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How social simulation could help social science deal with context

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An invited plenary at Social Simluation 2018, Stockholm.

This points out how context-sensitivity is fundamental to much human social behaviour, but largely bypassed or ignored in social science. I more formal social science, it is usual to assume or fit universal models, even if this covers a lot of different contexts. In qualitative social science context is almost deified, and any generalisation across contexts is passed on to those that learn from it. Agent-based modelling allows for context-sensitive models to be developed and hence the role of context explored and better understood. The talk discussed a framework for analysing narrative text using the Context-Scope-Narrative-Elements (CSNE) framework. It also illustrates a cognitive model that allows for context-dependent knowledge to be implemented wthin an agent in a simulation. The talk ends with a plea to avoid uncecessary or premature summarisation (using averages etc.).

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How social simulation could help social science deal with context

  1. 1. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 1 How social simulation could help social science deal with context Bruce Edmonds Centre for Policy Modelling Manchester Metropolitan University
  2. 2. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 2 …but first an Advertisement!
  3. 3. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 3 Talk Outline 1. Some personal motivation 2. Talking about “Context” 3. How Social Science effectively avoids dealing with context 4. Approaching context from narrative accounts 5. Implementing context-sensitive behaviour in social simulation 6. Concluding Discussion
  4. 4. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 4 Some personal motivation Part 1:
  5. 5. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 5 The Complexity of Vision • Although easy to do, vision is very complex • Done using processes that we are not aware of • E.g. we are not (usually) aware of shifting focus
  6. 6. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 6 The Complexity of Thought • Although easy to do, thought is very complex • Done using some processes that we are not aware of • E.g. we are not (usually) aware of shifting context
  7. 7. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 7 Talking about “Context” Part 2:
  8. 8. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 8 The Difficulty of Talking about Context • The word “context” is used in many different senses across different fields • Somewhat of a “dustbin” concept resorted to when more immediate explanations fail (like the other “c-words”: complexity & creativity) • Problematic to talk about, as it is not clear that “contexts” are usually identifiably distinct • Mentioning “context” is often a signal for a more “humanities oriented” or “participatory/involved” approach and hence resisted by “scientists” who are seeking general laws
  9. 9. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 9 A (simplistic) illustration of context from the point of view of an actor
  10. 10. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 10 Situational Context • The situation in which an event takes place • This is indefinitely extensive, it could include anything relevant or coincident • The time and place specify it, but relevant details might not be retrievable from this • It is almost universal to abstract to what is relevant about these to a recognised type when communicating about this • Thus the question “What was the context?” often effectively means “What about the situation do I need to know to understand?
  11. 11. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 11 Cognitive Context (CC) • Many aspects of human cognition are context- dependent, including: memory, visual perception, choice making, reasoning, emotion, and language • The brain somehow deals with situational context effectively, abstracting kinds of situations so relevant information can be easily and preferentially accessed • The relevant correlate of the situational context will be called the cognitive context • It is not known how the brain does this, and probably does this in a rich and complex way that might prevent easy labeling/reification of contexts
  12. 12. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 12 Social Context • Since humans are fundamentally social beings… • …social context is often most important • e.g. an interview, a party or a lecture • But social context may be co-determined, since: – Special rules, norms, habits, terms, dress will be developed for particular social contexts – The presence of special features, rules etc. make the social context recognisable distinct • Over time social contexts plus their features become entrenched and passed down • Social Context arises and is so recognisable as a result of cognitive and external features (e.g. building a lecture hall)
  13. 13. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 13 How Social Science effectively avoids dealing with context Part 3:
  14. 14. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 14 Why context is unavoidable • Many aspects of human cognition are known to be highly context-sensitive, including: memory, preferences, language, visual perception, reasoning and emotion • There is much qualitative research that has documented instances where a specific context is essential to understanding observed behaviour • Simple observation and introspection tells us that behaviour in different kinds of situation is not only different but decided on in different ways (e.g. in a lecture and a football game)
  15. 15. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 15 However despite this, in quantitative social science…. • Almost all formal models of human behaviour (mathematical, logical or computational) are generic – they do not exhibit this sharp context- dependency • Another stream of models (models fitted to or tested against data) consider a single model (at a time) against a set of data that derives from many different contexts – only interested in what behaviour is “context independent” • This seems to me to be a case of massive “wishful thinking”
  16. 16. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 16 Context-Dependency and Randomness Lots of information lost if randomness used to “model” contextual variation
  17. 17. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 17 Qualitative research… • Does take context seriously, but has (largely) often limits iteself to description within specific contexts • Knowledge is only useful if it is to some extent applicable in a new situation (even if only slightly new) • Analogical reasoning can project knowledge from one context upon another, and this can give insights (interesting hypotheses) but not reliable knowledge • This kind of research often avoids responsibility for the application of knowledge gained from its studies (necessarily in a different situation to where it was observed) whilst implying it is somehow useful
  18. 18. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 18 Context in the Social Sciences – the elephant in the room To summarise: • We have one set of researchers who are ignoring context, optimistically hoping to find general patterns even though they must know context must be crucial in many cases • Another set of researchers refuse to look at what is general across contexts or how contexts might systematically affect behaviour • Few are seriously trying to study social context itself – how it works, what regularities there are, how to identify it, how to model its impact, when we can generalise across a set of contexts Social context is central to human behaviour but effectively not researched much
  19. 19. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 19 Some ways forward • Keeping the data and simply NOT summarising it (at least not prematurely) • Data mining local patterns to detect commonality of multiple models/measurements across similar contexts • More complex simulation models with context-dependent cognitive models • Context-oriented microsimulation models • Context-sensitive visualisation techniques • Integrating personal/anecdotal accounts of behaviour – making use of qualitative evidence with its context • Not leaving the context(s) – understanding and acting within the sphere of a shared context • Staging abstraction more gradually • Clusters of related models covering different contexts 1 2 3
  20. 20. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 20 Approaching context from qualitative narratives Part 4:
  21. 21. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 21 Integrating Aspects of Qualitative Evidence into ABMs • Identifying kinds of context (those over which we might expect some regularity in terms of shared norms, expectations etc.) might allow suggestions from qualitative evidence to be incorporated into agent-based models • For example by providing the repertoire of possible strategies in the context which are decided between • This could greatly enrich agent-based models allowing in some of the social “mess” we observe • However this requires new methods to analyse narrative evidence in a context-depenent manner
  22. 22. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 22 Identifying the ‘right’ contexts • It is hard since people assume context, it is usually left implicit, indeed people are often not aware of the context they are assuming • However… – Socially entrenched contexts can be identified – When giving examples (could you imagine doing that in situation X) people are relatively good at recognising when the context is wrong – Our intuitions are a good starting point, as long as we are aware they might be wrong • No well-developed methods – this needs further research
  23. 23. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 23 Different Aspects Illustrated Universe of Knowledge Knowledge indicated by current cognitive context Knowledge that is possible to apply given circumstances Cause1 & Cause2…  Result1 & Result2… Event1, event2, etc.
  24. 24. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 24 CSNE Analysis Framework 1. Context: the kind of situation one is in that determines the ‘bundle’ of knowledge that is relevant to that kind of situation 2. Scope: what is and is not possible given the current situation and observations 3. Narrative Elements: the narrative elements that are mentioned assuming the context and scope
  25. 25. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 25 About Scope • By “scope” I mean the reasoning as to which knowledge is possible given the circumstances • For example, if all the seats are taken in a lecture, then some of the norms, habits and patterns as to where one sits might not apply • Reasoning about scope can be complex and is done consciously • However once judgments about scope are made then they tend to be assumed (i.e. are fixed), unless the situation changes critically
  26. 26. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 26 Scope vs. Cognitive Context • Both scope and cognitive context determine which knowledge is useful for any particular situation that is encountered • However, they play different roles: – CC is learnt using pattern recognition over a long time, but then is largely a ‘given’, is almost impossible to change when learnt, is quick and automatic and is socially rooted – Scope is largely reasoned afresh each time, taking effort to do so, is possible to re-evaluate but only if needed, and is more individually oriented
  27. 27. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 27 Narrative Elements A variety of narrative structure elements are possible, including: – Causal stories: A … resulted in … B – Sequences: A … then … B … then C – Choices: had to choose between … A and B – End points: which resulted in A which was a disaster/really good/… – Parallelism: A … happens at the same time as ….B Some possible structures for these suggested by: (Abell 1992) or (Toulmin 2003)
  28. 28. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 28 Narrative Text Identifying Contexts Identifying Scope Identifying Narrative Elements Micro-Level Specification for Agent Behaviour Agent Program Code Using an CSNE analysis in ABM
  29. 29. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 29 Some Example Analyses using narrative examples from: Bhawani, S. (2004) Adaptive Knowledge Dynamics and Emergent Artificial Societies: Ethnographically Based Multi-Agent Simulations of Behavioural Adaptation in Agro-Climatic Systems. Doctoral Thesis, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. (thesis linked from ‘Relevant Papers’ at http://cfpm.org/qual2rule)
  30. 30. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 30 Hypotheses about relevant contexts for the interviewed stakeholder Different perspectives from which the narratives seem to be told: • “survival” – things are continually getting worse and the primary goal is to keep in farming, battle against nature etc. to avoid bankrupcy • “comfort” – conditions are comfortable with no immediate survival threat, one could stop worrying so much and take things a little easy • “entrepreneur” – one is looking for big profit, taking risks if necessary
  31. 31. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 31 Survival ComfortStart Entrepreneur Conditions Stable and ensuring no foreseeable threat An opportunity arises to make more money Opportunity disappears Existential threat becomes feasible An illustration of the relevant cognitive contexts
  32. 32. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 32 Quote 1 (p. 113) and CSNE Analysis “The one conundrum here is that there are more people in the East who want to … upgrade to more wheat allied products, that may alter the value of the end product to us. You see the worst thing that has happened to us worldwide is the collapse of the Eastern economy... but it is coming back again now and that actually may help us again. It is a great shame because we were getting into the Eastern markets and it was beginning to grow and suddenly it collapsed.”
  33. 33. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 33 Quote 2 (p. 127) and CSNE Analysis “…we have often had this conversation around this table. Some people don't want to maximize profit.... They are happier to take a slightly easier, lower level approach and have an easier life, and not make quite so much money.... And I can relate to that... But because I'm a tenant I don't own my own land... Everything we farm is rented and therefore we have an immediate cost, the first cost we meet is to our landlord and that tends to go up.”
  34. 34. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 34 Narrative Text Identifying Contexts Identifying Scope Identifying Narrative Elements Agent context structure What agent reasoning about scope occurs Specification of sequences, plans, branches Agent context recognition and retrieval rules Reasoning rules about scope Specific code for narrative elements Micro-level specification Agent architecture structuring program code
  35. 35. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 35 Implementing Context-Sensitive Agents in Social Simulations Part 5:
  36. 36. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 36 Ignoring Context • Some social simulation simple ignores that their agents are making decisions in different contexts and hopes that does not change outcomes much • Other modelling is conceived to represent within a single context, in which case it can be ignored but only if – everyone is using the same idea of this context – there is no significant “leakage” of causation from outside the background, that is the scope is wide enough to include all significant influencing factors – The actors/organisms don’t deal with the same situation as different cognitive contexts
  37. 37. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 37 Some Simulation Work addressing Context-Dependency in Cognition • (Schlosser & al 2005) argue that reputation is context dependent • (Edmonds & Norling 2007) looks at difference that context-dependent learning and reasoning in an artificial stock market • (Andrighetto & al 2008) show context-dependent learning of norms is different form a generic method • (Tykhonov & al 2008) argue that trust is context dependent • (Fieldhouse & al 2016) have different social networks and behaviours for some different contexts
  38. 38. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 38 Comparison in an Artificial Stock Market Environment: • Traders (n context, n straight GP) • 1 Market maker: prices and deals: 5 stocks • Traders buy and sell shares at current market price, but do not have to do so • Traders have memories, can observe actions of others, index, etc. • Modelling ‘arms-race’ • Actions change environment
  39. 39. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 39 Basic Cognitive Model • Rich, automatic, imprecise, messy cognitive context recognition using many inputs (including maybe internal ones) • Crisp, costly, conscious, explicit cognitive processes using material indicated by cognitive context Context Recognition Context-Structured Memory Reasoning/plan ning/belief revision/etc.
  40. 40. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 40 Example – models in the cognition of a trading agent 700 750 800 850 900 950 750 850 950 Volume - past 5 periods Volatility-past5periods
  41. 41. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 41 The model contents in snapshot of one trader model-256 priceLastWeek [stock-4] model-274 priceLastWeek [stock-5] model-271 doneByLast [normTrader-5] [stock-4] model-273 IDidLastTime [stock-2] model-276 IDidLastTime [stock-5] model-399 minus [divide [priceLastWeek [stock-2]] [priceLastWeek [stock-5]]] [times [priceLastWeek [stock-4]] [priceNow [stock-5]]]
  42. 42. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 42 0 5000 10000 15000 20000 25000 30000 0 100 200 300 400 500 Time TotalValueofAssetsTotal Assets in a Typical Run Black=context, White= non-context
  43. 43. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 43 Implications for Simulation Modelling • Simulations which represent agents, that in the real world would be acting with respect to different contexts but who are represented with an essentially uniform behaviour need to justify this • Social simulation might be missing a class of phenomena that is essentially context-dependent – How social contexts emerge – Cross-cultural interaction where different contexts assumed • Context-dependent cognitive models in simulations are feasible but are more work
  44. 44. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 44 Concluding Discussion Part 6:
  45. 45. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 45 What is Essential to (empirical) Science? • Validity: agreement (in some way) of models to what we observe, not science otherwise • Formality: formal models (maths, simulation, etc.) are precise and replicable – essential to being able to build knowledge within a community of researchers • Simplicity: ability to analyse/understand our models, nice to have but unattainable in general • Generality: the extent of the applicability of a single model (i.e. its scope), there needs to be some small generality to apply models in places other than where developed, but wide generality not necessary This talk has suggested the following trade-off: reducing the generality of each behaviour, and tolerating complexity to achieve more validity in the face of complexity
  46. 46. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 46 Context-Dependency and “Being Scientific” • If the relevant context can be reliably identified then context-dependency is not the same as subjectivity (even if there are a some hard cases that escape definition) • Generality is nice if you can get it, but its no good pretending to have it if it is inaccessible • Science should adapt to what it wishes to understand, not the other way around • Useful, validated models of context-dependent phenomena are more scientific since they reflect more of what is actually happening, not less
  47. 47. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 47 Don’t Prematurely Summarise! • Traditionally Science has summarised its data and conclusions using averages, linear regression models, aggregate graphs, etc. etc. • …and thus has missed some of the complexity, the fundamental variety and context-dependency of social phenomena • We no longer have to do this! • Agent-based modelling (along with other advances, such as the ability to store lots of original data etc.) means we can preserve, model and explore this richness
  48. 48. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 48 Conclusions • Social science has largely ignored or by-passed social context • …not becuase it is not important – it is central to many social phenomena • ...but becuase it is hard to deal with using simplistic models • ...and because context-dependency has been associated with subjectivity and not scientific • Social simulation has the tools to address these problems, and could thus allow it to take a central role in the social sciences
  49. 49. How social simulation could help social science deal with context, Bruce Edmonds, Social Simulation, Stockholm, August 2018, 49 These slides will be at: http://slideshare.net/BruceEdmonds Bruce Edmonds: http://bruce.edmonds.name Centre for Policy Modelling: http://cfpm.org Collected papers and slides of mine on context at: http://bruce.edmonds.name/context The End!

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