From Computer Engineering to Sociology

Just a quick reminder of how I got to Sociology from Computer Engineering and Artificial Intelligence. I was always interested in sociology and psychology. My main goal when I started with artificial intelligence was to learn more about what is intelligence and how we can characterise it. After seeing that there were no conclusive answers and that the field of artificial intelligence was branching out into specific areas (artificial vision, automated reasoning, machine learning, etc) and they were not all trying to understand human/animal intelligence, I noticed that it was possible to create intelligent behaviour with agents that could be considered as not intelligent and I started playing with this kind of ideas.

Social construction of reality, or why sociology can be really difficult (courtesy of Mehran Heidarzadeh)

Social construction of reality, or why sociology can be really difficult (courtesy of Mehran Heidarzadeh)

I created some systems to solve specific problems, but the agents in these systems were not intelligent or their intelligence was limited and local. Using ideas from insects like ants and cells like neurons, I programmed really simple behaviour that in aggregate produced a solution to a complex problem. There was always a conceptual problem in my simulations, and it was how to consider that the solution was already achieved, especially without an external observer. Is there something characteristic about order that makes it different from any other arrangement?

One of my systems was based on human interaction, how students swapped practical session slots to get an allocation they liked and they could attend to. And after doing all this simulations I came back to one of my original interests: sociology. I started wondering about social order, about society. How is it possible that a society exists at all when there is no intention of creating one? How does “antisocial” behaviour fit in this society not by destroying it but shaping it? I consider myself as an activist, in my own way, although I’m not really active. All these questions came always from seeing people unhappy with the world they lived in, from slogans that said things like “together we can,” and from experiences of unity, shared experiences and common goals in protests. If no one is actually happy with it and if we have so many different opinions, how come we just accept how things are and don’t try to change it?

Another experience that pushed me to sociology was working on social network analysis. I was working developing a tool to extract information from a collaboration tool and create a map of the network for that company. Here I stumbled with one the most difficult problems in sociology, I think, the problem of meaning. Both my bosses were physicists and they were too straightforward in their thinking, not considering the implications of their decisions. When I asked them ‘how do we define a relationship between two persons?’ they simply answered ‘they are related if they had interacted with each other.’ This sounds pretty obvious, but I don’t think it’s that easy.

They agreed that we needed to use weights and windows of time to consider this relationships, not all of them are equally important and the association pattern may change in time, but the way to calculate this weights and time frames was not considering the social aspect of the network. The weights were chosen depending on the data itself and what we thought would be important, with no study behind to determine if the weights were appropriate or did actually represent people’s beliefs. Time frames were chosen depending on the structure you could see (if it was too sparse you needed to include more time, if it was too dense you needed to reduce the time frame), and the frames were themselves weighted so only long stable interactions mattered.

Finally, the last thing that pushed me to sociology, was my involvement with the 15M movement in Madrid. I couldn’t camp or spend my whole day in the camp (they were camping in Madrid’s main square) but I went there everyday after work until midnight. I really loved that experience, it felt really great to be with people who were questioning the same things I was questioning. During my time in the camps I saw many interesting things that I would have loved to study in depth but I didn’t have the tools to do it. I saw bottom up organisation, group division and specialisation, power structures based on seniority and merit arising. I saw a whole new order arising and becoming incontestable, what I think would be called a process of institutionalisation.

After all this experiences I decided to stop working on generic complex systems and start working with complex social systems. I wanted to see how I can characterise order and the self-organising process, how I can deal with meaning and differing world views, and how the process of institutionalisation works and how I could improve or avoid the process as I saw this as problem when this institutions hinder the adaptation to new internal and external situations.

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