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Cederman: Emergent actors in world politics

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Cederman. 1997. Emergent actors in world politics: How states and nations develop and dissolve. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Cederman argues that we should not always rely on only constructivism or only game theory. Sometimes we should use Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) modeling. Basically, CAS involves plugging a whole bunch of data into a computer and letting it tell you what outcomes are possible. Unlike game theory, it will not make a specific prediction; it will only tell you what outcomes are possible. This makes consideration of alternative histories possible--we can evaluate whether counterfactual events really could have happened (or mattered).

Constructivists ask interesting questions but have no satisfying answers. Rational choice theorists have satisfying answers to (sometimes) uninteresting questions. Use CAS instead.


First, equilibrium analysis rests on unrealistic assumptions about actors and the system. It assumes that the nature of actors is given, the knowledge is common (even if imperfect), and that history is "efficient" (i.e. outcomes are always equilibria).

Second, it relies on methodological individualism and pure self-interest. A "dynamic concept that links individual identity with collective structures is needed (45)."


Only constructivist explanations are dynamic and complex enough to explain the dynamic and complex issues of unstable agency and actor emergence. Yet constructivists purchase this at the cost of abandoning the parsimony of rational choice models (6). Cederman argues that constructivists need the tools of formal modeling more than rational choice scholars, precisely because their aim is to explain dynamic and complex processes. Formal models, as a complement to qualitative theoretical and historical work, provide a "logical strait-jacket" that can help maintain coherence, consistency, and precision throughout a complex argument. Simple verbal narrative (the most common constructivist methodology) by itself is simply not up to the task.


  • Separates nations and states. Understanding long-term political change requires a historically contingent conception of state and nation. This is the emergent actor approach.
  • IR theory either views actors (states and nations) as: absent or implicit (ex: nation merely a qualification of the state, as in nation-state); reified (states are given, they are presupposed (neorealism) or at most used as an independent variable (democratic peace)); and emergent /problematic (historical sociology or constructivism). New formal models such as CAS can provide a bridge across these three conceptions.


CAS: an adaptive network exhibiting aggregate properties that emerge from the local interaction among many agents mutually constituting their own environment.

CAS modeling differs from conventional modeling in two ways:

1.Relies on induction rather than deduction as the main method of exploration.

2.Stresses synthesis and engineering rather than separation and isolation.

Travis's very good handout goes on to explain several possible problems with CAS and Cederman's replies.