ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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Modelling and Acting - the problem of social agency.

David Sidney Byrne

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 11 - Law Building, Room 107
Date: 2012-07-10 03:30 PM – 05:00 PM
Last modified: 2011-12-22


: The Philosophers have merely described the world. The point, however, is to change it. (Marx Thesis XI on Feuerbach).
: Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. (Marx 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)
: It is somewhat disquieting to realize that the model we are going to build will contain the behaviour of actors, which will depend in turn on the models available to them, including this one. That is why the aim of these models is not predicting the future. It is to help understand the past and the present and the mechanisms that underlie them, and to explore possible futures so that they can be discussed and evaluated more clearly. The initial use of such models would be to help set the agendas of the different actors: what would be a good or bad thing and for whom. (Peter Allen Cities and Regions as Self-Organizing Systems – models of complexity 1997 178)
Useful models are at best retroductive. That is, to use Peter’s very clear expression, they are ways of understanding the past and the present and the mechanisms that underlie them. Or rather some models are like that – models which are actually calibrated by reference to real data. Models which are not so calibrated are purely imaginary exercises which have no way of establishing isomorphism with reality at all. Even calibrated models of the form described by Hedstrom (2005 Dissecting the Social) which use agent based approaches to project forward lose their connection with reality once they move beyond the ‘now’ – and in any event given that such models have no capacity for dealing with the reality of social structures and merely replicate the constant micro fallacy of individualist social science – that the social derives only from the present interactions of human agents, then their very foundation is fundamentally flawed. This paper will develop the implications of thinking about the relationship between agency and modelling – about how we can actually use ‘models’ of a useful form, which certainly include quantitative models capable of including macro and meso social structure, but also include qualitative models of a very different kind, as a basis for applying social science in social intervention.