How resilient are our societies to internal and external shocks? Can we model and forecast the dynamics of social resilience and its opposite, social breakdown? A major research challenge in answering this question is that growing socio-political instability results from multiple interacting factors: economic, political, and cultural. Previous work on this important issue has been conducted largely by political theorists, policy analysts, sociologists, historians, and computational modelers who worked in isolation from each other with focused, domain-specific data sources [for a recent review, see 1]. Separately, they all offer intriguing insights and have produced important discoveries, but ultimately each can provide only one piece of the puzzle. Structural-demographic theory (SDT) offers a more wholistic framework for investigating such multiple interacting forces that shape long-term social pressures that lead to revolutions, civil wars, and other major outbreaks of socio-political instability. Furthermore, SDT can be, and has been formulated as an explicit computational model capable of forecasting future quantitative dynamics of social unrest and political violence in specific social systems. In this article we provide an assessment for a SDT forecast made ten years ago about the United States and Western Europe .
Structural-demographic theory (SDT) was proposed by Jack Goldstone [3, 4] and further developed and tested by an international crew of investigators, including Nefedov [5, 6], Turchin [7–10], Turchin and Nefedov , Korotayev et al. [12, 13]. The SDT proposes that the causes of revolutions and major rebellions are in many ways similar to processes that cause earthquakes . In both revolutions and earthquakes it is useful to distinguish “pressures” (structural conditions, which build up slowly) from “triggers” (sudden releasing events, which immediately precede a social or geological eruption).
Specific triggers of political upheavals are difficult, perhaps even impossible to predict. On the other hand, structural pressures build up slowly and more predictably, and are amenable to analysis and forecasting. Furthermore, many triggering events themselves are ultimately caused by pent-up social pressures that seek an outlet—in other words, by the structural factors. The main focus of SDT (as the name implies) is on the structural pressures undermining social resilience. The theory represents complex human societies as systems with three main compartments (the general population, the elites, and the state) interacting with each other and with socio-political instability via a web of nonlinear feedbacks (Fig 1). The focus on only these four structural components is not quite as great oversimplification as it may appear, because each component has a number of attributes that change dynamically in response to changes in other structural-demographic variables [see 9, 10].
In 2010 one of us (PT) used the SDT to make the following forecast: “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe” . This forecast was not simply a projection of the current trend in social instability into the future. As we shall see below (Results), social instability in major Western countries had been, in fact, declining prior to 2010. Rather, the basis for this forecast was a quantitative model that took as inputs the major SD drivers for instability (immiseration, intraelite competition, and state (in)capacity) and translated them into the Political Stress Indicator (PSI), which is strongly correlated with socio-political instability [3, 9]. The rising curve of the calculated PSI, then, suggests a growing future socio-political instability.
SDT is a general theory that guides our understanding of political violence dynamics and social breakdown in all large-scale state-level societies. However, there are sufficient institutional and other differences between different states.
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