An Epistemological Gap in Simulation Technologies and the Science of Society

An Epistemological Gap in Simulation Technologies and the Science of Society

Martin Neumann (University of Bayreuth, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-883-8.ch006
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This chapter addresses methodological issues in relation to simulation technologies, using the example of archaeological modeling. While the top-down architecture of system dynamics became popular in the 1970s, the bottom-up approach of agent-based modeling actually predominates in social simulation. This paper demonstrates that the gap in sociological theory between interactionalist and structuralist theories can be discerned in the methodological framework. The theoretical implications associated with the choice of a simulation methodology are examined by contrasting agent-based and equation-based models in detail. This example makes evident how intimately issues of methodology are interwoven with epistemological and ontological questions. However, agent-based modeling aims precisely to overcome this dichotomy with the notion of emergence. The chapter therefore concludes with an overview of requirements for a technology of emergence.
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The past decades have witnessed an expanding number of computer simulations in the social sciences. For this reason, an investigation of those theoretical assumptions discerned in simulation approaches to social sciences becomes essential to comprehending the contribution of simulation technology to social theory, as well as taking into account their positioning within the web of social sciences. While far from being adequately understood, there is a growing awareness of the specific contribution of technology to theory. Less discussed than the pros- and cons of the general methodology of simulation, however, are the theoretical implications that can already be discerned at the level of specific simulation tools. This purview forms the material of this chapter. Closer examination reveals that modeling tools are far from theoretically innocent. To this purpose, the chapter will draw on the example of so-called equation- and agent-based modeling. It will be shown that these different approaches reflect a fundamental discrepancy within social theory. Broadly speaking, these methodological tools can be related to structuralist and interactionalist social theories. However, it is precisely the promise of agent-based modeling to provide a means of overcoming this dichotomy through showing how actors produce, and are simultaneously the product of social reality (Deffuant et al., 2006). It aims to bridge the gap between structuralist and interactionalist theories. Nevertheless, it will be argued that to date a lacuna remains.

To this purpose, a specific example is investigated in more detail: archaeological modeling. The specific explanatory strength and weakness of an agent-based model of hierarchy formation is compared with a corresponding analysis of an equation-based model for the emergence of the state. The choice of these specific examples is informed, indeed, by the circumstance that humans are ecologically special with regard to the emergence of complexity in their social organization. It is, in particular, remarkable that social differentiation is a process that took place in space and time. Many (so-called) primitive societies survive without bureaucratic structures. Hence, it is exactly the emergence of the gap between structure and agency that forms the subject of archaeology. For this reason, archaeological modeling is a particular interesting case: methodological issues (of the modeling framework), epistemological issues (of sociological theories) and ontological issues (of the emergence of social structures), are intractably interwoven. The conditions that have to be formulated in order to arrive at a methodology to bridge the gap between structure and agency might therefore be expected to be especially vivid in this example.

The chapter is organized as follows. First, a broad overview of the background is provided, consisting of two parts: a brief sketch of the background of developments in modeling technology and the theoretical problem of the micro-macro link in the social sciences. The next section is also divided into two parts, the first arguing for an evolutionary perspective on the problem, the second relating findings from archaeological modeling to the problem thus-specified. Finally, a possible solution for bridging the gap will be outlined that is commonly related to the notion of emergence. Those conditions that need to be formulated for future trends in order to study social emergence using simulation models will be investigated.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Agent-Based Modelling: This simulates the simultaneous operations of multiple software agents. Agents are individual objects that behave according to a certain set of internal rules. The structure of the whole system is generated by the interactions of individual agents during the simulation run. The methodology is based on distributed artificial intelligence and cellular automata.

Structuralist Theories: This term denotes theories that explain social processes according to underlying structures that cannot be reduced to the underlying level of individual interactions. Social structure is governed by rules and laws of its own. Society is regarded as an emergent level of reality.

Top-Down: Originating in program development, top-down methodology characteristically begins with a rather abstract picture of a whole system that is then made more concrete in a stepwise fashion. This terminology is used to characterize approaches to a number of disciplines, from politics to nano-technology. Here it is used to denote sociological theory, which begins by sketching a picture of an entire society.

Interactionalist Theories: This term refers to theories that regard society as the product of individual interactions. Such theories emphasize the process character of society. Examples are symbolic interactionism, exchange theory or rational choice theory.

Bottom-Up: Originating in program development, the characteristic feature of a bottom-up methodology is to start by defining small elements of a program, such as an agent’s template. The system is than composed out of the individual elements. The terminology has been extended into a description of an approach to sociological theory that describes society through the interactions of individual agents.

Emergence: The notion of emergence is used in a variety of disciplines such as evolutionary biology, the philosophy of mind and sociology, as well as in computational and complexity theory. It is associated with non-reductive naturalism, which claims that a hierarchy of levels of reality exist. While the emergent level is constituted by the underlying level, it is nevertheless autonomous from the constituting level. As a naturalistic theory, it excludes non-natural explanations such as vitalistic forces or entelechy. As non-reductive naturalism, emergence theory claims that higher-level entities cannot be explained by lower-level entities.

Micro Macro Link: The notion of the micro-macro link is used in sociology as a general term to cover a variety of distinctions that possess in common that macro denotes entities or events on a bigger, and micro on a smaller, scale. Examples include the differentiation of structure and agency, the differentiation between the individual and the collective, and a differentiation between powerful and powerless.

System Dynamics: This studies the non-linear interaction of systems of many connected equations. The approach is based on differential equations. It describes the dynamical properties of a whole system using internal negative and positive feedback loops as well as the use of stocks and flows.

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