Recursion in society and simulation

This week I visited one of my former PhD advisors, Prof John Wainwright, at Durham University. We’ve been working on a manuscript together for a while now and as it’s stalled recently we thought it time we met up to re-inject some energy into it. The manuscript is a discussion piece about how agent-based modelling (ABM) can contribute to understanding and explanation in geography. We started talking about the idea in Pittsburgh in 2011 at a conference on the Epistemology of Modeling and Simulation. I searched through this blog to see where I’d mentioned the conference and manuscript before, but to my surprise, before this post I hadn’t.

In our discussion of what we can learn through using ABM, John highlighted the work of Kurt Godel and his incompleteness theorems. Not knowing all that much about that stuff I’ve been ploughing my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s tome ‘Godel, Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’ – heavy going in places but very interesting. In particular, his discussion of the concept of recursion has taken my notice, as it’s something I’ve been identifying elsewhere.

The general concept of recursion involved nesting, like Russian dolls, stories within stories (like in Don Quixote) and images within images:


Computer programmers of take advantage of recursion in their code, calling a given procedure from within that same procedure (hence their love of recursive acronyms like PHP [PHP Hypertext Processor]). An example of how this works is in Saura and Martinez-Millan’s modified random clusters method for generating land cover patterns with given properties. I used this method in the simulation model I developed during my PhD and have re-coded the original algorithm for use in NetLogo [available online here]. In the code (below) the grow-cover_cluster procedure is called from within itself, allowing clusters of pixels to ‘grow themselves’.


However, rather than get into the details of the use of recursion in programming, I want to highlight two other ways in which recursion is important in social activity and its simulation.

The first, is in how society (and social phenomena) has a recursive relationship with the people (and their activities) composing it. For example, Anthony Gidden’s theory of structuration argues that the social structures (i.e., rules and resources) that constrain or prompt individuals’ actions are also ultimately the result of those actions. Hence, there is a duality of structure which is:

“the essential recursiveness of social life, as constituted in social practices: structure is both medium and outcome of reproduction of practices. Structure enters simultaneously into the constitution of the agent and social practices, and ‘exists’ in the generating moments of this constitution”. (p.5 Giddens 1979)

Another example comes from Andrew Sayer in his latest book ‘Why Things Matter to People’ which I’m also progressing through currently. One of Sayer’s arguments is that we humans are “evaluative beings: we don’t just think and interact but evaluate things”. For Sayer, these day-to-day evaluations have a recursive relationship with the broader values that individuals hold, values being ‘sedimented’ valuations, “based on repeated particular experiences and valuations of actions, but [which also tend], recursively, to shape subsequent particular valuations of people and their actions”. (p.26 Sayer 2011)

However, while recursion is often used in computer programming and has been suggested as playing a role in different social processes (like those above), its examination in social simulation and ABM has not been so prominent to date. This was a point made by Paul Thagard at the Pittsburgh epistemology conference. Here, it seems, is an opportunity for those seeking to use simulation methods to better understand social patterns and phenomena. For example, in an ABM how do the interactions between individual agents combine to produce structures which in turn influence future interactions between agents?

Second, it seems to me that there are potentially recursive processes surrounding any single simulation model. For if those we simulate should encounter the model in which they are represented (e.g., through participatory evaluation of the model), and if that encounter influences their future actions, do we not then need to account for such interactions between model and modelee (i.e., the person being modelled) in the model itself? This is a point I raised in the chapter I helped John Wainwright and Dr Mark Mulligan re-write for the second edition of their edited book “Environmental Modelling: Finding Simplicity in Complexity”:

“At the outset of this chapter we highlighted the inherent unpredictability of human behaviour and several of the examples we have presented may have done little to persuade you that current models of decision-making can make accurate forecasts about the future. A major reason for this unpredictability is because socio-economic systems are ‘open’ and have a propensity to structural changes in the very relationships that we hope to model. By open, we mean that the systems have flows of mass, energy, information and values into and out of them that may cause changes in political, economic, social and cultural meanings, processes and states. As a result, the behaviour and relationships of components are open to modification by events and phenomena from outside the system of study. This modification can even apply to us as modellers because of what economist George Soros has termed the ‘human uncertainty principle’ (Soros 2003). Soros draws parallels between his principle and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. However, a more appropriate way to think about this problem might be by considering the distinction Ian Hacking makes between the classification of ‘indifferent’ and ‘interactive’ kinds (Hacking, 1999; also see Hoggart et al., 2002). Indifferent kinds – such as trees, rocks, or fish – are not aware that they are being classified by an observer. In contrast humans are ‘interactive kinds’ because they are aware and can respond to how they are being classified (including how modellers classify different kinds of agent behaviour in their models). Whereas indifferent kinds do not modify their behaviour because of their classification, an interactive kind might. This situation has the potential to invalidate a model of interactive kinds before it has even been used. For example, even if a modeller has correctly classified risk-takers vs. risk avoiders initially, a person in the system being modelled may modify their behaviour (e.g., their evaluation of certain risks) on seeing the results of that behaviour in the model. Although the initial structure of the model was appropriate, the model may potentially later lead to its own invalidity!” (p. 304, Millington et al. 2013)

The new edition was just published this week and will continue to be a great resource for teaching at upper levels (I used the first edition in the Systems Modeling and Simulation course I taught at MSU, for example).

More recently, I discussed these ideas about how models interact with their subjects with Peter McBurney, Professor in Informatics here at KCL. Peter has written a great article entitled ‘What are Models For?’, although it’s somewhat hidden away in the proceedings of a conference. In a similar manner to Epstein, Peter lists the various possible uses for simulation models (other than prediction, which is only one of many) and also discusses two uses in more detail – mensatic and epideictic. The former function relates to how models can bring people around a metaphorical table for discussion (e.g., for identifying and potentially deciding about policy trade-offs). The other, epideictic, relates to how ideas and arguments are presented and leads Peter to argue that by representing real world systems in a simulation model can force people to “engage in structured and rigorous thinking about [their problem] domain”.

John and I will be touching on these ideas about the mensatic and epideictic functions of models in our manuscript. However, beyond this discussion, and of relevance here, Peter discusses meta-models. That is, models of models. The purpose here, and continuing from the passage from my book chapter above, is to produce a model (B) of another model (A) to better understand the relationships between Model A and the real intelligent entities inside the domain that Model A represents:

“As with any model, constructing the meta-model M will allow us to explore “What if?” questions, such as alternative policies regarding the release of information arising from model A to the intelligent entities inside domain X. Indeed, we could even explore the consequences of allowing the entities inside X to have access to our meta-model M.” (p.185, McBurney 2012)

Thus, the models are nested with a hope of better understanding the recursive relationship between models and their subjects. Constructing such meta-models will likely not be trivial, but we’re thinking about it. Hopefully the manuscript John and I are working on will help further these ideas, as does writing blog posts like this.

Selected Reference
McBurney (2012): What are models for? Pages 175-188, in: M. Cossentino, K. Tuyls and G. Weiss (Editors): Post-Proceedings of the Ninth European Workshop on Multi-Agent Systems (EUMAS 2011). Lecture Notes in Computer Science, volume 7541. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Millington et al. (2013) Representing human activity in environmental modelling In: Wainwright, J. and Mulligan, M. (Eds.) Environmental Modelling: Finding Simplicity in Complexity. (2nd Edition) Wiley, pp. 291-307 [Online] [Wiley]

2 thoughts on “Recursion in society and simulation

  1. Enjoyed this but couldn't find 'mensatic' in the full OED. Can you please explain for a humble empiricist?

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  2. Yes, it is a little esoteric!I'll quote Peter McBurney directly (p.7 in his 2012 paper):”The first I term the mensatic function, from the Latin word for table, mensa. Here the model acts as a vehicle to identify interested stakeholders and to bring them together, around a common metaphorical table.”

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