Capabilities & Complexity: A Response to Owen Barner

Owen Barner (Twitter, blog) recently wrote on “What is Development“, trying to connect development to complexity sciences. When I first opened it, I opined to him that talk of “complexity theory” set off some alarm bells. The reasons why likely belong in their own blog post, if not a journal article. In short, I think “complexity theory” gives social scientists an excuse to ignore the rigor of complexity science. It often leads to abstractions and a varient of the is/ought fallacy by suggesting we add complexity to a our developmental interventions, as if it were a newly discovered spice.

But complexity simply is. It exists the same way gravity exists, and is a causal reason for both good and bad things. Gravity both supports all life on Earth and is directly responsible for every plane crash. Neither complexity nor gravity are good or bad, they’re just things that we must move around and with. At best, we understand it; at worst, we ignore it. 

Thankfully, Barner isn’t making that argument. In fact, he does the opposite by grappling with what co-evolution really means for economic growth. There is no single missing ingredient to achieve economic growth. Further, it’s not even cumulative. It’s not about adding this, this, AND that. It’s about how things interact together.  

To which I agree. The issue I have is this:

I argue that development is an emergent property of the economic system, in much the same way that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.

As a statement, it is not incorrect. The advanced market economies found in the global North are emergent properties of complex systems. As is the meteoric economic growth in many Asian economies over the past two decades. Further, increasing interdependency, diversity, and interconnectivity are all highly correlated with that growth – as Hidalgo, et al convincingly argue in their Atlas of Economic Complexity. But it’s not clear which is causing which – does increased wealth lead to more economic complexity or is it the other way around? 

My issue is with statements like this, “every successful complex system…” Despite his criticism and bringing in Amartya Sen’s work on capabilities and development as freedom, what’s being argued is a very one dimensional view of development: development is increased increased economic productivity. Because increases in wealth means increases in capabilities, despite the fact that Sen spend the bulk of his words explaining the non-monetary components of capability. Thus I think there’s a central contradiction; there’s no one magic ingredient for development, except for economic growth. 

For lack of a better term, I think this is an idealist view of the world, but complex adaptive systems analysis demands a realist view. I take these terms from international relations, and mean them as realism looks at what is and what is likely. Idealism, on the other hand, is usually pre-occupied with achieving an ideal or goal. It’s international relations looked at through the lens of how to create peace or end poverty, rather than trying to understand the causes.

I think if we’re really going to combine Sen and complexity, The object of studying complex systems shouldn’t be to figure out why countries or people aren’t rich, but why systems are what they are. What are the feedbacks and agents and which sorts of fitness landscapes are they operating on? What are the local logics and knowledge that create locally emergent  or self-organized properties and how do they interact as nested systems, both at lower (like family units) and higher (global) levels? 

Where Sen comes in is that we can then start asking how the system, as it is, hinders people from fulfilling their potential. There is, of course, almost as many different reasons as their are types of people and types of systems. Because systems are as Barner implies, there’s no one causal reason holding capabilities back. The type of economies usually associated with increased economic growth are potentially a hinderance and an opportunity. But for whom and under what circumstances?

Sen, for instance, presents a detailed model of how people starve when there’s still food on the shelves in stores. The tools of complexity gives us insight to understand those systems in which famine exist to more carefully tailor interventions. For instance,   discovering ways of increasing food aid without crashing the local agriculture market. To come at it the way Barner is would seem to ask, “how can we increase food production” when that’s precisely the point Sen was rebutting. There are no easy answers in development – which the larger theme of Barner’s talk.

In short, I think we can’t put the cart before the horse in complex adaptive systems analysis. We can’t start with a solution and reverse-engineer how to achieve it without falling into the same traps and fallacies of the –isms that came before. I think complex adaptive systems analysis in development should be asking “why and how are X people vulnerable / marginalized / poor” first and foremost. From there, it’s a long march to “in what ways can we help them be be less vulnerable / marginalized / poor.” And at that, we’re unfortunately far from finished. As we’ve learned from Barner, agents adapt. So what are the array of likely externalities of those interventions? 

Doing it this way, I think, is a blueprint for a context-appropriate development that is as diverse as our world is. Complexity science, if anything, offers us the tools to test and refine our theories and -isms, to see where they work, and where they inevitably bend and break.

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