An introduction to analytical sociology

One of the most intellectually vibrant movements in contemporary social theory is analytical sociology. This is how the International Network of Analytical Sociologists describe it on their (shiny) website:

Analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. It is concerned with explaining important macro-level facts such as the diffusion of various social practices, patterns of segregation, network structures, typical beliefs, and common ways of acting. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other macro-level facts, but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which they were brought about. This is accomplished by a detailed focus on individuals’ actions and interactions, and the use of state-of-the-art simulation techniques to derive the macro-level outcomes that such actions and interactions are likely to bring about. Analytical sociology can be seen as contemporary incarnation of Robert K. Merton’s well-known notion of middle-range theory.

The analytical approach is founded on the premise that proper explanations detail the “cogs and wheels” through which social outcomes are brought about, and it is driven by a commitment to realism. Empirically false assumptions about human motivation, cognitive processes, access to information, or social relations cannot bear the explanatory burden in a mechanistic explanation no matter how well they predict the outcome to be explained.

With its focus on the macro-level outcomes that individuals in interaction with one another bring about, analytical sociology is part of the “complexity turn” within sociology. Until very recently sociologists did not have the tools needed for analyzing the dynamics of complex systems, but powerful computers and simulation software have changed the picture considerably. So-called agent-based computer simulations are transforming important parts of sociology (as well as many other parts of the social and natural sciences) because they allow for rigorous theoretical analyses of large complex systems. The basic idea behind such analyses is to perform virtual experiments reflecting the analyst’s theoretical ideas and empirically-based knowledge about the social mechanisms influencing the action and interaction of the individuals. The key is to identify the core mechanisms at work, assemble them into a simulation model, and establish the macro-level outcomes the individuals bring about when acting and interacting in accordance with these mechanisms.

There’s an excellent critical introduction to Analytical Sociology in this paper by Daniel Little. His perspective on it is quite similar to my own: rejection of its ‘methodological monism’ (i.e. the notion that there’s only one correct way to do social research), scepticism about its reductive focus on ‘aggregation dynamics’* but supportive of the sophisticated manner in which it seeks to bring the individual back into sociological thought in a serious way. In fact some have suggested we might think of Analytical Sociology as little more than methodological individualism 2.0 – I’ve not read enough to be sure how fair this is. I guess it depends in part on whether the accusation is that it’s a cynical rebranding (seemingly unfair) or that it’s a development of methodological individualism (seemingly accurate). I’m also interested in how readily analytical sociologists embrace computational techniques – there’s an obvious affinity between Analytical Sociology and agent based modelling in particular, as well as computational approaches more broadly, which will surely have an impact upon the intellectual viability of the position as Sociology is increasingly reshaped by ‘big data’ over coming years. In fact Analytical Sociology could prove influential as a post-positivist philosophy for Computational Social Science.

*Though I love the term and since I started reading this stuff, I’ve found phrases like ‘analytic decomposition’ creeping into my thinking, even though my other theoretical commitments mean the term takes on a different meaning when I use it.

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2 replies »

  1. This is interesting. I’ve done a few ABMs over the last several years but didn’t know there was a home for ABM socsci in the U.S. I’ve oriented towards the European network around Nigel Gilbert at Surrey, who runs CRESS ,Centre for Research in Social Simulation, and founded and until just recently edited JASSS, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation

    It’s not meth individualism, though, has its roots in anti-reductionist nonlinear dynamic systems i.e. complexity theory.

    Thanks for the comment and the linked article. I’ll take a look. Maybe it’d be worth trying on their meeting, in Cambridge U.S. next year.

    • I wasn’t suggesting there’s anything intrinsically methodologically individualist about the method but the philosophical work I’ve encountered certainly seems to lean in that direction – I’ve still not read anywhere near as much as I’d like to but I’m really interested in how collective agency is modelled within ABMs, with emergent characteristics and the capacity for downwards causation.

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