Is "Societal Science" impossible?

Social science one can understand as dealing with more concrete groups, but to suggest that someone can study and predict societies sounds absurd. Also, it seems intuitive that societal science would have to make value-related base judgements and thus it would necessarily always be somewhat subjective.

That is, any subject could choose to "think differently from the proposed societal base paradigm". Thus it's impossible to formulate "societal paradigms". So if a "scientist" proposes a theory based on some "-ism", then simply, if the subject does not subscribe to said -ism, then the theory basically may not exist for that subject.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 23, 2019 at 12:54
  • Isaac Asimov thought so. His Hari Seldon was the inventor of psychohistory, a way of predicting social evolution. .
    – user20253
    Mar 24, 2019 at 13:03
  • @PeterJ I actually find that psychohistory is a fruitful context for "societal paradigms". Because it seems rational with its assumptions as to society being intrinsically linked to "what kind of individuals there happen to be". Rather than some fixed thing. I think this is what history really tells about, that there have been different kinds of people. But to suggest that history is some "continuum", I think is a bit abstract. Just as suggesting that societies have some "directions". Something like "social progress" is another ambiguous term.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 24, 2019 at 13:06
  • I share your view that 'social progress' being a much misused and ambiguous phrase, and that social evolution depends on what kind of individuals there are. . . ..
    – user20253
    Mar 28, 2019 at 12:13
  • 2
    Consider the modelling of traffic as a gas discussed here 'Do probability and statistics apply to the decisions of an agent with libertarian free will?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/82452/… Emergent properties can have rules by degree, & deeper hidden constraints can be understood even when precise modelling/predictions aren't possible eg the link between inequality & violence
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 29, 2022 at 1:12

3 Answers 3


To have a societal science requires a large amount of objective data related to group behavior and an ability to make predictions from the patterns identified in that data. One place to look for such data would be asset prices. They represent individual decisions that have been summarized and over the past decades they have become plentiful and easy to analyze with modern technology.

Can one expect these price changes to show any patterns that would give a science based upon them not only the ability to describe past events, but also the ability to make predictions about future events that go beyond asset prices? The efficient market hypothesis (EMH) and random walk theories of financial economics would claim they do not. The weak form of EMH would claim:

Share prices exhibit no serial dependencies, meaning that there are no "patterns" to asset prices. This implies that future price movements are determined entirely by information not contained in the price series. Hence, prices must follow a random walk.

That hasn't stopped market participants from looking for patterns and claiming to have found them in order to make excess returns from the market. The societal science needs the patterns, if they exist, and the ability to make predictions from those patterns that goes beyond predicting asset prices.

Does such a societal science exist? One example would be socionomics which uses progressive (five up followed by two down), fractal wave patterns in asset prices identified by Ralph Nelson Elliott in the early 20th century to make social predictions that go beyond those asset prices. That implies there is some kind of reality causing both the asset price changes and other social changes. They call it "social mood":

What is socionomics? Socionomics is a field of study conducted under the hypothesis that waves of social mood motivate the character of social actions.

What is social mood? Social mood is a shared mental state among humans that arises from social interaction. Social mood predisposes individuals in the group toward emotions, beliefs and actions. It fluctuates constantly in a fractal pattern. It is unconscious, unremembered and endogenously regulated.

Now to address the question: Is "Societal Science" impossible?

According to the EMH such a science, if it were possible, could not be built on asset prices in spite of the desires of market participants.

According to socionomics such a science already exists built on fractal, progressive Elliott Wave patterns identified in asset prices. That individuals can choose to think differently from the "shared mental state" does not mean that they are not predisposed toward certain "emotions, beliefs and actions" that allow the pattern to manifest in various social contexts beyond asset prices.

"Learn the Basics" Socionomics Institute https://www.socionomics.net/learn-about-socionomics/

Wikipedia contributors. "Efficient-market hypothesis." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Mar. 2019. Web. 23 Mar. 2019.


It's certainly a challenge, but probably not impossible. Like it's also rather absurd that you'd be able to "see into the future", it's something for scammers on fairs and ... you know meteorologists. Seriously we predict, with a margin of error, what the weather will be a week from know despite that being "impossibly" complex and reliant on so many factors, including contributions from individual human beings.

So one approach to it would be abstraction, statistics and meta patterns. Idk like how groups tend to form around bodies of water. How agriculture leads to settlements. How you need a common language and some sort of writing system to gather and expand upon knowledge and have it being occupied and unavailable or worse rot in graves. And so you can describe some semi-universal problems of the human conditions that apply regardless of the individual circumstances. So whether you want to or not you need water, food, shelter, social contact or you die. So if people survive you expect to find these problems solved.

And while innovations might be the result of an individual contribution, it often enough happens that the same idea is developed simultaneously because now the "time is ripe". Meaning the environment has been shaped sufficiently that the right person was able to find the right place and the right time. So while you can see that as "pure chance" you can also try to search for some probability of that chance. You likely won't be able who will see the obvious, but the more people see it, the more likely someone will notice.

Similarly with statistics you can compute the average human and what the average human is capable off and so you might be able to make prediction on minimum time scales for something to be feasible.

So there are at least some feature of humans and the human condition that are similar enough to be predictable and also for short intervals of time you can predict pretty much anything as approximately linear (trends remain). Though the question is "what is short" (milisecond, minute, hour, day, year, decade, century, millennia,...)?

Also this rule based analysis gets to be complicated when you're dealing with exceptions. Like what if someone is naturally able to do something that others could only do with help of technology that takes hundreds of years to be developed? What if a group of people in the same conditions happens to adopt a short term or long term strategy? While in some regards the individual contribution is negligible in others it can be quite important. Like a single voice isn't going to cause much trouble, but what if it is magnified. What if a piece of information snowballs. if you can explain an idea to 2 people per day it would only take 1 month to reach 1 billion people and that's a slow way of communication.

So you'd need to look at both the meta level of patterns and statistics and observe for the individual conditions, both in terms of refining the idea of the human condition AND to see disruptions of the system.

So while not entirely impossible, it's quite a challenge and can have huge margins of error to it.


Treating a patient involves a literal subject, a unique individual. Is medicine then, not science? It's actually arguably the oldest science, from before alchemy became chemistry, and natural philosophy became physics.

What you are doing is what I'd call 'physics chauvenism', the implicit assumption that things are science in so far as and to the extent they are like physics. That is a mistake. Processes and practices vary massively between fields, like for example whether replicability is possible - science can still study freak or one-off events.

As well as sociology, social sciences are considered to include: anthropology, archaeology, economics, human geography, linguistics, management science, communication science and political science. Archeology is a good example, there's always a lot of questions that can't be answered, informed guesswork, and subjective input, but there's also rigorous carbon dating, complex methods to preserve dig data, and materials and language analysis. A 'soft' subject can still be approached in a scientific way, that uses scepticism, tries to counter expectation biases, uses tests to distinguish between hypothesees and so on.

I don't know why you insist on saying 'societal science' instead of sociology.

any subject could choose to "think differently from the proposed societal base paradigm"

Any gas molecule can behave in a way that violates the ideal gas laws. But guess what happens when you have lots of molecules. Pretty good predictions.

Thus it's impossible to formulate "societal paradigms"

I don't think you understand what a paradigm is. In science we had: medicine as balancing the humours when viaducts were the height of technology allowing far bigger cities to exist (by reducing risk of cholera), a clockwork-universe picture when clockwork was peak technology, a steam-engine picture of the unucerse with thermodynamics, and now we see brains as computers and expect quantum gravity to come from thinking about information flow. Our paradigms are like mental furniture, the things we understand the world with, and use to talk about it.

It's not that no one could think in different ways, they did, that's how the paradigm changed. But paradigms aren't just like blinkers, they are also like lenses that help us focus on types of object and dynamic. Was capitalism a sudden total break from feudalism? No, of course not. But land ownership stopped being the only and defining form of wealth, with new ways to fund trade voyages and industrialisation.

I think this quote defines how a paradigm shifts:

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

-Buckminster Fuller

Anyone can think in a unique weird way. Only a visionary, can see the world as those in the future will come to take for granted. But, regardless, the wheel will turn. Sociology can help us go beyond just history, into how people saw the world and understood themelves, and how that affected their actions. And by doing so we can better catch ourselves in a similar process, doing things future people will look back on incredulously.

  • 1
    Indeed, archeology makes no prediction either, and neither does paleantology. Thanks for the phrase "physics chauvinism". So true!
    – Olivier5
    Sep 23, 2023 at 6:31
  • @Olivier5: They do make predictions, but about the past, eg about missing information that will be found. For instance, the distribution of sweet potatoes suggested an ancient link between Oceania & South America, which was later proven
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 23, 2023 at 11:36
  • 1
    Fair enough, though by the same token, history can make predictions about the past... I would rather call those hypotheses, but I see the point: they remain empirically testable by future historic finds.
    – Olivier5
    Sep 23, 2023 at 12:29

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