DOI: 10.1177/17456916231201135 ISSN: 1745-6916

New Forms of Collaboration Between the Social and Natural Sciences Could Become Necessary for Understanding Rapid Collective Transitions in Social Systems

Stefan Thurner
  • General Psychology

Human societies are complex systems and as such have tipping points. They can rapidly transit from one mode of operation to another and thereby change the way they function as a whole. Such transitions appear as financial or economic crises, rapid swings in collective opinion, political regime shifts, or revolutions. In physics collective transitions are known as phase transitions; for example, water exists in states of liquid, ice, and vapor. A few variables determine which state is realized: temperature, pressure, and volume. For social systems it is less clear what determines collective social states. A better understanding of social tipping points would allow us to tackle some of the big challenges more systematically, such as polarization, loss of social cohesion, fragmentation, or the green transition. The physics concept of universality might be key to understanding some tipping points in human societies and why agent-based models (ABMs) might make sense for identifying the transition points. If universality exists in social systems there is hope that relatively simple ABMs will be sufficient for understanding collective social systems in transition; if it does not exist, highly detailed computational models will be unavoidable. Both are possible. Both need new forms of collaboration between the social and natural sciences, and new types of data will be essential.

More from our Archive