The Emergence of Norms

“Put very crudely, the main thesis of this book is that certain types of norms are possible solutions to problems posed by certain types of social interaction situations. […] Three types of paradigmatic situations are dealt with. They are referred to as (1) Prisoner’s Dilemma-type situations; (2) Co-ordination situations; (3) Inequality (or Partiality) situations. Each of them, it is claimed, poses a basic difficulty, to some or all of the individuals involved in them. Three types of norms, respectively, are offered as solutions to these situational problems. It is shown how, and in what sense, the adoption of these norms of social behaviour can indeed resolve the specified problem.”

I should probably before moving on apologize for the infrequent updates – you should expect blogging to be light also in the months to come. With that out of the way, the book to which the title of this post refers and from which the above quote is taken is this Oxford University Press publication. Here’s what I wrote about the book on goodreads:

“The last chapter wasn’t in my opinion nearly as good as the others, presumably in part because I was unfamiliar with a lot of the literature to which she referred, but also because I could not really agree with all the distinctions and arguments made, and I was close to giving the book 3 stars as a result of this [I gave the book 4 stars on goodreads]. I think she overplays the ‘impersonal’ nature of norms in that chapter; if a norm based on sanctions is not enforced then it is irrelevant, and to the extent that it is enforced *someone* needs to impose the sanction on the transgressor. The fact that it’s actually in some contexts considered ‘a problem that needs explaining’ to figure out exactly how to support a model with sanctioning in a context where enforcement is costly to the individual (it’s a problem because of the free-riding issue – it’s always easier to let someone else do the sanctioning…) seems to have eluded Margalit (for details on this topic, see e.g. Boyd and Richerson).

It’s probably helpful to be familiar with basic game theoretic concepts if you’re planning on reading this book (it has a lot of game theory, though most of it is quite simple stuff), as well as perhaps having some familiarity with basic economics (rationality assumptions, utility functions, etc.) but I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary – I think the author does cover most of the basic things you need to know to be able to follow the arguments. The first three chapters are quite good.”

I should point out here that when I was writing the review above I had been completely unaware of how long ago the book was written; the book is pretty self-contained and I hadn’t really noticed when I picked up the book that it’s actually a rather old book. If I had been aware of this I would not have been nearly as vocal in my criticism of the content of the last chapter in my review as was the case, given that some of the insights I blame the author for being unaware of were only discussed in the literature after the publication of this book; the unaddressed problems do remain unaddressed and they are problematic, but it’s probably unfair to blame the author for not thinking about stuff which probably nobody really had given any thought at the time of publication.

In the post below I’ll talk a little bit about the book and add some more quotes. It probably makes sense to start out by giving a brief outline of the problems encountered in the three settings mentioned above. The basic problem encountered in prisoner’s dilemma-type situations is that unilateral defection is an attractive proposition, but if everybody yields to this temptation and defect then that will lead to a bad outcome. The problem faced is thus to figure out some way to make sure that defection is not an attractive option. In the co-ordination setting, there are several mutually beneficial states, none of which are strictly preferred to the others; that is, there is a coincidence of interests among the parties involved. The problem is that it’s difficult to come to an an explicit agreement as to which of the states to aim for. An example could be whether to drive in the right side of the road or the left side of the road. It probably doesn’t really matter much which side of the road you’re driving on, as long as you’re driving in the same side of the road as the other drivers do. The coincidence of interests here need not be perfect; one person might slightly prefer to drive in the right side of the road, all else equal, but even so it’ll be in his or her interest to drive in the same side of the road as do the other drivers; there’s no incentive for unilateral defection, and the main problem is figuring out how to achieve the outcome where behaviour is coordinated so that one of the available equilibria is reached. In the third setting, there’s some inequality present and one party is at an advantage; the problem here is how to maintain this advantageous position and how to fortify it so that it’s stable.

Some quotes and a few more comments:

“[One] angle from which it may be illuminating to view the account of norms offered here is that of evolutionary explanations. […] I propose to regard the argument underlying this book as, in a borrowed and somewhat metaphorical sense, a natural selection theory of the development of norms.”

“Norms do not as a rule come into existence at a definite point in time, nor are they the result of a manageable number of identifiable acts. The are, rather, the resultant of complex patterns of behaviour of a large number of people over a protracted period of time.”

“it is proposed that the main elements in the characterization of norms of obligation be: a significant social pressure for conformity to them and against deviation – actual or potential – from them; the belief by the people concerned in their indispensability for the proper functioning of society; and the expected clashes between their dictates on the one hand and personal interests and desires on the other.”

It should be noted here that far from all norms qualify as norms of obligation; this is but one norm subgroup, though it’s an important one. The author notes explicitly that norms encountered in the context of coordination problems are not norms of obligation.

“A situation of the generalized PD variety poses a problem to the participants involved. The problem is that of protecting an unstable yet jointly beneficial state of affairs from deteriorating, so to speak, into a stable yet jointly destructive one. My contention concerning such a situation is that a norm, backed by appropriate sanctions, could solve this problem. In this sense it can be said that such situations ‘call for’ norms. It can further be said that a norm solving the problem inherent in a situation of this type is generated by it. Such norms I shall call PD norms. […] the smaller and the more determinate the class of participants in a generalized PD-structured situation, and the more isolated the occurrence of the dilemma among them, the more likely it is that there might be solutions other than (PD) norms to the pertinent problem […] And conversely, the larger and the more indeterminate the class of participants, and the more frequent the occurrence of the dilemma among them, the more likely it is that a solution, if any, would be in the form of a PD norm. […] the more difficult (or costly) it is to ensure […] personal contact, […] the more acute the need for some impersonal device, such as social norms, which would induce the desired co-operation.”

You can easily add more details to the conceptual framework underlying the analysis in order to refine it in various ways, and the author does talk a little bit about how you might go about doing that; for example it might not be realistic that nobody ever deviates, and so you might decide to replace an unrealistic stability condition that nobody deviates with another one which might be that at most some percentage, say X, of the population deviates. Such refined theoretical models can incidentally yield very interesting and non-trivial theoretical results – Boyd and Richerson cover such models in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. It should perhaps be noted that even relatively simple models dealing with these sorts of topics may easily end up nevertheless being sufficiently complicated for analytical solutions to not be forthcoming.

“there are norms whose function is to maintain social control on certain groups of people through preventing them from solving the problem inherent in the PD-structured situation in which they are placed. That is, these norms are designed to help keep these people in a state of affairs which, while disadvantageous to them […] is considered beneficial to society as a whole. A conspicuous example of norms of this type are anti-trust laws.”

In the context of coordination problems, the author distinguishes between two solution mechanisms/norms; conventions and decrees. Broadly speaking conventions can be thought of as established solutions to coordination problems encountered in the past, whereas decrees are solutions to novel problems where no equilibrium has yet been established – see also the more detailed quotes below. In the context of sanctions an important difference between coordination norms and PD norms is that sanctions can be said to play a primary role in the context of PD norms but only a secondary role in the context of coordination norms; nobody has a unilateral incentive to deviate in the context of coordination-type situations/problems and so defection so to speak carries its own punishment independent of the potential level of an associated sanction. If everybody else drive in the right side of the road, you don’t gain anything from driving in the left side of the road – and it’s unlikely to be the size of the fine which is the primary reason why you don’t drive in the left side of the road in such a context.

“It is worth noting that within the large class of problems of strategy (i.e. problems of interdependent decision), the problems of co-ordination stand in opposition to problems of conflict, the contrast being particularly acute between the extreme cases of pure co-ordination on the one hand and of pure conflict (the so-called zero-sum problems) on the other. Whereas in the pure co-ordination case the parties’ interests converge completely, and the agents win or lose together, in the pure conflict case the parties’ interests diverge completely, and one person’s gain is the other’s loss. […] [Shelling argues] that games of strategy range over a continuum with games of pure conflict […] and games of pure co-ordination as opposite limits. All other games […] involve mixtures in varying proportions of conflict and co-ordination, of competition and partnership, and are referred to as mixed-motive games.”

One thing to add here, which is of course not mentioned in the book, is that whereas the situation does play a sometimes major role in terms of which setting you find yourself in, there’s also a relevant mental/psychological aspect to consider here; in the context of bargaining, it’s a very well-established result that bargainers who conceive of the bargaining situation as a zero-sum (‘conflict’) game do worse than bargainers who do not.

“Very generally, where communities which have their own ways of going about things – their own arrangements, regularities, conventions – come into contact, and where the situation demands that barriers between them be dropped, or that one – any one – of them absorb the other, various co-ordination problems are likely to crop up and to call for […] decree-type co-ordination norms to solve them.”

“Conventions are, typically:

(1) Non-statutory norms, which need not be enacted, formulated, or promulgated.
(2) They are neither issued nor promulgated by any identifiable authority, and are hence what is usually called impersonal, or anonymous norms.
(3) They involve in the main non-institutionalized, non-organized, and informal sanctions (i.e. punishments or rewards).

Decrees, in contrast, are, typically:
(1) Statutory;
(2) Issued and promulgated by some appropriately endowed authority (not necessarily at the level of the state);
(3) The sanctions they involve might be organized, institutionalized, and formal, even physical.”

Conventions and decrees are quite different, but in terms of what they do they solve similar problems:

“Since a co-ordination problem is a situation such that any of its co-ordination equilibria is preferred, by all involved, to any combination of actions which is not a co-ordination equlibrium, each of those involved is interested in there being something which will point – in a way conspicuous to all and perceived to be conspicuous to all – to one particular co-ordination equilibrum as the solution. This precisely is what our co-ordination norms, whether conventions or decrees, do.”

“Thibaut and Kelley note that norms ‘will develop more rapidly and more surely in highly cohesive groups than in less cohesive groups’ – assuming that the majority of the members have about the same degree of dependence on the group […] To the extent that norms reduce interference, cut communication costs, heighten value similarity and insure the interaction sequence necessary for task performance, norms improve the reward-cost positions attained by the members of a dyad and thus increase the cohesiveness of the dyad”

“[I]n so far as conformity to a co-ordination norm ensures the achievement of some co-ordination equilibrium, which for everyone involved in the corresponding co-ordination problem belongs of necessity to the group of preferred outcomes, it is rational for everyone to conform to it. Are we to conclude from this, however, that the social choice to which the co-ordination norm is instrumental is itself rational? My answer to this question is that although it is rational to conform to a prevailing co-ordination norm, the social choice resulting from it is not necessarily rational. […] it may not be optimal, for some or for all involved. It can in principle be changed into a better one, only this involves an explicit process which is not always feasible. […] The changing of an existing convention in favour of a ‘better’, more rational one, has to be explicit. It can be achieved through an explicit agreement of all concerned, or through a regulation (decree) issued and properly promulgated by some appropriately endowed authority. Where communication, or promulgation, is impossible, it is difficult to see how an existing convention (which is a co-ordination norm) might be changed. It is of some interest to note that whereas an ‘act of convening’ is not necessary for a convention to form, it might be necessary for an existing convention to be exchanged for an alternative one.”

“The difference in the role played by the two types of norms might now be formulated thus: a co-ordination norm helps those involved ‘meet’ each other; a PD norm helps those involved protect themselves from damaging, even ruining, each other.”

“[T]here are states of inequality which appear on the surface to be stable but which are, in a somewhat subtle and complicated way, strategically unstable. They may be in equilibrium, but it is a rather flimsy one; far from being self-perpetuating, they are susceptible to threats. Now the assumption that the party discriminated in favour of is interested in the preservation of such a status quo leads reasonably to the assumption that he will seek to fortify it against its potential undermining. […] it is the central thesis of this chapter that [a] significant device to render the status quo stable [is] to fortify it by norms. The idea is that once it is in some sense normatively required that the status quo endure, the nature of the possible calculations and considerations of deviance fundamentally changes: it is no longer evaluated only in terms of being ‘costly’ or ‘risky’, but as being ‘wrong‘ or ‘subversive‘. […] the methods of norms and force as possible fortifiers of the status quo in question are functionally equivalent […] provided the norms are effective, they both amount to making deviance from the status quo more costly through the impositions of sanctions.”

“Once norms are internalized, one abides by them not out of fear of the pending sanctions associated with them, but out of some inner conviction. And when this is so, one is likely to conform to the norms even in one’s thoughts, intentions, and in what one does in private.”

“The function of norms, generally speaking, is to put restraints on possible courses of conduct, to restrict the number of alternatives open for action. When a certain course of conduct is normatively denounced (is considered ‘wrong’), it becomes a less eligible course of conduct than it might otherwise have been: although through lying, for example, one might quite conveniently get away with some misdeed, its being recognized and acknowledged as normatively (morally) prohibited normally makes it a less attractive way out, or even precludes its having been considered an alternative in the first place. In this sense, then, norms might be said to be coercive, to the extent that they function as constraints on actions; that is, to the extent that they prevent one for doing an ation one might have done had there been no norm denouncing it, or at least to the extent that they render a certain course of action less eligible than it might otherwise have been.”

“[N]orms are rather easily accepted as part of the ‘natural order of things’. To be sure, one might be quite resentful of this natural order, or of one’s lot therein, and regard it as discriminating against one. But usually there is very little one is going to do about it unless – and until – the object of one’s resentment is personified: only few will start a revolution against an elusive oppressive ‘system’; many more might revolt against an identifiable oppressive ruler. […] These norms have to apply to the privileged as well as to the deprived, or else they lose much of their effectiveness as a disguise for the real exercise of power underlying them. […] The absence of any precedents in which someone privileged was spared the sanction, the absence of any loopholes which might facilitate a discriminatory application of the norms, contribute to their deterrence value”.

February 13, 2016 - Posted by | anthropology, books, Game theory, philosophy

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