Modelling Social Life

The map isn’t the territory

Re-Assembling Reality #26, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

In our essay on life, we considered vitality as a primarily individual phenomenon. But humans are social beings. We can never survive alone. One of the worst punishments ever given to humans is solitary confinement. Social life is not an addition to life, but an intrinsic part of it. Individual and social life can’t be separated — they are two aspects of a single vitality.

Social life is what social scientists specialize in researching. But they don’t speak so much of “social life” as of “society”, as some kind of thing.

What is society, anyway?

We tend to think that society is made up of people. But a random group of people no more constitutes a society than a random group of cells constitutes a body.

A crowd in Hong Kong, 2005. Photo credit: Hamedog on Wikimedia

Society consists of relationships between persons. These relationships change the persons involved. Relationships thus consist of influences and forces that cause the elements to change.

But while people are objectively observable bodies, the relations between them are invisible. Society is made of invisible relationships, influences and forces. Social science consists in trying to identify these relationships and forces and to understand how they influence people.

Models of society

Social scientists have constructed different models of social relations. Let’s talk about three very common ones used by social scientists. Many theories of society are variations or combinations of these three basic types. We will call them the rational choice model, the domination model, and the cultural model.

The rational choice model considers that society is made up of free, rational, self-interested individuals who voluntarily decide to associate and form a social contract by which they agree to follow common rules to live together within the framework of these common rules. All the members of the society pursue their self-interest, competing with each other and calculating to maximize their benefit. This model of society is derived from the model of business firms competing with each other in a free market. Directors and shareholders of firms, as well as the firms themselves, are all driven by instrumental rationality, using rational means to maximize their profit or self-interest. The rational choice model of society was developed by economists to understand the operation of a free market. It has then been extended to all forms of social life by social scientists who claim that people act as rational decision makers all the time. People who use the rational choice model attempt to explain all social phenomena as the cumulative effect of the rational choices of large numbers of people, just like the price of goods in the market can be explained as the result of the rational choices of consumers and producers acting in a competitive marketplace.

Sociologists of religion, for example, have developed the “religious markets theory” based on the rational choice model, to argue that religious organizations can be compared to business firms that offer religious goods to a market of religious seekers. Those firms that offer the highest quality or most attractive product will outcompete the others. Religious people are treated as rational calculators who make the choices that will benefit them. Religious “firms” offer this-worldly benefits, such as a community support, social networks, and even, often, prestige or material benefits. And they also offer other-worldly benefits such as salvation or a place in heaven in the afterlife. Thus, within this model, religious believers are never irrational. They always choose, based on the information available, the religions or religious practices that will give them the maximum benefits. In this model, a competitive religious marketplace will be more dynamic and lead to better religious products.

Sociologists of science can, in analogous fashion, develop a “scientific market theory” based on the rational choice model, to explain scientific development [1]. Much scientific research and invention is sponsored or funded by corporations seeking to develop new or better products in a competitive marketplace, or by national militaries seeking to gain a competitive edge in their respective armed forces, space explorations or so on. Individual scientists and research teams seek to advance their careers by securing larger research grants, and they are encouraged to do so by universities that are competing with each other to improve their rankings in their competition to attract the best students or increase their support from governments or private donors. In the framework of economic markets theory applied to science, all of these actors are making calculated choices to maximize their interest in different competitive fields, with the cumulative effect of advancing science.

The second most widely used model is the domination model. This model considers that society is made up of different classes or groups of people who have different access to political, economic, cultural, social and symbolic resources. Some groups dominate others through their control or ownership of these resources, and they use these resources to ensure that they retain the resources, extract the resources from other groups, and ensure that other groups are unable to challenge or overturn their own power. Dominated groups, on the other hand, are either effectively oppressed or resist the domination. Sometimes, they struggle effectively against the dominating group. In this model, domination, conflict, resistance and struggle define social relations.

Sociologists have used this model to analyze religion, showing how religion is often used by the ruling classes as a means of legitimizing their domination. For example, through most of history, rulers have claimed that the political authorities are sanctified by divine authority and that the dominated classes should accept their poverty and lower status because their fate is divinely ordained or the result of karma. Other sociologists have shown how oppressed groups have turned to religion as a source of hope, community and empowerment on the basis of which they have challenged, and sometimes transformed, structures of domination. If domination, conflict, resistance and struggle define social relations, then this model deals with both dominators, and those who challenge them: those who resist the oppressor are still dealing in terms of domination, conflict, resistance and struggle.

First trial of the automatic Maxim gun by British troups against Africans in 1887.

Sociologists have also used this model to show how modern science developed as an integral part of European colonialism and imperialism, using a similar epistemic paradigm to dominate both nature and other peoples, and contributing to the development of weapons systems and industrial technologies that enabled the ruling classes of Europe to dominate the whole world. On the other hand, science can also be studied as a site for resisting and overcoming domination. For example, by using scientific approaches, the critical social sciences have been able to show how the hidden mechanisms of domination operate, awakening people to the oppressive nature of their social reality. With this awareness, they can resist and to take actions to oppose or change the structures of domination. Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, for example, concluded that for China to overcome the oppression of both feudal tradition and imperialist domination by the West, it was necessary for Chinese people to acquire a scientific education and to develop advanced science in China.

The third model of society postulates that the primary concern of human beings is cultural communication and meaning. People are constantly interpreting the world around them and giving meaning to everything they do. But these meanings don’t simply come out of their individual minds; they are encoded in a shared culture. For example, we think in a language that we learned during our infancy. This language gives us a range of words and grammatical relations with which we can think, and but it also puts limits on what we can think. Language was not consciously designed by a single individual; all of our minds have been formatted by a language that we inherit and that we reproduce and pass on to others by speaking it. The same holds for all the aspects of culture: symbols, myths, stories, moral values, rituals, habits, lifestyles and even unconscious ways of thinking and acting. Everything we do and think is deeply shaped by our culture; even when we try to change it, we can only change it based on the culture we already have, and only to a small degree. In cultural models of society, humans are unconscious products of culture, carriers of culture, and reproducers of culture. Since culture consists in shared symbols, meanings and practices, a core concern in the cultural model is how culture helps to integrate social groups, but also how social fragmentation or rapid change leads to the dissipation of a common culture, and how culture is produced and reproduced under such conditions.

Sociologists of religion, theorizing the cultural model, often treat religion as a paradigmatic form of culture. In this model, by sacralizing culture as divine revelation, religion enhances the sense that our symbols, stories, values and habits are not things that we can simply create or change at will. Religious tradition socializes people into a common culture with shared sacred symbols, values, rituals, customs and ways of thinking. On the other hand, sociologists of religion have also shown how religion can be a powerful force for cultural transformation: when a new religion emerges, it often advocates new values, symbols and lifestyles that are radically different from the traditional culture. The members of the new religion are often marginals and outcasts. Many of the major world religions began with such groups of cultural dissidents who, over the centuries, became the mainstream culture, or were absorbed into the mainstream culture.

Sociologists of science, using the cultural model, show how scientific research is a cultural practice in which different disciplines and scientific communities are governed by specific cultural codes, forms of rhetoric, stories, rituals, values, customs and ways of thinking, which are most often unsconsciously transmitted and reproduced by scientists, and play an important role in how scientific knowledge is constructed.

Assumptions about human nature

These three models of society each rest on a set of ontological assumptions about human nature or doctrine of humanity. In the rational choice model, the assumption is that all individuals are powered by an inner driving force that pushes them to live, to survive and to maximize their self-interest. The animating force of society, all of the dynamism, the changes and the transformations of the social world consists of the sum total of all of these individual drives. And interacting with each other, this sum total of individual forces becomes an invisible collective force, which is often called the invisible hand of the market. This is a force that transcends any individual and can’t be changed by a single individual.

(© IWM MH 11040) Adolf Hitler, flanked by the massed ranks of the Sturm Abteilung (SA), ascends the steps to the speaker’s podium during the 1934 harvest festival celebration at Bückeburg. Via

In the domination model, the assumption is that all individuals are powered by an impulse to accumulate power. And when a group of such people become the ruling class of such a society, they will design social institutions in such a manner that all the institutions themselves — including the government, the army, the education system, culture, religion and the media — all become means of perpetuating domination, to such an extent that even daily social interactions reproduce the structure of domination. The power of domination is a hegemonic force that ultimately transcends any individual person or group and can only be resisted or opposed by creating alternative centres of collective power. The animating force of society, then, is the sum total of all of these channels and relationships of power, and the clashes between opposing or resisting centres of power.

In the cultural model, the assumption is often that there is no such thing as human nature: what we consider to be the “essence” or “nature” of humans is itself a cultural idea, and that to the extent that any “human nature” can be observed, what we observe is not inherent to us but is the product of deep cultural conditioning. But cultural models do assume that people are driven by the need for meaning. Culture provides the world of meaning that people need to understand their lives. Thus, the animating forces of society are the thirst for meaning by individuals and the provision of meaning by culture.

Each of these models rests on a theory of human nature that makes assumptions about what drives individuals, and how those drives become the animating force of society — the accumulation of individual self-interested choices, the will to dominating power, or the production of meaning.[2]

The account we have just presented is highly simplified. In fact, through constant adjustments (see our essay on coherentism), problems with the three models have been dealt with by adding caveats, nuances and new concepts. The most sophisticated social scientific theories combine aspects of at least two of the models, if not all three, as well as other models.

How do social scientists choose between different models? One factor is simply personal taste. Some prefer the elegance of rational actors, others are fascinated by cultural meanings. Another factor is traditions within a discipline or within a department. Depending on where you work, some models may be out of the question. Another factor is ideology. The rational choice model fits well with libertarianism and free market ideologies. The domination model fits well with Marxist and post-Marxist ideologies. The cultural model fits well with both liberal and conservative forms of communitarianism, although it can easily be used to serve any ideology. By no means can we assume that the users of these models align with those ideological orientations; again, we simplify to illustrate our point. But each of the models has arisen out of a specific intellectual tradition which has also spawned its own ideologies.

And each model of society suggests a different course of social, policy, or political action. Studies using the rational choice model tend to suggest, implicitly or explicitly, policies to create the conditions for individuals to make their own choices without restrictions. Studies using domination models tend to suggest means of resisting, undermining, or opposing domination. Studies using cultural models tend to suggest that it’s important to deepen cultural awareness, to respect cultural diversity, and to oppose “cultural essentialism:” because there is no human nature and all cultures are human creations, we should always remind people that culture is a constant human creation and oppose privileging a single culture over others.

When we consider each of these models, it’s not difficult to realise that each model helps us to discover some dimensions of social reality. But they also seem to miss out on something or to distort the picture as well. Each model gives us a handle on some dimensions of social life, while making us blind to others.

The difference between a model and what is going on.

Pseudo-atomic structure of the human apoptosome. Source: Wikimedia.

When physicists build atomic models, they know that their models don’t represent what is really going on, and that their models simply help them to get a handle on the phenomenon. When they switch models of atoms, it has no implications for how we see ourselves and live our lives as humans.

But it’s different when we make models of society. We are easily tricked by our models of society, because we are modelling ourselves. When we see ourselves in a model, it’s as if we are looking at ourselves in a mirror. We are entranced by the model’s power to make sense of some aspect of our infinitely complex world — and then, we risk believing that the model is more true than the reality it is meant to partially describe. This is called reification — we turn the model into a thing, and we treat this thing as the reality.

When we read above how the different models of society can be used to explain both science and religion, we might have an aha! moment in which, suddenly, we seem to have understood what is really going on — that religions are firms in a religious marketplace; or that science is a system of domination. This is the moment when the model has seduced us, and blinds us to what it fails to account for. Acting as our mirrors, the models may then lead us to act like the distorted mirror image they show us: we come to believe that the best path of life is instrumental calculation; or that life is about nothing more than contests of power.

Or, conversely, what we see in the mirror of the model is not what we consider ourselves to be. Most religionists will recoil at the suggestion that they act just like consumers in a market. Most scientists will reject the notion that they are contributing to a system of oppression. And so, both religionists and scientists don’t like being studied by sociologists! Both will say, “you’re missing the point!” “We’re just praying and trying to be good in our life!” “We’re just trying to make new discoveries of nature!”

Whether the model induces enchantment and reification, or anger and rejection, the problem comes from the inherent limitation of any model.

Let’s think of how a random walk model can be used to get a handle on how crowds move at a concert.

Random walk in 2 dimensions with 25,000 steps. Credit: László Németh via Wikipedia

This works for figuring out where the bottlenecks will be in person flow, and the pressure points that could cause people to be crushed in a stampede.

But I should not think that people are really random walkers: the people at the concert do not follow a random walk. They want to go see the band, or get a drink, or visit the bathroom. They cannot act in a way that is consistent with the model, precisely because they ignore the model and do their own thing.

But the random walk model works.

And people should not think that they themselves are random walkers. If they were to start believing that the model represents who they really are, and they started walking randomly, they would cease to accomplish the purpose for which they had come to the concert.

And even if they are random walkers, they cannot think about themselves as such, because then they would stop being random walkers.

And while the random walk model can help us to manage the flow of crowds in the design of concert halls, it can’t help us to decide which bands should be hired to give concerts, the prices of the tickets, the design style of the hall, and so on. To solve those problems, completely different models will be needed, which are likely to be incompatible or incommensurable with the random walk model.

A model can give us a handle on one aspect of ourselves. It can give us some useful insights about ourselves, perhaps about some of our problems, and help us think about solutions. But we shouldn’t try to be like the model when we like it; and we needn’t reject it when we don’t like what we see in it — because we are not the model.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[1] See J. Paul Peter & Jerry C. Olson, “Is Science Marketing?” Journal of Marketing, Fall 1983, pp. 111–125, available online at

Zamora Bonilla, Jesús. 2011a. The economics of scientific knowledge. In Uskali Mäki (ed.), Handbook of philosophy of economics, 759–798. Elsevier: Amsterdam. Available online at

[2] Even theories that explicitly deny human nature are, by that token, making assumptions about human nature.




A dialogue between physicist Mike Brownnutt and anthropologist David A. Palmer. Insights from the natural and social sciences, Asian and Western philosophy, and theology.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.

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