Rational Ritual | Michael Suk-Young Chwe

Summary of: Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, And Common Knowledge
By: Michael Suk-Young Chwe


Dive into the world of coordination problems and common knowledge as we explore Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s ‘Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, And Common Knowledge’. This summary will delve into the key concepts of coordination problems and common knowledge, examining their effects on societal decision-making and action coordination. Discover how simple solutions, like knowing which side of the road to drive on, are solved through common knowledge, and grasp the relevance of rituals in establishing social norms and acceptance of authority. Learn how advertising functions as a generator of common knowledge and unveil the intricate dynamics between strong and weak social links.

Coordination Problems and the Power of Common Knowledge

Consider a scenario where you live under a repressive regime and receive a message inviting you to attend a protest against the government. Would you go? Your decision hinges on whether or not others would attend as well, which presents a coordination problem. In such situations, every person’s willingness to participate in a joint action increases if others participate too. To make the decision to participate, it’s not enough that a person knows about the invitation. Each person must also know that every other person knows about it, and so forth. This is why using CC generates common knowledge: everyone knows what everyone else knows. Common knowledge is surprisingly powerful, and it can explain many phenomena.

Creating Common Knowledge for Authority

The use of common knowledge and rituals to support authority and how new regimes use trivialities to solve coordination problems and establish acceptance.

Individuals tend to submit to political or social authorities more willingly if others support the same authority. To surmount this coordination problem, common knowledge is necessary. Hence, many authorities use rituals to create common knowledge that supports their power. A significant example of this is the royal progress, where monarchs parade around their realm, and large crowds of people witness the symbols of the monarch’s dominance. The important function of this was to create common knowledge among the peasants who could witness the monarch’s signs and symbols.

When the authority changes, the rituals and political symbols used by the former regime must be reinvented to be communicated to the public as the new norm. The aftermath of the French revolution provides ample examples of this phenomenon. The new regime established new units of measurement and even changed the conventions of travel from the left to the right-hand side of the road. These seemingly trivial changes were revolutionary and a democratic shift because peasants on foot traditionally used the right side to spot oncoming vehicles. The new regime solved the coordination problem of getting people to accept new conventions, which also helped address another issue: gaining acceptance of the new regime.

In conclusion, creating common knowledge is vital in supporting authority and is accomplished by using rituals. Societal changes are easier to coordinate when trivialities, such as conventions of measurement and travel, are changed. This helps establish acceptance and trust in the new regime.

The Power of Social Goods

In the world of consumerism, buying products is often a coordination problem dependent on a sufficient mass of people using them. Many consumers tend to prefer popular brands, especially for social goods like beer or clothing. Advertisers leverage this by generating common knowledge through ads, and the best venue for this is the Super Bowl. Social goods dominate Super Bowl ads, and advertisers are willing to pay a hefty premium for them. Advertisers for social goods also pay a much higher cost per thousand people reached than advertisers for nonsocial goods and reach larger audiences because these ads are usually aired on popular shows. The reason popular shows are more effective at generating common knowledge is that everyone knows that more people are watching.

Strong Links vs Weak Links

Networks of strong and weak links are important for understanding communication and coordination within groups. Close friends share strong links, while acquaintances share weak links. Weak link networks tend to be much broader and faster for communication, while strong link networks are better at generating common knowledge and coordinating joint actions. Although weak links are useful for hearing about job opportunities, studies indicate that strong links are more important for coordinating action. Understanding the difference between strong and weak links is important for effective communication and cohesive group organization.

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