Complexity Science Conflict Analysis of Power and Protest

By Sword, L. Deborah | Emergence: Complexity and Organization, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Complexity Science Conflict Analysis of Power and Protest


Sword, L. Deborah, Emergence: Complexity and Organization


Complexity science, aside from adding considerable jargon, aids in understanding power, powerlessness and empowerment in conflict. Weaker agents, that would traditionally be viewed as powerless in a conflict, use protest and direct action to improve their own fitness, and deform stronger agents' fitness on their shared landscape. They attempt to drive a conflict system into instability, or unpredictability, or launch a cascade where a new equilibrium may favor their disadvantaged position. The data suggest that networked protest groups, as well as having passion and commitment, are structurally and organizationally well adapted for their fight against the powerful. Following complexity principles makes protest groups fitter, and makes the hierarchies against which they are protesting less inclined to understand or tolerate them.

The initial conditions of the policy protests

This is an era when protesters can follow policymakers to meetings in all corners of the globe. Policymakers react by deploying phalanxes of police around their meetings in easily sealed locations, such as Kananaskis, Alberta and Evian, France. Whether they are anti-globalization or local community activists, protesters with no traditional power and few resources have become interested in policy-making. This is neither new, nor unique, nor ending soon: "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing" (Jefferson Jan. 30 1787). The late Jane Jacobs affirmed this in a speech at a conference I attended in Vancouver B.C. in 2001, "Some things shouldn't be built anywhere."

My study of the 21st century heirs to Jacobs' and Jefferson's attitude used empirical methodologies and multiple theories to research how the agents in three large policy conflicts self-organized against the policies to which they objected. I use the complexity science term 'agents' rather than public participation theory's term 'participants', or conflict theory's term 'parties'. Analysis based on complex adaptive systems added new conceptualizations of seemingly stable systems that turned chaotic, illustrating the feedback loops, uncoordinated self-organization, connections, and interactions of the agents who experienced the conflict.

One finding of the study was that power in conflict, viewed through complexity science, has more dimensions than conflict theory alone has investigated to date. Some conflict theorists suggest that an impartial intervener can empower the less powerful (Barsky, 2007). Complexity science attributes power to affect whole systems to the tiniest perturbation that can create the conditions for a cascade, collapsing a powerful system that was thought to be robust. Each agent has its own power that it exercises at different times by adding inputs to the system.

Complexity science complemented this study's conflict theory, public policy theory, and public participation theory standard empirical analysis: theoretically informed case studies, comparative case methodology, and interviews. My research could cross disciplinary boundaries with nonlinear as well as linear conflict analysis using, as Crocker (1999) advised, whatever, whenever, and however theory works on the ground. The relevant ideas from each discipline could be brought to bear with information that each alone could not have. There are many models available, and "only by thinking like sociologists as well as like mathematicians can we pick the right one" (Watts, 2003: 156).

Conflict and public participation theorists and practitioners accept that conflict is inevitable. However, the conventional frames focus on interventions to prevent and deescalate conflict. The three issues that most conflict research addresses are: why or why not does an intervention process succeed; what will prevent, mitigate, or resolve conflicts and; how can conflict management skills be improved (Fisher, 1997; Harrison, 2003). In this conceptualization, protest is likely to be categorized as failure of public participation or conflict resolution processes. …

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