The Unexpected Conference – New trends in Sociophysics

The Unexpected Conference – New trends in Sociophysics        
by Andrea Scharnhorst.

The “Unexpected Conference” in Paris, November 14-16, 2011 brought together more than 35 researchers from Europe, North and South America, and Asia to present current research in the field of sociophysics. The final title of the conference “Sociophysics: Do humans behave like atoms?” reminded me of vivid debates between sociologists and physicists in the 90s in Germany in which sociologists obviously felt offended by books entitled “Quantitative sociology” that included many pages of rather complex Fokker-Planck equations. Serge Galam, organizer of this conference and a pioneer in the field, equally reported about the repelling reaction in some parts of the physics community at the beginning of the 80s, when the verdict ‘not suitable for publication’ branded his first thoughts about what we commonly call today sociophysics. The many different presentations encompassed mathematical analysis and comparison of non-linear models, but also applications for urban development (Jean-Pierre Nadal), wine markets (Tatiana Bouzdine Chameeva), and public debates (Alexandre Delanoe) to name a few examples. All presentations showed an unbroken interest in understanding social dynamics by means of concepts and mathematical models rooted in statistical physics and computer sciences. Computational sociology, and in particular the Agent-Based Models community, are nowadays well-appreciated sparring partners for physicists; philosophers (Kate Forbes-Pitt) and physicists (Franco Bagnoli) reflected about ontological and epistemological principles of a “complexity science”.

New data sources – such as statistical information on beliefs from census data across decades  have inspired new models of social conformity (Danny Abrams), but also new approaches to understand scientific careers (Alexander Petersen).

The field has already long passed the stage of a niche for some eccentric pioneers. To the contrary, a variety of groups are working on similar questions, new generations are entering the field, and the activities across different branches of the rapidly growing science system are calling for means of integration and consolidations. The comparison of models, the use of different types of models translating from one description to another (Tyll Krueger), the reflection on the specific nature of a self-constituting social dynamics (David Chavalarias), the sharing of datasets and programs (not a standard in this field by the way); and eventually the production of proceedings, monographs and textbooks (Anirban Chakraborti) seem appropriate steps towards such a consolidation.

We also discussed the need of more specific data sources. Life stream data, web traces and on-line databases but also research archives of traditional quantitative research in the social sciences could satisfy the hunger for new empirical material in this field. Setting up experiments in labs or on-line as games, realized already by some groups, could be other options. Competitive benchmark activities between modelers in the race for best prediction and explanations could further enhance the interaction of researcher in their daily practices, beyond conference debates and co-authorship of papers. But, as visible in the carefully moderated brainstorm sessions (Serge Galam) there is an unbroken need of collective reflection on the foundations of this field.

The conference took place at CREA – Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée (CREA) at École Polytechnique and CNRS. As we could inspect, the center is in possession of a high quality small open stack library, where serendipitous discoveries can be made. Not only was the conference flagged as an ‘unexpected’ event, its programme remained a secret until the very beginning. Arriving at the location, I had the pleasure to learn about a new dimension of Serge Galam’s creativity spectrum, this time in the area of scientific organization. Speakers had equal amounts of time  and were called randomly to the stage, based on a blind card selecting system whereby the previous speaker determined the next one. This was for me a novel approach that worked very well;  it also lead to a nice mixture of talks, surprisingly always with a closing of the day by an appropriate final speaker! It also ‘disciplined’ us as participants to really attend and engage during the entire meeting. I recommend the imitation of this formule Serge on the precondition of giving credit to its inventor and maybe consulting him for some hints; surprise needs orchestration, as Serge masterly demonstrated! The alert presence of all speakers=participants, sharpen by their expectation to be called at the very moment and the unplanned absence of WLAN in the meeting room, led to a real workshop sphere amiably different from the ‘cat-walk’ character of some scientific conferences. It also speaks for the friendly-critical, almost family-like discussion culture, which is so characteristic for the COST action MP0801 “Physics of Competition and Conflicts”- one supporter of this conference, chaired by Peter Richmond. The “Unexpected conference”, or more accurately, Serge Galam, succeeded to attract a wide number of unexpected and interesting new speakers, and as always the available time was insufficient ….

PS: The presentations of the conference will be published at www.sociophysics.net
PPS: For publication of the COST action members, see http://www.mendeley.com/groups/1314363/cost-mp0801/
PPPS: See also http://www.mendeley.com/groups/1275923/physics-of-socio-economic-systems/ for more papers in this field