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Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

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Argomento: come funzionano i rituali e perché sono razionali per ottenere il coordinamento della moltitudine

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Ceremonies and Authority

Clifford Geertz (1983, p. 124) writes that “the easy distinction between the trappings of rule and its substance becomes less sharp, even less real;

Note:SIMBOLI E SOSTANZA

Lynn Hunt (1984, p. 54) is more direct: during the French Revolution, “political symbols and rituals were not metaphors of power; they were the means and ends of power itself.”

Note:RIVOLUZIONE FRANCESE

Our explanation starts by saying that submittting to a social or political authority is a coordination problem: each person is more willing to support an authority the more others support it.

Note:SOTTOMISSIONE E COORDINAMENTO

Jürgen Habermas interprets Hannah Arendt as saying that “the fundamental phenomenon of power is not the instrumentalization of another’s will, but the formation of a common will

Note:HABERMAS

according to Michael Polanyi (1958, p. 224), “if in a group of men each believes that all the others will obey the commands of a person claiming to be their common superior, all will obey this person

Note:POLANYI

In sixteenth-century England, a progress was didactic and allegorical: “four townsmen [were] dressed to represent the four virtues — Pure Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom, and Justice,” with Elizabeth Tudor representing the Protestant virtues of “Chastity, Wisdom, Peace, Perfect Beauty, and Pure Religion.”

Note:GB XVI SECOLO

In fourteenth-century Java, which had a hierarchical, nested-circle world view, the king Hayam Wuruk appeared in the middle of the procession, with each of the four compass points represented by a princess.

Note:GIAVA XIV SECOLO

Under our interpretation, widespread ritual signs of dominance do not by their omnipresence evoke transcendence but are rather more like saturation advertising: when I see the extent of a vast advertising campaign, I know that other people must see the advertisements too.

Note:POTERE E PUBBLICITÀ

Revolutionaries also established new units of weight and measure (the metric system) and invented a new calendar, with new holidays and the seven-day week replaced by a ten-day “decade.” That most of the world today drives on the right is also due to the French Revolution: the previous custom in western Europe was to drive on the left, but because ordinary people walked on the right to face the oncoming traffic, that direction was considered more democratic (Young 1996).

Note:CULTURA E POTERE

William Sewell (1985, p. 77) understands the revolution’s new units of measure and time in terms of its ideology: revolutionaries wanted to transform people’s “experiences of space and time.… Their revolution recognized a new metaphysical order;

Note:METAFISICA E POTERE

James Scott (1990, pp. 203-4, 56) distinguishes explicitly between public communications, the “public transcript,” and nonpublic communications, the “hidden transcript”: for example, “the Catholic hierarchy … understands that if large numbers of their adherents have chosen to live together out of wedlock, such a choice … is of less institutional significance than if these same adherents openly repudiated the sacrament of marriage.”

Note:ESOTERISMO E MATRIMONIO

immediately after the live radio broadcast of black boxer Jack Johnson’s victory over the white Jim Jeffries in 1910, “there were racial fights in every state in the South and much of the North.… [I]n the flush of their jubilation, blacks became momentarily bolder in gesture, speech, and carriage.… Intoxication comes in many forms.”

Note:BOXE ALLA RADIO

When Ricardo Lagos accused General Pinochet of torture and assassination on live national television, he said “more or less what thousands of Chilean citizens had been thinking and saying in safer circumstances for fifteen years”; the openness and publicity, not the content, of his speech, made it a “political shock wave.”

Note:L’ACCUSA A PINOCHET

How Do Rituals Work?

“stag hunt,” in which each person can either join with others and hunt for a stag, or hunt for a rabbit by himself. If everyone hunts for a stag together, they succeed, and everyone gets more than one rabbit’s worth of food. But if only a few people hunt for the stag, they surely fail, and each would be better off just getting a rabbit. Hence each person will hunt for the stag only if others do also. One could spread the message “Let’s hunt for the stag at sunrise tomorrow” sequentially by word of mouth, but a more effective way to communicate would be to get everyone together in a meeting, so that not only would everyone know about the plan, but everyone would also immediately see that everyone else knows about the plan, forming common knowledge. If one calls this meeting a “ritual,” then according to our argument, the purpose of a ritual is to form the common knowledge necessary for solving a coordination problem.

Note:LA CACCIA AL CERVO DI ROUSSEAU

“in many African tribes rituals are performed most frequently when a small community is in danger of splitting up” (Turner 1968, p. 278).

Note:RITI E COLLASSO

Turner (1969, p. 179) quotes at length the words of an Ashanti high priest (recorded and translated by Rattray 1923): “Our forbears … ordained a time, once every year, where every man and woman, free man and slave, should have freedom to speak out just what was in their head, to tell their neighbors just what they thought of them, and of their actions, and not only to their neighbours, but also the king or chief. When a man has spoken freely thus, he will feel his sunsum [soul] cool and quieted, and the sunsum of the other person against whom he has now openly spoken will be quieted also.… [W]hen you are allowed to say before his face what you think you both benefit.” Turner interprets this in terms of a need for periodic “levelling” of status in which “the high must submit to being humbled.” Under our explanation, what is important is being able to speak openly and publicly, to another’s face, making what was previously furtive, personal, a grudge you hold that others might only suspect, common knowledge and hence publicly resolvable.

Note:RITO ASHANTI

Repetition of the same phrase can be understood as providing redundancy, in the spirit of information theory. But as Stanley Tambiah (1985, p. 138) notes, information theory is not directly applicable because rituals are more about “interpersonal orchestration and … social integration and continuity” than transmitting information.

Note:INSUFFICIENZA DELLA TEORIA DELL’INFORMAZIONE

Interpreted in terms of common knowledge generation, repetition is about not just making sure that each person gets a message but also making sure that each person can recognize the repetition and thus know that everyone else gets the message.

Note:RIPETIZIONE NEI RITUALI

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963, p. 229) asks “why [are] myths, and more generally oral literature, so much addicted to duplication, triplication, or quadruplication of the same sequence? … [T]he answer is obvious: The function of repetition is to render the structure of the myth apparent.” In our interpretation, the function of repetition is to render repetition apparent.

Note:LEVI STRAUSS E LA RIPETIZIONE

Tambiah (1985, p. 123) quotes A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s interpretation of dance as enabling “a number of persons to join in the same actions and perform them as a body.” Although one can say that “bodily movements are a kind of language and that symbolic signals are communicated through a variety of movements from one person to another” (Bloch 1974, p. 72), our interpretation is somewhat simpler: group dancing “as a body” is an ideal way of creating common knowledge because if any person loses interest, this becomes immediately evident to everyone because the pattern of movement is disrupted.

Note:DANZA

Inward-Facing Circles

One specific way to generate common knowledge, as mentioned in our bus example earlier, is eye contact. For larger groups the closest thing to eye contact is for everyone to face each other in a circle,

Note:CONTATTO VISIVO

A common feature of prehistoric structures throughout what is now the southwestern United States is the kiva. Built partially underground, kivas were typically circular, and people presumably sat facing each other;

Note:KIVA

Mona Ozouf ([1976] 1988, pp. 130-31) finds that for revolutionary festivals in the French Revolution, circular forms were considered ideal (Figure 3): there was an “obsession with the amphitheater

Note:ANFITEATRO

On the Waterfront

Here I illustrate how the inward-facing circle is used very specifically in On the Waterfront, a 1954 feature film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, which tells a story of how disparate longshoremen gradually come together to fight against a gang of corrupt union “officials.” The unity of the corrupt gang is emphasized by their circular huddle

Note:I CIRCOLI IN FRONTE DEL PORTO

Believe the Hype

Although advertising’s overall social significance is often acknowledged, it is not at all clear exactly how it works. David W. Stewart (1992, p. 4) notes that “it is curious and a bit embarrassing that more than ninety years of advertising research still leaves open the question of advertising effectiveness.…

Note:IL MISTERO DELLA PUBBLICITÀ. MA QUANDO FUNZIONA?

Michael Schudson (1995, p. 22) explains that “what must astonish people with casual beliefs in the vast power of the media is how difficult it is to measure media influence.…

Note:MEDIA E INFLUENZA

Buying a particular good might be a coordination problem for various reasons. Technological reasons include “network externalities” (Katz and Shapiro 1994): a person would be more likely to buy a Macintosh computer, fax machine, or DVD player if others buy it also, because a person’s utility from buying it increases as the number of other people buying it increases… I might want to see the movie Titanic simply because I want to be able to talk about it with my friends and co-workers….

Note:MERCI E COORDINAMENTO

Several people have suggested that the mass media not only distribute messages to receivers but also let each receiver know about other receivers. James G. Webster and Patricia F. Phalen (1997, p. 120) write that “it is likely that people watching a media event know that a vast audience is in attendance.

Note:INFORMARE SULLA COSA E SU CHI È INFORMATO DELLA COSA

By observing the campaign’s vast scale alone, each person could surmise that others were seeing the ads also. But on top of this, the advertising theme also was consistently centered around the issue of (the lack of) common knowledge.

Note:GRANDIOSITÀ

Many have argued that advertising “creates needs” that people would not have cared about otherwise; for example, in the early 1900s “the visible application of cosmetics was deemed highly inappropriate by middle-class Americans” (Vinikas 1992, p. 57). But perhaps it is less a matter of creating individual isolated needs than of tapping into the deep and basic need of each individual to conform to community standards, an ever present coordination problem.

Note:LA CREAZIONE DEL BISOGNO

Some goods create their own demand in some sense by definition; for example, although people do have a general demand for entertainment, demand for a particular movie often does not exist until it is released. If a person wants to see what is popular, if only because she wants to know what everyone else is talking about, seeing a movie is a coordination problem. To take one example, “ ‘Independence Day’ is a mega metaphenomenon — a pseudo event in which the audience prides itself on being part of the hype” (Wolcott 1996)… Hollywood since the 1970s has seen the increasing dominance of the “high concept” film, intended to have a huge audience immediately upon release (Wyatt 1994)….

Note:CINEMA

The best common knowledge generator in the United States is the Super Bowl, the most popular program on network television that occurs regularly.

Note:SUPER BOWL

If we look at goods advertised on the Super Bowl (Table 1, compiled from USA Today stories) we see the preponderance of “social” goods like cars, beer, soft drinks, movies, clothing, and shoes, whose purchase might be understood in terms of a coordination problem, and the relative absence of “nonsocial” goods like batteries, motor oil, and breakfast cereal.

Note:CHI FA PUBBLICITÀ DURANTE IL SUPER BOWL? LE MERCI SOCIALI.

The Price of Publicity

The data here suggest that social goods are in fact advertised on more popular shows and also that advertisers of social goods are willing to pay more per viewer to do so.

Note:PUBBLICITÀ DEI BENI SOCIALI

The first thing to notice is that average cost per thousand is consistently higher for the social brands than for the nonsocial brands (exceptions are shaving and cameras and film processing).

Note:COSTI DI PUBBLICITÁ

Our finding that popular shows are more expensive per viewer is similar to results from data not across shows but across localities. Fisher, McGowan, and Evans (1980) find that local television station revenue increases not only in the total number of households viewing but also in the square of the total number of households viewing.

Note:COSTO PER TELESPETTATORE

Strong Links and Weak Links

The distinction between strong and weak links is an early insight of social network theory (Granovetter 1973). Roughly speaking, a strong link joins close friends and a weak link joins acquaintances… strong links tend to traverse a society “slowly”:Weak links traverse a society “quickly”:

Note:RETI FORTI E RETI DEBOLI. COSA SERVE AL CONTAGIO?

If coordinated action relies on communication, then because communication is faster in weak-link networks, it seems that weak-link networks should be better (see also Gould 1993, Macy 1991, and Marwell and Oliver 1993). The puzzle is that most evidence suggests that strong links are more important… In three classic “diffusion” studies, which look at individuals choosing whether to adopt a new technology, rates of adoption are actually negatively correlated with the presence of weak links (Valente 1995, p. 51)….

Note:COORDINAMENTO E LINK. MEGLIO DEBOLI O FORTI?

“although weak links may be more effective as diffusion channels, strong ties embody greater potential for influencing behavior” (McAdam 1986, p. 80)… However, our argument, which emphasizes the importance of common knowledge, shows that strong links can be better even in terms of communication alone….

Note:COMUNICARE E INFLUENZARE

take a simple example. Say we have four people, and say that each person has a “threshold” of three; that is, each person is willing to participate in the group action as long as three people in total do so. Consider two networks, the “square” and “kite,” as shown in Figure 13, where all links are symmetric (communication flows in both directions). Say that before deciding to participate, each person communicates her willingness to participate, her threshold, with her neighbors. In the square, each person knows that there are three people with thresholds of three: himself and his two neighbors. That is, each person knows that there is enough collective sentiment to make group action possible. But say I’m considering whether to participate. What do I know about, say, my right-hand neighbor? I know that he has a threshold of three. I am his neighbor, and hence I know that he knows I have a threshold of three. But I do not know anything about his other neighbor “across” from me, who might not want to participate at all, in which case my neighbor to the right will surely not participate. Hence I cannot count on my right-hand neighbor to participate. Hence I do not participate… So, in this example, the kite is better than the square. This difference cannot be accounted for by summary characteristics such as the total number of links (four in both cases), or even by finer measures such as the number of neighbors each person has (in the kite, two of the participants have only two neighbors, as in the square). The difference between the square and kite is truly a difference in the kind of structure. In the kite, each member of the triangle participates because she knows that her friends know each other….

Note:PERCHÈ NECESSARIO IL LINK ROBUSTO ANCHE SOLO PER COMUNICARE (CONOSCENZA COMUNE). UN ESEMPIO.

In an expanded analysis, McAdam and Ronnelle Paulsen (1993, p. 658) find that organizations such as religious groups and civil rights groups give individuals “a highly salient identity and strong social support for activism based on that identity.” Interestingly, when organizational affiliation and the presence of a strong tie are both included in the analysis, the strong positive effect of strong ties disappears.

Note:GRUPPI RELIGIOSI

The Chapel in the Panopticon

Jeremy Bentham, often considered one of the founders of rational choice theory, also came up with the “panopticon” prison design, describing it in meticulous detail and lobbying for it ceaselessly for more than twenty years (Semple 1993). The design, which arranges prison cells in a circle around a central guard tower, was not implemented in Bentham’s lifetime and has had limited influence on actual prison construction.

Note:IL PANOCTICON DI BENTHAM

Bentham himself in his original letters downplays separation: “The essence of it consists, then, in the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen later in his postscripts, Bentham states explicitly that the protracted partitions are not necessary (Bentham [1791] 1843, p. 44).

Note:SUPERWATCHER

The purpose of separation is straightforward: to prevent prisoners from communicating and thereby prevent coordinated action. According to Bentham ([1791] 1843, p. 46), “overpowering the guards requries a union of hands, and a concert among minds… According to Foucault (1979, p. 202), asymmetry “dissociot [es] the see/being seen dyad” of guard and prisoner. But this dyadic analysis is incomplete in that it does not consider how prisoners know about, and might communicate with, each other. It turns out that asymmetry has another important function (which it shares with separation): preventing the formation of common knowledge and hence coordinated action among prisoners…. So asymmetry not only affects the dyadic relationship between observer and observed; it is also essential for keeping the observed from implicitly comunicating, from forming common knowledge. Say, for example, that the central guard tower was open and visible to all prisoners….

Note:ASIMMETRIA TRA CHI GUARDA E CHI E’ GUARDATO

Foucault’s overall aim is to establish a historical shift from an older kind of power based on ritual and ceremony to a modern kind of power exemplified by the panopticon; through the panoptic principle, “a whole type of society emerges. Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle… One of Foucault’s historical reasons for why mechanisms of power abandoned spectacle in favor of surveillance is the instability of spectacle: public executions, for example, could switch suddenly from rituals of state order to riots against it. But the panopticon has a similar instability, immediately turning into a stadium were it not for smoked glass and window blinds…. If, however, we think in terms of common knowledge formation among the multitude, which I argue is the crucial issue in a festival anyhow, then the festival and panopticon are more similar than different….

Note:TOPICA DI FOUCAULT: LA CONOSCENZA COMUNE E’ AL CENTRO SIA DEL PANOPTICON CHE DEL RITO.

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