Handbooks of Research on Public Policy series
Edited by Robert Geyer and Paul Cairney
Chapter 3: Complexity and real politics
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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