Social Physics

Recently I have come across this massive review of social physics (148 pages in the published version, 359 on arXiv). Social physics? According to Wikipedia: “field of science which uses mathematical tools inspired by physics to understand the behaviour of human crowds”, for most of us plainly positivist sociology in the sense that regular patterns are searched. I was impressed by the breadth of the review, but then I started wondering what purpose it served. To get an overview of the discipline, I think it’s both too long (because the mathematical details are included, as we’d expect in a physics article, I guess), but also too short (because it necessarily leaves out details and nuances).

I cannot comment on how useful this review is for physicists, but it’s my guess that most others will be well served with Frank Tubergen‘s excellent Introduction to Sociology and the slightly older Social Atom by Mark Buchanan. While the latter relates to physics just like the review by Marko Jusup et al. (but is clearly written for a very general audience), the former is the introductory textbook we’ve been waiting for — a textbook that’s not a history of sociology, but a textbook of contemporary sociology with a clear focus on empirical studies and social mechanisms rather than unfathomable “grand theory”. It’s one of those rare textbooks that manages to give a good overview of the discipline without running into thousands of pages, and it’s written in a very accessible language! I’d cut a bit more Durkheim (but given the author’s work, I can kind of understand why Durkheim is still quite present in the early chapters), and probably add a section on decolonizing sociology.

Buchanan, Mark. 2008. The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You. New York: Bloomsbury.

Jusup, Marko, Petter Holme, Kiyoshi Kanazawa, Misako Takayasu, Ivan Romic, Zhen Wang, Suncana Gecek, et al. 2022. “Social Physics.” Physics Reports 948 (February): 1–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physrep.2021.10.005.

Tubergen, Frank van. 2020. Introduction to Sociology. Abingdon: Routledge.

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