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Social Context

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Social Context

An invited talk at the 2018 Surrey Sociology Conference, Barnett Hill, Surrey, November 2018.

Although there is much evidence that context is crucial to much human cognition and social behaviour, it remains a difficult area to research. In much social science research it is either by-passed or ignored. In some qualitative research context is almost deified with any level of generalisation across contexts being left to the reader. At the other extreme, some qualitative research restricts itself to patterns that are generally detectable - that is the patterns that are left when one aggregates over many different contexts. Context is often used as a 'dustbin concept' to which otherwise unexplained variation is attributed.

This talk looks at some of the ways social context might be actively represented, understood and researched. Firstly the ideas of cognitive then social context are distinguished. Then some possible approaches to researching this are discussed, including: agent-based simulation, a context-sensitive analysis of narrative data and machine learning.

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Social Context

  1. 1. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 1 Social Context Bruce Edmonds Centre for Policy Modelling Manchester Metropolitan University Slides available at: http://slideshare.net/BruceEdmonds
  2. 2. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 2 Talk Outline 1. Some personal history & motivation 2. Talking about “Context” 3. How the Social Sciences effectively avoid dealing with context change 4. Approaching context from narrative accounts 5. Implementing context-sensitive behaviour in social simulation 6. Analysing data in a context-sensitive way 7. Concluding Discussion
  3. 3. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 3 Some personal motivation Part 1:
  4. 4. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 4 A Little Personal History • My mother was a social worker and my father was a bio-physicist (using physics methods to help understand biological processes/mechanisms) • Among other things, I was interested in formal systems and representation, though became increasingly aware of their limitations (especially systems of equations that could be solve) • Did youth work in inner city areas and taught in Grenada in the West Indies • Did a PhD in the nature and philosophy of Complexity which got me thinking more about the process of representing complex phenomena
  5. 5. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 5 The Complexity of Vision • Around the house was a book: ‘the intelligent eye’ • 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 7 Action within a Social Context • Without having to do anything conscious we effectively ‘inhabit’ each social context • Adapting fluidly to each • Using the social affordances there as an extension of our perception and action
  8. 8. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 8 Talking about “Context” Part 2:
  9. 9. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 9 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
  10. 10. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 10 A (simplistic) illustration of context from the point of view of an actor
  11. 11. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 11 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?
  12. 12. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 12 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
  13. 13. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 13 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)
  14. 14. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 14 How Social Science effectively avoids dealing with context change Part 3:
  15. 15. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 15 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)
  16. 16. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 16 However despite this, in much 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”
  17. 17. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 17 Context-dependency and randomness Lots of information lost if randomness used to “model” contextual variation
  18. 18. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 18 On the other hand in much qualitative research… • Does take context seriously, but has (largely) often limits itself 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
  19. 19. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 19 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, what happens when it cvhanges Social context is central to human behaviour but effectively not researched much
  20. 20. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 20 Some ways forward • Keeping the data and simply NOT summarising it (at least not prematurely) • Data mining local patterns to detect context-sensitive patterns of behaviour • 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 4
  21. 21. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 21 Approaching context from qualitative narratives Part 4:
  22. 22. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 22 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
  23. 23. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 23 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 often 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
  24. 24. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 24 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.
  25. 25. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 25 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
  26. 26. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 26 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
  27. 27. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 27 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
  28. 28. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 28 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)
  29. 29. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 29 Some Example Analyses using example narratives 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 http://cfpm.org/qual2rule/essa-sig)
  30. 30. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 35 Implementing Context-Sensitive Agents in Social Simulations Part 5:
  36. 36. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 40 Example – models in the cognition of a trading agent (with > 2 occurrences) 700 750 800 850 900 950 750 850 950 Volume - past 5 periods Volatility-past5periods
  41. 41. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 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. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 44 Analysing Data in a more Context-Sensitive Manner (work by Claire Little) Part 6:
  45. 45. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 45 “Troubled Family” Data & I2I Project • A local authority (LA) negotiated a series of data deals which meant that it could link different data sets around many individuals & families in the area for research purposes only • This included: input from social worker actions and family relationships (for core families), DWP records, criminal records, school attendance, etc. • We got a pseudo-anonymised version of this data under strict conditions • It focused on 2155 families with an intervention between 1st August 2011 and 31st July 2015 funded by the “Troubled Family” program
  46. 46. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 46 Using ML to divide TF into 11 clusters
  47. 47. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 47 A 2D projection of these clusters
  48. 48. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 48 Post Hoc Tree Analysis of Clusters (1-7)
  49. 49. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 49 School Absences Before and After TFI
  50. 50. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 50 1 year Before and After Cluster 5
  51. 51. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 51 1 year Before and After Cluster 6
  52. 52. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 52 Work Done by Claire Little As her doctoral research in conjunction with the LA. For the detail (!!!) see her thesis at: Little, C. (2018) Machine Learning for Understanding Complex, Interlinked Social Data. PhD Thesis, MMU, CPM-2018-211. http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/219
  53. 53. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 53 Concluding Discussion Part 7:
  54. 54. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 54 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 this is infeasible or wrong • 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
  55. 55. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 55 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 approaches and advances, such as the ability to store lots of original data etc.) means we can preserve, model and explore this richness
  56. 56. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 56 Conclusions • Social science has largely ignored, by-passed or bracketed-off social context • …not becuase it is not important – it is central to many social phenomena • ...but becuase it is hard to deal with • ...and because context-dependency has been associated with subjectivity and thus seen as not scientific • The tools to address these problems are now emerging, and could thus allow context to take a more central role, being explicitly
  57. 57. Social Context, Bruce Edmonds, Surrey Sociology Annual Conference, Barnett Hill, November t 2018, 57 These slides are available at: http://slideshare.net/BruceEdmonds Centre for Policy Modelling: http://cfpm.org Collected papers and slides of mine on context at: http://bruce.edmonds.name/context Claire’s Thesis: http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/219 The End!

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