A new vocabulary for the 21st Century: Social Physics

Merriam-Webster : “Social Physics: The quantitative study of human society; social statistics”

When the US government announced in 2012 that it would invest $200 million in research grants and infrastructure building for big data in 2012, Farnam Jahanian, chief of the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, stated that “Big data” has the power to change scientific research from a hypothesis-driven field to one that’s data-driven”.  Using big data to provide more evidence based ways ways of understanding human behavior is the mission of Alex (Sandy)Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. Pentland’s latest book illustrates the potential of what he describes as “Social Physics”.

The term was initially developed by Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, the Belgian socioligist and mathematician who introduced statistical methods to the social sciences. Quetelet expanded his views to develop a social physics in his book “Sur l’homme sur le developpement de ses facultes, ou Essai de physique sociale”. Auguste Comte, who coined “sociology” adopted the term (in his Positive Philosophy Volume Social Physics) when he defined sociology as a study that was just as important as biology and chemistry.

According to Sandy Pentland Social Physics is about idea flow, the way human social networks spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors. His book consequently aims to “extends economic and political thinking by including not only competitive forces but also exchanges of ideas, information, social pressure, and social status in order to more fully explain human behavior… Only once we understand how social interactions work together with competitive forces can we hope to ensure stability and fairness in our hyperconnected, networked society.”

The launch of the book is accompanied with a website that connects several scholars and explains the term further: “How can we create organizations and governments that are cooperative, productive, and creative? These are the questions of social physics, and they are especially important right now, because of global competition, environmental challenges, and government failure. The engine that drives social physics is big data: the newly ubiquitous digital data that is becoming available about all aspects of human life. By using these data with to build a predictive, computational theory of human behavior we can hope to engineer better social systems.”

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