How does information build in a distributed network of neurons involved in making a binary decision? How do schooling fish respond to one another in order to manage tradeoffs between group stability and sensitivity? How do innovative ideas emerge from incremental results shared among scientists? I seek to understand how functional collectives emerge from the behavior of networks of heterogeneous individuals. Across multiple biological and social systems, I start from empirical data to infer the mechanisms that drive aggregate function. Ideas from statistical physics, information theory, nonlinear dynamics, and model selection guide both the construction of detailed predictive models for each system and abstracted generalizations across systems. The ultimate goal is to quantitatively map the space of strategies that biosocial systems use to create functional collective behavior.