the declining role of simulations in sociology
Over the weekend, I got into an exchange with UMD management student Robert Vesco over the computer science/sociology syllabus I posted last week. The issue, I think, is that he was surprised that the course narrowly focused on topic modelling – extracting meaning from text. Robert thought that maybe there should be a different focus. He proposed an alternative – teaching computer science via simulations. Two reactions:
First, topic modelling may seem esoteric to computer scientists but it lies at the heart of sociology. We have interviews, field notes, media – all kinds of text. And we can move beyond the current methods of having humans slowly code the data, which is often not reliable. Also, text is “real data.” You can easily link what you extract from a topic modelling exercise to traditional statistical analysis.
Second, simulations seem to have a historically limited role in sociology. I find this sad because my first publication was a simulation. I think the reason is that most sociologists work with simple linear models. If you examine nearly all quantitative work, you see that most statistical analyses use OLS and its relatives (logits, event history, Tobit. Heckman, etc). There’s always a linear model in there. Also, in the rare cases where sociologists use mathematical models for theory, they tend to use fairly simple models to express themselves.
Simulation is a form of numerical analysis – an estimate of the solutions of a system of equations that is obtained by random draws from the phase space. You would only need to do this if the models were too complicated to solve analytically, or the solution is too complex to describe in a simple fashion. In other words, if you have a lot of moving parts, it makes sense to do a simulation. Since sociological models tend to be very simple, there is little demand for simulations.
Robert asked about micro-macro transitions. This proves my point. A lot of micro-macro models in sociology tend to be fairly simple and stated verbally. For example, many versions of institutionalism predict diffusion driven by elites. Thus, downward causation is described by a simple model. More complex models are possible, but people seem not to care. Overall, simulation is cool, but it just isn’t in demand. Better to teach computer science with real data.