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What Is Social Complexity? What Is Computational Social Science?


Social complexity is the study of the phenomena of human existence – emigration patterns, armed conflicts, political movements, marriage practices, natural disasters, etc, etc – and the many possible arrangements of relationships between those discrete phenomena.  Social complexity reflects human behavior as it is exercised in ongoing and increasingly broader and more complicated circumstances of individual and group existence. Social complexity has emerged as the conceptual and practical framework wherein these phenomena and their relationships can be studied.

From Wikipedia: In the discipline of sociology, social complexity is a conceptual framework useful in the analysis of society. Contemporary definitions of complexity in the sciences are found in relation to systems theory, where a phenomenon under study has many parts and many possible arrangements of the relationships between those parts. At the same time, what is complex and what is simple is relative and may change with time.

The following are premises of a complex human society. (from Cioffi)


Goal-seeking behavior: Humans are goal-seeking actors, not purely passive agents.

Basic goals sought: Basic goals sought by humans, and society as a whole, include survival and improvement. The former includes meeting existential challenges while the latter refers to the human desire to improve one’s quality of life, if not for oneself then for one’s kin, friends, or descendants. Both goals are universal cross-cultural drives.

Adaptation: Goal-seeking behavior generally requires adaptation, because individual and collective environments in which humans are situated can be challenging or shifting. Quite commonly the goals being sought are pursued in difficult environments or adverse circumstances.

Artifacts: Implementing adaptive behavior requires the activities of planning and constructing artifacts which can be tangible or intangible, generally corresponding to engineered and organizational systems, respectively.


Chiefdom: The chiefdom represents the simplest form of complex society, one that is governed by rulers who derive their authority from a source that is different from family ties, although the latter never quite disappear entirely from the scene.

Polity: A polity is a complex adaptive system consisting of a society and a system (or subsystem) of government for managing collective issues that affect members of society in the normal course of history. Management of collective issues is done through public policies prepared, implemented, and monitored by government.

State: A state is a polity with stratified and ranked society (elite members, civil servants, traders, military, and commoners), a system of government composed of specialized, differentiated institutions with authoritative decision-making, capacity to collect taxes as government revenue, and reliable control over territory and its resources.

Society: A society is a collectivity of persons that interact through social relations and share one or more identities in common. Attributes of a society include its size, location, composition, identities, authorities, stratification, wealth, and associated statistics and distributions.

Seminal Papers on Social Complexity

Cioffi-Revilla, C. (2010) Computational Social Science, Wiley.

R. Conte, N.Gilbert, G.Bonelli, C.Cioffi-Revilla, G.Deffuant, J.Kertesz, V. Loreto, S.Moat, J.-P. Nadal, A.Sanchez, A.Nowak, A. Flache, M.SanMiguel,and D.Helbing (2012). Manifesto of Computational Social Science. European Physical Journal Special Topics, 214, 325–346.


(from Cioffi) The new field of Computational Social Science can be defined as the interdisciplinary investigation of the social universe on many scales, ranging from individual actors to the largest groupings, through the medium of computation. In this definition, the “ many scales” of social groupings involve a great variety of organizational, temporal, and spatial dimensions, sometimes simultaneously. In addition, computation or computational approaches refer to numerous computer-based instruments, as well as substantive concepts and theories, ranging from information extraction algorithms to computer simulation models. CSS is a vast field of exciting scientific research at the intersection of all social science disciplines, applied computer science, and related disciplines.

It is useful to mark the beginnings of CSS with the invention of digital computing during the closing days of World War II and the early days of the Cold War. The digital computer provided the key instrument that would fuel and expand research horizons in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years earlier. For the first time social scientists were able to analyze vast amounts of data, test many novel scientific hypotheses, and explore the dimensions and structures of social space, from the human mind to the global system, with numerous levels of analysis in between. Although social scientists had known for some time the significance of communication and information-processing for understanding human and social dynamics — for example, the study of media and text data, as well as radio broadcasts and propaganda, had begun in earnest many decades before the advent of the computer — the digital computer inspired new concepts, hypotheses, principles, models, and theories about the vast array of systems and processes in the social universe.

For related definitions, see Definition of Terms.