The best books for an aspiring or inspiring social scientist

Who am I?

I’m a professor at The University of Michigan, external faculty at The Santa Fe Institute, and an editor of Collective Intelligence. As a theorist, I build mathematical and computational models and frameworks. My research explores the functional contributions of diversity – different ways of thinking and seeing – on group performance, a topic I explore in my book The Difference. Recently, I’ve become interested in how to build ensembles of markets, democracies, hierarchies, self-organized communities, or algorithms so that societies prosper. That agenda drives the books I have chosen for this list.

I wrote...

The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You

By Scott E. Page,

Book cover of The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You

What is my book about?

This book contains descriptions and applications of two dozen models to improve the reader’s abilities to reason, explain, design, communicate, act, predict, and explore the world. I often describe the book, and the free online course on which it is based, as like a trip to a museum. Each model, like a museum exhibit, provides a lens on the world, and, though the model can be appreciated and contemplated in isolation, the most profound learning comes from applying multiple models to a context or problem such as inequality or the spread of a pathogen. Many model thinkers better grasp the complexity of our social world and are more likely to proceed with humility and a willingness to learn.

The books I picked & why

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs,

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Why this book?

Jacobs provides a broad, theoretical account of the characteristics of successful cities based on detailed observational analysis grounded in statistics. A journalist, Jacobs goes deep into the weeds on the functions of sidewalks, parks, and neighborhoods demonstrating the limits of categorizing and then counting. Her analysis highlights the necessity of mingled diversity - spaces used in multiple ways by diverse people at different times - in creating vibrant cities. In a seminal paper titled More is Different, the physicist Phillip Anderson described how emergent phenomena cannot be exhibited in a system’s constituent parts: wetness does not exist in water molecules; culture cannot reside in a single person, and as Jacobs so brilliantly explains, the life of city also does not exist in the parts, that is, in the parks, schools, businesses, and neighborhood. Instead, it emerges through the messy, beautiful interactions among the people who occupy those spaces.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

By Christopher Alexander,

Book cover of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

Why this book?

A Pattern Language provides formalism, philosophical depth, and architectural detail to the question of how features or attributes of spaces make people and communities feel alive.  Alexander and colleagues describe two hundred and fifty-three numbered patterns supported by provocative drawings and gorgeous photographs. The patterns form a language to build living buildings and cities. Neighborhoods that team with life tend to include street cafes (pattern #88), small public squares (pattern #61), and the occasional carnival (pattern #58). As does Jacobs, Alexander and colleagues emphasize human scaling while adding in the need to balance order and beauty with evidence of human messiness. Though patterns vary in their universality, the sentences they construct ring true. Think for a moment of a room that heightens your sense of being alive. Odds are that light enters from exactly two sides (pattern #159), that the chairs are not all alike (pattern #251), and that the room contains things – pictures, books, photographs,  from someone’s life (pattern #253).   

Limits of Organization

By Kenneth J. Arrow,

Book cover of Limits of Organization

Why this book?

The core question in social science may well be this: markets or central planning? This short book contains one person’s take on that big question. That person, Ken Arrow, many believe to be the greatest economic theorist of the past hundred years. His clarity, constraint, and curiosity inspire awe. Arrow, who derived the fundamental welfare theorems of economics,  describes the advantages markets as only he can without being blind to their shortcomings; markets reward selfishness and fail to include any defensible distribution of income. His rich, prescient analysis of formal organizations goes far beyond the standard transaction costs logic and includes remarks on path dependence, communications costs, and the difficulty of determining optimal organizational structures.  

Though central, the markets versus central planning reading obscure Arrow’s profound observations on invisible institutions: trust, ethics, and morality. Much to contemplate here including his observation that informational asymmetries limit the value of considering the welfare of others when taking individual actions. 

The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

By James A. Robinson, Daron Acemoglu,

Book cover of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

Why this book?

This book embeds historical accounts of successful and unsuccessful countries within a framework that posits the need for balance between freedom and authoritarianism. Acemoglu and Robinson see societies not as in equilibrium, but as constantly in flux. Rather than seeing a choice between freedom (or free markets) and government, they see a tussle. History consists of the state and the people engaged in a Red Queen Game, each trying to outpace the other with liberty hanging in the balance. Rather than guaranteed through constitutional decree, liberty, and the economic and social success it promotes, is a tenuous, contingent, and precious thing, whose survival depends on a society’s ability to mobilize, and echoing Arrow’s account of the importance of invisible institutions, on the ideas people in that society carry around in their heads.

The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society

By Gerald Gaus,

Book cover of The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society

Why this book?

This book challenges the notion that we should rely on the ideal as a guidepost. Set aside whether we could decide on an ideal; Gaus, a philosopher, makes a four-part argument against pursuing it. First, how could we contemplate the incomprehensible number of possible institutional, legal, and organizational configurations? We couldn’t. Second, the components of those configurations interact, resulting in a rugged landscape: the path to the ideal would not be entirely uphill, that is, it would require sacrifices. Hence, the book’s title. Third, owing to the interactions among choices, we cannot evaluate collective well-being in alternative configurations with any accuracy. What hubris to assume that we could. And finally, the landscape responds to our positioning, as we adapt our physical, organizational, and institutional (both formal and invisible) environments, we alter what we can achieve and what we desire.

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