“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now,” thus spoke the proverb. As a student using “traditional” quantitative methods, I was fortunate to be enrolled as one of the 178 participants in the 2017 summer school on “Artificial Society and Computational Social Science,” held by the School of Sociology and Anthropology at Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) in Guangzhou from 10 – 20 July, 2017. The summer school was coordinated by Professor Yucheng Liang (faculty of SYSU), and lectured by Dr Hong Zhang (faculty of SYSU), Dr Yongren Shi (Postdoc at Yale, who has published several high-calibrated articles on top journals such as American Sociological Review), as well as (the well-known top scholar) Professor James Evans (from U Chicago). The summer school lasted for non-stop 11 days, with a total of 57 credits. Thank goodness, I finished this summer school in the grilling and hectic season in Guangzhou.
The summer school covered two broad research areas, namely, the agent-based modeling (ABM) approach, and the computational social science (CSS) approach. The ABM approach takes the process of computer simulation based on several formulated rules, and explicates the process and dynamics among individuals (termed as “agents”), and the emergence of collective social phenomenon. In the research, the characteristics and rules of agents’ action, the rule of social interaction among these agents, and the social contexts in which the agents interact, are all defined and set-up by the researchers. The approach has been applied to a wide range of disciplines, from natural science (the symbiosis of animals, the penetration of fire in the forest), to social science such as the distribution of wealth, the formation of race segregation, and, as a recent article published on Journal of Communication explicated, the reciprocal influence of selective media exposure, interpersonal political talk, and political polarization! The ABM method tries to explain the world in a highly abstract and succinct fashion, and it manages to investigate the evolution of collective social facts (i.e., race segregation, ideological polarization) from simple individual’s actions and interacting rules (i.e., “I will move to another place if 30% of my neighborhoods are not the same race as me” – as depicted by the Schelling model).
The computational social science (CSS) can be roughly defined, by Professor Evans, as the “method to use computers to generate data, discover patterns or generate and test explanations that you could not have without them” (in-class lecture notes, taking by the author). It is based on massive amount of data generated from social media, digital traces, as well as the digitalization of existing “non-digital” text materials. The “Declaration” of this field was raised by David Lazer (2009), which has been widely quoted and featured. In the second session of the summer school, Dr Yongren Shi introduced several cutting-edged works. For example, is science political polarized? (Intuitively one may say “no!” – because one always believes that “science” is (ought to be) objective, non-ideologically tilted, and being free from the partisanship’s influence). However, massive Amazon book purchase records revealed a complex and disturbing scenario (see the work “Millions of online book co-purchases reveal partisan differences in the consumption of science” by Shi and his associates). He also mentioned another recent work on the strategic development of organization.
As a “late comer” of this field, I was deeply fascinated and charmed by the insightful (and sometimes “crazy”) research ideas and the rigorous operationalization and implementation of this field. The interdisciplinary nature also generates a lot of rich research ideas, and advancing our understanding on the nature of human behaviors. I was also moved by all the teaching faculties (including the five voluntary student teaching assistants), who voluntarily organized this workshop and generously shared their latest work, all for FREE! (Yes, the summer school was zero charged). I was also surprised to find the hard-working and eagerness of all the participants attending this summer school. Some of them were already ranked as Associate Professor or above. In sum, there remains much to be further reflected and digested from this fruitful summer.
# Figure 1. Professor James Evan is lecturing. The photo was took by the author.
# Figure 2. A snapshot of the main campus of SYSU.
# Figure 3. My humble “Letter of Certificate”