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Rational Ritual

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge

Michael Suk-Young Chwe
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Rational Ritual
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3113-5
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-18)

    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....

  6. 2 Applications
    (pp. 19-73)

    How do cultural practices such as rituals and ceremonies constitute power? Clifford Geertz (1983, p. 124) writes that “the easy distinction between the trappings of rule and its substance becomes less sharp, even less real; what counts is the manner in which . . . they are transformed into each other.” 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.” How exactly does this happen? What is the mechanism?

    Our explanation starts by saying that submitting to a social...

  7. 3 Elaborations
    (pp. 74-93)

    Here I briefly discuss two competing kinds of explanations in contrast to ours. One way by which rituals are thought to influence behavior is through direct psychological stimulation. For example, “rhythmic or repetitive behavior coordinates the limbic discharges (that is, affective states) of a group of conspecifics. It can generate a level of arousal that is both pleasurable and reasonably uniform among the individuals so that necessary group action is facilitated” (d’Aquili and Laughlin 1979, p. 158). This can very well be the case but, as remarked earlier, cannot be the whole story because, if it were, a ritual would...

  8. 4 Conclusion
    (pp. 94-100)

    The distinction between rationality and irrationality in the Western tradition goes back at least to Aristotle (1976, p. 90), who wrote that the “irrational part of the soul” is persuaded and admonished by the rational part “in the sense that a child pays attention to its father.” It is all too easy to say that this distinction is misleading or at the very least simplistic. For example, there seems to be a neurological connection between emotion and decision making in human beings; this is suggested by the phenomenon of people who, as a result of prefrontal brain damage, become both...

  9. Appendix The Argument Expressed Diagrammatically
    (pp. 101-112)
  10. References
    (pp. 113-126)
  11. Index
    (pp. 127-130)