posted August 10, 2011

Hope Mathematicians Find Pattern in “Arab Spring”

Mathematical researchers at Hope College aren’t suggesting that they’ve found a formula for revolutionary success, but in studying the events of the “Arab Spring” they have developed a model that shows what happens when societies reach the tipping point.

Based on the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the faculty-student research team assigned values to a range of variables, such as the use of social media like Facebook, the degree of corruption and unemployment, how authoritarian the response to unrest, and the role of the military. They then reflected on how the data related, crafting a differential equation that sets total power as a constant and weighs how changes among the populace and the leadership can shift control from one to the other.

Hope mathematics professor Dr. Timothy Pennings developed the research idea as he noticed several characteristics common to the uprisings, a pattern that he thought could be modeled and evaluated using techniques from his discipline.

“Oppressed populations organize rallies using Facebook and other modern communications to wrestle power away from the rulers, and the dictators counter either with intimidating force or by acquiescing to the demands in order to retain control. What is the best strategy for each? Can compromises and shared power result, or is it a ‘zero-one game’ of winner take all?” said Pennings, who did the research with Hope junior Morgan Smith and Baylor University junior Syd Condie.

After identifying significant variables, they determined how those variables related to one another in a formula, and setting numeric values to them. The team based some of the variables on its analysis of the uprisings; others came from sources such as the World Bank and Transparency International.

As they ran the resulting equation through a computer, and as they compared the uprisings with the conditions of stability which preceded them, the researchers found a variety of ways in which circumstances and choices made a major difference in the outcome.

Equilibrium, they noted, was fragile, as exemplified by the experience in Tunisia in December, when a protestor’s self-immolation set off the revolt. “If you move just a little off that stable point, you’re going to see a dramatic shift in power,” Smith said.

The team was also struck by the ability to measure the powerful role played on the people’s behalf by Facebook, social media in general and cell phones. “The model showed that social media gives the people a significant new advantage,” Pennings said. “It’s easy to oppress 50 people when they show up in a square to protest, but not 5,000 or 20,000.”

Their calculation of power also suggests that leaders would do well to consider carefully before responding. The formula reflects that a military reaction directed by the leader can offset the people’s increase of power—but so, too, the researchers found, can reducing the unrest by addressing the people’s concerns. “The model indicates that the ruler may retain more power by giving in to the people’s demands than by trying to fight it,” Pennings said.

Condie and Smith presented the team’s results as “The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back: Modeling Power Dynamics of The Arab Spring” during the “Summer Undergraduate Michigan Mathematics Research” (SUMMR) Conference held at Hope on Monday, July 25. The conference was attended by approximately 70 researchers from Hope, Central Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Michigan State University who, like Pennings, Condie and Smith, conducted research this summer supported in part by the National Science Foundation’s “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” (REU) program. The Hope team is also preparing a paper to submit for potential publication.

Pennings noted that the research is a work in progress—the team recognizes that more variables could be added, such as the impact of religion, state-run communication or the influence of previous revolutions in sparking others. “It’s a foundation on which other people can build,” he said.

He also admitted that unlike planetary motion that can be reliably determined for thousands of years, or even weather that can be predicted fairly accurately for a week, human behavior is complicated and complex—as any economist knows.

What then is gained from such a model? “It shows how the disciplines are interwoven,” Pennings said. “In this case mathematics is being used to provide glimpses into the world of politics.”