Social phenonema such as videos going viral or a trend suddenly becoming popular in a community are studied after the fact and involve trying to establish the chain of events and the individuals that were a part of the chain. Also, it involves studying how and why the word spread, and what were the factors that lead to the tipping point.

As an example, the recent viral spread of the Harlem Shake meme could have questions such as :

  • Why did video A get more attention than B ?
  • How did the meme spread from location C to location D ?
  • Which social network played the major part in its spread ? How did the message flow across the network ?
  • What was the timeline of major events that caused its popularity ?
  • Who were the connectors and salesmen ?

The discussion would focus not on the psychology aspect (the why) but rather on the social aspect (the how).

So, should discussing and understanding social phenomena be on-topic ?

1 Answer 1


We "explore the principles of a system through analysis of its structure, function, and operation". Though you can speak of structure, function and operation of a social phenomenon, I don't think you can say social phenomena have principles.

A social phenomenon is something that just exists, but does not necessarily have an idea on which is built, which makes it different from, for example, a watch, which was made with the idea of a watch in mind. Therefore, the system of a watch has principles (those are what makes the watch a watch), but a social system doesn't really have principles, merely properties, that just happen to be so.

So I would say social phenomena are off topic, because we cannot explore "the principles of a system" when the system does not have any principles.

  • Social phenomena are a subset of sociology and sociology does in fact have theories and principles. From Wikipedia : Sociology studies society using various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to understand human social activity, from the micro level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and social structure. The definition itself shares a lot with reverse engineering. Also, while a specific phenomena may or may not have principles, it does have properties that uniquely identify and explain it.
    – asheeshr
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 9:32
  • 1
    While the study of social phenomena has theories and principles, the social phenomena themselves don't. It therefore might be on-topic to reverse engineer sociology, but it doesn't make sense to reverse engineer social phenomena. Yes a social phenomenon has properties, but reverse engineering implies something to be engineered, so made with a goal. This means you need principles, properties alone are not enough. Or at least, this is my view.
    – user187
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 13:46

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