Jacob G. Foster

Assistant Professor, Sociology, UCLA

I was originally trained as a statistical physicist. Like many physicists, I was drawn to the study of complex systems because it licensed me (after a fashion) to work on all sorts of systems that physicists aren’t “supposed” to—complex networks, evolutionary dynamics, etc. As a graduate student (in physics), I took a spectacular seminar on classical social theory (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, Merton, Elias, etc.). I was instantly converted by rich theoretical and empirical resources of the sociological tradition. Markets, manners, state formation, systems of cultural and scientific production — now here were complex systems! Sociology also looked like it would give me the intellectual space to weave together my quantitative training with long-term passions for the history of ideas, cultural and biological evolution, and interpretive modes of scholarship. After a postdoc in the sociology department at the University of Chicago, I joined the sociology department at UCLA as an assistant professor in 2013.

I am interested in the evolution and population dynamics of ideas (broadly construed). How are new ideas born? Why do some spread? What role do ideas play in organizing social structures? And how do social structures affect the genesis, diffusion, and ultimate extinction of ideas? Currently, I work on a particular subset of the world of ideas: the beliefs, practices, and theories that make up scientific knowledge. By fitting rich computational models of discovery and impact to data extracted from articles and patents, I infer the preferences and social processes that give scientific knowledge its particular shape and trajectory. Broadly speaking, I aim to generate new knowledge about the process of knowledge-making; to identify and understand the heuristics, strategies, and institutions that guide scientists as they make sense of the natural world. I hope to thereby shine quantitative light on classic (and not-so-classic) questions in the sociology of science: What makes some scientists unusually successful? How does the tension between tradition and innovation play itself out in the lives of scientists and scientific disciplines? How does science even work at the edge of the knowable? And how are scientists, as particular kinds of knowers, built up from a cognitive substrate shared with every other human on the planet? My approach is informed by a range of traditions, from science studies and contemporary social theory to complex systems and cultural evolution.

Selected Publications

Evans, J.A., & Foster, J.G. 2011. Metaknowledge. Science 332, 721.

Foster, J.G., Foster, D.V., Grassberger, P., & Paczuski, M. 2010. Edge direction and the structure of networks. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107, 10815.

Foster, J.G., Foster, D.V., Grassberger, P., & Paczuski, M. 2007. Link and subgraph likelihoods in random undirected networks with fixed and partially fixed degree sequences. Phys. Rev. E 76, 046122.