Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge

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Princeton University Press, Jan 6, 2003 - Business & Economics - 130 pages

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.

 

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Contents

Introduction
3
The Argument
8
Coordination Problems
11
Common Knowledge
13
Where the Argument Comes From
16
Applications
19
How Do Rituals Work?
25
InwardFacing Circles
30
The Chapel in the Panopticon
66
Elaborations
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
Conclusion
94

On the Waterfront
33
Believe the Hype
37
The Price of Publicity
49
Strong Links and Weak Links
61
The Argument Expressed Diagrammatically
101
References
113
Index
127
Copyright

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About the author (2003)

Michael Suk-Young Chwe is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has published widely on game theory and its applications to social networks, monetary theory, collective action, minority voting rights, and physical violence.

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