Simulating Social Complexity

Part of the series Understanding Complex Systems pp 709-748


Human Societies: Understanding Observed Social Phenomena

  • Bruce EdmondsAffiliated withCentre for Policy Modelling, Manchester Metropolitan University Email author 
  • , Pablo LucasAffiliated withGeary Institute, University College Dublin
  • , Juliette RouchierAffiliated withSchool of Economics, Aix-Marseille University
  • , Richard TaylorAffiliated withOxford Branch, Stockholm Environment Institute

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Why Read This Chapter?

To get an overview of the different ways in which simulation can be used to gain understanding of human societies and to gain insight into some of the principle issues that impinge upon such simulation, including the difficulties these cause. The chapter will go through the various specific goals one might have in doing such simulation, giving examples of each. It will provide a critical view as to the success at reaching these various goals and hence inform about the current state of such simulation projects.


The chapter begins by briefly describing two contrasting simulations: the iconic system dynamics model publicised under the “Limits to Growth” book and a detailed model of 1st millennium Native American societies in the south west of the US. These are used to bring out the issues of: abstraction, replicability, model comprehensibility, understanding vs. prediction, and the extent to which simulations go beyond what is observed. These issues and difficulties result in three “dimensions” in which simulation approaches differ. These issues are each rooted in some fundamental difficulties in the project of simulating observed societies that are then briefly discussed. The core of the chapter is a look at 15 different possible simulation goals, both abstract and concrete, giving some examples of each and discussing them. The different inputs and results from such simulations are briefly discussed as to their importance for simulating human societies. The chapter ends with a brief critical assessment of the state of the art in terms of using simulation techniques for helping to understand human societies.