Center for Social Complexity Poised at Cutting Edge of Social Science

Posted: November 6, 2002 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

In the computer strategy game Civilization, players begin with a community of primitive hunter-gatherers and must gradually develop it into a more sophisticated population, discovering resources, building cities, developing an economy, and establishing political and military units. The goal is to build up a state or empire that can conquer the world, or, in later versions, successfully colonize a planet. In the process, players use strategic thinking and long-term planning to evolve their civilizations.

The game is a simplified version of the kind of thing George Mason’s new Center for Social Complexity will do, says Claudio Cioffi-Revilla, professor of computational sciences and director of the center. “Our models are more realistic and totally serious, of course. We aim at understanding real-world social complexities.”

Photo of Claudio Cioffi-Revilla

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla

With one foot in the College of Arts and Sciences and one in the School of Computational Sciences, the multidisciplinary center will focus on the relatively new and growing field of computational social science (CSS), the scientific investigation of social phenomena using computer models, algorithms, and related information technology methods.

Cioffi-Revilla and others refer to CSS as “the third way of doing science,” after statistical models and mathematical models, and he says it is the “exciting 21st century frontier in the social sciences.” In fact, Cioffi-Revilla describes a field that has taken shape within the past 10 years. He can name only three other institutions–the University of California at Los Angeles, the Brookings Institution, and the University of Michigan–that have similar centers. And, while there is an emerging international CSS community, Cioffi-Revilla says, only a handful of other institutions in the United States and Europe have scholars working in the field. “We’re really at the cutting edge of it,” he says.

“This is a real interdisciplinary research frontier,” affirms Provost Peter Stearns, “with obviously a high computational component–exactly the kind of combination we’re good at. I think we’re poised for a real leadership role in an exciting new area, thanks to a good idea, existing faculty strength, and a fine intellectual leader in Claudio Cioffi-Revilla.”

At a series of recent meetings at the three George Mason campuses, Cioffi-Revilla sought to explain the center’s goals and to find areas of common interest among faculty members in a broad range of disciplines. The CSS framework can be applied to virtually any field, he says, including anthropology, economics, geography, politics, public policy, sociology, social psychology, and social statistics, among others. Already, he has a list of more than 50 people, some from outside George Mason, who are interested in the center’s activities and will form the core of an initial CSS community.

Some of the social phenomena the center might study include the origins of civilization and social evolution, how wars break out and terminate, terrorism, stock market fluctuations, regional transportation systems, and how information flows. “These are real-world complex processes,” Cioffi-Revilla says. He himself has studied ancient civilizations as a way to understand today’s international conflicts, global communication and interaction, and other issues in international relations. One prescient article he wrote in 1991 based on analysis conducted in 1990 accurately predicted the likely magnitude, extent, and duration of an Iraq-United Nations war.

In addition, he says, complexity theory has generated new interest in numerous classical puzzles that have remained unsolved, ranging from human evolution, to the origins of civilization, to the future of the world system. Computational approaches offer new tools for addressing these kinds of problems, which cross over into many different areas. “You really need a team to do these studies,” he says, “since each discipline can make only partial contributions. You gain better insight with interdisciplinary teams.”

Research will not be the sole focus of the new center. On the academic side, Cioffi-Revilla plans to offer the center’s first course–tentatively titled CSS 600 Introduction to Computational Social Science–in the spring, with another to follow in the fall. A certificate in computational social science is in the cards, and Cioffi-Revilla hopes to hold colloquiums or brown bag discussions in the near future. He expects courses to be interdisciplinary and possibly offer team teaching or joint teaching opportunities.

Other goals for the center’s first phase are to develop a strategic plan, establish a web site, and recruit a part-time assistant. An inaugural conference is set for May 23-24, 2003, with John Holland of the University of Michigan as keynote speaker. The conference is titled “The Emerging Social Sciences: Connecting Theory, Models, and Data.”

Although Cioffi-Revilla’s plans are ambitious, he admits, “We can’t do everything overnight.” Since the center will be self-supporting, applying for grants will be a major activity. Already he has joined with colleagues at the University of Chicago, the University of California at San Diego, and elsewhere to develop interdisciplinary team research proposals for the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies. Teaching and outreach grant proposals are also in the planning stages.

Cioffi-Revilla, who has a doctorate from the University of Florence, Italy, and previously was professor of political science at the University of Colorado, expresses enthusiasm for the challenge of setting up and running the new center. His academic background in the social sciences, mathematics, and statistics, along with doing consulting work for the United Nations and other international organizations, ideally prepared him for this role, he says. The new field of CSS “frees me from doing mainstream political science. It really fits me well.”

For more information on the Center for Social Complexity, contact Cioffi-Revilla at (703) 993-1402 or

Write to at