Table of Contents

Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy

Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy

Handbooks of Research on Public Policy series

Edited by Robert Geyer and Paul Cairney

Though its roots in the natural sciences go back to the early 20th century, complexity theory as a scientific framework has developed most rapidly since the 1970s. Increasingly, complexity theory has been integrated into the social sciences, and this groundbreaking Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy has brought together top thinkers in complexity and policy from around the world. With contributions from Europe, North America, Brazil and China this comprehensive Handbook splits the topic into three cohesive parts: Theory and Tools, Methods and Modeling, and Application.

Chapter 3: Complexity and real politics

Adrian Little

Subjects: politics and public policy, public administration and management, public policy


The invocation to ‘get real’ is now commonplace in the social sciences. Across the disciplines that are part of the broad social scientific family, we see appeals to relinquish abstract philosophy that is not applied to particular real world problems or to focus our attention on the practical policy implications of theoretical arguments. More prosaically, academic researchers are encouraged to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their work in practical terms. In terms of making some of the less engaged, academic work relevant to contemporary debates, these calls are not without merit especially if they encourage us to base research agendas around particular problems rather than articulating answers (often reflective of particular ideologies) before we have even identified what the problems are. However, the notion of ‘getting real’ is also problematic in itself in so far as it embodies the assumption that there is a ‘real world’ that is agreed, incontrovertible and easily delineated by ‘facts’ that we just read off from analysis of the prevailing conditions. An alternative view, and one that will be pursued in this chapter, is that the constitution of the real world is much more complicated than the ‘fact-derived’ account outlined above indicates (Little, 2015b). Indeed, the major contention is that by considering the temporal and epistemological dynamics of complexity theory, we need to think in a more critical fashion about how we construct the real world that more abstract social scientific theorizing is supposed to relate to in concrete policy terms.

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