Slightly Misdirected in the Complexity

13 Jun

A week ago, Jay Ulfelder came out with a ridiculously insightful column about, of all things, microbiology.  He writes that new interpretive frameworks in microbiology mirror similar advances in the social sciences and quotes a book by Michael Polland:

“But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish—a phenomenon known among researchers as “the great plate anomaly.” Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science—named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see. The petri dish was a streetlight. But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam light that could illuminate the entire parking lot. When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gut doing all sorts of unexpected things…To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten cells in our bodies do not belong to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no longer made sense.”

He then contextualizes it with what Adam Elkus calls “an extended competitive politics freestyle”:

“I’d say a comparable gestalt shift is occurring in some corners of social science, with similarly dramatic implications. For decades, we’ve cranked out snapshots and diagrams and typologies of objects—states, parties, militaries, ethnic groups—that we’ve assumed to be more or less static and distinct and told just-so stories about how one thing changes into another. Now, we’re shedding those functionalist assumptions and getting better at seeing those objects as permeable superorganisms embedded in ecosystems, all of them continually coevolving in ways that may elude our capacity to narrate, or even to understand at all. The implications are simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming.”

Yesterday, I read Wendy Pearlman’s chapter “Composite-Actor Approach to Conflict Behavior” in the book Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, which provides a good qualitative example of what Ulfelder’s talking about.  Pearlman basically argues that the way we think about political decision making is entirely wrong.  She uses the example of Palestinian resistance to the formation of Israel as a way to sketch-out the composite-actor approach as an alternative.  This interpretive strategy sees political and social groups as non-cohesive, diverse entities.  She argues that placing political movements within the framework of “rational or strategic choice” steamrolls complex internal differences and that the logic of individual rational choice cannot be expanded to groups.  Finally, she writes that because of this fundamental structure of organizations, social scientists shouldn’t be asking what factors cause groups to make certain decisions, but who has the power within organizations to make those decisions, providing a better casual explanation.

This sort of thinking (political systems, patterns of interaction etc.), and perhaps Pearlman’s chapter, will likely form the theoretical basis for my thesis.  I will need to find writing that complicates the mainstream understanding that violence only works in situations with respect for human life, which may not exist in a mass atrocity situation.  While I’m only in the beginning stages of research, it seems to me that the way to accomplish this is to understand how power works on a person-to-person level during conflict.  How can civilians leverage power against armed groups?  Who has power over armed groups that can be leveraged by civilians?  What splits, a la Pearlman, within armed groups, can be identified and exploited by civilians?

In a response to Ulfelder’s post, Adam Elkus slightly complicates the ever-increasing analytic intricacy, supplemented by bigger data, that Ulfelder says is the future, “Ulfelder talks (and I agree) about the problems of binning into binary categories  and reductionist analysis. But binning is an inevitable effect of limited cognitive resources. We face a problem of infinite regress without binning, since—without buying into hippy-dippy Gaia hypothesis nonsense—the entire planet can be considered a system. And so and so on. So we have to bin more wisely.”

Even Pearlman runs into this problem.  While she does a fantastic job of describing the complexities of the Palestinian movement, her discussion of Jewish and British responses to Palestinian actions is decidedly non-complex.  She doesn’t identify the different actors within either, and Palestinians simply react to general actions of the two parties, rather than forming a political system with the other inhabitants of Palestine.  This critique is not meant to discredit Pearlman, however.  Her chapter was more on the composite-actor theory rather than Palestine in 1947, and therefore her analytic approach makes sense.  It does however, point to the issue Elkus highlights.  Had Pearlman attempted to treat Palestine as the complex political system it was, and identify all the actors within each general group, the chapter would have lost much of its theoretical clarity.  However, the “binning” that Pearlman did led to a less rigorous analysis of pre-Israel Palestine.  This is inevitably something I will face as I begin the writing process.  I need to understand local-level violence manifestations and power relations, but when will that analysis distract from the geopolitics I also need to understand.  In other words, how complex is too complex?  How can I successfully “jump levels”, as George Lakey termed in, from the local to the national to the global, and propose solutions that work on all three?

Hopefully I can answer my own rhetoricals at the end of the summer.

*As with any posts that relate to my thesis, readers should feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.  Any help is sincerely appreciated.


2 Responses to “Slightly Misdirected in the Complexity”


  1. When Reasonable Lungs are too Tired to Shout Anymore: On Arming the Syrian Rebels | The Widening Lens - June 15, 2013

    […] post-Iraq.  The lack of any serious strategy means fractures within the decision-making apparatus (which exhibits some of the characteristic Pearlman describes) have produced exceedingly bad policy at an even worse time.  The future is bleak for […]

  2. Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future | The Widening Lens - March 27, 2014

    […] I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability. […]

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