2 thoughts on “The mild identity crisis of computational social science

  1. Thanks for writing this. I especially appreciate the list of references, including the one to your own paper.

    The identity crisis you are pointing to results, it would seem, from the attempted merging of very different scientific cultures: that of computational statistics, which is a largely instrumental and engineering-based discipline, and that of the social sciences.

    I disagree, politely, with your point that the relevant contrast is between the natural sciences and the social sciences. This contrast is much older that then present one that CSS is wrestling with. Indeed, many debates within the social sciences (such as the viability of positivist research methods) have already internalized the problems with naturalizing social phenomena.

    But whereas the social scientists are notoriously fractured into many, many different disciplines with a wide variety of methodological commitments, computational statistics is more cohesive. I have argued that this is due to the advances in the mathematization of the inductive methods used.


    What I’ve been looking for for some time is a disciplinary lens that sees computation as a first-order property of societal formation. I.e., how information and data processing complexity bottlenecks contribute to the structure of social forms. Something like that could help resolve the tension between CSS as a bag of tools and CSS as a social scientific field with something substantive to offer social theory.


  2. Thanks for your comments! My background is natural science (with a postdoc and my first faculty position in computer science) thus I don’t want to see CSS as the interface between CS and social science. I agree that computational statistics could help aligning different fields of social science. I’d love to see the outcome of your “computation as a first-order property of societal formation”. I am a bit skeptical tho, as sometimes compute scientists tend to see computation everywhere (photosynthesis is capable of universal computation) . . better just try to tease out the mechanisms. Essentially, I think we can’t do better than taking the research questions / directions from traditional social science.


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