Write-up: seminar 4

Seminar 4 – Social theory, transport and energy modelling
Presentations and audio available here.
• Jillian Anable and Elizabeth Shove talked about collecting and using data on time use, mobility and energy demand, contrasting approaches used in the different fields. Time use research has centred on the individual diarist and their daily activities: how these are coded has changed substantively through time. Energy use research has taken a top-down approach, using aggregate datasets. Travel diaries again focus on the individual, but home in on trips (not all activities). There is a preoccupation with purpose but this causes problems for multi-stage journeys and leisure. Would it be possible to create a fantasy integrated diary combining all the approaches? Ultimately only new paradigms based on new social theories will lead to new data collection methods.
- New data collection methods may already exist – being used by supermarkets for example – but will they be usable by academics for other ends?
• Dan Olner spoke about challenges to modelling posed by Peak Oil and Climate Change. Transport modelling is mostly ‘applied’ rather than ‘scientific’, taking society as given and providing day-to-day policy tools. But it may not be much use to use in thinking about the dramatic changes needed. Is it possible to move beyond both ‘applied’ and ‘scientific’ approaches, towards social computing, which can tap into human organisational structures and enable bottom-up approach social change?
- If social computing breaks down barriers between model and world, how does that affect the model’s credibility and its usefulness in a world that prioritises scientific knowledge?
• Tim Schwanen talked about process in transport research, arguing that the ways in which researchers have conceptualised time constrains our understanding of process and the questions we are able to ask. He put forward alternative ways of thinking about process, based on ‘philosophies of becoming’. Current transport models’ strength is their highlighting of stability; their weakness is their inability to comprehend self-organisation and creativity. An alternative would involve a research programme focusing on rules that capture relationships between ‘things’, with the focus on not what the existing rules are but what they might become. Ethnographic methods could play a key role.
- Does ethnography really overcome transport modelling’s problems, or does it risk a return to empiricism? Is it really possible to observe system rules in this way?
• Paul Timms explored how metaphors and narratives are central to transport modelling, and how they constrain and shape the questions we ask, and the answers we get. He described a two-way matrix for classifying modelling narratives, with distinctions based on the level of determinism versus contingency, and whether the model is actor-based or scenario-based. The two classic modelling approaches are both deterministic, with one scenario-based (the four-step gravity model) and one actor-based (discrete choice models). Creating models that enable contingency and endow key actors with change-making powers can help contribute to the step change we need. We need more open, contingency-friendly metaphors to help build new narratives.
- Does this mean we have to start again with entirely new models? How do we build a community supporting the proposed new metaphors and narratives?
• Georg Holtz gave an example of using agent-based modelling (ABM) to study social practices. ABM has been used within quite complex traditional transport models, such as MATSIM. However, it can also be used for quite different approaches. Georg’s model is an abstract ABM looking at commuting practices, exploring the transmission of materials, meanings and competences (three key components of practices). Agents in the model exchange these components, which can then co-evolve, allowing an exploration of mechanisms that generate, change or block social practices.
- Is it possible to understand practices in this way through a focus on individual action?

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