Research Center Uses Computer Simulations to Gain Insight into Social Phenomena

Posted: February 5, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 1, 2010 at 12:47 pm

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla
Claudio Cioffi-Revilla
Creative Services photo

Computational social science is an emerging field, and Mason has taken a leadership role in the new science nationally and globally. Scholars from around the world — Japan, Russia, Taiwan, Poland, Spain and Scotland — have already come to visit Mason’s Center for Social Complexity (CSC), now in its seventh year, and more are scheduled to visit soon.

CSC, a part of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, is a model for a number of groups internationally that are trying to start similar centers, says its director, Claudio Cioffi-Revilla.

Established in 2002, CSC aims to advance pure and applied social science using computational and interdisciplinary approaches that can yield new insights into the fundamental nature of social phenomena at all levels.

“[Computer] simulations are valuable to computational social science for the same reason they are valuable in astronomy,” says Cioffi-Revilla. “Astronomers can’t run experiments on galaxies or solar systems, but they can use simulations to test their theories.

“We can’t run some of these social experiments in society for ethical reasons, and sometimes even for practical reasons when ethics is not an issue. That’s the beauty of these simulations. We can use them to do what we can’t do in the real world — and make new, exciting discoveries on the nature of our humanity and the social world.”

Currently, CSC researchers are collaborating with scientists at the Smithsonian Institution on a half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. Using the Mongol Empire as a model, they are analyzing long-term interactions between societal and environmental dynamics affecting polities in Inner Asia over the past 5,000 years.

For this project, Cioffi-Revilla says they are examining the evidence with two questions in mind: How did social complexity in societies emerge in the first place, and how did these societies adapt with environmental change — or fail to do so?

One of the reasons Inner Asia was chosen was because of the Mongol Empire that dominated the region. The long lifespan of Inner Asia also allows the researchers to consider climate change as a factor in the evolution of societies.

“That has a connection with current climate change. It is our goal that by studying Inner Asia, we will be rewarded with a wealth of data previously undiscovered,” Cioffi-Revilla says.

New databases produced by this project will document for the first time the rise, development, and fall of polities in Inner Asia for a period extending from approximately 3,000 BC to the present. At its maximum size in the late 13th century, the Mongol Empire extended from the Sea of Japan to the Middle East.

“It was the largest territorial polity — and it held together for a while — but the [governing] system that it had was relatively simple. It was surrounded by polities with much more complex systems of government. So that’s one of the scientific puzzles here. How can social science explain how the Mongols did it?”

The team of investigators led by Cioffi-Revilla comprises faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers from Mason; the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology, led by Daniel Rogers; and Yale University.

The CSC team for this project includes Mason faculty members Sean Luke, Dawn Parker and Maksim (Max) Tsvetovat, who are working with a number of graduate students. International collaborators include researchers from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, the Keldysh Institute for Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and the Institute of Cognitive Science and Technology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome.

The Mongolian Academy is particularly invested in the work and is planning exhibits around the project. “The Soviets destroyed a lot of their history,” says Cioffi-Revilla. “We are recovering much of their early history and helping the Mongolians rediscover their past. This is an international scientific and cultural effort.”

As a result of the center’s work, Mason was chosen as the site for the next World Congress of Social Simulations, which will be held in July. Because the field of study is relatively young, the event will be only the second time the group will have convened.

“The long-range prospects that may come from computational social science will likely benefit society and, we hope, the human condition,” says Cioffi-Revilla.

Write to at