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System Effects

System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life

Robert Jervis
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    System Effects
    Book Description:

    Based on more than three decades of observation, Robert Jervis concludes in this provocative book that the very foundations of many social science theories--especially those in political science--are faulty. Taking insights from complexity theory as his point of departure, the author observes that we live in a world where things are interconnected, where unintended consequences of our actions are unavoidable and unpredictable, and where the total effect of behavior is not equal to the sum of individual actions. Jervis draws on a wide range of human endeavors to illustrate the nature of these system effects. He shows how increasing airport security might actually cost lives, not save them, and how removing dead trees (ostensibly to give living trees more room) may damage the health of an entire forest. Similarly, he highlights the interconnectedness of the political world as he describes how the Cold War played out and as he narrates the series of events--with their unintended consequences--that escalated into World War I.

    The ramifications of developing a rigorous understanding of politics are immense, as Jervis demonstrates in his critique of current systemic theories of international politics--especially the influential work done by Kenneth Waltz. Jervis goes on to examine various types of negative and positive feedback, bargaining in different types of relationships, and the polarizing effects of alignments to begin building a foundation for a more realistic, more nuanced, theory of international politics.System Effectsconcludes by examining what it means to act in a system. It shows how political actors might modify their behavior in anticipation of system effects, and it explores how systemic theories of political behavior might account for the role of anticipation and strategy in political action. This work introduces powerful new concepts that will reward not only international relations theorists, but also all social scientists with interests in comparative politics and political theory.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2240-9
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. xi-2)
  4. One Introduction (pp. 3-28)

    On the centennial of the publication ofThe Origin of Species, H. J. Muller wrote an article entitled “One Hundred Years Without Darwinism Are Enough.”¹ His point was that although the basic ideas of evolution were well known, people often thought in nonevolutionary terms, a defect he hoped to correct. My aim is parallel. Although we all know that social life and politics constitute systems and that many outcomes are the unintended consequence of complex interactions, the basic ideas of systems do not come readily to mind and so often are ignored.² Because I know international politics best, I will...

  5. Two System Effects (pp. 29-91)

    The previous chapter explained that we cannot understand systems by examining only the attributes and goals of the interconnected elements. Here I will outline the basic results that follow: Many crucial effects are delayed and indirect; the relations between two actors often are determined by each one’s relations with others; interactions are central and cannot be understood by additive operations; many outcomes are unintended; regulation is difficult. I will close by showing that many of the methods that actors and social scientists use to understand the world are not suited to dealing with systems.

    Because of interconnections, many effects are...

  6. Three Systemic Theories of International Politics (pp. 92-124)

    To review all the literature on international systems could take a book in itself, but to ignore what others have said would be perverse. I will strike an uneasy compromise and analyze the issues closest to my own concerns, paying special attention to Waltz’s seminalTheory of International Politics

    We can separate the theories by whether the dependent variables, the independent variables, or both are on the system level, putting aside the fourth box in the accompanying table that designates studies in which both causes and effects are at the unit level. Some placements are problematic, in part because a...

  7. Four Feedback (pp. 125-176)

    Feedbacks are central to the ways systems behave.¹ A change in an element or relationship often alters others, which in turn affect the original one. We then are dealing with cycles in which causation is mutual or circular rather than one-way, as it is in most of our theories. As with the interaction processes discussed earlier, it is difficult for observers to assign responsibility and for actors to break out of reinforcing patterns that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. The actors’ behavior collectively causes and explains itself.

    Feedback is positive or self-amplifying (and destabilizing) when a change in...

  8. Five Relations, Alternatives, and Bargaining (pp. 177-209)

    A systems perspective helps us understand how actors’ bargaining power and strategies are affected by the opportunities and dangers thatothersface. I will start by focusing on the simplified situations in which there are only three actors. In international politics this may not be a grave distortion. While there are always more than three states in the system, in many cases three are most central.¹

    The most obvious and yet important statement follows from the basic conception of a system as composed of elements that are interconnected: The relations—existing, potential, and desired—between any pair of countries influence...

  9. Six Alignments and Consistency (pp. 210-252)

    The elements in a social system often form a configuration that is consistent or balanced (using these terms as synonyms). The pure case, in which the system is divided into two camps, is characterized by three conditions: Each actor has friendly relations with every other actor in its camp, each actor has hostile relations with every actor in the other camp, and there are no actors outside either camp—i.e., no neutrals.¹ Although these cases are uncommon, the forces driving a system toward consistency are strong and widespread. Indeed, the phenomenon has been found in many different realms and has...

  10. Seven Acting in a System (pp. 253-296)

    System effects can occur with inanimate objects, but greater complexities are introduced with human beings whose behavior is influenced by their expectations of what others will do, who realize that others are influenced by their expectations of the actor’s likely behavior, and who have their own ideas about system effects.¹ This is an area filled with paradoxes and self-reflective phenomena, and any discussion must be tentative and incomplete.

    In some cases actors benefit from being at the same level of understanding and sophistication as their adversary-partners; in other cases, being a step ahead—or behind—is desirable. Not only a...

  11. Index (pp. 297-309)