An Agent-Based Modeling Simulation Toolkit

Theoretical Underpinnings

A fundamental theoretical objective of our work has been to help rescue a promising line of theoretical development—constructivist identity theory—from what has appeared to many to be an analytic dead end. Before providing a summary report of the work done with ABIR and PS-I that lays the ground for the present proposal, it is necessary to provide the particular theoretical context for the substantive contribution we aim to make in this and related areas.

It is increasingly apparent how many of the dangerous conflicts around the world are defined in terms of some variant of "identity politics." Few imagine that economics, security, literacy levels, demography, and other factors are not contributing elements in these conflicts, but more than ever, serious efforts to understand the dynamics of collective identity formation and change are needed—not only to anticipate and prevent ethnopolitical conflict, but also to find institutional techniques for managing potentially conflictual relationships in different contexts. "Constructivism" is a label for a general approach to these problems emphasizing the processes which (contingently) produce and reproduce collective identities and propensities of individuals to identify with particular collectivities. In political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and international relations, numerous variants of constructivism (including "instrumentalism" and "circumstantialism") arose to counter older models of identity as "primordial" or "essential" characteristics of individuals or groups. Few serious social scientists now embrace primordialism in its starkest form—the notion that the true political or social nature of a group or an individual was somehow permanently stamped upon that entity and that, eventually, it will either express its "authentic" self or disappear. Nonetheless, this approach is still favored by journalists and many policy-maker.

However, virtually all social scientists and scholars of identity formation and change adopt constructivist positions of one sort or another. From this general standpoint, individuals and groups maintain not one identity, but repertoires or portfolios of possible identities—ways of presenting themselves to the world that evoked by, and are more credible or useful under some circumstances than others. Thus identities are seen as multiple, fluid, and influenced by surrounding incentive structures, pressures of local conformity, broader cultural changes, and the manipulative techniques of cultural or political entrepreneurs. Indeed it is widely the translation of observable heterogeneity among individuals into collective perceptions, goals, and behavior requires explanation, that identities are malleable, tradable, and deployable, that groups and individuals have repertoires of identities that are activated differentially in response to changing incentive structures, and that some actors can have disproportionate influence on patterns in the activation or consolidation of particular identities at the group level.

But with few exceptions, the large literatures that apply constructivist principles have done so with a fairly limited set of objectives in mind. To an unsatisfying extent, scholars working on problems of individual and collective identity direct their work toward demonstrating that the assumptions of the constructivist program, or paradigm, hold, and that primordialist or essentialist expectations and assumptions are wrong, usually laughably wrong. This ritualized beating of dead horses can be explained in part by lack of theoretical imagination, but also in part because of the difficulties of gathering data suitable for the categories constructivist theory suggests as crucial. Either way the result has been an insufficient commitment to, and a disappointing record of, posing and answering more empirically and theoretically interesting questions—questions that primordialists could not ask.

Primordialism, for all its faults, had the virtue that once people were sorted into the proper "zoological" groups, with their essential characteristics divined, confident predictions could be made about the preferences, perceptions, and behavior of their members without actually examining or observing them. Constructivists, on the other hand, must somehow probe the multiplicity of identities available to individuals, the range of "identity projects" available within a population or across overlapping or intermingled populations, and the relationship of those identities and projects to changeable sets of preferences and changeable institutional circumstances. The data gathering problems created by the theory are compounded when the researcher's interests are directed toward exotic, logistically inconvenient, or even dangerous field sites.

As work done by many intrepid and theoretically sophisticated field researchers shows, it is possible to gather and analyze historical and contemporary data relevant to constructivist images of how people trade, instrumentalize, or contextualize their politically relevant identities. It is even possible to discover or arrange natural experiments to use available data to explore the plausibility of certain basic expectations of the overall constructivist posture. But such enterprises are enormously labor intensive and are difficult to distill or harness for policy-making purposes across a wide range of cases.