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Sociology and Non-Equilibrium Social Science

Mauricio Salgado


This chapter addresses the relationship between sociology and NonEquilibrium Social Science (NESS). Sociology is a multiparadigmatic discipline with significant disagreement regarding its goals and status as a scientific discipline. Different theories and methods coexist temporally and geographically. However, it has always aimed at identifying the main factors that explain the temporal stability of norms, institutions and individuals’ practices; and the dynamics of institutional change and the conflicts brought about by power relations, economic and cultural inequality and class struggle. Sociologists considered equilibrium could not sufficiently explain the constitutive, maintaining and dissolving dynamics of society as a whole. As a move from the formal apparatus for the study of equilibrium, NESS does not imply a major shift from traditional sociological theory. Complex features have long been articulated in sociological theorization, and sociology embraces the complexity principles of NESS through its growing attention to complex adaptive systems and non-equilibrium sciences, with human societies seen as highly complex, path-dependent, far-from equilibrium, and selforganising systems. In particular, Agent-Based Modelling provides a more coherent inclusion of NESS and complexity principles into sociology. Agent-based sociology uses data and statistics to gauge the ‘generative sufficiency’ of a given microspecification by testing the agreement between ‘real-world’ and computer generated macrostructures. When the model cannot generate the outcome to be explained, the microspecification is not a viable candidate explanation. The separation between the explanatory and pragmatic aspects of social science has led sociologists to be highly critical about the implementation of social science in policy. However, ABM allows systematic exploration of the consequences of modelling assumptions and makes it possible to model much more complex phenomena than previously. ABM has proved particularly useful in representing socio-technical and socio-ecological systems, with the potential to be of use in policy. ABM offers formalized knowledge that can appear familiar to policymakers versed in the methods and language of economics, with the prospect of sociology becoming more influential in policy.

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