Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Daniel LiIttle — Actor-centered sociology and agent-based models

Actor-centered sociology (ACS) begins in the intuition that social processes begin in the interactions of socially constructed individuals, and it takes seriously the idea that actors have complex and socially inflected mental schemes of action and representation. So actor-centered sociologists are keen not to over-simplify the persons who constitute the social domain of interest. And this means that they are generally not content with sparse abstract schemata of actors like those proposed by most versions of rational choice theory.

Agent-based modeling (ABM) is a collection of aggregative techniques aimed at working out the aggregate consequences of the hypothetical choices of a number of individuals interacting in a series of social environments. ABM models generally represent the actors' motivations and decision rules very abstractly -- sometimes as economic actors, sometimes as local optimizers, sometimes as heuristically driven decision makers. An ABM model may postulate several groups of actors whose decision rules are different -- predators and prey, landlords and tenants, bandits and generals. The goal is to embody a set of behavioral assumptions at the actor level and then to aggregate the results of the actions and interactions of these actors at a macro level. (Stephen Railsback's Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction provides an accessible introduction.)
My question here is a focused one: do these apparently similar approaches to explaining social outcomes actually have as much in common as they appear to at first glance? And the answer I'll suggest is -- not yet, and not enough.
Understanding Society
Actor-centered sociology and agent-based models
Daniel Little | Chancellor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Professor of Philosophy

Cuts to the quick about what's wrong with rational choice modeling. Hint: it's too simplistic to be representational.

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