Methodological Individualism and Agent-Based Modeling in Social Sciences
Abstract How should we explain social phenomena? Methodological individualism claims that social scientific explanations should privilege micro individualistic properties as explanantia, and provide bottom up explanations to social phenomena. Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) is believed to be one successful implementation of methodological individualism. In this paper, I cast doubts on methodological individualism by showing this picture of ABM to be ultimately inadequate because it does not answer a crucial explanatory question that I identify. To answer this explanatory question, I propose a new interpretation of ABM explanations as minimal model explanations. I believe this new picture does not commit to methodological individualism, and gives a novel answer to the methodological question about social scientific explanations.
What does winning the Grad Research Award this year mean to you?
I’m very honored to receive it. It’s an encouragement for me to continue improving my work.
Can you give a brief summary of your paper?
My paper discusses how social scientific models explain social phenomena. Many social scientists claim that their models explain macroscale social phenomena by finding out their causes, especially their “root causes” that lie at the individual scale. For example, agent-based modeling is a widely used tool to model the effects of individual interactions in complex systems, and it seems that they effectively show how individuals together “cause” the social phenomenon to occur. But I believe this would be an oversimplification of these models, and would lead to many methodological questions if taken seriously. I ultimately propose another way to understand these models and their theoretical commitments as providing a kind of non-causal explanation.
Can you explain where your paper fits in with everyday life?
I think of this paper as being closely connected to our social scientific practices. For one thing, if we intend to use these models to provide actual explanations instead of merely “how-possible explanations”, we ought to be more aware of the claims that we are committed to when using them. For another, social scientific explanations often have the pragmatic aim of informing policy-making. This implies that if we are able to understand a model in a new way, it might provide us with new ideas about exerting control over social properties. For example, we often think that causal models are especially apt to do this - you can control the effect by manipulating its cause. But sometimes it’s hard to put this strategy into use for various theoretical and practical reasons. The new interpretation that I propose here would yield alternative and sometimes even more effective strategies for policy intervention (I attempted to illustrate this point in another paper).
How does your subject fit in with your grad program plans or onward research intentions?
This paper reflects my interests in the philosophy of science in general, especially the methodological and epistemological issues that come with scientific practices. They are partly about how to do better science, and partly about how to better understand scientific inquiries as a unique epistemic endeavor. I’m currently working on a paper that is related to the latter topic, and I’m excited about continuing to follow these lines of thought to see where they lead me.