Some Philosophical Viewpoints on Social Simulation

By Bruce Edmonds

How one thinks about knowledge can have a significant impact on how one develops models as well as how one might judge a good model.

  • Pragmatism. Under this view a simulation is a tool for a particular purpose. Different purposes will imply different tests for a good model. What is useful for one purpose might well not be good for another – different kinds of models and modelling processes might be good for each purpose. A simulation whose purpose is to explore the theoretical implications of some assumptions might well be very different from one aiming to explain some observed data. An example of this approach is (Edmonds & al. 2019).
  • Social Constructivism. Here knowledge about social phenomena (including simulation models) are collectively constructed. There is no other kind of knowledge than this. Each simulation is a way of thinking about social reality and plays a part in constructing it so. What is a suitable construction may vary over time and between cultures etc. What a group of people construct is not necessarily limited to simulations that are related to empirical data. (Ahrweiler & Gilbert 2005) seem to take this view but this is more explicit in some of the participatory modelling work, where the aim is to construct a simulation that is acceptable to a group of people, e.g. (Etienne 2014).
  • Relativism. There are no bad models, only different ways of mediating between your thought and reality (Morgan 1999). If you work hard on developing your model, you do not get a better model, only a different one. This might be a consequence of holding to an Epistemological Constructivist position.
  • Descriptive Realism. A simulation is a picture of some aspect of reality (albeit at a much lower ‘resolution’ and imperfectly). If one obtains a faithful representation of some aspect of reality as a model, one can use it for many different purposes. Could imply very complicated models (depending on what one observes and decides is relevant), which might themselves be difficult to understand. I suspect that many people have this in mind as they develop models, but few explicitly take this approach. Maybe an example is (Fieldhouse et al. 2016).
  • Classic Positivism. Here, the empirical fit and the analytic understanding of the simulation is all that matters, nothing else. Models should be tested against data and discarded if inadequate (or they compete and one is currently ahead empirically). Also they should be simple enough that they can be thoroughly understood. There is no obligation to be descriptively realistic. Many physics approaches to social phenomena follow this path (e.g Helbing 2010, Galam 2012).

Of course, few authors make their philosophical position explicit – usually one has to infer it from their text and modelling style.


Ahrweiler, P. and Gilbert, N. (2005). Caffè Nero: the Evaluation of Social Simulation. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 8(4):14.

Edmonds, B., le Page, C., Bithell, M., Chattoe-Brown, E., Grimm, V., Meyer, R., Montañola-Sales, C., Ormerod, P., Root H. and Squazzoni. F. (in press) Different Modelling Purposes. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22(3):6.

Etienne, M. (ed.) (2014) Companion Modelling: A Participatory Approach to Support Sustainable Development. Springer

Fieldhouse, E., Lessard-Phillips, L. and Edmonds, B. (2016) Cascade or echo chamber? A complex agent-based simulation of voter turnout. Party Politics. 22(2):241-256. DOI:10.1177/1354068815605671

Galam, S. (2012) Sociophysics: A Physicist’s modeling of psycho-political phenomena. Springer.

Helbing, D. (2010). Quantitative sociodynamics: stochastic methods and models of social interaction processes. Springer.

Morgan, M. S., Morrison, M., & Skinner, Q. (Eds.). (1999). Models as mediators: Perspectives on natural and social science (Vol. 52). Cambridge University Press.

Edmonds, B. (2019) Some Philosophical Viewpoints on Social Simulation. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2nd July 2019.

© The authors under the Creative Commons’ Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) Licence (v4.0)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.