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Dynamic Pattern Synthesis for Modeling Complex Systems. An Interview with Phil Haynes

Feb 22, 2018 | Blog

Courtesy of Brian Castellani’s ‘Sociology & Complexity Science‘ Blog.

Phil Haynes is Professor of Public Policy and researches and teaches public policy and management, as applied to a variety of contemporary circumstances. His research focuses on the application of complex systems theory, often using applied statistical methods. His research has been funded by the ESRC and the government and voluntary sector. He has published in a wider variety of journals including Social Policy and Administration and Public Management Review.  He is author of several books including Managing Complexity in the Public Services (2015) now in its second edition.

His most recent book, which is part of our complexity in social sciences series at Routledge, is aptly titled, SOCIAL SYNTHESIS: Finding Dynamic Patterns in Complex Social Systems.

1. To begin, can you tell us a bit about your academic background? More specifically, how did you end up in policy evaluation and applied social science?
HAYNES: My first degree was in combined social sciences and social work. Over four years it provided a great interdisciplinary foundation. The last two years increasingly focused on social work practice.
It was a fantastic four years. When I graduated, I got a job as a generic court probation officer and then later specialised in developing new services for substance misuse. At that point, I started to get involved in research and training.
All the new substance treatment programmes had to have evaluation built into them. It was immediately apparent that evaluation was complex and did not easily provide straightforward answers. For example, for the most dependent substance misusers, it was very difficult to estimate which service users would do best with different treatment types. I really enjoyed the research challenge and enrolled for an MSc in advanced social research methods at the UK Open University.
2. What got you involved in the development of methods?
HAYNES: After completing my MSc, I started a PhD examining how to use mixed methods to plan social services. My PhD soon started to show up the severe limitations of using traditional statistical methods for modelling historical patterns in order to plan future services. This took me into complexity theory. I moved permanently into an academic post. This was in the 1990s.
A number of seminal pieces about the application of complexity theory to the social sciences were published at that time in the US, and just beginning to influence Europe.  I was fortunate to have David Byrne as my PhD examiner and he was publishing his important book in the UK, Complexity theory and the social sciences. The late Paul Cilliers monograph, Complexity and postmodernism came out at a similar time.
After that, David’s approach encouraged me to try methods like cluster analysis and then QCA. This resulted in me succeeding in getting ESRC funding to apply these methods to comparing the social networks of older people alongside different government expenditure patterns. It was a comparative study across several countries. Cluster analysis and QCA allowed the study to demonstrate that there were different patterns within the data and not one aggregate pattern. For example, Scandinavian, Northern Europe, and Southern Europe all demonstrated their own separate patterns, but also with dynamic and evolving changes over time.
In more recent years, I got frustrated with the competing strengths and weaknesses of cluster analysis and QCA and trying to decide which was the best method to use in a given research situation. It then occurred to me, the answer was staring me in the face, to bring them together into a mixed method. Then you could get the best characteristics of each method counter balancing the weakness in the other. That is how Dynamic Pattern Synthesis (DPS) was born.
3. Can you provide us an overview of what you mean by social synthesis? For example, why is social synthesis so important for social science?
HAYNES: Social synthesis is the art of examining social issues and social practices through a more holistic lens rather than a narrow hypothesis. It is founded on the idea from complexity theory that cases and social phenomena are often dynamic and highly interactive with each other. It is closely related to systems theory in this respect. Therefore, experimental and quasi-experimental approaches are extremely difficult to design with regard to knowing what to include and what is left out. Of course, experimental methods can work with replication and incremental adjustments, but that is resource and time intensive and not necessarily the best starting research design. This made me favour initial explorative approaches to large datasets, like using cluster analysis.
There are still limitations. Social synthesis cannot be a ‘theory of everything’, it has to have modelling boundaries, but it starts with the premise that is best to look more broadly rather than to focus its measurements too quickly and too soon into a reduced area of coverage.
4. What is your method Dynamic Pattern Synthesis (DPS) about, relative to this issue of synthesis?  For example, how do you see it as an advance on case-comparative method?
HAYNES: Dynamic Pattern Synthesis starts with an explorative synthesis rather than an explanatory hypothesis (although the latter can be introduced later in the method via QCA, if appropriate). It keeps the focus on being able to identify and compare each case rather than getting aggregate measures that are supposed to represent large groups of cases. It is very much a case based method, but one that tries to maximise the variable evidence for why a case is located where it is.
5. Is there any link to critical realism?
HAYNES: I think the contextual aspect of critical realism is highly relevant. When using critical realism, generative mechanisms and causality are situated in a changing social context. This frames and restricts any attempts at generalisation. It is a realistic and partial perspective on causality.
6. The case studies in your book are excellent.  I found them very useful because of their depth and variety, which helped me to see how your method works in different instances.  How did you happen to choose those case studies?
HAYNES: Because of the pressures of time and resources, my approach to the case studies was pragmatic and based on my previous research with secondary data. I had been involved in some research looking at the relationship of economics with public policy, post the 2008 financial crisis, so the Euro case study emerged from that stream of work. I also have a history of using secondary data to understand the changing demography and care needs of older people.  Similarly, I have focused previously on issues of territorial justice and the differences between local governments.
Probably the most innovative and speculative case study for me was trying to see if DPS made any sense with a small sub sample of micro data about older people. I think it is interesting how the resulting issues are very similar to challenges in qualitative research. It is hard to find meaningful consistent patterns over time at the most micro level. Social patterns seem easier to identify and work with at scale, at the meso and macro level, and that fits with the application to policy studies and evaluating policy at governmental levels.
7. What are the one or two most important things you want readers to come away with reading your book?
HAYNES: I would really like other researchers to try out DPS and to see how it works with different data sets in different contexts. I would also like to see this kind of method taken up in heterodox economics/political economics to reach a better understanding about macroeconomic theory and future interventions in the post financial crisis world. I think there is currently a normative imperative to be adventurous with macroeconomic research, to look for new public policy interventions in the economy.
8. What is the next step in your development of DPS?
HAYNES: I really want to communicate the basics of how the method works and to share the mechanics of this, and to encourage more case studies and more use, and to get other academics to ‘add-on’ to the mix of methods used in DPS. The methodological purpose is clear, to identify case patterns (that are likely to be time and space limited) and what the socio-economic meaning of these patterns is. DPS is not the only way to identify and name these patterns, there will be future evolutions of DPS as a method and better alternatives –  I am sure.  I would also really like to see if I could find and persuade collaborators to attempt to develop R packages in DPS. I do not have the skills and time to do many of these things alone, so I need to network and collaborate.
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