to a very long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in which long spells of gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of activity and change. Consequently, the study of evolution is instantly confusing because it can refer to the *opposite of* and/ or the *same thing as* revolution. There are also some other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it necessarily refer to advancement?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).

2. Some people have really ruined evolution for the rest of us. We can blame so-called ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others. In other words, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we apply it to social science discussions.

This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:

  • the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
  • major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
  • the maintenance *or* radical reform of policy-making institutions;
  • ‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
  • the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment
  • the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm style process).

This range of understandings may not put us off evolutionary discussions completely, but it shows us that we should be super-clear about our meaning of evolution when we seek to make these sorts of comparisons with evolution in nature.

I suppose this has been a roundabout way for me to advertise the fact that I have just published a journal article about this very topic (if you can’t access it, I can send you a *non-final* version or you can try getting it through a free trial). It compares the most prominent theories of politics and policymaking which draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:

Multiple Streams Analysis (Kingdon) – uses the term ‘policy primeval soup’ to suggest that, although policymaker attention may lurch from one problem to another, problems will not be addressed until policy solutions have evolved sufficiently within a policy community and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt them. ‘Evolution’ describes the *slow progress* of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community.

Punctuated Equilibrium theory (Baumgartner and Jones) – suggests that that ‘incremental’ policy change in most cases is accompanied by ‘seismic’ change in a small number of cases – an outcome consistent with ‘power laws’ found in the natural and social worlds. Kingdon’s picture of slow progress producing partial mutations is replaced by Baumgartner and Jones’ *fast, disruptive, pure mutation* (in some cases).

Then there is complexity theory, which I have discussed in my blog here. The relevance to a discussion of evolution is that complexity theory may help us understand processes in which people, institutions and their environments are interacting constantly to produce rather unpredictable outcomes (or, at least, outcomes may ‘emerge’ locally, in the absence of central control). This might be broken down into three steps:

  1. Institutions, as sets of rules and norms, represent ways for people to retain certain ideas and encourage particular forms of behaviours.
  2. Complex systems represent (partly) a large number of overlapping and often interdependent institutions.
  3. New behaviours and rules arise from the interaction between multiple institutions and the actors involved.

In other words, different ‘worlds’ are in constant collision, producing new ways of thinking and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from these interactions. They are then passed down through the generations, but in an imperfect way, allowing new forms of thinking and behaviour to emerge.

To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we really need to use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that living things want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. The idea in the political world is a bit different and perhaps a bit of a stretch, but here goes:

  • The equivalent of passing on genes is passing on ‘memes’, or ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking – as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins before he moved onto God).
  • ‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
  • ‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
  • ‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).

The key difference in the study of evolution and policymaking is the idea of passing on memes through the generations. We think of passing on genes through the generations as a process that takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years. Passing on memes through the ‘policy generations’ is more like the study of fruit flies (months), viruses or bacteria (days or weeks). In other words, ways of thinking, and emerging behaviour, change constantly as people interact with each other, articulating different beliefs and rules and producing new forms of thinking, rules and behaviour as they interact. Big jumps in ways of thinking may be associated with key generational shifts, but that can take place, for example, as one generation of scientists retires or, more quickly still, one generation of experts is replaced (within government circles) by another.

Complexity theory may be used to capture, describe and explain that sort of interaction on a grand scale. We can zoom in to see individuals interacting with each other, or zoom out to observe mass behaviour and the sorts of outcomes that emerge from them. For me, this means that the field is wide open when it comes down to research methods. If we are interested in people understanding this complex process of interaction, we can study those individuals using interviews and/ or various forms of observation. If we are interested in the whole system, we might adopt mathematical models and computer simulations. There is nothing to stop us combining such methods (and more) if we avoid the sort of people that adhere slavishly to one fixed understanding of the world and, therefore, one method to help us understand it.

I don’t hold out much hope of this sort of discussion capturing the public imagination. However, the chances are that this sort of discussion of evolution (and its relationship to complexity theory) is taking place in a wide range of disciplines without much exchange between them. So, if you see a blog like this written by someone else in some other field, please let me know.

Cairney, P. (2013). What is evolutionary theory and how does it inform policy studies?. Policy & Politics, 41(2), 279-298.

A wider debate on how Europe shapes British policy making is now needed

Janice Morphet
Janice Morphet

This article was originally posted at the LSE’s EUROPP – European Politics and Policy blog on 2 May 2013

The UK’s forty-year relationship with the EU and its predecessors has seen a significant integration of EU policies into the UK’s institutional culture. Janice Morphet looks at how the UK has implemented EU legislation in recent decades, finding that there has been little public discussion of their potential implications. She argues that it may now be time to promote a more engaged discussion and debate on how the EU shapes UK public policy.

Since 1972, it has been difficult to have a conversation about the pooling of the UK’s powers within the EU. While the lead up to joining the EU saw a strong and coordinated campaign for membership, the 1975 referendum on ‘staying in’ may have created a continuing uncertainty in the relationship which can be characterised as ‘out of sight, out of mind’. But over the following forty years, why has this position persisted? And what effects has it had?

The UK joined the EU with its head not with its heart. Changes in world trade and the growing European market meant a re-evaluation of the UK’s position. Whilst an Atlanticist longing remained for some British politicians, it was clear that the US defined the UK as being the friend in the EU not the partner outside it. Once a member, the UK retained its post-war position, assuming leadership and policy transfer without revising its focus of attention or its negotiating methods to suit the emerging institutional culture. Whitehall absorbed the processes of developing EU policy within its own internal methods, welcoming praise from other member states for internal coordination and overlooking their cultural practices of negotiation.

Whilst Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, was associated with exposing the public sector to competition – resulting in ‘privatisation’, this was not in the 1979 Conservative manifesto. Rather it was a GATT agenda that the Labour Cabinet had agreed in 1976 and an issue where EU member states then negotiated individually. But it was Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission, who understood how the objectives of ‘ever closer union’ and Thatcher’s marketisation could be brought together, through the means of the creation of the Single Market.

Delors laid his plans skilfully. Firstly the process of developing the Single Market was put in the hands of the UK Commissioner, Arthur Cockfield, a former Secretary of State for Trade. Secondly, he gave him full backing to roam over the whole of the EU’s policies in support of an integrated approach. Thirdly, Delors adopted an artificial date – of 1992 – for the single market to be implemented – a date that coincided with the UK’s Presidency of the Council.

In 1986, the UK was in the midst of opening the public sector to competition. The Single Market was regarded as a vehicle to enhance the potential for both competiton and expansion. The UK failed to recognise that the single market would require wider regulatory reform crossing many areas of public policy. These included the environment, population mobility, transfer of professional qualifications, transport, employment rights, finance and regulatory reform. As Cockfield found, the Prime Minister did not understand the nature of the UK’s EU membership and its implications. Further, he found that during the negotiations, Parliament was kept at a distance, knew little and seemed to care less about the Single European Act, in ways that fundamentally alarmed him.

It was no surprise, then, to find that the implications of the Single Market came as a jolt to Whitehall and Westminster. The old assumptions, for example, that the UK’s environmental standards were equal to or better than those in other member states took a sharp knock as EU legislation was poorly implemented or misunderstood. The Whitehall machine responded with a language of distancing and denial. As Whitehall and Westminster were involved in discussions on the increasing swathes of legislation required to implement the Single Market, there was talk of this being advisory or aspirational rather than agreed commitments.

So the UK was hoist on its own petard as further areas of policy were pooled but no open discussions about the potential implications of Treaties and their subsequent programmes of legislation were undertaken in the media – a topic that is a current consideration for the House of Commons Select Committee on European Scrutiny. A major interest for Westminster and Whitehall became how could the pooled policy agreements be implemented under the cover of domestic policy? A number of policy orphans appeared – such as the creation of the Government Offices of the Regions to give a nod towards applying the principle of subsidiarity introduced in the Treaty on European Union in 1992. This was followed by their abolition in 2010 as the subsidiarity principle reached its full expression in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

In the EU, the programmed approach is important, giving enough ‘wriggle room’ for all member states to implement any reforms required over more than one government’s term. This approach has been adopted since 1992 in the UK with the introduction of Spending Reviews that mirror EU budget periods and are useful policy vehicles for incorporating the ‘new’ without openly discussing their provenance. Nevertheless, the UK still characterises its approach through machinery of government steps rather EU flows. As Gisela Stuart MP recently said in evidence to the EU Scrutiny Select Committee ‘whenever the Government comes in, you wipe the slate clean and you start anew. The European Commission has no similar process’.

So what effects has this longstanding approach had? Although a key issue is a lack of public understanding of the current UK’s pooled policy objectives and agendas within the EU, there is a more disquieting concern that there is a lack of appreciation of these processes across the wider academic and policy communities in civil society. It is hard to have discussions on those policies which the UK develops and implements through its EU membership if there is no common discourse that stretches back over 40 years. Ministers and civil servants are negotiating today what will be implemented in 2020, whilst tomorrow they will be discussing how to implement what was agreed five or ten years ago. Unlike other member states, these jobs are not regarded as necessary stages in a high-flying career but a specialist backwater. Is it time to make good this deficit and engage in these policy discussions from an informed perspective?

Janice Morphet’s new book How the EU shapes British public policy is available with 20% discount from www.policypress.co.uk