There is a seductive appeal to the idea of a "generative social science". Joshua Epstein is one of the main proponents of the idea, most especially in his book, Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling. The central tool of generative social science is the construction of an agent-based model (link). The ABM is said to demonstrate the way in which an observable social outcome of pattern is generated by the properties and activities of the component parts that make it up -- the actors. The appeal comes from the notion that it is possible to show how complicated or complex outcomes are generated by the properties of the components that make them up. Fix the properties of the components, and you can derive the properties of the composites. Here is Epstein's capsule summary of the approach:
The agent-based computational model -- or artificial society -- is a new scientific instrument. It can powerfully advance a distinctive approach to social science, one for which the term "generative" seems appropriate. I will discuss this term more fully below, but in a strong form, the central idea is this: To the generativist, explaining the emergence of macroscopic societal regularities, such as norms or price equilibria, requires that one answer the following question:
The Generativist's Question
*How could the decentralized local interactions of heterogeneous autonomous agents generate the given regularity?
The agent-based computational model is well-suited to the study of this question, since the following features are characteristic: [heterogeneity, autonomy, explicit space, local interactions, bounded rationality] (5-6)And a few pages later:
Agent-based models provide computational demonstrations that a given microspecification is in fact sufficient to generate a macrostructure of interest. . . . To the generativist -- concerned with formation dynamics -- it does not suffice to establish that, if deposited in some macroconfiguration, the system will stay there. Rather, the generativist wants an account of the configuration's attainment by a decentralized system of heterogeneous autonomous agents. Thus, the motto of generative social science, if you will, is: If you didn't grow it, you didn't explain its emergence. (8)Here is how Epstein describes the logic of one of the most extensive examples of generative social science, the attempt to understand the disappearance of Anasazi population in the American Southwest nearly 800 years ago.
The logic of the exercise has been, first, to digitize the true history -- we can now watch it unfold on a digitized map of Longhouse Valley. This data set (what really happened) is the target -- the explanandum. The aim is to develop, in collaboration with anthropologists, microspecifications -- ethnographically plausible rules of agent behavior -- that will generate the true history. The computational challenge, in other words, is to place artificial Anasazi where the true ones were in 80-0 AD and see if -- under the postulated rules -- the simulated evolution matches the true one. Is the microspecification empirically adequate, to use van Fraassen's phrase? (13)Here is a short video summarizing the ABM developed under these assumptions:
The artificial Anasazi experiment is an interesting one, and one to which the constraints of an agent-based model are particularly well suited. The model follows residence location decision-making based on ground-map environmental information.
But this does not imply that the generativist interpretation is equally applicable as a general approach to explaining important social phenomena.
Note first how restrictive the assumption is of "decentralized local interactions" as a foundation to the model. A large proportion of social activity is neither decentralized nor purely local: the search for muons in an accelerator lab, the advance of an armored division into contested territory, the audit of a large corporation, preparations for a strike by the UAW, the coordination of voices in a large choir, and so on, indefinitely. In all these examples and many more, a crucial part of the collective behavior of the actors is the coordination that occurs through some centralized process -- a command structure, a division of labor, a supervisory system. And by its design, ABMs appear to be incapable of representing these kinds of non-local coordination.
Second, all these simulation models proceed from highly stylized and abstract modeling assumptions. And the outcomes they describe capture at best some suggestive patterns that might be said to be partially descriptive of the outcomes we are interested in. Abstraction is inevitable in any scientific work, of course; but once recognizing that fact, we must abandon the idea that the model demonstrates the "generation" of the empirical phenomenon. Neither premises nor conclusions are fully descriptive of concrete reality; both are approximations and abstractions. And it would be fundamentally implausible to maintain that the modeling assumptions capture all the factors that are causally relevant to the situation. Instead, they represent a particular stylized hypothesis about a few of the causes of the situation in question. Further, we have good reason to believe that introducing more details at the ground level will sometimes lead to significant alteration of the system-level properties that are generated.
So the idea that an agent-based model of civil unrest could demonstrate that (or how) civil unrest is generated by the states of discontent and fear experienced by various actors is fundamentally ill-conceived. If the unrest is generated by anything, it is generated by the full set of causal and dynamic properties of the set of actors -- not the abstract stylized list of properties. And other posts have made the point that civil unrest or rebellion is rarely purely local in its origin; rather, there are important coordinating non-local structures (organizations) that influence mobilization and spread of rebellious collective action. Further, the fact that the ABM "generates" some macro characteristics that may seem empirically similar to the observed phenomenon is suggestive, but far from a demonstration that the model characteristics suffice to determine some aspect of the macro phenomenon. Finally, the assumption of decentralized and local decision-making is unfounded for civil unrest, given the important role that collective actors and organizations play in the success or failure of social mobilizations around grievances (link).
The point here is not that the generativist approach is invalid as a way of exploring one particular set of social dynamics (the logic of decentralized local decision-makers with assigned behavioral rules). On the contrary, this approach does indeed provide valuable insights into some social processes. The error is one of over-generalization -- imagining that this approach will suffice to serve as a basis for analysis of all social phenomena. In a way the critique here is exactly parallel to that which I posed to analytical sociology in an earlier post. In both cases the problem is one of asserting priority for one specific approach to social explanation over a number of other equally important but non-equivalent approaches.
Patrick Grim et al provide an interesting approach to the epistemics of models and simulations in "How simulations fail" (link). Grim and his colleagues emphasize the heuristic and exploratory role that simulations generally play in probing the dynamics of various kinds of social phenomena.