Social and cultural forces shape almost every aspect of infectious disease transmission in human populations, as well as our ability to measure, understand, and respond to epidemics. For directly transmitted infections, pathogen transmission relies on human-to-human contact, with kinship, household, and societal structures shaping contact patterns that in turn determine epidemic dynamics. Social, economic, and cultural forces also shape patterns of exposure, health-seeking behaviour, infection outcomes, the likelihood of diagnosis and reporting of cases, and the uptake of interventions. Although these social aspects of epidemiology are hard to quantify and have limited the generalizability of modelling frameworks in a policy context, new sources of data on relevant aspects of human behaviour are increasingly available. Researchers have begun to embrace data from mobile devices and other technologies as useful proxies for behavioural drivers of disease transmission, but there is much work to be done to measure and validate these approaches, particularly for policy-making. Here we discuss how integrating local knowledge in the design of model frameworks and the interpretation of new data streams offers the possibility of policy-relevant models for public health decision-making as well as the development of robust, generalizable theories about human behaviour in relation to infectious diseases.