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Mar. 28 | Computational Thinking: Linking Culture and Cognition in Gender, Science, and Memory

  • 509 Knox Hall | Columbia University 606 West 122nd Street New York, NY, 10027 United States (map)

WHO: Jacob Foster (UCLA Sociology)
WHEN: Wednesday, March 28th, 2018, 12:00 - 2:00 p.m.
WHERE: Knox Hall 509, 606 W 122nd Street

The rapid emergence of computational social science has thrust sophisticated computational methods into the sociological mainstream. Using these methods, sociologists can puzzle out patterns in social data of unprecedented scale and complexity. Yet these computational methods remain in the service of relatively standard sociological theorizing. In this talk, I argue that computational ideas can—and should—transform sociological theory. Our theories of the social world overflow with claims about perception, classification, learning, and habit; about the nature (and dare I say function?) of key institutions; about the processes that weave the micro-threads of cognition into (and, paradoxically, out of) the macro-webs of culture. Computational thinking can sharpen these claims, giving the relevant sociological theory more analytical bite. Drawing on Marr’s hierarchy for the analysis of information processing systems, I describe computational thinking as a theoretical orientation. I then illustrate my approach in three brief vignettes. First, I show how computational thinking—coupled with recent neural network methods for learning the semantic structure of natural language—clarifies how media can “teach” their readers complex, gendered schemata about body weight. Second, building on classic theories of distributed computation, I outline evidence that scientific institutions co-opt fundamental cognitive processes like status monitoring and social learning to implement a collective discovery algorithm. Third, I argue that recent breakthroughs in machine learning and cognitive neuroscience suggest a profound role for episodic memory, narrative, and story in everyday human cognition—and that cultural analysis that neglects these aspects of cognition is fundamentally incomplete.

Jacob Foster is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at UCLA. Professor Foster’s research focuses on computational approaches to the sociology of science. He blends network analysis, complex systems thinking, and data-driven probabilistic modeling with the qualitative insights of the science studies literature to probe the strategies, dispositions, and social processes that shape the production and persistence of scientific ideas. He also develops formal models of scientific behavior and the evolutionary dynamics of ideas and institutions. Professor Foster received a B.S. in Physics from Duke University and a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Calgary. His research has appeared in journals such as Science, American Sociological Review, and Social Networks.

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch and light refreshments will be provided. All are welcome!

For inquires about Networks and Time, please contact coordinators Mark Hoffman ( or Eugene Grey (

Funding support for the Networks and Time Seminar Series is provided by the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Lecture Series, administered by INCITE, which features events and programming that embody and honor Lazarsfeld’s commitment to the improvement of methodological approaches that address concerns of vital cultural and social significance.