Pepinsky, Tom – Simple models for complex politics – 20160304

Pepinsky, Tom – Simple models for complex politics – 20160304

Politics is complex. For scholars of comparative politics who study domestic politics in an increasingly globalized world, understanding the interactions among local, national, transnational, regional, and global forces is essential. So how should we proceed? One view is that grasping complexity means discarding simple theories and spare models of politics that do not reflect the complexity that we know exists. The position is intuitively appealing: complex problems require complex tools.

There is, however, another view. My colleague Andrew Little and I have recently finished a new paper on formal theory in comparative politics entitled “Simple Formal Models in Comparative Politics” (PDF). It is written as part of a dialogue on the future of comparative politics, and responds (in part) to work by Philippe Schmitter (see e.g. here) in which complexity[*], multi-level politics, and the dangers of simplifying assumptions figure prominently. Part of the paper is a clarification of the state of formal theory in comparative politics. We show that formal theory still occupies a relatively small part of the work being done in comparative politics, and that there is scant evidence that this is going to change any time soon. We also comment on some common beliefs about what models and assumptions are for which, sadly, remain all too common in the discipline.

But more interesting and broadly relevant is what comes next. We argue that in a world of complex interactions, simplification—in formal theory as in other kinds of theorizing—is a virtue, not a vice. We explain why in detail in the paper, but at root is the fact that theories are always simplifications, and descriptive accuracy is but one criterion by which a theory ought to be judged. We also suggest that professional incentives lead modelers to create formal models that are more complicated than they need to be. Our suggestions for how simple models of politics (formal or otherwise) might join together with the “complexity-embracing” modes of research is a nice parallel to recent contributions by Gehlbach (PDF) and Lorentzen et al (PDF). Our perspective on theory-as-simplification also parallels Healy’s colorful reflections on “nuance” (PDF).

So yes, the politics is complex, but this does not mean our theories must be also. Instead, we need multiple just-simple-enough theories, and continuous collaboration with case experts and other empiricists to know what “just-simple-enough” means.


[*] Without speaking for my coauthor, I doubt that this is a particularly revolutionary idea when the term “complex interdependence” is nearly a century old, and prominent scholars have been asking questions like “is the traditional distinction between international relations and domestic politics dead?” longer than I have been alive (see Gourevitch 1978).

Robert Axelrod



… and that’s how I keep going

On February 19, 2015, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer Chris Hedges spoke on The Rules of Revolt: What do citizens owe ourselves, each other, and our governments? at the SFU Vancouver Speaker Series. In response to the last question of the evening, Hedges spoke about how he resists succumbing to despair, in the face of the suffering and injustice he has confronted all his professional life.

Question from a woman in the audience audience: “So we’re all obviously great admirers of your intellect, and I think the thing that goes unsaid is that, you are facing far more information than I face – and, standing facing that truth, eye to eye, and I’m … just … this is a very personal question, but how do you do that, what are the tools that you call on to be able to face this truth, and to be able to face it, again and again, every single day?”

Chris Hedges: Well … I mean, it’s how you manage with despair, which is real. And, for me, it’s about always having a personal relationship with the oppressed. So, all of my career as a foreign correspondent, was spent in the developing world – but not only in the developing world, but in places like Sarajevo, and El Salvador, and Gaza. And this is what we did when we wrote “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” – it was two years with the poorest of the poor, literally, in the United States. And it’s why I teach in a prison. Because the moment the oppressed become an abstraction – then, I think, you can succumb to despair. But when the oppressed have a face – but more importantly, when you love them – I mean, every time I walk out that prison door, I can’t betray them. And you would think it’s depressing to teach – I taught in a supermax – I taught Shakespeare, probably not their idea of a fun summer, but I taught Shakespeare. And I helped – I taught a drama course – in a maximum security, I teach in a maximum security prison. And so we read August Wilson and … um … and as an experiment I said, ”OK, so instead of writing papers, I’m going to have you write scenes from your own life every week.” And I had attracted four or five of probably the best writers in the prison. And so I would take home, that first week, those twenty-eight scenes, twenty-eight students, with that kind of musty smell, that prison always has, on the paper. And I’m reading through, and I hit one that’s like amazing, and then I hit another one that’s amazing, and after a few weeks I say, “Maybe we can write a play.” So I’m supposed to be writing my book – which will be out in May – I didn’t tell my publisher, thinking, hoping that I would get an extension. And I dropped it. And I added another night every week. And I spent four more months forming this play, which was completely autobiographical. And the stories are heartbreaking. So, I remember one class I said, “I want you … just think of a moment when you’re sitting with your mother, and just write me a dialogue with you and your mom.” And at the end of the class, one of the students comes up and says, “Well, what if we’re a product of rape?” And I said, “Well, Timmy, that’s what you gotta write.” And that’s what he wrote. And it was a story he’d never told. And the story’s this:

He’s in a car, in Newark, and he’s stopped, with his half-brother. And the cops find a gun. And the gun belongs to his half-brother. And if nobody takes possession of the weapon, then they’re all charged. And he says to the cop, “It’s mine.” And the scene he wrote is sitting in the jail, calling his mother, saying, “It doesn’t matter, mom. I was never supposed to be here anyway. You have the child you love.”

And when he got up and read this, and I … we couldn’t read it, we couldn’t perform it in the prison, because it’s incendiary, I brought in Cornel West and James Cone, who I quote tonight, who I admire immensely, as my audience. And … um … when he finished … they finished reading … I looked around and said, “Where’s Timmy?” and they said, “He’s in the men’s room.” And I went down and found him, and they’re all … they all … I look like a munshkin next to all these guys, ‘cause all they do is life weights. And he’s, you know, seated in a corner, shaking and weeping. And we had read August Wilson’s great play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone … um … which is set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh, in 1910, in the aftermath of slavery, when broken African-American families are trying to reconstitute their families. And there’s a conjuror in the play, named Joe [sic] Loomis, who keeps telling them that these people will not be whole until they find their song. And on the last class, I had that play, and before all my students left, they signed the front page, and I said, “This is your song.”

And I said, “I don’t know anything about producing a play, but when I walk out of these prison walls, I’m going to take it to every director in New York.” … And in January it’ll be produced in New York. [applause] And when I went back into that prison, and told them, the words everyone said was “Can our families go?” And I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it. But I’m going to have a bus in Newark on opening night, and all your families are going to be there.” And … I didn’t solve the problem of mass incarceration, I didn’t overcome evil, but it is that act of the human imagination, it is the capacity to make their song heard, that makes resistance glorious. And that’s how I keep going.”

Books by Chris Hedges: