Modeling as social practice

Jeremy Trombley (biography)

By Jeremy Trombley

Modeling – the creation of simplified or abstract representations of the world – is something that people do in many different ways and for many different reasons, and is a social practice. This is true even in the case of scientific and computational models that don’t meet the specific criteria of “participatory” or “collaborative.” Scientists and modelers interact with one another, share information, critique and help to refine one another’s work, and much more as they build models.

Furthermore, all of these activities take place within broader social structures – universities, government agencies, non-government organizations, or simply community groups – and involve resources – funding sources, technologies – that also have social factors that are both embedded within and emerging from them. Understanding the relationship between all of these social dimensions as well as those of the problems that modeling is being used to address is an important task, particularly in participatory modeling projects.

The Susquehanna River a few blocks from my home at Binghamton New York. The River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and the model built by the Chesapeake Bay Program helps us to understand the watershed as an integrated system.

In my research, for example, I have been looking at the role that modeling plays in the management of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Using an ethnographic approach, I have observed the process of modeling and conducted interviews with those involved in producing and using the models in the watershed. With this information, I have been able to develop a rich description of the social processes that produce the model as well as a better understanding of the relationship between the modeling and the Chesapeake Bay Program and other organizations oriented towards improving water quality in the Bay.

My research shows that the Bay Program’s models are deeply tied to the organization such that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The model depends upon the social relationships in the organization, and the Bay Program depends on the model to form and reinforce its own structure as a watershed management organization. In many ways, the two cannot be unlinked, and this is important to keep in mind as we build models and apply them to environmental problems.

What does it mean for participatory modeling specifically? It means that we have to recognize what we bring into any given participatory modeling project – to “situate” our knowledge as Donna Haraway (1988) suggests. We don’t come into these projects as only ourselves. We come as a part of a larger social organization and process, and the models, methods, theory, and data that we use are also embedded within and emergent from those same social relationships and processes.

This brings to the foreground questions about ethics and justice – who is vulnerable in these projects? How is vulnerability distributed and redistributed throughout the process? It means that we have to consider not just the knowledge and learning that take place, but also how the process itself will change – or reaffirm – those existing social relationships. There is still a lot of work to be done in this area, and still a lot of important questions that need to be asked. If you have any insights on the social dimensions of modeling, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14, 3: 575–99.

Biography: Jeremy Trombley is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Maryland where he also received his Masters in Applied Anthropology. He is currently writing his dissertation on the role that computational models play in the management of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He is member of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in February 2016 of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Action-Oriented Team Science through Syntheses of Practices and Theories funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

2 thoughts on “Modeling as social practice”

  1. I understand the message of the article and I agree that there might be the need for a systemic view on the relation between modelers and stakeholders/experts and the modeling situation itself. Yet, from my experience from collaborative, explorative, qualitative cause and effect modeling ( I have made the experience that this is no challenge at all. Collaborative means that every participant edits the model herself/himself, even if they sit in the same room. That creates ownership with all its benefits. Explorative means that a facilitator or even the software (iMODELER) asks four know-why questions in order to come up with technical, social, psychological, organizational, economical, …. factors. Qualitative means that any other spoken or thought argument is easily translated in to the model by factors and arrows that form connection sentences like “more of …. leads directly to more/less of …. in a comparable weak/medium/strong way”. In other words: this kind of modeling becomes sort of lingua franca that we all use to cope with challenges without the need for different roles for a modeler, a stakeholder and an expert.

    • To some extent, the idea is that there has to be more than a common language in order for collaborative modeling to work. There has to be a common social relationship as well. I think that can be built through collaborative modeling, but it’s not something we talk about much.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: