Friday, June 15, 2007

Complexity & Context in the Palestinian Civil War

The global outbreaks of seemingly irrational and unpredictable violence that so consume our attention today would be much easier to explain and resolve if we adopted a systems perspective instead of reacting to each event as it occurs and rushing to label actors as "good" or "evil." A "systems perspective" should incorporate concepts from both system dynamics and complexity theory, i.e., it should consider not just concepts such as feedback loops and delays but also interdependence of parts, attention to detail, emergence, and the context within which the system functions.

It is striking how easily we overlook this last issue—the influence on our behavior of context. The explosion of fighting this week between Fatah and Hamas is a perfect example of the critical impact of context.

Palestine is the contemporary version of the Warsaw Ghetto – totally surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Palestine people are now literally walled in (see Jimmy Carter’s chapter on "The Wall as a Prison" in his Palestine Peace Note Apartheid). Israelis enter periodically to arrest or kill Palestinian officials, guard roads crisscrossing Palestine from which Palestinians are banned, and practice economic warfare against both the Palestinian regime and the people. This context is critical to understanding Palestinian behavior.

Complexity theory asserts that the behavior of a system is a function of its parts in context. Behavior of actors in the Palestinian political system, thus, is a function of the interactions among the various Palestinian political parties in the context of their inability to overcome the Israeli occupation.

From this theoretical perspective, one may hypothesize that in the context of inability to control one’s environment, individuals will exhibit a range of behavior. As stress rises, variation in response will increase, with actors progressively trying an increasingly wide range of potential solutions. Over time, repeated failure is likely to lead to trying increasingly risky approaches. In accordance with complexity theory’s concept of behavior emerging at a collective level that could not have been inferred by observing behavior at the individual level (see Yaneer Bar-Yam, Dynamics of Complex Systems, pp. 9-10) one can hypothesize that counterintuitive patterns will be generated at the system level.

H1 = If a population fails to control its environment, as stress rises, individuals will exhibit an increasingly wide and risky range of behavior.

H2 = If individual behavior becomes increasingly varied and increasingly risky, behavior will emerge at a collective level that cannot be inferred from behavior at the individual level.

In the case of Palestine, different individuals may emphasize any of several obvious goals: gaining freedom from Israel, recovering their homeland, improving their lifestyle, or being treated with respect. Regardless of which of these goals an individual find most important, a Palestinian civil war is not a means of achieving the goal that could logically be inferred.

Complexity theory asserts that complex systems are constructed of interdependent parts, each of which modifies itself in response to modifications in the others. Complexity theory also teaches us to pay attention to the broad context within which people exist. It is not enough to identify the individuals and groups functioning in the Palestinian political system and to characterize them. It is not even enough to determine how the behavior of each actor influences the behavior of all the others. Their behavior and the labels one assigns cannot be absolute. Most unfortunately for those searching for easy answers, the behavior and nature of everyone is a function not just of innate nature but also of context.

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