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January 07, 2008

Workshop: Is there a Physics of Society?

Usually, I blog about upcoming workshops and conferences that seem interesting (many of which I ultimately attend). This time, I'm blogging about a workshop that I'm organizing... whether that makes it interesting, I'll let you decide. The workshop is organized around the idea that social science and physics have a lot to offer each other, and many people over the ages have wondered whether society's machinations might follow "laws" that are vaguely similar to the sort that we see matter follow.

If there is a "physics of society" it will surely be rather different from the strongly deterministic laws that often characterize physics (in the classical limit), but rather more like the statistical laws that pervade condensed matter or statistical physics. Even then, if such "laws" do exist, they are necessarily the product of the collective action of many individuals, and thus don't say a whole lot about individual or idiosyncratic behavior. That is, "laws of society" in the sense that we mean them are different from traditional sociology, where most questions relate to how societal "norms" influence individual behavior (and also, perhaps, the construction of those norms), and more like "crowd" behavior when many people constrain each others' range of choices through social interactions. Examples of these kinds of patterns are plentiful nowadays, but some of my favorites include the physics of traffic jams (for example), the price of individuality (for example), and the irrationality of popularity (for example). Our hope for the workshop, which is bringing together about 10 social scientists and 10 physicists, is to think seriously about the prospects for a "physics of society", ask what other behaviors can be explained in this way, and shed light on the conditions that cause social interactions produce law-like behavior.

SFI Workshop: Is there a Physics of Society?

January 10-12, 2008 at Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico

Organizers: Aaron Clauset (SFI) and Michelle Girvan (U. Maryland)

Description: Based on the fact that a number of physicists are now actively studying models of social systems (e.g., the tremendous amount of recent work on networks, models of collective behavior, etc.), we believe that now is a critical time to bring together social scientists and physicists to discuss the idea of whether there might be a "physics of society," and, if so, what are the most promising areas for collaboration and future work. Obviously, we are optimistic about the likelihood that there are such areas, and hope that this workshop benefits both groups of scientists.

The format of the workshop will involve both technical presentations and discussion about the broader issues with the idea that we begin to sort through the outstanding questions about the 'physics of society'. The group we are inviting is relatively small of about twenty social scientists (including sociologists, economists and political scientists) and physicists.

Update, January 11, 2008: I'll be blogging about the results of the workshop next week.

Update, February 24, 2008: Obviously, I haven't blogged yet about the workshop the way I'd wanted to... this is partly because of having been overwhelmingly busy since the workshop ended, but also because I'm reluctant to kiss and tell about it here. There were aspects of the workshop that I greatly enjoyed (e.g., meeting several people whom I think are absolutely fascinating work, both on the social science and on the physics side of things), and aspects that greatly irked me (e.g., the thinly veiled and entirely unhelpful chest-thumping about physics is the model of how science should be done). For sure though, I hope and plan to have more interactions around the core ideas of the workshop in the future. With a little luck, some of these may even involve doing detailed experimental work on large-scale social behavior...

posted January 7, 2008 11:36 AM in Conferences and Workshops | permalink | Comments (3)