Active Inference in the Social Sciences

Social sciences are shaped by a permanent debate about the relative role of structure and agency in producing human behavior. On one hand, it is undeniable that social roles, cultural norms, linguistic categories and institutions play some role in producing the patterns of social activity. On the other hand, any given individual has a de facto autonomy in the way they navigate their own social context, as is made evident by the diversity of beliefs and behavior in any given society. Therefore, for any theory accentuating the role of social structure, we may highlight individual agency in the way humans navigate this structure; and for any theory accentuating the role of human agency, we may highlight how social structure constrain and construct the very motivations of each individual agent. In consequence, this debate cannot possibly end - unless we can dissolve the apparent dichotomy of structure and agency, and identify a way to describe both as two complementary description of the same process.

Active Inference is a formal framework which describes cognitive agency as the integration and enaction of expectations over one’s own sensorimotor flow. At its core, it is an extension of the Free Energy Principle which demonstrates a fundamental duality between the “world-model” embodied and enacted by living systems / cognitive agents and the structural identity of their physical organization. It provides a straightforward account of cognitive agency as the navigation of the agent’s ecological context, experienced as a landscape of affordances (or perceived possibilities for action). In this model, the norms and values guiding an agent’s behavior are embedded in the structure of their basic experience, in the form of the content and the valence of the cognitive landscape they enact. The process of enculturation can then simply be described as the process of inferring and reconstruction a landscape of sociocultural affordances. Then, both social structure and individual agency can then be described in an integrated manner, at the level of the experience by individual agents of a shared social context.

Since 2023, we are organizing a course on Active Inference for the Social Sciencesin collaboration with the Active Inference Institute. This course is designed for learners of all backgrounds who wish to study the integrated nature of social structure and individual agency. The goal of the course is to transmit a core conceptual model of the multifold relationship between of human experience and social constraints/cultural meaning, with the hope of identifying avenues for further research bridging formal, social, and cognitive science and encouraging their exploration. Please visit the course website for more details, on look the playlist of our past sessions.

This article was updated on October 23, 2023