Michael Chwe's book Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge is an enjoyable and readable exploration of how strategic actions intersect with rituals and other forms of non-"rational" behavior. For a popular audience, Chwe's illustrations will likely ring familiar and stimulate discussion about the foundations of social behavior. As an academic work, Chwe's book makes progress in connecting disparate lines of research in social science. However, the anecdotal approach of his argument leaves open some conceptual and empirical questions about the usefulness of his theory.
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.