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Modelling Processes of Status Differentiation

(see also the corresponding project page at the Lab of Digital and Computational Demography at the MPIDR) 

Understanding how status differentiation comes about has preoccupied social scientists in many disciples, such as anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology. One reason is that status differentiation is a nearly universal phenomenon, occurring at many levels (ranging from the small group level to the state level) and in many settings (e.g., in the family realm as well as in formal organizations). A second reason is that the status people hold can have consequences for important life outcomes, such as economic success, marriage, fertility, health, and life expectancy. Thus, understanding how status differentiation comes about is a central piece in the puzzle of social inequality.

One difficulty often faced by scholars who study status differentiation is that the social processes generating status hierarchies tend to be dynamic and complex. More specifically, status hierarchies often emerge from decentralized actions and interactions among a large number of people. The underlying behavioral and cognitive principles have the potential to generate self-reinforcing dynamics that are difficult to predict and that can have consequences that may be unintended (and may be even undesired) by the individual actors. Studying such dynamic and complex processes is often difficult with traditional methods in the social science tool box, and the mechanisms that create status differentiation therefore are still poorly understood.

This project seeks to addresses this lacuna by studying processes of status differentiation by means of agent-based computational (ABC) modelling. In ABC modelling, a given population of individuals is represented as agents in a computer model, in which they act and interact with each other based on theoretically and empirically informed rules for behavior. By that, it becomes possible to assess (1) how status hierarchies emerge from the interactions of multiple individuals and (2) how such emergence can depend on the assumptions that are made about people’s behavior and the social structures in which it occurs.

The main focus of this project is on unravelling the behavioral and cognitive processes that underlie the emergence of status differentiation between social groups, such as between men and women, whites and non-whites, and ethnic majorities and minorities.

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