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The Fish Tank Complex of Social Modelling on Space and Time in Understanding Collective Dynamics


A change of speed In the BBC documentary The Blue Planet, the British naturalist David Attenborough narrates marine life commenting on the 'time-lapsed' images of a tropical reef. The images are beautiful and surprising. Played at accelerated speed, the sequences reveal corals for what they actually are: not minerals or plants, but animals who grow, crawl, hunt and fight to survive. In sibling documentary, The Frozen Planet, Attenborough again uses the same acceleration technique to show a crowd of starfish swarming over a seal corpse. In both cases, the effect is startling: the change of tempo shatters the relation between the action and its scenery. While the expected actors disappeared (as the fishes of the reef) or froze to death (as the seal), the theater wings suddenly come alive and take the center of the stage. A similar effect, I hold, can be experienced in social phenomena by abandoning the spatial metaphors we traditionally use to understand them. Considering our collective existence, we often picture ourselves as coming from different cultural milieus, crossing social spheres, entering or leaving institutions, following norms and conventions. In all these expressions, individual movements are portrayed as occurring in the background of stable collective structures. Social sciences themselves have much encouraged such topological thinking, separating individuals from aggregates and placing the firsts inside the seconds. I refer here to the classic micro/macro distinction, which not only distinguish actors from structures, but also picture them as nested levels, with actors moving through structures as trains travelling through railways. To be sure, most social theories admit relations between the two levels: agents are bound by structures, but also feed back into them; systems emerge from actions, but also inform them. Yet, relation does not question separation and our social imagination remains trapped in a sort of 'fish tank complex' – a conceptual framing where actors moves against a static background, like fishes in a plastic aquarium. Such separation, of course, has its use. In collective life, not everything changes at the same time and it is often convenient to take some things as settled, in order to highlight faster transformations. Still, conceiving such distinction temporally instead of spatially has a key advantage – it remains open to graduation and change of speed. Social entities cannot lie between micro and macro (except in the few theory admiting the existence of a meso-scale) and are not supposed to jump from one level to the other: they are either actors or structures. Social change, on the contrary, can slow down or speed up and what seemed stable and structuring can suddenly transmute as corals bleaching at the speed of global warming and ocean acidification. In this chapter, I discuss the limitations of the spatial framing of collective dynamics both in modelling and in social theory; propose an alternative approach based on the technique of versioning; and, finally, provide a concrete example extracted from a project on French parliamentary activities.


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hal-01672283 , version 1 (23-12-2017)


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Tommaso Venturini. The Fish Tank Complex of Social Modelling on Space and Time in Understanding Collective Dynamics. Michiru Nagatsu; Attilia Ruzzene. Frontiers of Social Science: A Philosophical Reflection, Bloomsbury, 2019. ⟨hal-01672283⟩
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