Computational sociology is a specialty area in sociology that has gained momentum through advances in computer technology over the past few decades. In computational sociology, techniques such as mathematical modeling, computer simulation, and agent-based modeling are used to analyze social phenomena to better understand underlying factors and predict future behavior. As opposed to most conventional statistical methods, these tools do not assume that there is an underlying linear relationship between variables. In addition, the tools of computational sociology allow researchers to investigate the complex relationships often seen in real world behavior without the limitations posed by more conventional statistical methods, ethical considerations, or practicalities of real world experimental design. As the full potential of the tools of computational sociology are increasingly explored and realized, researchers and theorists will be better able to understand, explain, and predict social behavior.
Keywords Chaos Theory; Computer Simulation; Ethics; Experiment; Hypothesis; Model; Society; Statistics; Subject; Survey; Variable
After a long day in front of the computer doing research and writing, there is little that I enjoy more than sitting in front of the computer for even more hours playing computer games. Solitaire and Soduku are fine, of course, the former improving hand-eye coordination and the latter helping reasoning processes. However, what I really enjoy is a good role playing game or simulation. I have happily chased electronic dwarfs down labyrinthine corridors in dark caves for hours, searching for a golden plover's egg. I have built cities and refought ancient battles, putting in different parameters just to see their effects on societal stability or battle outcomes, all from the comfort of my desk chair. I play these games for fun, of course, and although they feed my curiosity, they have little to do with my own areas of scientific inquiry.
Social scientists use similar tools to explore the effects of different variables and parameters on society. This application of mathematical modeling and computer simulation to the analysis of real world social phenomena is called computational sociology.
Traditional statistical methods can be very useful for analyzing data and interpreting real world phenomena. However, like all tools, they have their limitations. Most conventional statistics that are used to analyze experimental data assume that there is a linear relationship between variables and that the effect on the dependent variable is proportional to the changes in the independent variable(s). However, life is infinitely complex, and it cannot be assumed that there is a linear relationship between real world variables. For example, if one were studying the relationship between certain kinds of stimuli and how these affected the anger response of a subject, it might be assumed that the more irritating stimuli to which the subject was exposed, the more s/he would exhibit symptoms of anger. However, although this linear assumption might be true for some people, many people are able to control their anger — and all its symptoms — until a certain threshold is reached, at which point they display their anger. This nonlinear hypothesis would be more difficult to test using conventional statistical methods and it can be difficult to articulate a set of equations that can be used to predict the characteristics of people's responses to anger stimuli (or other system).
The field of computational sociology came into being in the closing decades of the twentieth century. This field of endeavor, including the tools of computer simulation and mathematical modeling, has great potential for helping social scientists better understand and predict social processes. One of the most frequently used tools of computational sociology is computer simulation. This is a particular type of modeling. Computer simulations do not make assumptions about the linear relationship between variables. Computer simulations are representations of real world conditions using a computer program to develop a mathematical model that imitates the internal processes of a situation as well as the end results. The situations modeled in computer simulations tend to be complex in nature. In the social sciences, computer simulations are used to analyze social phenomena in order to better understand and predict behavior in society. They can be very helpful in understanding social behavior because it is often difficult or impossible to manipulate variables in real world situations in order to see what the result is.
Professional ethics for working with human subjects requires that the researcher first does no harm to the subjects either physically or psychologically. However, the manipulation of variables related to the questions that many sociologists are interested in often brings with it the potential for harming the subject. For example, although one could easily develop a controlled research paradigm to investigate factors relating to an individual's successful readjustment after the death of a spouse or the coping mechanisms of different kinds of adults to abuse as a child, it would be highly unethical (as well as illegal) to manipulate the variable of whether or not one's spouse dies or whether or not one experiences child abuse. Social scientists, therefore, often perform hypothetical experiments using computer simulations in which they manipulate the value of variables in a mathematical model of a real world situation in order to observe the effect on the results.
Computer simulation frequently uses chaos theory to examine how complex behavior can result from relatively simple activities and antecedents. Chaos theory is a variation of nonlinear systems theory used in modeling for the physical, life, and social sciences. Chaos theory attempts to explain such things as how small changes may result in unexpectedly large consequences or why multiple patterns of social behavior may share general tendencies yet not have the same result. Computer simulations — just like mathematical models — use variables related to a theoretical model of the real world.
Examples of Computer Simulations in Computational Sociology
Scientists manipulate the values of variables in order to examine the effects of these changes on the results. Gilbert and Troitzsch (2005) offer a simple example of the use of simulation in the social sciences. This example is based on the way that different people choose a marriage partner. One way to approach this problem is for one to continue to date and look for a mate until one is found that meets all of the individual's ideal characteristics. Other people, however, only participate in dating behavior until they find someone who is "good enough." To better understand individuals' mate-searching behavior, the individual interviewed them or asked them to complete a survey instrument. However, such an approach is unlikely to be successful because most people do not have a conscious strategy for dating, may not be able to articulate the strategy if they do have one, or be unwilling to share that strategy with a stranger.
Therefore, a social scientist might develop a computer simulation that includes plausible assumptions regarding how various individuals choose mates. This computer model could be used as a tool to aid in the development of the theory concerning the ways in which individuals choose their mates. Because a computer program is more precise than a written description, it allows easier and more controlled manipulation of variables so that the theory can't be refined. Once the theory has been formalized into a computer program, it can be run in order to observe how the simulation behaves. For example, the research in this study could develop a population of simulated suitors, each of which could be assigned a suitability score at random. This simulated individual looking for a mate (referred to as the "agent") could "date" the potential suitors in random order. After each simulated date, the agent would make a decision as to whether or not to break up or settle down with the simulated suitor. As in real life, each decision would be made without knowing the...
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