Sawyer on downward causation in social systems

by Sebastian Benthall

The work of R. Keith Sawyer (2000) is another example of computational social science literature that I wish I had encountered ten years ago. Sawyer’s work from the early ’00’s is about the connections between sociological theory and multi-agent simulations (MAS).

Sawyer uses an example of an improvisational theater skit to demonstrate how emergence and downward causation work in a small group setting. Two actors in the skit exchange maybe ten lines, each building on the expectations set by the prior actions. The first line establishes the scene is a store, and one of the actors is the owner. The second actor approaches; the first greets her as if she is a customer. She acts in a childlike way and speaks haltingly, establishing that she needs assistance.

What changes in each step of the dialogue is the shared “frame” (in Sawyer’s usage) which defines the relationships and setting of the activity. Perhaps because it is improvisational theater, the frame is carefully shared between the actors. The “Yes, And…” rule applies and nobody is contradicted. This creates the illusion of a social reality, shared by the audience.

Reading this resonated with other reading and thinking I’ve done on ideology. I think about situations where I’ve been among people with a shared vision of the world, or where that vision of the world has been contested. Much of what is studied as framing in media studies is about codifying the relations between actors and the interpretation of actions.

Surely, for some groups to survive, they must maintain a shared frame among their members. This both provides a guide for collective action and also a motivation for cohesion. An example is an activist group at a protest. If one doesn’t share some kind of frame about the relationships between certain actors and the strategies being used, it doesn’t make sense to be part of that protest. The same is true for some (but maybe not all) academic disciplines. A shared social subtext, the frame, binds together members of the discipline and gives activity within it meaning. It also motivates the formation of boundaries.

I suppose the reification of Weird Twitter was an example of a viral framing. Or should I say enframing?! (Heidegger joke).

Getting back to Sawyer, his focus is on a particularly thorny aspect of social theory, the status of social structures and their causal efficacy. How do macro- social forms emerge from individual actors (or actions), and how do those macro- forms have micro- influence over individuals (if they do at all)? Broadly speaking in terms of theoretical poles, there are historically holists, like Durkheim and Parsons, who maintain that social structures are real and have causal power through, in one prominent variation, the internalization of the structure by individuals; subjectivists, like Max Weber, who see social structure as epiphenomenal and reduce it to individual subjective states; and interactionists, which focuses on the symbolic interactions between agents and the patterns of activity. There are also hybrid theories that combine two or more of these views, most notably Giddens, who combines holist and subjectivist positions in his theory of structuration.

After explaining all this very clearly and succinctly, he goes on to talk about which paradigms of agent based modeling correspond to which classes of sociological theory.


Sawyer, R. Keith. “Simulating emergence and downward causation in small groups.” Multi-agent-based simulation. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2000. 49-67.