Monday, 3 November 2008

The Social, The Cultural and The Difference

In my line of work we use the word "social" a lot... social media, social networks, mobile social software, etc. And in analysis of these things, we generally use the word ambiguously to mean either the social or the cultural. What, even in caricature, is the difference? Here’s an intuitive first stab at the distinction.

The Social is about the connections and interactions between people, whereas The Cultural is about connections and interactions between people mediated by shared concepts, history, symbol systems, etc.

That is, most social interactions are mediated and structured by cultural mechanisms like norms and institutions.

Social functionality and social media obviously have some effects that are purely social in the sense above, i.e. that impact the number and quality of our interpersonal connections and the efficiency with which new connections may be made. But social media just as obviously operate on and respond to culture, i.e. the conventional meanings, preferences and distinctions that structure the interactions within our social network.

In this post, I’ll sketch a view of social norms and thus culture. Basically, I want to be able to use this formulation in future posts as a means of understanding how social media impact our preferences and expectations going into interactions. In other words, I ultimately want to look at how the specific properties of social media change culture, but first I'd like to clarify what culture is.

The Games People Play

Social norms are the informal rules of society that are maintained in several ways: by sanctions from others; by our expectations of others’ expectations; by our general desire to do as relevant others do or by some combination of all of the above. You can look at social norms in at least two ways.

1. Norms embed, encode and instantiate values.

2. Norms coordinate interactions.

To me, these are complementary ways of thinking about norms. The first is more of a lived, affective understanding. It’s about our motivating emotional states, presumed expectations and means of personal and interpersonal leverage. The second is a more cognitive understanding. It’s about the conventional structures of interaction and the delimited sets of feasible strategies that turn potentially destructive “state of nature” mixed-motive games into coordination games. The two ways of thinking of norms feed into each other: the affective reinforces and “operationalizes” the cognitive and the cognitive effect of coordination “justifies” the affective.

Culture is a system of norms that coordinates repeated interactions. Stanford political scientist David Laitin provides a tidy definition of culture in his book Nations, States, and Violence.

culture [is] an equilibrium in a well defined set of circumstances in which members of a group sharing in common descent, symbolic practices and/or high levels of interaction – and thereby becoming a cultural group – are able to condition their behavior on common knowledge beliefs about the behavior of all members of the group.

Basically, he’s using game theory jargon to say that culture is a set of complementary “plans” – or strategies – for interacting with other locals. The plans allow us to coordinate our actions efficiently and effectively. If we stick to our learned and conditioned plan we can greatly reduce the daunting task of keeping track of everybody’s probable motivations, expectations and preferences (i.e. what game they’re playing) in every interaction. Essentially, our plans tell us how we’re expected to proceed and what we should expect from others in most interactions. Once that’s out of the way, we can get down to the business of actually getting what we need out of the defined interaction. Others are using similar interaction-defining plans and expect the same from us. If we deviate, they may have incentive to try to get us back on plan. Thus feedback keeps the set of plans in a relatively stable equilibrium; deviation from conventionally understood plans often results in forces – from others and from within – that may pull us back on plan. So, in effect culture systematizes and stabilizes most of the repeated interactions we get into and defines the ones that might be unclear otherwise.

Why are cultures different in different places? Because there are a huge number of sets of plans that form equilibria for the repeated interactions we get into daily. Which equilibrium your group actually converges on is a path dependent accident of history. And of course, the “chosen” equilibrium could always fall apart and a new equilibrium could be converged upon.

So culture is just a locally stable, conditioned and self-reinforcing set of plans for coordinating the situations that continually arise in interactions with others. Specifically, they coordinate interactions by limiting the available plans for action given everybody else’s probable plans.

Seems pretty anemic, doesn’t it? Indeed, our daily experience is of the affective, values-embedding aspect of norms. It’s affective insofar as there’s a definite emotional and felt component to this conception of norms. We feel the draw of values and morals to comply or sanction non-compliance. We feel a certain dread (or delight) in transgressing them. Or when our fully internalized and purely habitual norm compliance is challenged we feel discomfort or confusion as to how to proceed.

It helps to think of these two aspects – the cognitive and the affective – as operating at different levels. If the equilibrium story describes culture from a broader perspective – of long term, pan-player negotiation that ultimately settles upon conventional ways of framing situations and thus structuring interactions with each other – then the affective aspect seems to be more about the short-run, lived experience of these coordinated interactions. That is, the equilibrium understanding is about the way we stabilize interactions through longer term development of coordinating conventions, while the affective understanding suggests something of the way we perpetuate, commit to, signal compliance with and internalize the equilibrium’s strategies in our daily lives.

My interest here is in motivation to comply and how that can stabilize and perpetuate norms. People like to belong. But more than that, they like to avoid sanction or be esteemed or attain high status or maintain a (good or bad) reputation. These are social needs that manifest themselves through the conventional “channels” and mechanisms of norms.

Some social norms, like fairness, have a clear benefit in coordination. Others, like wearing burkas, seem a little murky and arbitrary to cultural outsiders. We really can’t see any benefit in the custom and actually often perceive moral and political dangers to women. Still, the custom is valued by many and tolerated and perpetuated by many more for reasons of social pressure, perceptions of sanction and societal expectation. Still, those who don’t really feel that it’s god’s will that they wear a burka must act as if they are doing so out of devotion. It’s not enough that they do it, but rather they must do it as if they are true believers. If they didn’t they could face exclusion, disesteem or possible social and physical sanctions.

Following the work of Jon Elster and Learry Gagné, I claim the emotional aspect of norms – even though norms “really are” just arbitrary, conventional and clearly sub-optimal instances of behavioral coordination or sub-game equilibria of a higher level game equilibrium like religion – explains the perpetuation and spread of even the most detrimental customs and practices in a way that purely instrumental or utility maximizing accounts can’t. Emotions and values make these things sticky and resilient in the face of obvious sub-optimality and irrationality. Many of the people maintaining norms don’t even have to believe in the encoded values and may even suffer because of them. They simply have to believe that others believe and thus will sanction, not value or ostracize them if they don’t comply. Most importantly, they must desire the esteem, belonging and the self-respect that comes from acceptance by others. And, of course, they may fear both external sanctions and the emotional sanctions one gets from transgressing internalized norms. If there are vocal and salient norm believers, a significant number of compliers and a lot of folks interested in belonging and accumulating esteem, even lame, unpopular norms can be indefinitely perpetuated (if the incentive to change is outweighed by the incentive – rational and emotional – to maintain).

Properties of social media – in particular the ease with which feedback accumulates and speed with which items can be propagated – can impact dynamics of culture. I’ll explore this idea in the next post by looking at the new norm of “compulsive disclosure” online.

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