The Romans and calculators: discuss! (debate published in Antiquity)

What are the limits of using computational modelling for understanding the Roman past? Where do such formal approaches fit in the existing theoretical context of Roman studies? These are the questions we debate in a discussion piece published today in Antiquity; a reply to Astrid Van Oyen’s critical and constructive discussion of our previous computational modelling work also published in Antiquity.

In our original work we argued that computational modelling should become more commonly used in the study of the Roman economy, because it holds the potential of overcoming the current deadlock in Roman macroeconomic debates by formally expressing and comparing the many interesting conflicting descriptive models, simulating their predicted behaviour (in terms of distributions of goods and prices) and comparing these simulations with archaeological data such as distributions of ceramics.

Astrid Van Oyen wrote an elaborate discussion piece, reviewing the beneficial and challenging aspects of this kind of work. She usefully and correctly places the potential of this method within current Roman economic debates, arguing for the timeliness of the approach. However, most of Van Oyen’s piece is concerned with problematising three aspects of the approach, asking whether these pose problems, and constructively thinking through possible alternatives:

  1. Can formalist modelling yield primitivist results?
  2. Do the big archaeological datasets of ceramics necessarily have to be interpreted in light of the flow of commodities?
  3. Is it possible to consider heterogeneity in agent behaviour?

In our reply, we answer the first question with a firm “yes”. We find the link commonly drawn between primitivist theories and substantivist methods on the one hand, and modernist theories and formalist methods on the other, an unhelpful and unnecessary byproduct of common practice in Roman economy studies. We argue we have shown in our own work that primitivist ideas can be formally explored (agents with limited information, the effects of social network structures), and that much more of this kind of work is necessary.

We find this debate hugely important and constructive, because we have argued that Roman economy studies is stuck in a deadlock due to a number of issues:

  1. Many models use different and sometimes ill-defined concepts to describe the complexities of the Roman economy, making them difficult to compare.
  2. The concepts used often lack specifications as to how they may be explored using data, i.e. what sort of patterns would be expected as the outcome of hypothetical processes.
  3. Consequently, the development of these conceptual models has not gone hand in hand with the development of approaches to represent, compare and (where possible) validate them formally.
  4. The role of archaeological data in testing conceptual models, although increasingly recognised, deserves greater attention, as it is the only source of information on the functioning and performance of the Roman economy that can be used for quantitative validation of complex computational and conceptual models.

Brughmans and Poblome 2016. Antiquity.

We sincerely hope that together we can position computational modelling in its rightful place in Roman studies to constructively contribute to ongoing substantive debates. We have argued that in order for this to happen, a few things are necessary:

authors of conceptual models should:

(a) clearly define the concepts used and discuss exactly how these differ from the concepts used by others,

(b) make explicit how these concepts can be represented as data,

(c) describe the expected behaviour of the system using the defined concepts,

(d) describe the expected data patterns resulting from this behaviour, and

(e) define how (if at all) archaeological and historical sources can be used as reflections or proxies of these expected data patterns.

Brughmans and Poblome 2016 http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/19/1/3.html 5.6

Want to know more? Have a look at discussion through the links below:

Our original paper in Antiquity
Van Oyen’s discussion
Our reply

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