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The critical realist conception of open and closed systems

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发表于 2017-9-11 23:43:19 | 显示全部楼层 |阅读模式
Abstract

The critical realist (CR) conception of open and closed (O&C) systems is not about systems: it is about (ir)regularities in the flux of events and states of affairs. It has recently been criticised on the grounds that critical realists (CRs) should take on board ideas about the general nature of systems; recognise that genuinely open social systems would be impossible; avoid polarities or dualisms where either there are event regularities and open systems, or there are no event regularities and closed systems and accept partial regularities and partially open systems; and understand that orthodox economics is not based upon event regularities, laws or Humean empiricism. The objective of this paper is to ‘take stock’ of these recent criticisms.

Keywords: critical realism, open systems, closed systems, event regularities, stochastic event regularities, demi-regs, restricted closure, partial event regularities, partial closed systems

 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:43:42 | 显示全部楼层
1. Introduction

Many readers will be aware that critical realists (CRs) have a conception of open and closed (O&C) systems. Some readers will know exactly what this conception does (and does not) mean; some will know why this matters; some have only a vague idea of what it means; some will have only a vague idea of exactly why it matters; and some will know almost nothing about it. Critics can be found located at various points on this spectrum. Before considering the criticisms, it is necessary to get the basic CR position ‘on the record’. I do this by addressing four questions.11. Evidence for my answers will emerge as the paper unfolds.
View all notes

First, what is the CR conception of O&C systems about? It is about (ir)regularities in the flux of events and states of affairs.22. For ease of exposition, I will often refer to ‘regularities in the flux of events or states of affairs’ simply as ‘event regularities’. Occasionally I will use the full expression as a reminder.
View all notes

Second, what is the CR conception of O&C systems not about? It is not about systems – i.e. not about what the CR Mingers (2011 Mingers, J. (2011). The contribution of systemic thought to critical realism. Journal of Critical Realism, 10, 303–330.10.1558/jcr.v10i3.303
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, p. 1) refers to as ‘systems thinking’.

Third, what is the CR conception of O&C systems? Whilst no one has the right to speak on behalf of the CR community, without establishing a definition it is impossible to get a meaningful debate going. I am, therefore, prepared to risk the wrath of my fellow CRs, and offer what I will refer to as the ‘standard critical realist (SCR) conception’ of O&C systems, namely:

Parts of the social world characterised by (stochastic and/or probabilistically specified) regularities between events or states of affairs of the form ‘whenever event or state of affairs x then event or state of affairs y’, are closed systems, and parts of this world not characterised by such regularities are open systems.33. I couch this in terms of the social world because I am dealing with a social scientific context.
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This conception can be defended on the following grounds. This is how Bhaskar (1978 Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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, p. 70) introduced the conception almost 40 years ago. It is how Lawson framed it when introducing Bhaskar’s ideas to an economics audience, and how he continues to frame it today (Lawson, 1989 Lawson, T. (1989). Abstraction, tendencies and stylised facts: A realist approach to economic analysis. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 13, 59–78.
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, p. 63, 2015 Lawson, T. (2015). Abstraction and varieties of theoretical isolation in modern economics. In S. Pratten (Ed.), Social ontology and modern economics (pp. 315–337). London: Routledge.
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, p. 194). It is how many contemporary critical realist (CRs) frame it (Bigo, 2006 Bigo, V. (2006). Open and closed systems and the Cambridge School. Review of Social Economy, 64, 493–514.10.1080/00346760601024468
[Taylor & Francis Online], [Google Scholar]
). Support can even be found amongst non-CRs. Lee (2006 Lee, F. (2006). Critical realism in economics and open systems ontology: A critique. Retrieved from
http://cas.umkc.edu/econ/economi ... ../methodology6.pdf
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) refers to this as the conception adopted by the ‘Cambridge School’. Mearman (2006 Mearman, A. (2006). Critical realism in economics and open-systems ontology: A critique. Review of Social Economy, 64, 47–75.10.1080/00346760500529955
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, p. 51) observes that what he calls the ‘event-level definition’ is ‘beginning to be the dominant definition.
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:44:01 | 显示全部楼层
Fourth, what is the purpose or point, of the CR conception of O&C systems? When Bhaskar introduced what would eventually become known as CR, his objective was to establish a fundamental critique of positivism – and variants. His real target, however, was the Humean, or regularity, conception of causation and regularity laws. ‘Central to the positivist vision of science’, Bhaskar observed, is the ‘Humean theory of causal laws’ (1978 Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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, p. 12), adding that the ‘weakness of the Humean concept of laws is that it ties laws to closed systems, viz. systems where a constant conjunction of events occurs’ (1978 Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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, p. 14). Let me summarise his argument (Bhaskar, 1978 Bhaskar, R. (1978). A realist theory of science. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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, ca. 33).

In some natural sciences, an experimental set-up (artificially) creates conditions wherein event regularities, often referred to as ‘laws’, occur. Outside closed systems, where event regularities do not occur (i.e. in open systems) events are still causally governed by something, and this ‘something’ is generally believed to be laws. Now, if laws causally govern events, then they must continue to do so outside closed systems. If this were not the case we would have to conclude that outside closed systems, nothing causally governs events – which is nonsense. This conclusion can be avoided by rejecting the conception of laws as regularity laws and accepting laws as the powers or tendencies of causal mechanisms. The SCR conception of O&C systems, then, is the foundation stone upon which is built a rejection of positivism, and its replacement with a CR meta-theory rooted in laws as powers or tendencies and capable of dealing with irregularities in the flux of events.

Lawson transposed Bhaskar’s project into the context of economics. Here, the analogue44. This does not apply to experimental and behavioural economists.
View all notes
of natural science’s experimental conditions is the construction of models wherein event regularities are (artificially) created – i.e. closed systems. Lawson set about rejecting positivism (and variants) and replacing it with CR, a meta-theory rooted in laws as powers or tendencies. Stating the basis of the rejection illustrates the purpose or point, of the SCR conception of O&C systems. If the social world displays irregularities in the flux of events and is, therefore, an open system, then to model it as if it were a closed system introduces a damaging rift between ontology and epistemology – i.e. between the way the social world actually is, and the way it is represented in economic models. Once in place, the rift cannot be healed.

And now to the critics. The SCR conception of O&C systems, or what is (mis)understood to be the SCR conception, has recently been criticised on the grounds that: CRs should take on board systems thinking; recognise that genuinely open social systems would be impossible; avoid polarities or dualisms where either there are event regularities and open systems, or there are no event regularities and closed systems; accept (let us say) partial regularities and partially open systems; and recognise that modern economics is not based upon event regularities or laws, and only some versions are based upon Humean empiricism. The objective of the paper is to ‘take stock’ of these criticisms.

Part one deals with some caveats and clarifies key terms. Part two considers whether CR should abandon the terminology of O&C systems; compares the SCR conception of systems with systems thinking; and considers examples where ‘system’ is used in a non-CR sense to evaluate CR senses of the term. Part three considers whether CRs should break with polarities or dualisms; analyses some of the (alleged) types of closed systems that appear, including partially closed systems – and other modifiers; and considers the claim that genuinely open social systems would be impossible. Part four takes a closer look at demi-regs. Part five considers arguments that modern economics is not based upon event regularities or laws, and that only some versions are based upon Humean empiricism.
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:44:19 | 显示全部楼层
2. Caveats and clarification

The objectives of this opening section are to proscribe issues that, whilst interesting, cannot be dealt with here, and to bring more clarity to the key terms and concepts deployed as the paper unfolds.

2.1. The empirics of open and closed (social) systems

Whether social systems are open or closed is, ultimately, an empirical matter. Inevitably, however, I take a position, and it is better to assert it, even if I cannot elaborate it here. My position is that the social world is characterised, largely, by demi-regs (defined below) and open systems. This does not rule out the possibility that some stochastic event regularities may turn up tomorrow and last for ‘a while’ – i.e. what Lawson (2003 Lawson, T. (2003). Reorienting economics. London: Routledge.
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, p. 105) refers to as ‘restricted stretches of space-time’, although we should be wary of promissory notes. Demi-regs and open systems constitute the ‘normal’ state of the social world, and restricted closure are ‘special cases’ (Lawson 2003 Lawson, T. (2003). Reorienting economics. London: Routledge.
[Google Scholar]
, p. 105). To critics who ask for evidence of this, I have three brief replies. First, refuting the existence of every regularity would never be sufficient because critics could supply a stream of alleged regularities for refutation. Second, I might turn the tables and ask critics for examples of event regularities occurring over more than restricted stretches of space-time. Third, Fleetwood (2014 Fleetwood, S. (2014). Do labour supply and demand curves exist? Cambridge Journal of Economics, 38, 1–27.
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, p. 1) has recently provided a kind of ‘case study’. He argues that ‘circumstantial and empirical evidence for the existence of labour supply and demand curves is at best inconclusive and at worst casts doubt on their existence’. If the existence of event regularities, represented by something as central to orthodox economics as the laws of labour supply and demand, can be cast into doubt, then surely we should doubt the existence of other less well-known regularities.
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:44:31 | 显示全部楼层
2.2. Trivial closures and closures of concomitance

I will not discuss ‘trivial closures’ – e.g. schools close at the same time every day. See Cottrell (1998 Cottrell, A. (1998). Realism, regularities and prediction. Review of Social Economy, 56, 347–355.
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, p. 351) and Lawson’s reply (1997 Lawson, T. (1997). Economics and Reality. London: Routledge.10.4324/SE0085
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). Nor will I discuss closure of concomitance – i.e. where event x does not regularly cause event y, but event x and event y are regularly caused by event z. Some CRs use closures of concomitance as part of contrastive explanations, but they hardly feature in economics (Bigo 2006 Bigo, V. (2006). Open and closed systems and the Cambridge School. Review of Social Economy, 64, 493–514.10.1080/00346760601024468
[Taylor & Francis Online], [Google Scholar]
, pp. 509, 510).
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:44:47 | 显示全部楼层
2.3. Closed systems in mathematics and econometrics

Many critics point out that CRs often discuss O&C systems via the case of econometrics, not mathematical economics, where the latter are cases of purely theoretical or algebraic models.55. See Hodgson (2006 Hodgson, G. (2006). Economics in the shadows of darwin and marx: Essays on institutional and evolutionary themes. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.10.4337/9781781007563
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, ca. 127), Mohun and Veneziani (2012 Mohun, S., & Veneziani, R. (2012). Reorienting economics? Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 42, 126–145.10.1177/0048393110376218
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, pp. 131, 132) and Fleetwood (2001 Fleetwood, S. (2001). Causal laws, functional relations and tendencies. Review of Political Economy, 13, 201–220.10.1080/09538250120036646
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) for an alternative view.
View all notes
The argument, stated very briefly, is that CRs ignore the useful results that can be obtained from building mathematical models of open systems as if they were closed. Rather than offer a counter-argument here, I will make one point. Event regularities are represented in mathematical models as y = f (x), and in econometric models as y = f (x + ε). Both are expressions of event regularities, the difference being that in the latter the event regularities are stochastic – see Section 2.6.
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:45:05 | 显示全部楼层
2.4. Simplification, abstraction, isolation and idealisation

It is often presumed that, even if the social world is an open system, it has to be modelled as if it were closed, and this can be done by creating simple, abstract, isolated or idealised models.

As soon as we start conceptualizing the economic system, we inevitably invoke closures (normally of a provisional, incomplete, sort). (Dow, 2004 Dow, S. (2004). Reorienting economics: Some epistemological issues. Journal of Economic Methodology, 11, 307–312.10.1080/1350178042000258563
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, p. 309)

Given that theory cannot embrace and describe every facet and causal mechanism, much must always be excluded. Consequently some degree of closure is inevitable in any theory. (Hodgson, 2006 Hodgson, G. (2006). Economics in the shadows of darwin and marx: Essays on institutional and evolutionary themes. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.10.4337/9781781007563
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, p. 128)

I think this is a mistake, arising from ambiguous use of terms like ‘simplification’, ‘abstraction’, ‘isolation’ and ‘idealisation’. Unless these terms are used to refer to the same thing, we need to be clear about the differences they express.66. A reviewer asked for further clarification of these terms. Unfortunately, word-length does not permit this, but I have elaborated in Fleetwood (2016 Fleetwood, S. (2016). (Mis)understanding labour markets. In J. Murray (Ed.), Labour markets: Analysis, regulation and outcomes (pp. 1–66). New York, NY: Nova Science.
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). See also Pratten (2007 Pratten, S. (2007). Realism, closed systems and abstraction. Journal of Economic Methodology, 14, 473–497.10.1080/13501780701718748
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, part 3); Nash (2004 Nash, S. (2004). On closure in economics. Journal of Economic Methodology, 11, 75–89.10.1080/1350178042000178012
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, part 3); Hodgson (2006 Hodgson, G. (2006). Economics in the shadows of darwin and marx: Essays on institutional and evolutionary themes. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.10.4337/9781781007563
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). For discussion of abstraction see Sayer (1998 Sayer, A. (1998). Abstraction: A realist interpretation. In M. Archer, R. Bhaskar, A. Collier, T. Lawson, & A. Norrie (Eds.), Critical realism: Essential readings (pp. 120–142). London: Routledge.
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) and Lawson (2015 Lawson, T. (2015). Abstraction and varieties of theoretical isolation in modern economics. In S. Pratten (Ed.), Social ontology and modern economics (pp. 315–337). London: Routledge.
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). For a discussion of isolation see Mäki (1992 Mäki, U. (1992). On the method of isolation in economics. Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities, 26, 319–354.
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, 2009 Mäki, U. (2009). Realistic realism about unrealistic models. In D. Ross & H. Kincaid (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of economics (pp. 68–98). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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) and Lawson (2015 Lawson, T. (2015). Abstraction and varieties of theoretical isolation in modern economics. In S. Pratten (Ed.), Social ontology and modern economics (pp. 315–337). London: Routledge.
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).
View all notes
Simplification involves the exclusion of many (literally millions of) causal mechanisms known to exist but believed to exert little or no influence on the phenomena under investigation. An analysis of job seeking, for example, might exclude job seekers’ eye colour. All models simplify, but simplification does not require systemic closure.

Abstraction involves focusing upon certain causal mechanisms without assuming the non-existence or non-influence of other mechanisms not in focus at this stage of the analysis. An analysis of job seeking, for example, might abstract from a job seeker’s gender because social class is the focus of investigation at this stage. Abstraction is complex in (at least) two ways. First, all influential causal mechanisms abstracted from at one stage, must be brought in at later stages – i.e. abstracting is not just ‘conveniently forgetting’. Second, whilst causal mechanisms included at one stage can be idealised (below), they must not be fictionalized (Fleetwood, 2016 Fleetwood, S. (2016). (Mis)understanding labour markets. In J. Murray (Ed.), Labour markets: Analysis, regulation and outcomes (pp. 1–66). New York, NY: Nova Science.
[Google Scholar]
). If this occurs, then claims, concepts, ideas, theories or conclusions drawn at an early stage might become null and void at a later stage. All models abstract, but abstraction does not require systemic closure.

Idealisation involves re-describing, re-theorising or re-conceptualising the entity under investigation. All models re-conceptualise, but not all re-conceptualisation involves the artificial creation of event regularities. Take two examples. First, we might re-conceptualise a labour supply activity non-mathematically, as ‘norm-following’ – e.g. some women follow the norm of applying only for ‘women’s jobs’. Second, we might re-conceptualise a labour supply activity in terms of a function such as h = f (w). As will become clear in Section 2.6, a model involving a functional relation is a (theoretically) closed system. Only in the second example does idealisation require systemic closure. I refer to this as idealising for closure.77. It is important not to be thrown by cases that trade on conflation. What I have referred to as isolation might, for example, be conflated with abstraction, so that isolation (for closure) becomes synonymous with abstraction (for closure).
View all notes
All models idealise, but not all models require idealisation for closure.

The most sophisticated interpretation if isolation comes from Mäki, for whom isolation involves shielding, neutralising or closing-off from the analysis, many causal mechanisms known to exist and be influential, in order to isolate the privileged or key causal mechanism. This real key causal mechanism is believed to be true and is, therefore, conceived of as the model’s truth maker. The key causal mechanism, as represented in the model, is conceived of as the truth bearer. Isolation is the process by which economists get truth into a model. This remains the case even if the model contains many known falsehoods. This is because some of the model’s components are non-privileged, not believed to be true, are non-truth bearing components. These components (e.g. axioms, assumptions, presumptions, idealisations or re-conceptualisations, commentaries) are not isolated. Nor are they idle. Their purpose is to make the process of idealisation possible. Isolation is different to simplification because the causal mechanisms that are isolated from are believed to be influential. It is different to abstraction because isolation is not complex in the two ways described above. What Mäki refers to as ‘de-isolation’, which bears some resemblance with moving from abstract levels to more concrete levels, is rejected. The concept of ‘isolation’ is currently being developed and elaborated upon so it is difficult to give a definitive evaluation. What seems clear, however, is that some economists isolate in order to create artificially closed systems. Thus, an economist might isolate in order to write a labour supply function such as h = f (w). Indeed, she might even presume that this is the model’s truth maker. A lot depends upon how a truth maker is conceived. I refer to this as isolating for closure.

All models simplify and abstract but simplification and abstraction do not necessarily require systemic closure. All models idealise, but only some require systemic closure. Some models isolate, and isolation is often done for systemic closure.
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:45:19 | 显示全部楼层
2.5. Ontology, epistemology and reality

The term ‘real’ can often be confusing. Speaking loosely, we might say ‘a labour market is real, but a model of a labour market is not real’. Confusion stems from the fact that a model is real. Elsewhere (Fleetwood 2005 Fleetwood, S. (2005). The ontology of organisation and management studies: A critical realist approach. Organisation, 12, 197–222.
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), I have divided the world into materially, artifactually, socially and ideally real. A model (or any theory or concept) is ideally real. It is less confusing to say that ‘labour markets exist in an ontological sense, or in the ontic domain, whereas a model of labour markets exists in an epistemological sense, or in the epistemic domain’.8
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:45:42 | 显示全部楼层
2.6. Events, states of affairs and their regularities

Events, and states of affairs, are occurrences, episodes or states of being, occurring in the ontic domain, and about which economists collect data – e.g. a wage rate; a change in a wage rate; having a limiting long-term illness; being female; being or becoming unemployed. They occur irrespective of their observation by economists, but if and when they are observed, recorded, quantified, counted, measured or approximated in terms of some quantity or probability, they are thought to represent these events or states of affairs as variables – continuous or discrete.99. There are, of course, many events and states of affairs that cannot be meaningfully quantified, counted, measured or approximated, although they never appear in economic models.
View all notes

Events sometimes occur in regular succession – i.e. event y may regularly follow event x – or event x’s. In these cases, event regularities, also occurring in the ontic domain, can be represented as follows:

(1)        
‘whenever event x then event y’
(2)        
‘whenever events x1, x2, x3 … xn then event y’
(3)        
‘whenever events x1, x2, x3 … xn then on average event y’
Economists rarely use the term ‘event regularities’, they sometimes refer to ‘laws’, and sometimes to ‘tendencies’, but they always use mathematical functions – e.g. y = f (x) where y is a variable representing value of event y, and x is a variable representing the value of event x. Laws and functions exist in the epistemic domain, and are re-conceptualisations of event regularities.

Lipsey, for example, notes that ‘the idea that one thing depends on another’ translates into the idea that one thing is caused by another – he should have actually said ‘regularly depends’, but I presume he means this.

The idea that one thing [regularly] depends on another is one of the basic notions behind all science … When mathematicians wish to say that one thing depends on another, they say that one is a function of the other (Lipsey, 1981 Lipsey, R. (1981). An introduction to positive economics. London: Wedenfeld & Nicholson.
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, p. 18).

The function, then, links events, their regularities, the event regularity conception of causation and its associated regularity conception of law to the use of mathematics (Fleetwood, 2001 Fleetwood, S. (2001). Causal laws, functional relations and tendencies. Review of Political Economy, 13, 201–220.10.1080/09538250120036646
[Taylor & Francis Online], [Google Scholar]
).
Economists use functions because of their conciseness. For example, S (W, N, WA) means ‘the supply of labor depends upon the wage, the population size, and the alternative wage’. (Laing, 2011 Laing, D. (2011). Labor economics: Introduction to classic and new labor economics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
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, p. 9)

(4)        
y = f (x)
(5)        
y = f (x1, x2, x3 … xn)
(6)        
y = f (x1, x2, x3 … xn + ε)
(7)        
y = βX + ε
A moment’s reflection reveals that expressions 1–3 and 4–7 are all different ways of representing event regularities, and the same goes for the following, more specific, expressions:

(8)        
S = f (W, N, WA)
(9)        
M = f (u, v)1010. M, u and v denote job matches, unemployment and vacancies.
View all notes
(10)        
h = β0 + β1w + ε 1111. h denotes hours of work and w the wage rate.
View all notes
Equation (10) is a labour supply function, and is often referred to as a law – i.e. the ‘law of labour supply’. It could also be styled ‘whenever event w then event h’. Equation (9) is a job-matching function. Whilst this could be referred to as the ‘law of labour matching’, the fact that it is not is entirely arbitrary. It could also be styled ‘whenever events u and v, then event M’. All this is simply a matter of the way terms have evolved. The point, however, is that all these expressions are all different ways of representing event regularities and are, therefore, different ways to conceptualise closed systems.
 楼主| 发表于 2017-9-11 23:46:13 | 显示全部楼层
2.7. Different forms of (ir)regularities and O&C systems

Regularities and irregularities can be conceived of in different ways. This section presents four different forms of (ir)regularties, each one being associated with open or closed systems. Moreover, it does so without resorting to any modifiers such as ‘partial’. The first two forms are not of interest to social science and I mention them to ensure that they are not confused with the second two forms of (ir)regularities.

2.7.1. A totally chaotic flux of events

Some parts of the world are characterised by a pattern-less flux of chaotic, unconnected, inchoate, irregular, spasmodic, arbitrary, haphazard, unpredictable and unexpected events – i.e. there really is no relationship between them. A system so characterised is an open system.

2.7.2. Deterministic event regularities

Some parts of the world are characterised by deterministic event regularities – e.g. those represented by Ohms Law. Few, if any, economists believe they exist in the social world and when they are mentioned, it is as a theoretical curiosum. It can be styled ‘whenever event x, then event y’ or y = f(x). A system so characterised is a closed system.

2.7.3. Demi-regs

Some parts of the world are characterised by partial, approximate, rough-and-ready regularities or patterns in the flux of events. Following Lawson (1997 Lawson, T. (1997). Economics and Reality. London: Routledge.10.4324/SE0085
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, 2003 Lawson, T. (2003). Reorienting economics. London: Routledge.
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), pp. 81–83, 105–107), I refer to these as ‘demi-regs’, and style them ‘whenever event x, then sometimes, but not always event y’ – e.g. ‘wage rates rise and sometimes, but not always, the quantity of labour supplied increases’.1212. Lawson (1997 Lawson, T. (1997). Economics and Reality. London: Routledge.10.4324/SE0085
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, pp. 206, 207) gives a list of examples.
View all notes
A system characterised by demi-regs is an open system. Demi-regs should not be confused with, nor ‘stretched into the sorts of strict conjunctions that are the provenance of closed systems’ (Lawson, 2003 Lawson, T. (2003). Reorienting economics. London: Routledge.
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, p. 83), especially the stochastic regularities discussed next. For the record, I believe that most of the social systems of interest to economists are characterised by demi-regs and are, therefore, open systems on the SCR conception.
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