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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Blog post for the constructed complexity project


Our task is difficult because it involves the intersection of three major domains–complexity, social construction, and institution–each of which has literatures reporting conceptual ambiguity–i.e. multiple meanings–and vagueness–i.e. lack of clarity in application to specific cases. Just as a thought experiment, imagine that there are five meanings for each of the three concepts, and imagine that all of them are vague. That would generate a space of 125 combinations of meanings each of which would require a three-dimensional prototype semantic model.

That’s why I thought of taking some stripped down, extraordinarily clear frameworks for each of the three concepts and starting with them. Same way I build computer simulations. If I can’t model the simple case, there’s something wrong with how I’m going at it, or else the case isn’t “modelable.”

Say we call the research object in which we are interested “X.” Later, for our specific project, we can instantiate X with “institution” and “inherit” the simple schema as a basis for adding complications to suit that particular domain. For now, ignore that part of the strategy. Then the two questions would be, what does it mean to say that X is “complex?” Arthur’s introduction looked like one good schema to start with. The next question would be, what does it mean to say that X is a “social construction?” I’d like to experiment with an answer to that question now, drawing on the helpful comments on the web pages plus a couple of other things I looked at. I haven’t yet found an Arthur equivalent for the social construction concept.

I looked up “construction” in a couple of dictionaries and thought about everyday usage as well as reading a few academic sources. “Construct” is a change of state verb where some agency makes something out of other things over time, that final something being the “construction.” At this general level the fit with complexity is clear–emergent order based on a dynamic process.

So, to ask if the phenomenon of interest X is a construction is to ask about the materials and environment and agency and the process where all those things interacted and caused the construction to emerge.

“Social” means that at least some part of the agency is human. That part could be a single individual, or a collection of them, or an organized group of them. Even a single individual may be considered “social,” in the sense of Vygotsky or G.H. Mead.

So to ask if the phenomenon of interest X is a social construction is to ask about the human agency part of the process by which X was constructed.

Finally, as noted by some, the social construction question is meant to enable counterfactual questions that illuminate possible changes in X. In other words, If a social construction is a dynamic process involving human agency, then plausibly human agency could have constructed–and might now construct–X in a different way, “different” often meaning “better” according to some evaluation. The notions of path dependency and exploration of a space of possible outcomes makes sense here.

Two things. As I think of this schema in ABM terms, that being the way I try and clarify my own thinking about complex adaptive systems, the schema seems to work as a way to guide questions to ask of a model of some institution as a social construction.

Second, as I think about the two institutional domains I know something about–substance use and water–I can see how the role of human agency will be variable, complicated, and different in terms of how and in what ways it constitutes “leverage points” in the nonlinear dynamic process that “constructs.” This is as it should be, I think, and perhaps reflects the argument I found in the few recent sources on social construction that I looked at that end with a call for a blend of “realist” and “constructionist” approaches in contemporary human social research.

As always, my goal in writing this is to make a useful mistake. As Box said in his famous quote, all models are wrong but some are useful.

Here's the second post

very much enjoyed Christoper’s blog comment. Much to think about. A couple of thoughts that pick up on a few of the many themes:

1. The notion that institutions emerge out of a diffusing and distributed shared focus makes a lot of sense. It sounds like Collins’ theory privileges face to face interaction as the mechanism, which is reasonable given the micro-sociology interest. I thought about Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities and media as additions to the argument to scale it up. For instance, institutional change is often initiated by a specific event that media rapidly distribute across a large population.

2. Thinking of water and drugs–my parochial interests–it is interesting to think of how the focus that drives the diffusion that creates the institutions is material. Materiality, or rather it’s perception and interpretation when wrapped into the focus, is part of the dynamics of institution construction. The perceptions and interpretations can be wildly different, but they both include an “object” with material properties understandable at some levels in terms of natural science. Heroin and cocaine really do impact neurotransmitters. Water really does move in a hydrologic cycle.

3. Further, as the blog notes, it is interesting to think of the intentionality that drives the diffusion as based on adaptation. Leaving aside for a moment the difference between drift and adaptation, the question would be, adaptation to what? Two concepts that come to mind–drugs and water as examples again–are adaptation to a threat and/or an opportunity. Drugs and water institutional dynamics often involve one or both of those things. Consider the U.S. “war on drugs,” or the current Southwest U.S. concern with “drought.”

4. Rationality is interesting to contemplate. Iterative trial and error, as the blog suggests, plays a major role in adaptation, but humans also have the ability to reason about an error and how to use it to formulate a new trial, so I’m not sure if there’s an excluded middle in there. On the other hand, in my experience with politically and/or economically charged issues around drugs and water, “rationalization” is more prevalent than rationality, the use of reason to formulate some legitimation for the interests (such as threat and/or opportunity) that are the drivers of a particular institution.

Sorry for all the drugs and water. That phrase sounds like a drinks order in a really strange bar. Hope some of this is interesting and I look forward to reading more blog posts. And thanks to Christopher for the good brain food.
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