A long time ago, when I was nearing the end of graduate school, a fire broke out in my university building. Once the alarm went off, it did not take much effort to get out of the building with my laptop and the dissertation draft contained in its hard drive. The fire never got close to where I was, but there was a brief moment of uncertainty about how serious the emergency actually was. And in that moment, I remember thinking, as grad students are wont to do, “It’s okay if I don’t make it, but my dissertation must live on!”
This thought was silly in all kind of ways when I first expressed it, but it also betrays a certain truth about how many academics think about the profession. The goal of academic research is to produce research that stands the test of time, that reveals enduring truths about how the world works. Armed with those truths, maybe, just maybe, some politician or entrepreneur or activist could make the world a better place.
Finding a fundamental truth about how the world works is difficult in the hard sciences, but it is even trickier for the social sciences, because the observations themselves can have effects on the objects being studied. Still, we struggle onward, hopeful that a hunch turns into an insight that turns into a covering law.
The assumption behind all of this, however, is that there are enduring truths to be found. What if, however, the world is so complex that it becomes impossible to develop such understandings?
This is the takeaway from one of the most interesting academic articles about the global political economy that I have read in some time. Thomas Oatley’s new article in the European Journal of International Relations, titled “Toward a political economy of complex interdependence,” packs one heck of a wallop. He notes that: “Historically, international political-economy scholarship has conceptualized interdependence as increasing connectivity with costly consequences between national economies generated by rising cross-border flows of goods, services, money, and people.” However, current levels of connectivity are so high that they generate structure all on their own. This means, according to Oatley, that “in order to enhance our understanding of global financial interdependence, we need to draw heavily from the complexity sciences as motivated by evolutionary logics and rely less than we do now on theoretical metaphors drawn from Newtonian mechanics.”
This is a provocative but not unheard of argument in my field, and was often made in the early days of chaos theory. No, the truly provocative part of Oatley’s argument comes in the paper’s conclusion about what it means for the study of international political economy. Complexity theory points to studying the system as a whole rather than breaking it down into its component parts. For the study of IPE, this has some serious implications:
The recognition that systems come in varying forms, some of which are indeterminate and unpredictable, generates three clear implications for how we study IPE. The first implication concerns how we generate knowledge about the global political economy. The field must become more receptive to epistemologies that “embrace holism.” Embracing holism means studying the global political economy as a system. More generally, the logic of holism encourages us to take the ecosystem rather than the individual worker or firm as the unit of analysis, regardless of scale. For instance, study financial institutions in the context of the financial system that they inhabit and vary the scale of this ecosystem as appropriate and justifiable. Second, because the global political economy is a complex adaptive system in which time matters, IPE scholarship should draw more heavily from the historical sciences and less heavily from the experimental sciences. From a practical perspective, this means research that explains events rather than research that tests hypotheses in the search for regularities. Finally, this means that scholars need to recognize that the knowledge about human social systems that we generate as scholars has a limited shelf life. Such recognition may, but need not, have consequences for how we generate knowledge, but it will have implications for how we use it. In other words, social science research itself is not immune from the information–entropy cycle (emphasis added).
In other words, if the social system we are studying is constantly changing, it is impossible to generate regular laws that endure for any length of time. The entropy of each complex system ineluctably leads to the breakdown of any empirical observation of any generality.
Oatley might be wrong, but the turbulence of the past few decades is a powerful data point in his favor about the underrated power of entropy in international politics, an observation that few others have made. What this implies for international political economy scholarship is that the half-life of our findings is much shorter than we realize. The work only lives on for a little while. After that, we might have to erase the board and start over again. And again. And yet again.