The best social science books to explain how people shape, and are shaped by, their communities

Why am I passionate about this?

As a social scientist, I've always been interested in how the communities we live in shape our values, priorities, and behavior. I also care about how institutional change—from small things like a college offering a new major to big things like a town choosing to incorporatecan shape communities. Each of these books has changed my thinking about how we influence, and are influenced by, the communities we live in, for better or worse. I'm a professor in the departments of Political Science and Quantitative Theory and Methods at Emory University in Atlanta, and I hold a Ph.D. in the Social Sciences from Caltech. 


I wrote...

Social Choice and Legitimacy: The Possibilities of Impossibility

By Elizabeth Maggie Penn, John W. Patty,

Book cover of Social Choice and Legitimacy: The Possibilities of Impossibility

What is my book about?

In 1951 Kenneth Arrow proved his groundbreaking "Impossibility Theorem,” showing that certain democratic goals are logically incompatible with each other—mathematically, they can't be satisfied at the same time. Arrow's theorem has had an unusually far-reaching impact. It’s been cited in Supreme Court opinions, and is considered by many to present a serious challenge to the possibility and scope of democracy.

Rather than cause for despair, John Patty and I argue that the incompatibility of democratic goals highlights a meaningful and needed part of democratic legitimacy: reason-giving. Using Arrow as a starting point, we show how and why legitimate governance requires reasons for the tradeoffs made by governments. We apply our theory to current and longstanding debates including redistricting, campaign finance, and the administrative state.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cities by Contract: The Politics of Municipal Incorporation

Elizabeth Maggie Penn Why did I love this book?

Between 1954 and 1981, when this book was written, the number of cities in L.A. County nearly doubled from 45 to 81. Many of these new cities contracted with the county for their basic public services, and were consequently able to maintain low property tax rates. Homeowners "voted with their feet" by moving to these new cities, and previously middle-class places like Compton saw their tax bases plummet while their need for public services skyrocketed. As a native Angeleno, I found Miller's account of the fragmentation of Los Angeles fascinating and devastating.  A gem of a chapter entitled "Is the Invisible Hand Biased?" presents a withering critique of the argument—standard in economic theory—that more choices make people better off.

By Gary J. Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cities by Contract as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The battle line in the urban conflict lies between the central city and the affluent suburb. The city, needing to broaden its tax base in order to provide increasingly necessary social services, has sought to annex the suburb. The latter, in order to hold down property taxes, has sought independence through incorporation.

Cities by Contract documents and dissects this process through case studies of communities located in Los Angeles County. The book traces the incorporation of "Lakewood Plan" cities, municipalities which contract with the county for the provision of basic—which is to say minimal—services.

The Lakewood plan is shown in…


Book cover of Micromotives and Macrobehavior

Elizabeth Maggie Penn Why did I love this book?

Math modeling in the social sciences starts with assumptionswhat people want, what they can doand deduces the consequences of those assumptions. In this classic, Schelling develops simple models showing that people making the best choices for themselves on a small scale can lead to large-scale, unintended social outcomes bearing no relationship to what people wanted. A provocative chapter entitled "Sorting and Mixing: Race and Sex" shows that a small desire to live near others of one's race leads to near-total racial segregation. Schelling won the Nobel Prize in 2005, and I was lucky to have attended one of his lectures shortly afterward. One of my favorite lines from this book: "If your problem is that there is too much traffic, you are part of the problem."

By Thomas C. Schelling,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Micromotives and Macrobehavior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Schelling here offers an early analysis of 'tipping' in social situations involving a large number of individuals." -official citation for the 2005 Nobel Prize

Micromotives and Macrobehavior was originally published over twenty-five years ago, yet the stories it tells feel just as fresh today. And the subject of these stories-how small and seemingly meaningless decisions and actions by individuals often lead to significant unintended consequences for a large group-is more important than ever. In one famous example, Thomas C. Schelling shows that a slight-but-not-malicious preference to have neighbors of the same race eventually leads to completely segregated populations.

The updated…


Book cover of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality

Elizabeth Maggie Penn Why did I love this book?

In 2004, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton set up camp in a dorm at Indiana University with the aim of writing an ethnography of the girls on the floor. They tracked the girls for five years, documenting their education, social lives, and post-college outcomes. As the product of a flagship state university myself, this book floored me. Armstrong and Hamilton document a process whereby administrators attract wealthy full-tuition students by subsidizing Greek life and creating legitimate-sounding but low-value majors. Far from being an equalizer, the rich leave university employed and debt-free, while the poor leave with staggering debt and few job prospects. For those of us in higher ed, this book articulates the discomfort many of us have felt in recent decades as universities have become increasingly consumer-oriented.

By Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura T. Hamilton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paying for the Party as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two young women, dormitory mates, embark on their education at a big state university. Five years later, one is earning a good salary at a prestigious accounting firm. With no loans to repay, she lives in a fashionable apartment with her fiance. The other woman, saddled with burdensome debt and a low GPA, is still struggling to finish her degree in tourism. In an era of skyrocketing tuition and mounting concern over whether college is "worth it," Paying for the Party is an indispensable contribution to the dialogue assessing the state of American higher education. A powerful expose of unmet…


Book cover of Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology

Elizabeth Maggie Penn Why did I love this book?

Much of what we do in the social sciences requires articulating what it is that people want. What do people find beautiful, valuable, and correct? A cultural anthropologist, Shweder details the remarkable differences in how humans make meaning of their lives, and the different conceptions of morality, modesty, and normality found in different cultures. The book's most provocative chapter, "What About Female Genital Mutilation?," can be read as a qualified defense of the practice, arguing that using state coercion to enforce our own Western conceptions of correctness can constitute a form of liberal imperialism. Regardless of whether you find Shweder's case for FGM persuasive, the argument that tolerance requires seriously engaging with beliefs that may be alien and distressing is particularly welcome in these divided times.

By Richard A. Shweder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do American children sleep alone instead of with their parents? Why do middle-aged Western women yearn for their youth, while young wives in India look forward to being middle-aged? In these provocative essays, one of the most brilliant advocates of cultural psychology reminds us that cultural differences in mental life lie at the heart of any understanding of the human condition.

Drawing on ethnographic studies of the distinctive modes of psychological functioning in communities around the world, Richard Shweder explores ethnic and cultural differences in ideals of gender, in the life of the emotions, in conceptions of mature adulthood…


Book cover of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates

Elizabeth Maggie Penn Why did I love this book?

Given the above books, one might ask: Can free markets and unchecked self-interest ever work for the social good? Leeson offers an answer in the affirmative: Yes! For pirates! This delightful and readable book applies Adam Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand to pirate life at the turn of the 18th century, arguing that purely profit-seeking motives led pirates to adopt norms of cooperation, democratic governance, and (sometimes) racial equality. Recent events like the subprime mortgage crisis led many to argue that our government's failure to check risky profit-seeking behavior led to market collapse. This book provides an interesting complement to that claim, arguing that it was precisely the criminality of the pirate enterprise that drove democracy on the high seas.

By Peter T. Leeson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Invisible Hook as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pack your cutlass and blunderbuss - it's time to go a-pirating! "The Invisible Hook" takes readers inside the wily world of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century pirates. With swashbuckling irreverence and devilish wit, Peter Leeson uncovers the hidden economics behind pirates' notorious, entertaining, and sometimes downright shocking behavior. Why did pirates fly flags of Skull & Bones? Why did they create a 'pirate code'? Were pirates really ferocious madmen? And what made them so successful? "The Invisible Hook" uses economics to examine these and other infamous aspects of piracy. Leeson argues that the pirate customs we know and love resulted…


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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in social science, Pirates, and social issues?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about social science, Pirates, and social issues.

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