Rooting Ourselves in the Problem of Order (PDF of this page w/o images)

Recall our starting point — the "problem of order" as problem of coordination and problem of cooperation. We locate the posing of the problem in the work of Thomas Hobbes in the mid 17th century. Our topic today is theories of how individuals - what humans and human experience are like - contributes to solving the problem of order. Our readings range from Karl Marx writing in the 1840s through three theorists writing in the early 20th century. Emile Durkheim, considered a founding father of sociology and also leaned on by anthropologists, George Herbert Mead, an American social philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago, and the lesser known Ludwik Fleck, a microbiologist who contributed to the social science of science and cognitive sociology. Our text book editors call these theorists the "meaning theorists" because their theories offer an explanation for how humans accomplish the feat of common or shared meaning.

Hobbes had argued that humans had a special rational capacity that permitted them to "socially contract" with one another, but that the only way to give them confidence that the contract would be respected is to give a central power a monopoly on force - if everyone was in mutual fear of this power, they would uphold their contracts with one another.

In the social sciences we refer to the kind of individual suggested by this model as "undersocialized" - the expectation is that except when they fear getting caught and punished, they will act selfishly. The undersocialized person does not have a "social bone in her body."

But the research we read about in the Fehr and Gintis article suggests that human beings come in different flavors. Some have more of a "social bone" in their body than Hobbes' selfish actor has. And this tracks a bit with conventional wisdom about people: we have a sense that people can be "trained" or "socialized" to be more "socially giving."

In theory, this suggest an opposite extreme - we can imagine social order coming about as a result of perfect hyper-socialization. No one has even a single selfish bone in their body.

Fehr and Gintis suggested that theories of social action exist along a continuum. At one end lies Hobbes' theory of social life as "a war of all against all." At the other extreme is the "over-socialized conception of man" theory.

Hobbes suggested people are fundamentally selfish and self-interested and society can only exist when they create order-producing institutions like governments that can coerce people into cooperative behavior.

Later, Rousseau would describe this in terms of "the social contract."

Durkheim and others criticized this approach by noting that unless there was already some basis for cooperation, people could not get together and create order-producing institutions.

The alternative theory, often associated with the work of Talcott Parsons, was that whatever human nature was, it could be tamed by the internalization of social values. Children are taught to be conforming members of society and people who wander off the path of pro-social behavior are re-socialized as needed.

This line of thought ends up being a little vague when it comes to specifying mechanisms for how these social values interact with selfish natural tendencies and the social environment. In the extreme they are referred to as the oversocialized concept of man."

Fehr and Gintis suggest that empirical evidence does not support the "assume selfish, a-social individuals" premise. Further, mere internalization of "good" values does not unconditionally produce social order. What we seem to need are three things: human nature, social values, and organization. The conditional cooperators' success in bending behavior toward cooperation depends on their being able to coordinate with one another ("I'll punish if you punish") and to communicate so that would-be non-cooperators are on notice ("Hmmm, there seem to be folks willing to punish non-cooperators around here.").

Let's try to untangle the relationship between cooperation and coordination.

Imagine two hunters out on the savannah looking for dinner. Both have been frustrated by the fact that the animals are bigger and faster than they are. Both think "I would be willing to hunt with a partner."

But when they see each other they notice that the other looks hungry and is carrying a weapon. They make gestures of hunting and they remember the time when someone stole their meat. They back off and hunt on their own, better safe than sorry.

What is missing? The hunters don't have a way to make their behavior predictable to one another. They have no way to signal their willingness to cooperate.

Focus on Coordination

A coordination problem occurs when actors lack (credible, understandable) information about the behavior of other actors that has an impact on them.

  • (time) If I knew what time you will play your music, I can plan my nap accordingly.
  • (complementarity) If I know you speak Croation, I can hire a Croation interpreter.
  • (space) If I know where the other gang's territory starts, I can avoid walking in that area.
  • (signaling) If I know what you mean by "cross my heart and hope to die" then I can take you at your word (or not).
  • (symmetry) If I know that we keep clean the same hand after defecating, we can shake hands.
  • (time and space) If we are both listening to the same rhythm, we can connect up in the dance, or come in on same beat in the song.

Brainstorm: examples of coordination you experienced over the weekend.

Coordination Requires Communication; Communication Requires Shared Meaning

They cannot coordinate their efforts because they cannot communicate.

Logically, we are arguing that cooperation depends on coordination and coordination depends on communication. But for communication to happen, the actors need to have some common pool of meaning to draw on.

The emphasis here is on the matching of behavior — actors can make a better decisions when they can correctly assume the behavior from others. But to do this, they need that pool of common meaning. Where does it come from?

What kind of thing is a human individual such that shared meaning happens?

We are assuming that individuals might be inclined to cooperate but that the capacity to coordinate needs to be explained because even cooperators can't pull off social order if they cannot coordinate. The challenge is conceptualized, first and foremost, as a problem of signalling: how can entities with private information processing capacity help others to predict their behavior?

The short answer is communication. But let's understand this in a very general sense. The picture we are going to develop here is one of humans as a kind of organism that has partly an individual mind and partly a social mind?

One answer is to assume that it's just there or that it gets poured into a person from their surroundings.

Or, a little less abstractly, let's imagine two individuals have an encounter on the primeval prairie. Both are hungry and have thoughts of dinner. But they have no mechanism for communicating so that they can coordinate and cooperate.

But, as social beings, they are not restricted to their own little worlds. Some part of the mental contents of each is a shared stock of knowledge, symbols, etc. They can draw on this to communicate their intentions and to understand the intentions of the other.

How did it get there? We are looking at three answers to that question.

Karl Marx: The Production of Consciousness (1845)

Karl Marx is writing in the 1840s. The industrial revolution is underway - more advanced in England than on the continent. The French Revolution is 50 years ago. In the interim, Europe has seen Napoleon's march across it introduce liberal reforms associated with the modern state. Feudalism was on the ropes. Elites were tired of absolute monarchy, non-elites of all manner of oppression. Marx is working as a journalist writing for radical newspapers and magazines. He had moved to Paris and just met Friedrich Engels who had just published "The Condition of the Working Class in England." He is studying political economy classics and writing pieces that try to stake out a position with respect to other young philosophers of the time. There's a political crackdown and he gets thrown out of France and resettles in Brussels. With help from Engels he writes "The German Ideology," from which our selection is drawn, where he lays out an alternative view of socialism that's based on materialism rather than idealism.Book not actually published until the 1930s. It's an exposition of the philosophical perspective called "historical materialism."

Marx is writing "against" the view of other followers of the philosopher
G.W.F. Hegel, keeping his "dialectical" method but turning Hegel's "idealism" on its head, as it were.

We will set aside the idea of the dialectic for now, focusing instead on Marx's materialism. Human beings' consciousness - by which he means what we would mean by mind, mindset, worldview, etc. - is not simply a product of human nature or the times we live in, it comes from things we actually do. This emphasis on the empirical, on the real physical stuff of everyday life, is where Marx gets the "material" for materialism.

What distinguishes humans from other organisms, Marx says, is that we produce, we work and we make things. Our consciousness is a product of this most human of activities. It would not make sense, he argues, to locate the human difference in the things we share with other organisms (hunger, sex drive, etc.). What Marx has in mind is that the way we engage with the world to change it in production makes us who we are.

The material conditions in which we live determine the kinds of production we engage in, our productive activity puts us into interaction with others. From interaction emerge structures and ways of thinking and conceptualizing the world that are shared. These shared meanings form the "social" part of our consciousness.

Theoretically, this suggests that our "tendencies" as far as living together (i.e., making social order) goes, will be derivative from our modes of production.

Émile Durkheim: The Origin of Beliefs (1912)

This selection, "The Origin of Beliefs" is from Durkheim's 1912 masterpiece The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Emile Durkheim had been laying the groundwork for what sociology could add to the human sciences for almost 20 years when he wrote this book. He started with The Division of Labour in Society (1893) where he introduced a sociological interpretation of the shift from pre-industrial to industrial society. Some people thought society would fragment as people left villages and moved cities, trading a world where everyone knew everyone to one where anonymous masses mixed in giant metropolises. Durkheim talked about this in terms of "social solidarity" - the glue of connection that holds society together - and suggested that there was a shift from an older basis of solidarity - organic solidarity that was based on similarity of persons - to a new one, mechanical solidarity which is based on complementarity of persons. In 1895, he published The Rules of Sociological Method where he described how to do sociology. The most well known lines from this book are "treat social facts as things" and "explain social facts with social facts." Durkheim published his most well known study, Suicide, in 1897. He explained geographical and categorical differences in suicide rates by the strength and style of social connectedness generated by religious beliefs and demographics.

In Elementary Forms he tackled the question of why religion persisted despite the rationalization of society since the Enlightenment. A conventional view was that religion should disappear as superstition is replaced by scientific understanding of the world. His strategy is to study the most basic forms of religion he can find to figure out "what religion really is." His famous conclusion is that society is god. We won't cover the whole argument, but I recommend one of the best chapters in all of sociology if you are interested: Randall Collins' chapter "The Irrational Foundations of Rationality" pp. 3-29 in his Sociological Insights (notes).

The thing religions all have, he suggests, is rites (practices) and shared beliefs.

The beliefs here are not individual beliefs but rather things that groups believe "together." In particular, Durkheim is interested in "powerful beliefs" and where they come from. Real societies, he notes, are NOT built exclusively on the power of the threat of physical coercion. We are, in fact, subject to "forces" that are external in origin and yet internal in experience.

(50.8) X inspires respect if its mental representation inhibits or promotes conduct independent of any calculation about the conduct's results.

Fleck "The Origin of a Scientific Fact"

The problem that Fleck is writing about is the distinction between the "reality" of a disease and our collective definition or understanding of it. Specifically, he chronicles the gradual emergence of an understanding of syphilis as a single disease, arguing that scientists needed a shared theory of the disease before they could "see" syphilis and the bacteria that causes it.

Fleck's work is foundational in what we now call the social construction of science - the idea that things like diseases are not simply "in the world" waiting to be discovered, but that collective beliefs affect what we "see" and "know" about the world.

But for our purposes, his underlying mechanism is more important than what he has to say about science per se. At 56.8 he says that when words are put out into the world (as when I do some thinking and then talk about it and others talk about my ideas) they take on a "life of their own." Each repetition or re-use of what someone else said stamps it with something other than "this is just my perception or experience" and it picks up a little "epistemological boost."

As individuals we are so intimately familiar with what it feels like to be thinking that we shrink back from the idea that this is a social activity. But just look at what happens in repeated dyadic conversations - very quickly two people build up a sort of shared glossary of references that they can build upon. They generate what Fleck calls a "thought structure" that they both share in but that requires them both to be fully activated. When we interact with other others we bring to those interactions a mind that is shaped by that thought structure but is not identical to it. And after a while, we see that what the self is is this overlapping collection of social thought structures.

"What actually thinks within a person is not the individual himself but his social community." (59.5)


We read a small section of George Herbert Mead's posthumously assembled Mind, Self, and Society.

Contemporary Applications: Cohen and Vandello on the Meanings of Violence

Our final reading is a contemporary piece by psychologists Cohen & Vandello.


Consider, though, a neighborhood of selfish and aggressive folks. People know themselves and they know their neighbors. "I'd as soon shoot you as look at you if ya' come on my land," they think, and they are completely sure their neighbors feel the same way. They teach their kids never to talk to the neighbors, never to stray onto the next-door property. They invest in fences, surveillance systems, and guns, each one sure that to lower one's guard would be to invite victimization at the hands of others.

Or imagine a soccer team in which the paycheck is determined by the number of shots on goal.

In both situations, participants might know exactly what to expect from one another, but this predictability, we could say, just makes things worse. The neighbors invest everything in protecting themselves from one another, live miserable lives, and always have to go all the way to the store when they need a cup of sugar. The soccer team performs terribly even though all the players know exactly what's going to happen anytime one of them gets the ball — no matter what, they try to handle the ball by themselves all the way down the field in hopes of getting off a shot.

Cooperation refers to behavior by two or more individuals that is oriented toward a common goal or benefit.

Are coordination and cooperation distinct?

So far, we have shown that we can have coordination without cooperation. What about the other way round? Let's imagine our soccer team consists of players who are totally devoted to the team cause. Their coaches have set up a system that rewards all the team members for team success. But the team never gets to practice together. Each member works out with different groups, each one developing high level soccer skills, but when they are on the field together as a team they lack a common language, they have no set plays, they are all yelling at once and as a result their play as a team is appalling. They want to play together but they don't have any way to coordinate their behavior.

Coordination involves capacity for stable expectations about others' behavior.

So Far

Last week we talked about explanations needing to involve mechanisms and mechanisms needing to involve the behavior of individuals.

But we admitted that this line of thought left us with individuals and their actions in a black box. We think something is going on in there and that it matters, but we don't yet have a theory of what it might be.

And just so we remember, what we are doing here is trying to specify the mechanism by which some social/macro facts can cause/explain other social/macro facts.

This means we need to suggest some ways that the inside stuff can be linked to the outside stuff.

This led us to attempt to specify what kinds of actions we would be interested in — what we would put under the category of "social action."

Weber: four types of social action

Kanazawa introduced us to the ideas of evolutionary psychology as a way of understanding how there may be some components in "human nature" that we can work with in developing a theory of social order.