Monthly Archives: February 2017

You’re Probably Wrong: Group Polarization and Going to Extremes

In Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein paints a grim picture. Men are prone to a variety of serious failings, and those failings only intensify through the processes of groups. Bolstering his argument, Sunstein points to numerous studies that have revealed humanity’s flaws. Stanley Milgram, for example, demonstrated that a majority of recruited participants could be convinced to administer what they thought were dangerously high shocks to an actor who responded with increasingly dramatic expressions of pain. “What Milgram revealed,” Sunstein writes, “is that the heuristic – in favor of obedience of apparently trusted authorities – does not always work well. In real-world cases, it leads to terrible moral errors” (Sunstein, 2009).

Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment similarly seems to reveal humanity’s darkness. Healthy, average participants were randomly assigned to serve as ‘prison guards’ or ‘inmates.’ Within days, the guards displayed “growing cruelty, aggression, and dehumanization,” while the prisoners – after an initial attempt at uprising – were crushed; becoming “subdued and ‘zombie-like’” (Sunstein, 2009). The simulation had grown so dire and grotesque that the experiment had to be ended early. After just 5 days. Sunstein summarizes the lessons learned from this dark look into human nature:

In pointing to the apparent normality of those involved in Nazi war crimes, Zimbardo gives a social science twist to Hannah Arendt’s claims about the ‘banality of evil.’ And in explaining what makes atrocities possible, Zimbardo places a large emphasis on deindividualization – a process by which both perpetrators and victims become essentially anonymous and are thereby transformed into a type or a role. (Sunstein, 2009)

For Sunstein, these studies highlight a deeper challenge. Human beings are embedded in a social context, and that context serves as a significant driver of individual actions and opinions. Hearing friends express a view makes a person socially inclined to express the same view. Deliberating groups tend towards extremism in the direction of the pre-deliberation median because nobody wants to take the social risk of expressing an unpopular view. College students playing prison guards give each other permission – or may even encourage each other – to act in increasingly horrific ways. We each take our cues from the social context we’re embedded in; a problematic heuristic because the signals we receive are so often morally or factually wrong.

This presents a potentially paralyzing conundrum: if your own perceptions and opinions are merely a product of your social environment, how can you ever know what is truly good or right? Sunstein offers a small prescription of hope, arguing that “many human beings are able to resist situational pressures and to engage in forms of heroism. Even when group polarization is under way, some people, some of the time, will hold fast to their convictions and stay where they are, especially if group members go in destructive or violent directions” (Sunstein, 2009). Sunstein further argues that the policy prescription of ‘checks and balances’ serves as a bulwark against polarization. Indeed, “the institutions of our Constitution reflect an implicit fear of polarization, creating a range of checks on potentially ill-considered judgments.” For example, the constitution explicitly denies the president’s power to declare war, thus ensuring that a single person can not “do so without sufficient deliberation and debate among diverse people” (Sunstein, 2009).

It is reasonable to think that checks and balances provides some protection against polarization, yet the idea of deliberation “among diverse people” is laughable coming from an era when ‘diversity’ consisted entirely of the diversity between straight, white, property-owning men in cities and straight, white, property-owning men in rural areas. This narrow notion of diversity points to a significant oversight in Sunstein’s work: he puts a lot of attention on political diversity while giving very little thought to other forms of diversity. For example, Sunstein notes that “confident people are more prone to polarization” but he gives little attention to the constant social admonishment women receive for not being confident enough (Kay & Shipman, 2014). Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that groups with higher numbers of women perform better at a range of tasks than equal or male-dominated groups (Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010). This isn’t because women are smarter or better, but because women are more likely to be socialized for group problem-solving. Indeed, Woolley et al. find their result to be “largely mediated by social sensitivity,” a skill which the women in their study displayed more strongly than men. Woolley et al. further argue that “groups, like individuals, do have characteristic levels of intelligence.” People socialized for group processes, then, tend to make groups smarter while individuals socialized with the destructive features of toxic masculinity – such as over confidence in their individual perspective and brash confrontation with any form of dissent – make for less productive groups. We don’t need individualistic heroes who “hold fast to their convictions” no matter what; we need thoughtful collaborators ensure that a variety of voices are heard.

Rather than reveal the risks of deliberation, these anecdotes highlight exactly why group deliberation is needed. Sunstein argues that the Stanford Prison Experiment exposes the ‘banality of evil,’ but Arendt didn’t mean this phrase the way Sunstein interprets it: that humanity’s evil is mundane. Rather, as Arendt writes, evil “possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’ (Arendt, 1963).” Evil, in its empty banality, cannot survive the rigors of reasoned thought and debate; it thrives when these habits are suppressed, when there is mere lip service hollowly lauding diversity. This is exactly why Bernard Manin argues for the normalization of debate as an essential feature of deliberation (Manin, 2005). As a political ideal, debate, isn’t about finding out whether you and I agree; it is about considering all possible reasons, all possible perspectives, and then co-creating solutions which none of us could have accomplished on our own. That is, as Dewey calls it (Dewey & Rogers, 2012), the essence of democracy as a way of living.


Thanks to Joshua Miller for the Arendt quote
Arendt, H. (July 24, 1963). [Letter to Gershom Scholem].

Dewey, J., & Rogers, M. L. (2012). The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry: Penn State Press.

Kay, K., & Shipman, C. (2014). The confidence gap. The Atlantic, 14, 1-18.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330(6004), 686-688. doi:10.1126/science.1193147


Optimism and Futility

People often tell me that they find my writing optimistic. Indeed, this is a primary reason people frequently give me for why they enjoy my writing. It’s just so optimistic. Well, not saccharine-sweet, over-the-top optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless.

I find this hilarious.

I wouldn’t self-identify as an optimist, and those who know me are likely to be familiar with my habit of giving a big teenage eye roll to concepts like ‘hope’ while periodically ranting about why hope is not required. But perhaps I’m an optimist despite myself.

Or perhaps I simply spend too much time reading Camus, who famously argues that we must find joy and meaning in futile and hopeless labor. Indeed, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We live in dark times. Every day the news seems to get worse, and our social challenges run so deep and come from so many directions that it seems nearly impossible that we could even begin to tackle them at all.

But that is no reason not to try.

And this, I suppose, is why I get labeled an optimist. Given the choice between action and paralyzed grief, I’d choose action every time. It’s really the only choice there is.

I’d like to think that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice; that if we work hard enough and fight forcefully enough we can indeed leave this world a little better than we found it.

But the truth is, none of that matters. It hardly matters if all this amounts to is hopeless and futile labor because that is all there is – inaction isn’t a viable option.

All that is left is to return to our rock, to keep on pushing even when we know that there is no point. We keep on fighting for justice – ceaselessly, tirelessly working towards that vision; straining with all our might – because to do otherwise is untenable. As Camus writes, the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Indeed, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Citation Networks

In his seminal work “Networks of Scientific Papers,” Derek J. de Solla Price argues the citation networks provide a broad picture which “tells us something about the papers themselves as well as something about the practice of citation.”

This sentiment is echoed in later works.

Franc Mali, Luka Kronegger, Patrick Doreian, and Anuska Ferligoj, for example, write: “Understanding science as a social system implies considering science as fundamentally relational, and as a community-based social activity.”

In their work on Citation Networks, Filippo Radicchi, Santo Fortunato, and Alessandro Vespignani further argue, “citation networks in the last several years have become one of the prototypical examples of complex network evolution.”

What is particularly interesting is that citation networks are complex systems. As L.A.N. Amarala and J.M. Ottino define it:

“A complex system is a system with a large number of elements, building blocks or agents, capable of interacting with each other and with their environment. The interaction between elements may occur only with immediate neighbors or with distant ones; the agents can be all iden- tical or different; they may move in space or occupy fixed positions, and can be in one of two states or of multiple states. The common characteristic of all complex systems is that they display organization without any external organizing principle being applied. The whole is much more that the sum of its parts.”

Citation networks certainly meet this definition.

Another interesting element of citation networks is that aging often – but not always – has adverse effects. As deSolla Price finds in his study of a relatively well bounded citation network, “half the references are to a research front of recent papers and the other half are to papers scatter uniformly through the literature.”

Intuitively, this makes sense – research seeks to push forward a frontier of knowledge and thus most citations are to relatively new research developments.

However, despite this trend, there are still the very successful papers – the classics – which scholars return to and cite time and time again.

The Slow Work of Co-Creation

For my Social Network class, I’ve been reading a lot about processes of homophily and group polarization. A lot of the literature is discouraging.

People tend to self-sort into like-minded groups, groups tend to gravitate towards the pre-deliberation mean, and people tend to disregard or deride information they see as coming from a different group. It’s all a whole lot less idyllic than one might hope.

More generally, the problem is that people, on average don’t do what is best for them or for society at large. It makes it extremely difficult to develop and implement policy solutions when those solutions – while potentially addressing some problems – cascaded into other problems you hadn’t quite anticipated.

Consider a fundamental challenge of urban planning: there is currently deep inequity between communities which is realized, in part, through unequal resources and disparate access. One way to ameliorate this rift to to provide services to communities which didn’t previously enjoy that service. For example, building public transportation in these communities should be to their benefit.

And it is, except –

Public transportation leads to gentrification and rising home prices – the people who should have benefited from the public transportation move out of the community and do not then benefit from the transportation. In the best case scenario, a home owner can profit from the rising housing costs – cashing out to settle elsewhere. Renters, unfortunately, don’t have such luxury and may simply be forced out of their property owners convert to condos sell the land.

Either scenarios is not particularly satisfying; particularly considering that the pre-transport residents – home owners or note – were probably exposed to toxic near-highway pollutants and may just have moved to a different location where their health exposures were equally bad.

These frustratingly inter-connected problems seem nearly impossible to solve. It’s like policy wack-a-mole; if you build public transportation you then need a condo-conversion ordinance, and each potential solution reveals new and challenging needs.

But I think this is okay.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues that it’s damaging to think of utopia as this fixed, static thing: gather enough knowledge, enact enough policy solutions, and we can figure out how to solve the problem forever.

But life is not really as easy as all that – nor should it be. Utopia isn’t an end-state, it’s a process. A slow, tiresome, frustratingly complex process.

There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean we’re left with nothing but to throw our hands up in despair. It means we have to talk together, work together, and search together – slowly, continually co-creating the world around us.

What is a Civic Game?

This past weekend, I joined my civic collaborators Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine in launching the first (hopefully annual) Civic Games Contest. This is something we have been talking about for a long time – trying to tap into the inherently civic nature of games to reach something beyond a mere ‘gamification’ of civics.

Promoting the contest has proven to be an interesting challenge, though, because in my head gaming and civics are so indelibly interrelated that a ‘civics games contest’ seems obvious – indeed, it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been one already. Yet, I struggle to articulate this connection to others.

In our call for submissions we call out three specific ways in which a game’s themes might be civic:

  • Personal: having moral integrity, taking responsibility for one’s actions, reflecting on one’s personal morality
  • Communal: openness to dialogue, communal service (e.g., charitable work, helping neighbors), involvement in community organizations (e.g., religious institutions, social clubs)
  • Political: engagement with or challenge to formal political structures (e.g., advocacy, protest, running for office, voting, revolution)

While all three of those are certainly civic themes, the connection between gaming and civics goes deeper than these examples. In his own blog post, Miller writes, “civics is fundamentally about finding ways for people [to take] an ownership-stake in their shared world.”

I am inclined to agree with that framing. Dewey writes that democracy is a way of living; a way of engaging deeply in the shared endeavor of living together. That is what civics is all about.

In theory, the task of designing effective, positive institutions could be left to experts. There are good reasons for such an approach: experts certainly have, well, expertise, and – as Walter Lippmann strongly points out – people only have so much bandwidth and interest. We can’t all be an expert in everything.

But to turn everything over to mere experts, divorced from the knowledge and experience of the people, invites catastrophic failure. James C. Scott has some of the strongest arguments against the dangers of a totalitarian state fixated on regulating everything and unrelentingly shutting out the public voice – but perhaps that framing is enough to give you an idea of the risks.

Our society is fundamentally just that – our society. It is our role and our duty as citizens to continually co-create it; together. It will not always be easy; in fact it will always be hard. But that’s what it means to live democratically.

You may ask, however, what does this all have to do with games?


While any type of game could be civic, the connection is perhaps most clearly seen with roleplaying games (RPGs and LARPs). These games are fundamentally about co-creating a shared world. Whether characters are cooperative or antagonistic, players work together to tell and discover the story. The experience is emergent – something is created which didn’t exist before; the unique product of a shared endeavor.

These games remind us of our collective power and our individual agency. They teach us how to be citizens.

Of, course, for the contest, we’re looking for something more than a game which is civic in the way that all games are civic – but rather, a game which is self-conscious in it’s civic-ness. A game that not only builds the capacity of players to fulfill their role of citizen, but one which overtly brings this preparation to the surface.

Too often, we neglect our agency in the realm of civic engagement. We genuinely prefer to put our power into the hands of experts because we doubt our ability to see, understand, or solve our collective challenges.

A civic game, then, is one which actively seeks to support citizen players with relevant facts, values, or strategies – helping them to see or experience an injustice they hadn’t fully recognized before or empowering them as citizens: actors fully capable of having a collective impact on the world around them.

Political Friendship and Tolerant Gladiators

“The ideal citizens,” Huckfeldt writes, “…are those individuals who are able to occupy the roles of tolerant gladiators – combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries” (Huckfeldt, Mendez, & Osborn, 2004). While this image of powerful citizens locked in gentlemanly conflict is perhaps more startling than most, it fits well within the broader normative framework of deliberation. Citizens and theorists looking to design ideal democratic systems are quickly confronted by two powerful countervailing forces: diversity, it appears, is both significantly beneficial and, unfortunately, difficult to achieve. Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiator offers a potential poultice for this problem – a path which allows equally for vigorous debate and the highest cordiality. Citizenship, under this definition, is a Socratic sport; you spar with your strongest arguments, but only in service to the higher calling of Truth.

In perhaps less colorful terms, Mutz describes the role of deliberative citizen as requiring restraint. People should certainly engage in ‘cross-cutting’ political dialogue, but they should not engage with the full-hearted gusto suggested by Huckfeldt. Instead, “discussants must at times refrain from saying all they could say in the interests of smooth social interaction” (Mutz, 2002). While Huckfeldt envisions impassioned debates where participants – whether ultimately agreeing or not – are brought closer together through the experience of discussion, Mutz concedes softly that for social lives to function discussants must “agree to disagree.”

This view is supported by Mutz’s empirical work on deliberation. If, as she finds, the beneficial impact of exposure to cross-cutting views comes primarily from familiarizing participants with “legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints,” then a good deliberator should not be an outspoken gladiator, but rather a respectful listener. Danielle Allen similarly argues that ideal citizens must share a sense of ‘democratic friendship’ (Allen, 2009). Just as Mutz finds that the social constraint of workplaces creates an ideal setting for cross-cutting political dialogue (Mutz & Mondak, 2006), Allen argues that similar constraints face society as a whole. On the micro-level, we may self-sort into homophilous neighborhoods and institutions, but on the macro-level we are all just as stuck with each other as coworkers. Citizens don’t have to like everyone they interact with, but they do have to extend basic courtesy and respect, forging bonds of ‘democratic friendship’ analogous to the friendship they find with colleagues.

While Mutz finds that exposure to diverse perspectives does not play a significant role in deepening a person’s knowledge of their own position, Huckfeldt finds the opposite: political conversations do “enhance the capacity of citizens to provide reasons for their support of a particular candidate” (Huckfeldt et al., 2004). Furthermore, political diversity does not create a paralyzing ambivalence but rather reduces the potential for extreme polarization. Citizens exposed to heterogeneous messages are “more likely to develop an attitude toward the candidate that incorporates positive and negative assessments.” Ultimately, such exposure may reduce “enthusiasm for the campaign” but does not depress turnout or “encourage people to back away from their commitments as citizens.”

Here we see the justification for Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiators. If political debate serves to sharpen our own understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs. The process of debate makes us all better – thus allowing tolerant combatants to walk away as friends. Furthermore, such collegial confrontation may also increase the potential for citizens to find better solutions. In his work, Page argues that diversity serves an instrumental benefit: the right perspective can make a problem easy (Page, 2008). Thus any group seeking solutions to an ever-changing array of complex problems would do well to consider diverse perspectives; to find the perspective that makes the current problem easy. However, the mere presence of diversity may not be enough. Diverse perspectives must be brought to the surface and critically considered through the spirited debate of tolerant gladiators. As Bernard Manin argues, “diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views. It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity” (Manin, 2005). If citizens follow Mutz’s path of sitting in silence rather than risking confrontation, diverse perspectives – even if present – may not be adequately considered.

While these two visions of citizen responsibility may seem to conflict, there may be room in democracy for both. Consider Lynn Sanders’ thoughtful warning against deliberation:

If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators. In this way, taking deliberation as a signal of democratic practice paradoxically works undemocratically, discrediting on seemingly democratic grounds the views of those who are less likely to present their arguments in ways that we recognized as characteristically deliberative. In our political culture, these citizens are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people. (Sanders, 1997)

This is a particularly sharp criticism for debate-centric deliberation. Not everyone wants to be a gladiator, and not everyone is trained or welcomed equally to the task. If we begin by falsely assuming the absence of power, rigorous debate may easily have the effect of silencing the diverse perspectives it is intended to awake. Perhaps, then, political friendship must precede gladiatorial combat. The fiercely tolerant exchange envisioned by Huckfeldt may indeed be the political ideal, but it cannot succeed as long as some voices are systematically silenced. The ideal citizen, then, must learn to navigate the social structures in which political debate is embedded. They must at times refrain from speaking in order to truly hear the other side, but they ought to cultivate tolerant gladiators through these political friendships. After all, if political friends never advance to tolerant gladiators, if they ultimately both sit in silence to avoid uncomfortable confrontation, then they have merely succeeded in a facade of social harmony; no deliberation or real exchange of ideas is ever achieved.


Allen, D. (2009). Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education: University of Chicago Press.

Huckfeldt, R., Mendez, J. M., & Osborn, T. (2004). Disagreement, ambivalence, and engagement: The political consequences of heterogeneous networks. Political Psychology, 25(1), 65-95.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(01), 111-126.

Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The Workplace as a Context for Cross‐Cutting Political Discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Page, S. E. (2008). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies: Princeton University Press.

Sanders, L. M. (1997). Against Deliberation. Political Theory, 25(3), 347-376.


Civic Games Contest 2017

I’m very excited to join my civic colleagues Daniel Levine and Joshua Miller on the Civic Games Committee; with the support of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, we recently announced the 2017 Civic Games contest, a design competition for analog games that seek to promote the understanding and/or practice of good citizenship.

You can read the full call for submissions on the website for The Good Society, the Journal for Civic Studies.

The three overall winners of the content will have their games presented at the Frontiers of Democracy conference in late June 2017. Frontiers is the birthplace of civic studies and the field’s premier conference.

Gaming and civics has always felt like a natural confluence to me – multiplayer games, definitionally, bring people together. Games of all types – whether cooperative, competitive, or narrative – are about navigating complex landscapes of divergent perspectives and external constraints. They are about thinking, strategizing, and acting.

And, of course, they are fun.

If you have an idea for a civic game, please consider submitting – and if you don’t you should still follow the Facebook Page for updates.


The Road Ahead

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about democratic…resiliency, for lack of a better term.

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but it seems like we are well on our way to a constitutional crisis. Our president has repeatedly taken a stance against the judicial system, threatening the division of powers. Before taking office, aides to our then president-elect had numerous conversations with senior Russian intelligence officials. That doesn’t seem so good.

Arguably, not all of this is wildly unprecedented – Andrew Jackson, for example, had his share of acrimony with the court. But past experience isn’t a perfect proxy – as the Atlantic points out, “Jackson criticized [Chief Justice] Marshall on constitutional, rather than political, terms, and he ultimately required Congress and the states to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s authority to interpret the Constitution, rather than threaten to disregard it.” So perhaps such a comparison isn’t meaningful after all.

Part of the challenge, it seems, is that we are a relatively young country. We’ve experienced less than 250 years and only 45 presidents. That’s actually not a whole lot of experience to draw on.

FiveThirtyEight recently published an article, 14 Versions Of Trump’s Presidency, From #MAGA To Impeachment, whose rough content you may be able to infer from the title. But what’s missing from most of their scenarios is a sense of what civil society will look like during or following the Trump presidency.

We entered 2017 as a country deeply, deeply divided. While congressional Republicans are showing signs of distancing themselves – or even attacking – President Trump, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our country will become united in disapproval of the current administration.

Indeed, current Republican back-stepping seems to fit more neatly into an establishment / anti-establishment narrative. Some of the #NeverTrump-ers are still holding on, but their disapproval doesn’t necessarily signal broader, bipartisan disapproval.

I want to know where we go from here – I want to see how we heal our wounds and become a country less divided. I don’t want our democracy to become little more than a ping-pong rally between divergent ways of view the world and our country.

I think our democracy will survive this, but the next several years will not be an easy path. Indeed, we have much work to do.

Collective Action and the Problem of Embeddedness

Divergent conceptions of homophily fall within a broader sociological debate about the freedom of an individual given the structural constraints of his or her context. As Gueorgi Kossinets and Duncan Watts argue, “one can always ask to what extent the observed outcome reflects the preferences and intentions of the individuals themselves and to what extent it is a consequence of the social-organizational structure in which they are embedded” (Kossinets & Watts, 2009). If our neighborhoods are segregated is it because individuals prefer to live in ‘like’ communities, or is it due to deeper correlations between race and socio-economic status? If our friends enjoy the same activities as ourselves, is it because we prefer to spend time with people who share our tastes, or because we met those friends through a shared activity?

The tension between these two approaches is what Granovetter called the “problem of embeddedness,” (Granovetter, 1985) because neither the agent-based nor structural view captures the whole picture. As Granovettor argued, “actors do not behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations.”

The challenge of embeddedness can be seen acutely in network homophily research, as scholars try to account for both the role of individual agency and the structures which shape available options. In their yearlong study of university relationships, Kossinets and Watts observe that both agent-driven and structurally-induced homophily play integral roles in tie formation. Indeed, the two mechanisms “appear to act as substitutes, each reinforcing the observed tendency of similar individuals to interact” (Kossinets & Watts, 2009). In detailed, agent-based studies, Schelling finds that individual preference leads to amplified global results; that extreme structural segregation can result from individuals’ moderate preference against being in the minority (Schelling, 1971). Mutz similarly argues that the workplace serves as an important setting for diverse political discourse precisely because it is a structured institution in which individual choice is constrained (Mutz & Mondak, 2006).

Consider also Michael Spence’s economic model of gender-based pay disparity (Spence, 1973). Imagine an employee pool in which people have two observable characteristics: sex and education. An employer assigns each employee to a higher or lower wage by inferring the unobserved characteristic of productivity. Assume also that gender and productivity are perfectly uncorrelated. Intuitively, this should mean that gender and pay will also be uncorrelated, however Spence’s game-theoretic model reveals a surprising result. After initial rounds of hiring, the employer will begin to associate higher levels of education with higher levels of productivity. More precisely, because an employer’s opinions are conditioned on gender as well as education, “if at some point in time men and women are not investing in education in the same ways, then the returns to education for men and women will be different in the next round.” In other words, Spence finds that there are numerous system equilibria and, given differing initial investments in education, the pay schedules for men and women will settle into different equilibrium states.

Here again, we see the interaction of agency and structure. Whether initial investments in education differed because of personal taste or as the result of structural gender discrimination, once a gender-based equilibrium has been reached, individual investment in education does little to shift the established paradigm. A woman today may be paid less because women were barred from educational attainment two generations ago. That inequity may be further compounded by active discrimination on the part of an employer, but the structural history itself is enough to result in disparity. Furthermore, this structural context then sets the stage for inducing gender-based homophily, as men and women could be socially inclined towards different workplaces or career paths.

Given these complex interactions, where past individual choices accumulate into future social context, it is perhaps unsurprising that teasing apart the impact of agency and structure is no small feat; one that is virtually impossible in the absence of dynamic data (Kossinets & Watts, 2009). Individuals embedded within this system may similiarly struggle to identify their own role in shaping social structures. As Schelling writes, “people acting individually are often unable to affect the results; they can only affect their own positions within the overall results” (Schelling, 1971). Acting individually, we create self-sustaining segregated societies; opting into like communities and presenting our children with a narrow range of friends with whom to connect.

Yet the very role that individual actions play in building social structures indicates that individuals may work together to change that structural context. It is a classic collective action problem – if we collectively prefer diverse communities, than we must act collectively, not individually. In her extensive work on collective action problems, Elinor Ostrom finds that “individuals frequently do design new institutional arrangements – and thus create social capital themselves through covenantal processes” (Ostrom, 1994). Embeddedness presents a methodological challenge but it need not be a problem; it simply reflects the current, changeable, institutional arrangement. That individual actions create the structures which in turn effect future actions need not be constraining – indeed, it illustrates the power which individuals collectively posses: the power to shape context, create social structures, and to build social capital by working together to solve our collective problems.


Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American journal of sociology, 481-510.

Kossinets, G., & Watts, D. J. (2009). Origins of homophily in an evolving social network. American journal of sociology, 115(2), 405-450.

Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The Workplace as a Context for Cross‐Cutting Political Discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Ostrom, E. (1994). Covenants, collective action, and common-pool resources.

Schelling, T. C. (1971). Dynamic models of segregation. Journal of mathematical sociology, 1(2), 143-186.

Spence, M. (1973). Job market signaling. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87(3), 355-374.

Snow Days

Snow days can cause chaos insofar as everything that was scheduled for a snow day needs to be rescheduled for a subsequent day; perhaps even the immediately following day – thus cramming two days of work into one.

Which is surprising, perhaps, because the snow day itself had no shortage of work either.

But somehow time just got all messed up; after a snow day things just don’t quite occur in the right order any more.

But I appreciate snow days as a humbling experience – they come as a reminder that sometimes even the most pressing meetings can still survive being postponed for a day.