Computational Social Science Forum — Experiments on the Sociological Origins of Categories

CSS Forum

November 30, 2020
12:00pm to 1:30pm
Virtual Participation


Computational Social Science Forum
Date: Monday, November 30, 2020
Time: 12:00-1:30 PM Pacific Time
Location: Register to receive the schedule and access links.

Experiments on the Sociological Origins of Categories

Douglas Guilbeault, Assistant Professor, Management of Organizations, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley
Individuals vary widely in how they categorize novel and ambiguous phenomena. This individual variation has led influential theories in cognitive and social science to suggest that communication in large social groups introduces path dependence in category formation, which is expected to lead separate populations toward divergent cultural trajectories. Yet, ethnographic data indicates that large, independent societies consistently arrive at highly similar category systems across a range of topics. How is it possible for diverse populations, consisting of individuals with significant variation in how they categorize the world, to independently construct similar category systems? In this study, I investigate this puzzle experimentally by creating an online “Grouping Game” in which we observe how people in small and large populations socially construct category systems for a continuum of ambiguous stimuli. I find that solitary individuals and small groups produce highly divergent category systems; however, across independent trials with unique participants, large populations consistently converge on highly similar category systems. I develop a formal model of critical mass dynamics in social networks that accurately predicts this process of scale-induced category convergence. This model provides a sociological theory for how large communication networks can filter lexical diversity among individuals to produce replicable society-level patterns, yielding unexpected implications for cultural evolution. In subsequent experiments, I show how these results replicate for both American and Chinese populations, and I develop novel methods for identifying where different cultural groups are most likely to converge and diverge when socially constructing categories. Finally, I discuss ongoing work that leverages this theory of scale-induced category convergence to explore longstanding problems of sociological interest, including symbolic power and pluralistic ignorance.

The Computational Social Science Forum is an informal setting for the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas and scholarship at the intersection of social science and data science. Weekly meetings are hosted by researchers from BIDS and D-Lab, and participants engage in a variety of activities such as presentations of work in progress, discussions and critiques of recent papers, introductions to new tools and methods, discussions around ethics, fairness, inequality, and responsible conduct of research, as well as professional development. We welcome social scientists researchers with interests in data science methods and tools, and data scientists with applications or interests in public policy, social, behavioral, and health sciences. Participants include graduate students, postdocs, staff, and faculty, and members are encouraged to attend regularly in order to foster community around improving computational social science research, supporting the development and research of group members, and fostering new collaborations. This Forum is organized as part of the Computational Social Science Training Program. Meetings are currently held virtually on Mondays at 12:00-1:30 PM Pacific Time, and interested UC Berkeley community members are invited to use this registration form to receive the schedule and access links. Please contact for more information.


Douglas Guilbeault

Assistant Professor, Management of Organizations, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley

Doug Guilbeault is an Assistant Professor in the Management of Organizations Group at the Haas School of Business. His work centers around the study of how people form conceptual systems through communication processes that are mediated by social networks and organizations. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences; Cognition; Policy and Internet; and the Journal of International Affairs; as well as in popular news outlets, such as The Atlantic and Wired. Doug’s work has received top research awards from The International Conference on Computational Social Science, The Cognitive Science Society, and The International Communication Association. His current research is funded by Facebook and the NIH.