University introduces M.A. in computational social science

New degree will revolve around the intersection of data interpretation and human psychology.

By Isaac Troncoso

The University’s Division of the Social Sciences announced its new Master of Arts in Computational Social Science (MACSS) program at the end of September, which will use mathematical methods to answer questions about the behavioral patterns of human populations.

The MACSS curriculum will devote two years to studying core areas including perspectives on analysis, modeling, big data, and computer programming. It is intended to give students who have begun or are considering work in the social sciences a quantitative skillset, focusing particularly on statistics and computer modeling.

The study of computational social science revolves around the intersection of data interpretation and human psychology, especially valuable in areas such as urban studies or marketing, according to Chad Cyrenne, managing director of M.A. Programs in the Social Sciences. As such, the discipline fundamentally requires both the skills of a sociologist and a mathematician.

“Computational social science is a way to connect questions about humans and the world as a whole with large scale data to creatively answer them. It’s also for folks who have technical computer science or mathematical backgrounds and want to deepen that by linking their skills to a set of rich social science inquiries,” James Evans, the program’s faculty director, said.

Cyrenne described the fundamental concept of computational social science using an example he attributed to Evans: “Suppose the cure for cancer has already been discovered, but no one human mind is able to perceive it because it’s written across hundreds of thousands of different articles in cancer research. What if we could develop an algorithm—a computational approach—that could simultaneously absorb, map, visualize, and draw connections across those hundreds of thousands of pieces to show us the cure for cancer that is in fact already there?”

To gain a wide array of viewpoints on questions like these, the MACSS initiative is designed to accommodate those in any field of social science who are just beginning to learn computational techniques. “Our program is importantly different from the 10–12 high-level computational programs that presently exist on other campuses. Most of our peers are also one-year programs, and as a result have exceptionally high quantitative thresholds for admission, so there’s really no opportunity to have a shot unless you’ve already done that computational work,” Cyrenne said.

“Our real hope with this program is to transform the social sciences. We want to build people who will go on to get their doctorates in political science, economics, history, or what have you, but with this unique computational skill set. We believe that with these skills they will be able to have a transformative impact on their disciplines,” Evans said.