Carnegie Mellon University
November 09, 2023

Carnegie Mellon University Launches Institute for Complex Social Dynamics

By Stefanie Johndrow

Stefanie Johndrow

The Institute for Complex Social Dynamics, a new Carnegie Mellon University institute announced today, will develop and use mathematical and computational models to deepen our understanding of complex social systems. Investigating behavior on social media, within criminal organizations and across scientific practice are just a few examples of the types of projects the institute will pursue.

Kevin Zollman, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Philosophy, will direct the institute.

“Dietrich and CMU have strengths in computation, agent-based modeling, network theory and rational choice. I have wanted to combine all of these to understand key aspects of the social world for a long time. With the generous support of The Dietrich Foundation and the leadership of Kevin Zollman, I am really excited to now be able to launch an initiative like this in our college,” said Richard Scheines, Bess Family Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The Institute for Complex Social Dynamics will incentivize faculty, graduate and undergraduate students across the university to collaborate on research that seeks to understand social phenomena like segregation, political partisanship, the way communication networks form and evolve, and many others.

“This new institute highlights Carnegie Mellon’s strengths in understanding both the good and the bad in large-scale, complex social phenomena. By providing a clearinghouse for this work, the institute will develop the next generation of scholars to employ a variety of scientific and humanistic methods to tackle the most difficult social problems,” Zollman said.

Core members of the institute include Zollman; associate professors Simon DeDeo and Russell Golman and professor John Miller of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences; Nynke Niezink, assistant professor in the Department of Statistics & Data Science; and Cosma Shalizi, associate professor in the Department of Statistics & Data Science with joint appointments in the Machine Learning Department, the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition and Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. Kara Kedrick is serving as the inaugural Postdoctoral Fellow in Complex Social Dynamics.

In addition, the institute includes several affiliate members from across the university, including faculty from the School of Computer Science, Heinz College and Tepper School of Business.

The following is a sample of initial research projects at the Institute for Complex Social Dynamics.

Niezink, Shalizi and Zollman are collaborating on “Social Networks,” a project that examines the implications of social networks on social dynamics.

“We are all embedded in various social networks, both online, through social media, and offline, through all the social settings we are part of,” Niezink said. “Our networks change over time and, simultaneously, shape who we are. For example, our opinions, our values, but also the opportunities we have access to are affected by who we know. At the same time, who we are also shapes our networks. The interdisciplinary environment the institute provides is key to understanding this interplay.” 

DeDeo, Golman, Miller, Niezink, Shalizi and Zollman are pursuing “The Wisdom and Madness of the Crowd,” which investigates contemporary society’s reliance on collective wisdom, including the knowledge of when crowds are wise and when they are not.

DeDeo, Golman, Miller and Zollman also are working together on “Understanding the Emergence of Sociality,” which explores what gives rise to social behaviors and what might lead to abrupt social change.

“The new analytic techniques being embraced by the institute give us the possibility of understanding the origins of both social behavior and social institutions. The elements that drive the origins of these systems often persist long into the future, giving us new insights into our current social world,” Miller said.

The Institute for Complex Social Dynamics will hold a kickoff event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday, Dec. 1. Institute members will present a series of short talks about their ongoing research.