Université de Strasbourg

Alan Kirman


Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Aix-Marseille, the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) & USIAS Fellow at the Bureau of Theoretical and Applied Economics (BETA), University of Strasbourg

Alan Kirman, USIAS Fellow 2017

Alan Kirman obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton and he has been professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Warwick University, and the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He was elected a fellow of the Econometric Society and of the European Economic Association and was awarded the Humboldt Prize in Germany. He is member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was elected as a foreign member of the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, the oldest academy in the world, this year. 

He has published 150 articles in international scientific journals and on the editorial board of several international journals. He also is the author and editor of fifteen books, most recently Complex Economics: Individual and Collective Rationality, which was published by Routledge in July 2010 and Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics edited with David S. Wilson published by MIT Press in 2016. 

His original interests focused mainly on theoretical economics and in particular general equilibrium theory and game theory. However, as the problems with the foundations of modern theoretical economics have become clearer his interests have turned to looking at the empirical evidence as to how the economy in general and some markets in particular function. He has become increasingly involved in modelling the economy and markets as complex adaptive systems in which aggregate behaviour emerges from the interaction between rather simple economic agents with limited knowledge. Economic actors are perhaps closer to ants than to homo oeconomicus.

Project - The Complex Origins of our Economic and Social Problems

May 2017 - April 2019

This project will develop an approach to economic and social systems based on complexity analysis. A major part of it will deal with an approach to economics which does not assume that the economy will self organise into a satisfactory state. Economies and social systems in general are not always in equilibrium in any standard sense but are systems, which evolve and adapt over time and periodically passes from crisis to periods of stasis without any external shocks. Aggregate behaviour emerges and develops from the interaction between participants in these systems. This view of such systems integrates considerations from physics, biology, sociology and psychology.

What sort of alternative to standard economic models can be built if we follow this approach? We should see the development of the idea of a society or an economy as a complex system. Simple individuals acting in what they see to be their own interest and influencing and being influenced by others can generate very complicated and unpredictable aggregate phenomena. Collectively the individuals may be able to get more done than they can achieve alone. We can take lessons from social insects, and “Swarm intelligence”. Nobody would try to understand the organisation of an ant-hill by looking at the "representative ant".

The important lesson is that aggregate behaviour is emergent and such emergence may yield results which are far from what we might have expected when looking at the individuals and their behaviour. As soon as we start to consider situations in which individuals interact directly with each other and the results of their interaction feed back into the system, the evolution of that system may display quite unstable behaviour. We will consider two examples of such systems.

The USIAS project will focus on two important examples of questions that standard economics is currently trying to address unsuccessfully. The two problems are amongst the most important of our times: the problem of achieving racial equality and that of understanding how man adapts to or fails to adapt to climatic change. We will show that the complexity theory approach can help to reunite disciplinary fields which have important insights to offer but have become antagonistic or out of reach.

This research will result in a book for which a contract has been signed with Princeton University Press. My stay at USIAS will be devoted to this book, to meeting and discussing with scholars from other disciplines and to working in particular on the two specific but very different examples of complex social systems.

Investissements d'Avenir