I was not really sure how to phrase this question, but ok, let me try nonetheless. My background is in natural sciences, but I have always been interested in history as well. Over past years I have also been reading some of the authors like Diamond, Tainter, Huntington, Fukuyama, and recently also Turchin (*). Based on this literature I formed some mixed views on this works above and what they teach us about dynamical processes in the history of human societies. I quite liked the approach taken by Turchin, but then again I should be aware of my potential biases.

Based on that, I would be interested in knowing more about:

  • is there a uniform academic field(s) of research that e.g. these authors could be categorized in, or are most of these individual disjointed approaches in what seem as related subjects?
  • are there specialized papers, articles, journals for this kind of fields, topics? Are there regular conferences/debates/meetings organized on the subject?
  • what is the current stage of using approaches like the study of dynamical systems (in the broadest sense) in the modeling of historical processes?
  • are there groups and departments at the universities and institutes that use math. modeling, and computational sciences, to study topics in history (or sociology for that matter) (like e.g. Turchin)
  • are there some mainstream views in the field(s) on these subjects of dynamical approaches to study history or is the bulk of the discussion still at a level of questioning the feasibility of these concepts?

I was hoping to get a bit wider perspective on the subject here, so I would quite appreciate any comments/views/reading suggestions.

(*) I do not want to imply that the list of authors is in any way representative, it is rather my personal random cross-section of the matter.


Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse,
Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies,
Huntington: Clash of Civilizations,
Fukuyama: The Origins of Political Order, Political Order and Political Decay,
Turchin: Historical Dynamics, War and Peace and War, Secular Cycles.

Edit II (Feb/2020)

I have recently stumbled upon an article by Alessandro Maini published in a jurnal of Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, giving a critical review of Turchin's "Historical dynamics" approach, referenced above. Discussions, as well as references in the article, are related to my original question.

Maini, A. Biophys Econ Sust (2020), vol. 5(1), pages 1-21: On Historical Dynamics by P. Turchin

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    @ Mark C. Wallace I would not really distinguish dynamical and dynamic processes here. I just meant generically a study of processes/events/happenings in a system (in this case quite a complex one - since it is made of human societies) and trying to figure out any causal structure of it (any rules that govern it). Naively, I think of all the many works of earlier 'philosophers' (which admittedly I did not study beyond wiki level) Durkheim of Weber and company as also trying to do this. Maybe a link might help.
    – z.v.
    Apr 10 '17 at 15:12
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    @ Geoff Sure, I'll also add links to people or works I mentioned above. I mean Peter Turchin and his works on cliodynamics.
    – z.v.
    Apr 10 '17 at 15:13
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    Since your background is natural sciences, try give a look to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fates_of_Nations. It was writen from the point of view of ecology.
    – Santiago
    Apr 11 '17 at 12:09
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    Cliometrics, Cliohistory, Big History are all viewed quite suspiciously by discursive subject specialists as whiggish if not teleological. A number of the authors cited are considered not historians (Diamond, Fukuyama) when I'm down the pub with colleagues. I'd suggest they're latter day Spenglerites. Aug 10 '18 at 8:54
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    @Samuel Russell, thanks for the comment! I had a feeling these group of authors might be viewed quite sceptically in the mainstream historian circles. Do you maybe know some good references (books, papers, essays) that critique and scrutinize such approaches? It would be quite interesting to read.
    – z.v.
    Aug 11 '18 at 10:23

There is an emerging trans-disciplinary field called cliodynamics which studies these ideas. There's an open access journal, Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, a lab in England, and an institute in New Mexico.

Cliometrics is somewhat related: it applies the ideas of economics to the study of history. It's been around somewhat longer, but has been criticised for applying neoclassical economic models to societies that operated by quite different rules.

  • 2
    A good answer. I'd mention that the slighly older field of World History gets you about halfway there (Fukuyama is mentioned as a practitioner. I'd throw Diamond in there too, but likely he'd only go kicking and screaming.). It would not qualify as an answer though, as World History isn't aspiring to be as much a science as another branch of History. But at least World History has the benefit of not sounding like it was invented by L. Ron Hubbard.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 10 '17 at 13:56
  • @ John Dallman Thanks for the reply. Unfortunately, that is the one journal I was aware of since the Chief Editor is Peter Turchin I was mentioning above. It is a great source of info. So it seems this journal is quite unique in the sense of its subject matter? I was afraid I had a keyhole view of the field.
    – z.v.
    Apr 10 '17 at 15:31
  • @z.v.: If there's another journal, I haven't managed to find it. A book you might find interesting is The Collapse of Chaos by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, which is about the emergence of simplicity from complexity. This is related to "Plectics", a field that deals with simplicity, complexity and adaptive systems. Apr 10 '17 at 15:56
  • @John Dallman Tnx, looks interesting. I just saw you mentioned you are programmer and gamer, you might have some thoughts/info if some of the strategy games engines (like e.g. clausewitz) could be adapted for actually trying to simulate aspects of historical societies... but this topic now might be better suited for some other thread.
    – z.v.
    Apr 10 '17 at 17:07
  • @v.z.: I don't play computer games to a significant extent; I'm a role-player. Apr 10 '17 at 17:15

You may find the field of "big history" relevant to your interests. David Christian's book Maps of Time is an excellent introduction. This work isn't as quantitatively oriented as what you are looking for, but you may still find it useful.

(As an aside, I can't resist echoing the warning tweeted by Neil DeGrass Tyson: "In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That's why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard.")

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    Second Big History and 'Maps of Time'. The book gets pretty close to mapping out the evolution of human society, scientifically. Great work. Apr 13 '17 at 18:29

There is an esoteric field within History, more specifically, Historiography called, "MetaHistory"-(sometimes nicknamed, "Big History"). It is a subject which attempts to address the deeper meaning of historical causality and its relationship to historical time and reality.

Admittedly, I am no expert in this area of History, however, the study of historical causation is very much a type of sequential logic, that is to say, a leads to b and b leads to c, etc.

There is also a dialectical component to MetaHistory whereby every cause has an inherent effect. In other words, each cause leads to an effect, though when the effect ends, it generates a new cause. For example, if were to analyze the Vietnam War with this type of causal model, one could say that "The Domino Theory"-(which also was the justification for the Korean War), caused the the U.S. to invade Vietnam in 1964, whereby the effects of that war eventually led to the proliferation of the armed conflict into nearby Cambodia in 1970, thereby starting or causing a newer and wider conflict, etc.

If you were to sequence this pattern, you might say that "The Domino Theory" represents A, the U.S. invasion of Vietnam represents B and the Cambodian War represents C; each having an inherent and simultaneous cause and effect relationship.

MetaHistory is one of the more ambitious and highly abstract approaches towards understanding history and particularly, historiography. Although Historians and Historiographers, by their nature, are interested in the cause and effect of certain historical events, MetaHistory also attempts to understand such a process, though with greater chronological depth and philosophical awareness.

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