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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Society for Applied Anthropology Workshop on Agent-Based Modeling

Workshop Abstract for the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings

Agent Based Models in Anthropology

“Agent Based Modeling” (ABM) may sound like a fashion show put on by the Drug Enforcement Administration. It is not. It is a useful new tool, a computer-based thought-experiment lab for the relationship between structure and agency, a device to explore ethnographic conclusions and visually display them in a powerful and accessible way. The tool derives from complexity theory, a framework now used in many fields to research and intervene in human organizations of many different types.

In this workshop, participants will be introduced to the concepts behind and the practice of agent based modeling. Particularly important will be the relationship between the intricacies of ethnographic understanding and the simplicity of a model. When do models help and when do they distort? What type of information is required to develop ABMs? How can they inform theory and practice? Before the workshop, participants should download the Netlogo programming language, available free at http://www.ccl.sesp.northwestern.edu/netlogo/. The manual contains three simple tutorials that give a good first sense of how models work. Participants should do them before the workshop. They can also explore models included in the program, available under “Models Library” in the “File” drop-down menu. The famous Thomas Schelling model on housing segregation is a good example, called “Segregation” in the Models Library / Social Science menu.

In the half-day workshop, presenters will first show some examples from their own work, as well as discuss the strengths and limitations in using ABM’s. For the rest of the workshop, they will discuss participants’ own projects to explore if an agent based model would be useful, if it might be translated into Netlogo in some sensible way, and if it might accomplish anything. We expect the answers to range from three yes’s to three no’s with some yes/no mixes in between. By the end of the half-day, participants will be prepared to experiment further on their own and guidance will be offered to those interested in reading more or attending Netlogo workshops in other venues.

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