Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge Paperback – Jan 26 2003
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"Communal activities, with lots of emotional and symbolic content . . . serve a rational purpose, argues Michael Suk-Young Chwe. . . . [His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences."--Virginia Postrel, New York Times
"A welcome addition. . . . Rational Ritual . . . can be understood and enjoyed by almost anyone interested in human interaction."--Vincent P. Crawford, Journal of Economic Literature
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"This is a very compelling and original work. It is the best conceptual book I have read in economics in several years. It will have an immediate and enthusiastic readership in the social sciences and will make Chwe's name as an important thinker." (Tyler Cowen, Harvard University)
"Rational Ritual is engaging, well organized, and well written. It brings together the tools of game theory and the issues posed within a wide variety of areas of contemporary social theory to address an important problem. Students and scholars in diverse academic disciplines--including political science, sociology, anthropology, and some areas of cultural studies--will find the book both relevant and accessible." (David Ruccio, University of Notre Dame) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
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Chwe's primary task is to demonstrate that the construction of common knowledge--a situation where everyone knows a piece of information in a group, "everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on"--can be used to overcome coordination problems (p. 3). According to Chwe, coordination problems arise when a group of people want to participate in some activity, but only when others are also participating--a "safety in numbers" type of situation.
Chwe rolls out his argument by offering dozens of engaging examples where coordination problems are resolved through the construction of common knowledge. He discusses examples such as Super Bowl advertising, architecture in prisons, mass rebellions, and authoritarian rituals. In each of these cases, Chwe claims that individuals would not be able to achieve a collective outcome without common knowledge. For example, a group of individuals will not engage in rebellion if they are not relatively certain that other people will join them. Common knowledge lets people know that others share in their plight.
Information plays a key role in this theory. According to Chwe, rituals and other forms of repeated social interaction serve to convey clear information to members of a mass public. Repetition is helpful to ensure that the message has a wide audience.
In spite of the advances that this book makes in fusing a strategic framework of behavior with concepts from anthropology and sociology, there are three primary weaknesses that detract from the general persuasiveness of Chwe's account as an academic theory. First, ironically, this book about strategy fails to discuss preferences in any meaningful way. Apart from suggesting in the definition of coordination problems that each person "wants to participate in a group action" if others participate, Chwe does not articulate the necessity for actors to be aware of each other's preferences (p. 3). For example, Chwe suggests that inward-facing circles have been used by many social groups to facilitate eye contact. This visual monitoring allows each member of the group to ensure that others have received the same information. However, the informational mechanism does not allow social actors to identify which people have preferences similar to them. Just because a person is known to have received a message about a social uprising does mean that they share in the desire to coordinate on this action. It is not clear how these preferences are communicated in Chwe's model.
A second shortcoming in Chwe's argument is the lack of clarity on the issue of agency. In his discussion of royal progresses, Chwe suggests that because "submitting to an authority is a coordination problem, an authority creates ceremonies and rituals that form common knowledge" (p. 19). Individuals are forced to obey an authoritarian ruler because other subjects are also obeying that ruler, he argues. If the definition of a coordination problem is that the individuals desire to participate in the group activity if others also participate, submission to an authority would seemingly be the opposite of coordination. Submission is what prevents these individuals from selecting a leader they desire; if they knew that they collectively desired a different leader, they would collectively revolt. Chwe might argue that collective choice is not necessarily rational, and that the subjects actually prefer the authoritarian leader (as is evidenced by their submission). Without addressing this question of autonomy, agency and collective preference, Chwe leaves unanswered a number of questions about imbalances of power in creating rituals and the possibility of manipulation of the many by the few.
Finally, Chwe suggests that a symbiotic relationship exists between rituals and common knowledge, but the causal relationship between the two factors is not clearly articulated. Chwe suggests that "the purpose of a ritual is to form the common knowledge necessary for solving a coordination problem" (p. 26). However, he also acknowledges that some scholars have posited that advertising, a ritual he discusses extensively, "creates needs" (p. 41). His response to that claim is to suggest that advertising may tap into needs that were yet-unidentified in the general public. That is, he puts a discussion of need creation off the table. This inability to deal with social influences on preference formation is a shortcoming in Chwe's model.
The weaknesses of Chwe's work should not overshadow the promising line of future research that should be built on this book's foundation. None of the criticisms highlighted here should diminish from the promise of this model. Rather, they should be used in future research to clarify and refine our understanding of strategic ritualized action. Chwe's claim that game theory must engage with factors "outside of the model" more directly is compelling. In this book, he offers some promising first steps in how we can begin to construct a more unified theory of social behavior.
Chwe shows that rational behavior motivates individuals to seek common knowledge if they hope to interact in any form of group environment (in which coordination/cooperation is needed). Often in these interactions, individual behavior is conditioned not upon an individual's knowledge, but what that individual perceives others to know. Rituals are one means of generating common knowledge and the specific behavior within the rituals is designed to lay a basic foundation for future interactions. Alternatives to these rituals are costly in that they would require explicit communication on the individual level, or small-group level, but again not everyone could be certain of the knowledge others possess. Chwe uses examples to explain how agents are able to coordinate, showing that many cultural practices are about reinforcing what they already know.
Chwe's focus is upon coordination problems in which each person's desire to participate is contingent upon the behavior of others (only wants to participate when others do). He argues that others focus upon different equilibria while the means of coordinating behavior can shed the most light on human behavior. The common solution to coordination problems is some form of ritual, rally or ceremony in which common knowledge necessary for the coordination is generated. Cultural practices coordinate behavior among citizens and create a display in which all are aware that everyone else is participating (and thus legitimizing) the authority. Here, the significance is public attitude and display, not private emotions or ideas of participants: each individual agent could have private thoughts about the illegitimacy of the regime, but unless s/he knows others' thoughts, s/he is likely to continue participating as a loyal constituent (or may try to rebel and create a new group of common knowledge).
The framework Chwe creates allows the reader to gain a new understanding of many common features of society quite easily while developing an appreciation for the significance of culture. The first portion of the book reads as though he is setting up a big reveal--an explanation for why society is as it is--but this is not quite borne out in the second half. Once he transitions to information networks and information, it seems as though he either loses steam or expertise. Chwe theorizes that strong-link networks allow individuals to create common knowledge through the redundancy in connections in a way that weak-link networks cannot, despite their increased ability to spread information rapidly. However, it seems more a notion than a claim. As he addresses alternate explanations of rituals, he again offers observations and explanations that counter existing understandings, but he lacks the thorough analysis he employed in the first portion of the book.
Chwe could strengthen his position by developing his arguments against those who claim common knowledge is not possible and by recognizing the limitations of common knowledge (and whether the existence of common knowledge can drive the population to less-than desirable outcomes). With respect to limitations of common knowledge, he does mention that that there are limitations of what individuals can know or how 'meta' brains can go, but this needs to be more fully developed. A nice extension would include examples of how much individuals really are aware of common knowledge, or some analysis of an important ritual and what it conveys. He uses an example regarding how children do seem to be aware of some forms of common knowledge, but it is a bit thin. He could really expand here (and perhaps has in subsequent works) with an integration of his explanation of meaning and common knowledge in the following section.
Publicity and common knowledge generation, he explains, must be considered in understanding cultural practices but content and publicity are never completely separable (and in fact, may interact). This may be partially true because content and publicity both have an implied audience. If he included a discussion on symbols and their tie to rituals (for example, rings with marriage, or the message conveyed by visible and hidden tattoos), he would have provided more ground for himself. Individuals often choose to access common knowledge banks when they engage in symbolic behavior, which would indicate that there is an awareness of common knowledge that is called upon when interacting with others. Such ideas would bolster his claims and add additional depth to his arguments.
The book (and Chwe's work in general) breaks fascinating ground where economics, with its hyperrationalistic bias, has often refused to tread: the realm of culture, customs, and norms. He argues, convincingly, that these seemingly irrational behaviors often have very rational foundations, specifically due to problems posed by scarce information and inferrence. This isn't necessarily shocking to various subtopics in economics--Condorcet Jury Theorem comes to mind as a classic example, as are recent advances in behavioral finance--but Chwe's approach takes it to far more commonplace varieties of social interactions than, for example, the economics of financial market bubbles and manias.