Self-Organization and Complexity in Social Systems
As groups larger, they often get more complex—there is an increasing variety of types of individuals and increasing variety in how these individuals interact with one another. This is true in social insects, where species that have larger colonies typically also have more morphologically-distinct castes, with small workers, large soldiers, and everything in between. Similarly, larger human societies also typically have more variety in the beliefs and behaviors(e.g., occupations, beliefs) of individuals. To understand how we find an increasing variety in both the types of and interactions between individuals, I focus on understanding the self-organization of two broad properties: the division of labor and social network structure.
(1) Behavioral Specializaiton & Division of Labor
Economists, sociologists, biologists, and policy makers have all fascinated over the division of labor, when individuals specialize in certain tasks. This can also be thought of more broadly when we consider other behaviors that can exist on a spectrum, including broader behavioral specialization, the emergence of individual personalities in a group, or political polarization.
What causes groups of generalists to change into heterogeneous groups of specialists, each focusing on specific tasks? What drives this level of organization in social systems? What benefits might this increase in behavioral diversity have on the ability of the group to adapt?
(2) Social Networks: Clustering & the Beginnings of Modularity
While the division of labor is one form of social organization, social networks provides a tangible way for us to understand the structure of interactions among individuals in a group. Larger groups typically have network modularity and assortativity, where individuals of the same type tend to cluster together.
What causes social networks to go from being well-connected and homogenous to heterogenous and clustered? How does the pattern of social interaction influence other properties of a group, like the division of labor?
As a former Science Policy Fellow and current researcher in complex systems, the realm of the “science of science” is a perfect field to complexity theory and evolutionary theory to examine applied problems.
Part of my work revolves around examining the ways science functions as a complex adaptive system. What can the patterns of publication citation networks tell us about the way science is changing over time? How might the collaborative networks of scientists influence the ways interdisciplinary research occurs?
I also research equity in science education. For one project, I used years of data from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education to examine the degree to which gender and racial groups are over- or underrepresented in different scientific fields at the undergraduate level. The statistical metric we proposed demonstrated that the normal ways policy makers examine racial and gender equity in STEM is inadequate. For example, we found that while normal measurements showed increasing participation in STEM fields by women and students of color, our metric showed that black, hispanic, and native american women remained consistently underrepresented, suggesting that further educational policy must be crafted to specifically address these groups.