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Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge

by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

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Why do Internet, financial service, and beer commercials dominate Super Bowl advertising? How do political ceremonies establish authority? Why does repetition characterize anthems and ritual speech? Why were circular forms favored for public festivals during the French Revolution? This book answers these questions using a single concept: common knowledge.

Game theory shows that in order to coordinate its actions, a group of people must form "common knowledge." Each person wants to participate only if others also participate. Members must have knowledge of each other, knowledge of that knowledge, knowledge of the knowledge of that knowledge, and so on. Michael Chwe applies this insight, with striking erudition, to analyze a range of rituals across history and cultures. He shows that public ceremonies are powerful not simply because they transmit meaning from a central source to each audience member but because they let audience members know what other members know. For instance, people watching the Super Bowl know that many others are seeing precisely what they see and that those people know in turn that many others are also watching. This creates common knowledge, and advertisers selling products that depend on consensus are willing to pay large sums to gain access to it. Remarkably, a great variety of rituals and ceremonies, such as formal inaugurations, work in much the same way.

By using a rational-choice argument to explain diverse cultural practices, Chwe argues for a close reciprocal relationship between the perspectives of rationality and culture. He illustrates how game theory can be applied to an unexpectedly broad spectrum of problems, while showing in an admirably clear way what game theory might hold for scholars in the social sciences and humanities who are not yet acquainted with it.

In a new afterword, Chwe delves into new applications of common knowledge, both in the real world and in experiments, and considers how generating common knowledge has become easier in the digital age.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691158280
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2013
Edition description: With a New afterword by the author
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Suk-Young Chwe is Associate Professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Jane Austen, Game Theorist (Princeton).

Read an Excerpt

Rational Ritual

Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge
By Michael Suk-Young Chwe

Princeton University Press

Michael Suk-Young Chwe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691114714

Chapter One



How do individuals coordinate their actions? Here we consider "coordination problems," in which each person wants to participate in a group action but only if others also participate. For example, each person might want to take part in an antigovernment protest but only if there are enough total protesters to make arrests and police repression unlikely. People most often "solve" coordination problems by communicating with each other. Simply receiving a message, however, is not enough to make an individual participate. Because each individual wants to participate only if others do, each person must also know that others received a message. For that matter, because each person knows that other people need to be confident that others will participate, each person must know that other people know that other people have received a message, and so forth. In other words, knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others' knowledge, knowledge of others' knowledge of others' knowledge, and so on-that is, "common knowledge." To understand how people solve coordination problems, we should thus look at social processes that generate common knowledge.The best examples turn out to be "public rituals," such as public ceremonies, rallies, and media events.

Public rituals can thus be understood as social practices that generate common knowledge. For example, public ceremonies help maintain social integration and existing systems of authority; public rallies and demonstrations are also crucial in political and social change. Social integration and political change can both be understood as coordination problems; I am more likely to support an authority or social system, either existing or insurgent, the more others support it. Public rituals, rallies, and ceremonies generate the necessary common knowledge. A public ritual is not just about the transmission of meaning from a central source to each member of an audience; it is also about letting audience members know what other audience members know.

This argument allows specific insights in a wide variety of social phenomena, drawing connections among contexts and scholarly traditions often thought disparate. One explanation of how public ceremonies help sustain a ruler's authority is through their "content," for example, by creating meaningful associations with the sacred. By also considering the "publicity" of public ceremonies-in other words, how they form common knowledge-we gain a new perspective on ritual practices such as royal progresses, revolutionary festivals, and for example the French Revolution's establishment of new units of measurement. It is often argued that public ceremonies generate action through heightened emotion; our argument is based on "cold" rationality.

Ritual language is often patterned and repetitive. In terms of simply conveying meaning, this can be understood as providing redundancy, making it more likely that a message gets through. But it also seems to be important that listeners themselves recognize the patterns and repetition. In terms of common knowledge generation, when a person hears something repeated, not only does she get the message, she knows it is repeated and hence knows that it is more likely that others have heard it. Group dancing in rituals can be understood as allowing individuals to convey meaning to each other through movement. But group dancing is also an excellent common knowledge generator; when dancing, each person knows that everyone else is paying attention, because if a person were not, the pattern of movement would be immediately disrupted.

I then look at examples of people facing each other in circles, as in the kiva, a ritual structure found in prehistoric structures in the southwestern United States, the seating configuration of various U.S. city halls, and revolutionary festivals during the French Revolution. In each of these examples, the circular form was seemingly intended to foster social unity. But how? Our explanation is based on common knowledge generation. An inward-facing circle allows maximum eye contact; each person knows that other people know because each person can visually verify that others are paying attention. I then look at how inward-facing circles specifically, and issues of public and private communication generally, appear in the 1954 feature film On the Waterfront.

Buying certain kinds of goods can be a coordination problem; for example, a person might want to see a movie more the more popular it is. To get people to buy these "coordination problem" goods, an advertiser should try to generate common knowledge. Historical examples include the "halitosis" campaign for Listerine. More recently, the Super Bowl has become the best common knowledge generator in the United States recently, and correspondingly, the great majority of advertisements on the Super Bowl are for "coordination problem" goods. Evidence from regular prime-time television commercials suggests that popular shows are able to charge advertisers more per viewer for commercial slots, because popular shows better generate common knowledge (when I see a popular show, I know that many others are also seeing it). Companies that sell "coordination problem" goods tend to advertise on more popular shows and are willing to pay a premium for the common knowledge they generate.

The pattern of friendships among a group of people, its "social network," significantly affects its ability to coordinate. One aspect of a network is to what extent its friendship links are "weak" or "strong." In a weak-link network, the friends of a given person's friends tend not to be that person's friends, whereas in a strong-link network, friends of friends tend to be friends. It seems that strong-link networks should be worse for communication and hence coordinated action, because they are more "involuted" and information travels more slowly in them; however, empirical studies often find that strong links are better for coordination. We can resolve this puzzle by observing that, even though strong links are worse for spreading information, they are better at generating common knowledge; because your friends are more likely to know each other, you are more likely to know what your friends know.

Finally, I consider Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon" prison design, in which cells are arranged in a circle around a central guard tower. Michel Foucault regards the panopticon as a mechanism of power based on surveillance, as opposed to spectacle or ceremony. Foucault and most other observers, however, neglect the fact that Bentham's design includes a central chapel above the guard tower, so that the prisoners can take part in service without having to leave their cells; in other words, the panopticon is to some extent also a ritual structure. The panopticon generates common knowledge in that each prisoner can see that other prisoners are under the same kind of surveillance.

In considering this variety of applications, no attempt is made to treat any single topic, writer, or text comprehensively. The goal instead is to explore unexpected connections, connections that span wide divisions in the social sciences as currently disciplined. Ideas of rationality and culture are often considered as applying to entirely different spheres of human activity and as having their own separate logic. This book argues instead for a broad reciprocal connection. To understand public rituals, one should understand how they generate the common knowledge that the logic of rationality requires. To understand how rational individuals solve coordination problems, one should understand public rituals.

This book draws on scholarly literatures that are subject to ever increasing methodological specialization. I hope that the connections here suggest that an argument can bring together not only diverse subject matter but also diverse methodologies. This book considers, for example, new data (the prices of network television slots, Super Bowl advertising), suggests new explanations for existing empirical regularities (why "strong links" are better than "weak links"), offers new interpretations of aspects of ritual practices (group dancing, repetition, inward-facing circles) and cultural products (the film On the Waterfront), and compels a closer reading of classic texts (Bentham's and Foucault's panopticon).

After considering these applications, I briefly consider competing explanations of how rituals affect action, either through direct psychological stimulation or through the emotions that come from being physically together with other people. Next I try to respond to the common objection that common knowledge is not really applicable to the "real world" because people do not actually seem to think through several layers of "I know that he knows that she knows" and so forth.

I then further elaborate on the basic argument. Although one of the main points of this book is that common knowledge generation is an interesting dimension of rituals that can be analytically separated from content, in practice content and common knowledge generation interact in interesting ways; I discuss some examples from marketing and sculpture and the "Daisy" television ad for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Common knowledge depends not only on me knowing that you receive a message but also on the existence of a shared symbolic system which allows me to know how you understand it.

Because common knowledge generation is important for coordinated action, it is something people fight over; for example, censorship typically cracks down hardest on public communications. Recently political struggles have adopted techniques of modern advertising; for example, in 1993, domestic violence activists successfully pressured the NBC television network for Super Bowl air time. The fact that common knowledge generation is a real resource suggests that "symbolic" resistance should not be underestimated.

Common knowledge is generated not only by communication but also by historical precedent. Political protests and advertising campaigns when trying to generate common knowledge thus draw on history as a resource. Just as history can help create common knowledge, common knowledge can to some extent create history through mass rituals and commemorations. Similarly, common knowledge not only helps a group coordinate but also, to some extent, can create groups, collective identities, "imagined communities" in which, for example, each newspaper reader is aware of millions of fellow readers.

In sum, this book tries to demonstrate three things. First, the concept of common knowledge has broad explanatory power. Second, common knowledge generation is an essential part of what a public ritual "does." Third, the classic dichotomy between rationality and culture should be questioned. This third point is explored more fully in the conclusion. In an appendix, I look at a simple example that illustrates how the argument is made mathematically.

The Argument

In some situations, called "coordination problems," each person wants to participate in a joint action only if others participate also. One way to coordinate is simply to communicate a message, such as "Let's all participate." But because each person will participate only if others do, for the message to be successful, each person must not only know about it, each person must know that each other person knows about it. In fact, each person must know that each other person knows that each other person knows about it, and so on; that is, the message must be "common knowledge."

This truism is a fact of everyday social life and is this book's central argument. It has come up in many different scholarly contexts, from the philosophy of language to game theory to sociology. David Lewis (1969), influenced by Thomas Schelling ([1960] 1980), first made it explicitly; Robert Aumann (1974, 1976) developed the mathematical representation that makes it elementary (see the appendix). It is best expressed in an example.

Say you and I are co-workers who ride the same bus home. Today the bus is completely packed and somehow we get separated. Because you are standing near the front door of the bus and I am near the back door, I catch a glimpse of you only at brief moments. Before we reach our usual stop, I notice a mutual acquaintance, who yells from the sidewalk,

"Hey you two! Come join me for a drink!" Joining this acquaintance would be nice, but we care mainly about each other's company. The bus doors open; separated by the crowd, we must decide independently whether to get off.

Say that when our acquaintance yells out, I look for you but cannot find you; I'm not sure whether you notice her or not and thus decide to stay on the bus. How exactly does the communication process fail? There are two possibilities. The first is simply that you do not notice her; maybe you are asleep. The second is that you do in fact notice her. But I stay on the bus because I don't know whether you notice her or not. In this case we both know that our acquaintance yelled but I do not know that you know.

Successful communication sometimes is not simply a matter of whether a given message is received. It also depends on whether people are aware that other people also receive it. In other words, it is not just about people's knowledge of the message; it is also about people knowing that other people know about it, the "metaknowledge" of the message.

Say that when our acquaintance yells, I see you raise your head and look around for me, but I'm not sure if you manage to find me. Even though I know about the yell, and I know that you know since I see you look up, I still decide to stay on the bus because I do not know that you know that I know. So just one "level" of metaknowledge is not enough.

Taking this further, one soon realizes that every level of metaknowledge is necessary: I must know about the yell, you must know, I must know that you know, you must know that I know, I must know that you know that I know, and so on; that is, the yell must be "common knowledge." The term "common knowledge" is used in many ways but here we stick to a precise definition. We say that an event or fact is common knowledge among a group of people if everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on. Two people can create these many levels of metaknowledge simply through eye contact: say that when our acquaintance yells I am looking at you and you are looking at me. Thus I know you know about the yell, you know that I know that you know (you see me looking at you), and so on. If we do manage to make eye contact, we get off the bus; communication is successful.

The key assumption behind this example is that we mainly enjoy each other's company: I want to get off only if you get off and you want to get off only if I get off.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables ix

Preface xiii

1. Introduction 3

What This Book Is Good For 3

The Argument 8

Coordination Problems 11

Common Knowledge 13

Where the Argument Comes From 16

2. Applications 19

Ceremonies and Authority 19

How Do Rituals Work? 25

Inward-Facing Circles 30

On the Waterfront 33

Believe the Hupe 37

The Price of Publicity 49

Strong Links and Weak Links 61

The Chapel in Panopticon 66

3. Elaborations 74

Competing Explanations 74

Is Common Knowledge an Impossible Ideal? 76

Meaning and Common Knowledge 79

Contesting Common Knowledge 83

Common Knowledge and History 87

Common Knowledge and Group Identity 91

4. Conclusion

Appendix. The Argument Expressed Diagrammatically 101

References 113

Afterword to the 2013 Edition 127

Index 135

What People are Saying About This

Tyler Cowen

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, George Mason University

David Ruccio

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

From the Publisher

"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, George Mason 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

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