November 25, 2007

Social sciences and artificial societies

Epstein and Axtell argue that artificial societies modelling can constitute a new kind of explanation of social phenomena (Epstein and Axtell 1996:20).

Lansing (2002) argues that the modelling of artificial societies can profit from a broad historical perspective of disputes among social scientists and philosophers on how to study social phenomena. To exemplify, he points out the parallel between some writing of Theodor Adorno on the positivist dispute in German sociology and the question that introduces Growing Artificial Societies: “How does the heterogeneous micro-world of individual behaviors generate the global macroscopic regularities of the society?” (Epstein and Axtell 1996:1) This is a classical problem of the social sciences, the micro-macro link problem or the problem of social order.

A number of researches take both perspectives together within Multi-agent Systems (MAS) modelling. Let us give just a few examples.

(Hexmoor et al. 2006), using game-theoretic concepts, studies norms as a possible solution to coordination problems. A normative agent is seen as an autonomous agent whose behaviour is shaped by norms prevailing in the society and an agent who decides on its goals, its representation of norms, its evaluation of the consequences of not complying, and the state of the environment whether to adopt a norm or dismiss it.

(Malsch and Weiβ 2000), opposing more traditional (negative) views on conflict within MAS, suggest relaxing the assumption that coordination can be designed to perfection and acknowledging conflicts’ beneficial effects for social life, as an opportunity to restructuring social institutions. They further suggest importing conflict theories from sociology, even if “the best theory of conflict” does not exist.

(Sabater and Sierra 2005) reviews a selection of trust and reputation models in use both in “virtual societies” (such as electronic markets, where reputation is used as a trust-enforcing mechanism to avoid cheater and frauds) and in fields like teamwork and cooperation.

(Alonso 2004) argue for using rights and argumentation in MAS. If agents must comply with norms automatically, they are not seen as autonomous any more. If they can violate norms to maximize utilities, the advantages of normative approach evaporate and the normative framework does not stabilize the collective. The concept of rights offers a middle way to escape the dilemma. Individuals have basic rights to execute some sets of actions (under certain conditions), but rights are implemented collectively. Agents are not allowed to inhibit the exercising of others’ rights and the collective is obliged to prevent such inhibitory action. Rights are not piecemeal permissions; they represent a system of values. Nobody can trade with rights (even its own); rights are beyond utility calculus. Systems of rights do not eliminate autonomy. Because they are typically incomplete or ambiguous, some argumentation mechanism must be at hand to solve underspecification problems.

“Socionics” is a combination of sociology and computer science (Malsch & Schulz-Schaeffer 2007). The Socionics approach does not ignore emergence and self-organisation in societies. For example, the Social Reputation approach belongs to a stand of research about emergent mechanisms of social order. (Hahn et al. 2007) models reputation as a mechanism of flexible social self-regulation valuable when agents, working within the framework of Socionics, need to decide to whom cooperate in certain circumstances. Although, emergent self-organisation is often of no help to model complex social interaction because it involves individuals “capable of reflexively anticipating and even outwitting the outcome of collective social interaction at the global level of social structure formation” (Malsch & Schulz-Schaeffer 2007:§2.8). Why ignore that social norms and regulations exist in human societies? The projects described within the Socionics framework are in search of integrated approaches for both sides of a persistent controversy: is social structure an emergent (“bottom up”) outcome of social action? or is social action constituted (“top down”) from social structure? (Malsch & Schulz-Schaeffer 2007:§3.1)

The question now is: facing such a variety, how would we choose the most promising concept to deal with the problem of social order in artificial societies?


(Epstein and Axtell 1996) EPSTEIN, J.M., and AXTELL, R., Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up, Washington D.C., The Brookings Institution and the MIT Press, 1996

(Lansin 2002) LANSING, J.S., «“Artificial Societies” and the Social Sciences», in Artificial Life, 8, pp. 279-292

(Hexmoor et al. 2006) HEXMOOR, H., VENKATA, S.G., and HAYES, R., “Modelling social norms in multiagent systems”, in Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, 18(1), pp. 49-71

(Malsch and Weiβ 2000) MALSCH, T., and WEIΒ, G., “Conflicts in social theory and multiagent systems: on importing sociological insights into distributed AI”, in TESSIER, C., CHAUDRON, L., and MÜLLER, H.-J. (eds.), Conflicting Agents. Conflict Management in Multi-Agent Systems, Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000, pp. 111-149

(Sabater and Sierra 2005) SABATER, J., and SIERRA, C., “Review on Computational Trust and Reputation Models”, in Artificial Intelligence Review, 24(1), pp. 33-60

(Alonso 2004) ALONSO, E., “Rights and Argumentation in Open Multi-Agent Systems”, in Artificial Intelligence Review, 21(1), pp. 3-24

(Malsch & Schulz-Schaeffer 2007) MALSCH, Thomas and SCHULZ-SCHAEFFER, Ingo, “Socionics: Sociological Concepts for Social Systems of Artificial (and Human) Agents”, in Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 10(1)

(Hahn et al. 2007) HAHN, Christian, FLEY, Bettina, FLORIAN, Michael, SPRESNY, Daniela and FISCHER, Klaus, “Social Reputation: a Mechanism for Flexible Self-Regulation of Multiagent Systems”, In Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 10(1)

1 Comments, criticism, questions, suggestions:

lacey 17 December 2008 at 09:06  

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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