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The physical modelling of society: a historical perspective


  • Ball, Philip


By seeking to uncover the rules of collective human activities, today's statistical physicists are aiming to return to their roots. Statistics originated in the study of social numbers in the 17th century, and the discovery of statistical invariants in data on births and deaths, crimes and marriages led some scientists and philosophers to conclude that society was governed by immutable “natural” laws beyond the reach of governments, of which the Gaussian “error curve” became regarded as the leitmotif. While statistics flourished as a mathematical tool of all the sciences in the 19th century, it provoked passionate responses from philosophers, novelists and social commentators. Social statistics also guided Maxwell and Boltzmann towards the utilization of probability distributions in the development of the kinetic theory of gases, the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Suggested Citation

  • Ball, Philip, 2002. "The physical modelling of society: a historical perspective," Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Elsevier, vol. 314(1), pages 1-14.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:phsmap:v:314:y:2002:i:1:p:1-14
    DOI: 10.1016/S0378-4371(02)01042-7

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Axelrod, Robert & Bennett, D. Scott, 1993. "A Landscape Theory of Aggregation," British Journal of Political Science, Cambridge University Press, vol. 23(2), pages 211-233, April.
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    Cited by:

    1. Rodríguez, Ricardo A. & Herrera, Ada M. & Riera, Rodrigo & Santander, Jacobo & Miranda, Jezahel V. & Quirós, Ángel & Fernández-Rodríguez, María J. & Fernández-Palacios, José M. & Otto, Rüdiger & Escud, 2015. "Distribution of species diversity values: A link between classical and quantum mechanics in ecology," Ecological Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 313(C), pages 162-180.
    2. Anirban Chakraborti & Dhruv Raina & Kiran Sharma, 2016. "Can an interdisciplinary field contribute to one of the parent disciplines from which it emerged?," Papers 1605.08354,
    3. Jerker Denrell & Christina Fang & Chengwei Liu, 2015. "Perspective—Chance Explanations in the Management Sciences," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 26(3), pages 923-940, June.
    4. Victor M. Yakovenko & J. Barkley Rosser, 2009. "Colloquium: Statistical mechanics of money, wealth, and income," Papers 0905.1518,, revised Dec 2009.
    5. Cristian Valeriu STANCIU & Cristi SPULBAR & Sabin RIZESCU, 2012. "Econophysics - related Remarks in Considering the Necessity of a Distribution Adjustment in the Eurozone Real Economy and Re-modeling its Financial System and Markets. Thermodynamics and Statistical P," Journal of Knowledge Management, Economics and Information Technology,, vol. 2(1), pages 1-9, February.
    6. Villegas-Febres, J.C. & Olivares-Rivas, W., 2008. "The existence of negative absolute temperatures in Axelrod’s social influence model," Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Elsevier, vol. 387(14), pages 3701-3707.


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