Paul Cairney reviews Graham Room’s book on Agile Actors on Complex Terrains (2016)

Paul CairneyPaul Cairney

Paul Cairney reviews Graham Room’s Agile Actors on Complex Terrains (Routledge, 2016). Paul is guest editor of our 2018 special issue: Practical Lessons on Policy Theories

Some background context on complexity theory

If used wisely, complexity theory has the potential to make a great contribution to the study of politics and policymaking. It offers a way to think about, and visualise, the interaction between many actors, following many rules, to produce outcomes that we can relate to the properties of complex systems. 

These insights have a clear academic application. Although expressed differently by different authors, or in different disciplines, we can identify key elements and their connection to political studies. For example, ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ relates to a sense of path dependence described by historical institutionalism, the language of ‘positive and negative feedback’ is used by punctuated equilibrium theory to describe disproportionate attention to policy issues, and the idea of ‘emergent’ policy outcomes – in the absence of central government control – sums up the many ways in which implementation and governance studies have sought to ‘decentre’ the ways in which we consider policymaking.

Complexity theory insights also have practical applications. Studies of complexity tend to suggest that central governments should give up on the idea and tools of central control, to replace short term targets and punitive performance management with a longer term and more flexible focus on policy outcomes, pursued through continuous trial and error, and with local policy actors given more discretion to adapt to a quickly changing policy landscape (perhaps partly by working with service users to help co-produce public services).

If used unwisely, these lessons may be difficult to use.

There has been a tendency for many complexity theorists to declare conceptual novelty and adopt a series of concepts which are difficult to understand, use, and relate to existing studies. Applications to studies of practical lessons and issues of accountability also tend to get a bit lost if we declare a complete absence of the potential for political order or any semblance of central government control, and invite elected ministers to let go of their responsibilities. Indeed, would any elected policymaker at the ‘centre’ be willing and able to declare their lack of influence and responsibility?

It is also too easy to extract from complexity theory the idea that, since we all interact to produce outcomes, it is impossible to relate key outcomes to particular actor or groups. The application of complexity theory to natural sciences is often deterministic, so it would be ironic to conclude in policy studies that the main message is nihilistic. Should we focus on systems at the expense of identifying the key individuals who seem to thrive within them, or the social groups routinely harmed or excluded by emergent practices and outcomes? Surely not.

Graham Room’s Agile Actors on Complex Terrains

Graham Room thrives in this context. He provides a thoughtful and interesting exposition of complexity theory and its relation to the wider literature on agency/ individual choice and social and political systems. It’s not something to read casually while the X Factor is on, but it is also not nearly as dispiritingly jargon-filled and exclusionary as complexity studies can be. Therefore, Room’s book could provide the first entry point into the subject for the energetic reader.

More importantly, Room provides an important discussion of the role of power in complex systems. He uses the metaphor of the fitness landscape to which all actors must adapt. In that context, some people have the resources to get what they want, while others do not. They have an advantage ‘by virtue of the positions they occupy’, possessing the resources to choose when and how to access systems, cooperate with some actors to form coalitions, exclude others, and protect their advantage in multiple contexts.  Further, some actors have the power to shape the ways in which we interpret the world. If the world is so complex, to the extent that it provides infinite information, powerful actors help decide which information to ignore and which issues (and, therefore, which people) deserve our disproportionate attention.

Overall, Room’s application of complexity theory helps us understand why power still matters in a system over which we have limited knowledge and even less control. Room provides a call for us to act collectively to address social, economic, and policy problems, not a reason to give up or see our own action as meaningless.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Practical Lessons from Policy Theories

Three Habits of Successful Policy Entrepreneurs

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