Computational social science

Is it possible to elucidate complex social outcomes using computational tools? Can we overcome some of the issues for social explanation posed by the fact of heterogeneous actors and changing social environments by making use of increasingly powerful computational tools for modeling the social world? Ken Kollman, John Miller, and Scott Page make the affirmative case to this question in their 2003 volume, Computational Models in Political Economy. The book focuses on computational approaches to political economy and social choice. Their introduction provides an excellent overview of the methodological and philosophical issues that arise in computational social science.

The subject of this book, political economy, naturally lends itself to a computational methodology. Much of political economy concerns institutions that aggregate the behavior of multiple actors, such as voters, politicians, organizations, consumers, and firms. Even when the interactions within and rules of a political or economic institution tion are relatively simple, the aggregate patterns that emerge can be difficult to predict and understand, particularly when there is no equilibrium. It is even more difficult to understand overlapping and interdependent institutions…. Computational methods hold the promise of enabling scholars to integrate aspects of both political and economic institutions without compromising fundamental features of either. (kl 27)

The most interesting of the approaches that they describe is the method of agent-based models (linklink, link). They summarize the approach in these terms:

The models typically have four characteristics, or methodological primitives: agents are diverse, agents interact with each other in a decentralized manner, agents are boundedly rational and adaptive, and the resulting patterns of outcomes comes often do not settle into equilibria…. The purpose of using computer programs in this second role is to study the aggregate patterns that emerge from the “bottom up.” (kl 51)

Here is how the editors summarize the strengths of computational approaches to social science.

First, computational models are flexible in their ability to encode a wide range of behaviors and institutions. Any set of assumptions about agent behavior or institutional constraints that can be encoded can be analyzed. 

Second, as stated, computational models are rigorous in that conclusions follow from computer code that forces researchers to be explicit about assumptions. 

Third, while most mathematical models include assumptions so that an equilibrium exists, a system of interacting political actors need not settle into an equilibrium point. It can also cycle, or it can traverse an unpredictable path of outcomes. 

The great strength of computational models is their ability to uncover dynamic patterns. (kl 116)

And they offer a set of criteria of adequacy for ABM models. The model should explain the results; the researcher should check robustness; the model should build upon the past; the researcher should justify the use of the computer; and the researcher should question assumptions (kl 131).

To summarize, models should be evaluated based on their ability to give insight and understanding into old and new phenomena in the simplest way possible. Good, simple models, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma or Nash bargaining, with their ability to frame and shed light on important questions, outlast any particular tool or technique. (kl 139)

A good illustration of a computational approach to problems of political economy is the editors’ own contribution to the volume, “Political institutions and sorting in a Tiebout model”. A Tiebout configuration is a construct within public choice theory where citizens are permitted to choose among jurisdictions providing different bundles of goods.

In a Tiebout model, local jurisdictions compete for citizens by offering bundles of public goods. Citizens then sort themselves among jurisdictions according to their preferences. Charles M. Tiebout’s (1956) original hypothesis challenged Paul Samuelson’s (1954) conjecture that public goods could not be allocated efficiently. The Tiebout hypothesis has since been extended to include additional propositions. (kl 2012)

Using an agent-based model they compare different sets of political institutions at the jurisdiction level through which policy choices are made; and they find that there are unexpected outcomes at the population level that derive from differences in the institutions embodied at the jurisdiction level.

Our model departs from previous approaches in several important respects. First, with a few exceptions, our primary interest in comparing paring the performance of political institutions has been largely neglected in the Tiebout literature. A typical Tiebout model takes the political institution, usually majority rule, as constant. Here we vary institutions and measure performance, an approach more consistent with the literature on mechanism design. Second, aside from an example used to demonstrate the annealing phenomenon, we do not explicitly compare equilibria. (kl 2210)

And they find significant differences in collective behavior in different institutional settings.

ABM methodology is well suited to the kind of research problem the authors have posed here. The computational method permits intuitive illustration of the ways that individual preferences in specific settings aggregate to distinctive collective behaviors at the group level. But the approach is not so suitable to the analysis of social behavior that involves a higher degree of hierarchical coordination of individual behavior — for example, in an army, a religious institution, or a business firm. Furthermore, the advantage of abstractness in ABM formulations is also a disadvantage, in that it leads researchers to ignore some of the complexity and nuance of local circumstances of action that lead to significant differences in outcome.

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