Physics of politics

A physicist recently emailed me asking if I could help him access election data; he sent me one of his papers, which (to my astonishment) began "Most of the empirical electoral studies conducted by physicists . . .", followed by a string of citations. I had no idea physicists were studying elections! I suppose I should have known; from what my biologist friend tells me, physicists have been colonizing his field the way economists have done to much of social science. So I guess politics was next.

Reading a few articles in the "physics of politics" as a political scientist, one has the sense of observing an alternate universe. For example: a paper on the effect of election results on party membership in Germany that has no references to work outside of physics; features many exotic (to me at least) terms like Wegscheider potentials, the Sznajd model, and the Kronecker symbol; and takes a time-series approach to causation that I suspect would be unacceptable to most reviewers in political science and economics these days.

In general, it's clear that physicists doing work on political phenomena (or "sociophysics" more generally) are primarily interested in exploring the individual-level social interactions that might underpin the macro-order we observe in, e.g., regularities in turnout or vote share distributions. As such, political institutions (which are the major preoccupation of political scientists) necessarily disappear from the model and are typically not even mentioned, even when they would seem to be of first-order importance in explaining a particular phenomenon. (Another example of the alternate universe: a paper that argues that party vote shares in Indonesia follow a power law, but which does not describe or mention the electoral system.) These omissions seem foolish on first reading, but it's clear that they reflect a different choice of explanatory variable: physicists seek their explanations in micro-interactions, and we seek them primarily in political institutions. It's probably both of course, but models can only be so complex.

Despite my overall sense of disorientation in reading these papers, there were also somewhat surprising moments of familiarity. Physics heavily influenced economics in an earlier period of colonization, and much of what we read in economics and political science descended from those models. In reading these newer physics papers, there is therefore a sense of distant kinship, the knowledge of a common ancestor several generations back.

I wonder about the scope for collaboration between physicists and social scientists. Based on my admittedly very cursory reading of one area in which physicists have ventured, it's hard to know whether the potential gains from trade are sufficient to overcome the apparent difference in goals. For all I know there already is a lot of productive collaboration going on -- if you know of something interesting, share it in the comments!

Posted by Andy Eggers at October 28, 2009 6:58 AM