Sociology: An Analytical Core

Sociology: An Analytical Core
Herbert Gintis
Santa Fe Institute
July 2013
Economics and biology each has a common core of
analytical theory that all practitioners learn as a common
basis for discourse, testing, and revision.
Sociology lacks such a common core.
Rather, every sociological theorist develops a grand
intellectual structure that rejects rather than building on
past theoretical successes.
For this reason, sociological theory is widely ignored by the
other behavioral disciplines,
leading to the exclusion of sociology from the current
move towards the unification of the behavioral sciences.
We must build an analytical core to sociological theory.
What follows is my concept of what such a core should
1. Sociobiology:
The place of humans in the array of social species
The Major Transitions in Evolution: Cumulative Increase
in the Complexity of Social Interaction
Every major transition involved a solution to a
complex social dilemma
Gene-Culture Coevolution in Humans
2. Rational Choice:
The Role of Morality and Prosociality in Rational Choice
Networked Minds and Distributed Cognition
Self-regard, other-regard, and character virtues
3. Social Structure
Social Actor and Social Role
The Articulation of Social Roles
Social Frames
4. Integration of Social Actor and Social Structure
Social Production of Common Priors
The Socio-psychological Theory of Norms
Game Theory: The Correlated Equilibrium and the
Social norms are correlated equilibria
The Sociobiology of
Dictyostelium Discoideum
Dictyostelium Discoideum is a cellular slime mold.
When food is readily available it lives as an individual
amoeba, feeding and dividing normally.
When food is exhausted, individuals aggregate to form a
multicellular assembly, called a slug.
The slug forms a fruiting body with a stalk supporting a ball
of spores.
These spores remain dormant until food is available.
The stalk is composed of individual amoebae
which die during stalk formation.
Dictyostelium Discoideum
Dictyostelium Discoideum
Dictyostelium Discoideum is a beautiful example of a social
The future of the group depends on cooperating in forming
the stalk and choosing some individuals to live as spores
while the rest die as members of the stalk.
How cheating is limited in Discoideum and other such
species is complex and only partially understood.
The Major Transitions in Evolution
Prokaryote  Eukaryote
Union of previously independently-living prokaryotes
into a complex cooperative unity.
Clones  Sexual reproduction
Mendelian (fair) segregation is the product of gene
regulatory networks that prevent cheating.
Tensions remain; e.g., mitochondria have their own nonMendelian (maternal) inheritance system.
The Major Transitions in Evolution
Single-cell protists  Multicellular organisms
Which cells get to reproduce?
How to avoid cheaters who benefit from the cellular
division of labor without contributing?
Solitary individuals  Societies of interaction individuals
How to prevent defectors from reducing fitness.
How to promote non-reproductive castes, such as workers
and soldiers in an insect colony.
Genetic control of behavior Gene-culture coevolution
How to control defectors in a totipotent species (i.e.,
where all individuals reproduce).
The Genetic Contribution to
Genes predispose individuals to behave in certain ways,
and provide them with the capacity to do so.
For instance, human infants are predisposed to share, and
have a sophisticated theory of mind.
The Central Problem of
Sociobiology in Humans
Human sociobiology is the study of the interaction among
utterly selfish genes, the human core genome, which
promotes cooperation through the action of regulatory
gene networks, and culture/institutions.
The Selfish Gene
Dawkins interpreted the fact that genes are utterly selfish as
implying that all creatures must be behaviorally selfish:
Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are
born selfish.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)
This conclusion is at odds with the evidence we have on
human behavior, coming from
developmental psychology
laboratory and field studies.
A Cooperative Species
with Samuel Bowles
Princeton University
Press 2010
Other Cooperative Species
Studies show that non-human primates also exhibit
extensive prosocial behaviors if,
like humans in the hunter-gatherer stage of evolution,
they engage in collective child-rearing.
The centrality of collective child-rearing in other species
suggest that human sociology should stress the structure
of child care very carefully.
Gene-culture Coevolution
Individual fitness in humans depends on the structure of
social life.
Human cognitive, affective, and moral capacities are the
product of an evolutionary dynamic
involving the interaction of genes and culture.
For a more complete analysis and extensive references, see
Herbert Gintis, "Gene-culture Coevolution and the Nature
of Human Sociality", Proceedings of the Royal Society B
366 (2011).
Gene-culture Coevolution
In this dynamic, humans transform culture, and the new
cultural environment alters the nature of fitnessenhancing genes.
Thus, genes are the product of culture just as culture is the
product of genes.
Gene-culture Coevolution
I will give a dramatic example of gene-culture coevolution:
the evolution of the physiology of speech and facial
The increased social importance of speech in our hominin
ancestors rewards genetic changes that facilitate speech.
Regions in the motor cortex expanded in early humans to
facilitate speech production.
Concurrently, nerves and muscles to the mouth, larynx, and
tongue became more numerous to handle the
complexities of speech.
Gene-culture Coevolution
Adult modern humans have a larynx low in the throat, a
position that allows the throat to serve as a resonating
chamber capable of a great number of sounds .
In addition, the production of consonants requires a short oral
cavity, whereas our nearest primate relatives have much
too long an oral cavity for this purpose.
Gene-culture Coevolution
Another indication that the tongue has evolved in hominids
to facilitate speech is the size of the hypoglossal canal, an
aperture that permits the hypoglossal nerve to reach the
tongue muscles.
This aperture is much larger in Neanderthals and humans
than in early hominids and non-human primates
(Campbell 2000).
Human facial nerves and musculature have also evolved to
facilitate communication.
Gene-culture Coevolution
I have illustrated gene-culture coevolution by the evolution
of communication physiology.
But gene-culture coevolution applies to the emergence of
unique human emotional capacities (e.g., shame, guilt,
pride, empathy, jealousy, and a taste for retribution).
This coevolutionary process has endowed us with
preferences that go beyond the self-regarding concerns
emphasized in traditional economic and biological theory
Gene-culture Coevolution
Gene-culture coevolution explains why we have a social
epistemology facilitating the sharing of intentionality
across minds,
as well as why we have such non-self-regarding values as
a taste for cooperation, fairness, and retribution,
for the capacity to empathize, and
for the ability to value character virtues (e.g., honesty)
The Rational Actor Model
Behavioral game theory, like much of economic theory, is
built on the rational actor model, which treats choice as
taking the most preferred among a set of alternatives.
This model is extremely general, requiring only consistency
of preferences.
It applies to the heuristics described by Gigerenzer when the
issue is choice rather than problem solving.
The model applies to bacteria just as well as to humans.
When choice is over risky alternatives, the theory implies that
agents have subjective priors: probability distributions over
the various outcomes.
Rational agents maximize expected utility subject to their
subjective priors.
The Rational Actor Model
The rational actor model is widely criticized outside of
economics and biology, but these critiques are generally
based on attributing to the theory assertions that are in fact
not part of the theory
or desirata that are easily incorporated in the theory.
The results of Kahneman, Tversky et al. are often cited as
violations of the rational actor model, but in fact they
generally are not (Gintis, Bounds of Reason, 2009).
Indeed, prospect theory, for which Kahneman was awarded
the Nobel prize in Economics, is based on the rational
actor model.
Behavioral game theory without the rational actor model has
no coherence.
The Rational Actor Model
There is, however, one deep problem with the rational actor
it assumes that agents choose in isolation from other
In fact, human have networked minds supporting distributed
Sociology should aim towards characterizing the structure
and dynamics of networked minds and how cognition is
shared across minds.
I have explored this using agent-based models where
networks of individuals control the replicator dynamic.
Defending Rational Choice
Rational choice theory does not require that the choices
people make be welfare-improving.
In fact, people are often slaves to such passions as
smoking cigarettes, eating junk food, and engaging in
unsafe sex.
These behaviors do not violate preference consistency, and
hence are rational, according to the rational choice model’s
“thin” conception of rationality.
Defending Rational Choice
Rational choice does not require that rational actors be good
If humans cannot solve complicated problems, like evaluating
the expected value of a lottery, they may simply not know
Assuming that rational actors can solve complex problems is
a failure of social theory, not the rationality assumption.
Defending Rational Choice
Most important, rational choice does not imply self-interested
It is rational to care for others, believe in fairness, or sacrifice
for a social ideal.
Indeed, Andreoni and Miller (2002) have shown that people
obey all the usual principles of rational choice in the case
of contributions to charity.
Character Virtues
Character virtues are ethically desirable behaviors that
individuals value for their own sake.
The character virtues include honesty, loyalty,
trustworthiness, fairness, considerateness, etc.
These character virtues operate without concern for the
individuals with whom one interacts: one is honest
because it is the right way to behave.
Character virtues are not absolutes. If the cost of honesty is
sufficiently high, most individuals will behave
dishonestly (Gneezy 2005).
The Sociological Actor
The individual is a rational actor with a preference function
that includes self-regarding and other-regarding objects of
desire, as well as valuing virtuous behavior.
The belief system of the actor is constituted from the position
of the individual in one or more distributed networks of
and depends on the distribution of information across these
Social Structure:
Role-based Social Division of Labor
The social division of labor consists of actors filling social
roles (George Herbert Mead, Ralph Linton).
Attached to a social role is a content, consisting of a set of
rights, duties, expectations, material and symbolic rewards,
and behavioral norms.
In social equilibrium, the content of social roles is common
i.e., all know and agree on the content of social roles.
Ascriptive states (e.g., man, woman, Korean, accident victim,
prisoner) are not social roles.
Social Structure:
Role-based Social Division of Labor
An actor’s behavior in a social role can be modeled as the
maximization of his objective function subject to the
content of the role.
Few social roles can be productively filled without drawing
on the moral commitment of role-occupants.
Social Structure:
Role-based Social Division of Labor
Economic theory has attempted to model role performance as
motivated by pure self-regard,
but this has failed because complete contracts are
unfeasibly costly to enforce,
and because principals (government, supervisors) have
incomplete information concerning performance in
complex economic roles.
Contracts based on a strong element of trust are superior to
complete (but unenforceable) contracts.
See, for instance, Brown, Falk, and Fehr, Econometrica
Social Structure:
Role-based Social Division of Labor
When social roles are not strongly legitimated,
role-performance will deteriorate.
Often this is called corruption.
Similarly, if unethical role-performance is not appropriately
socially sanctioned,
social cooperation will generally unravel,
leading to widespread non-compliance.
Social Structure:
Social Frames
How does an actor know what role he currently occupies?
Every social situation has a social frame that supplies the
sensory cues as to the social situation in which the
individual is situated, and the particular social role the
individual occupies in this social situation.
In equilibrium, the set of social frames is common
Definition: A state s is common knowledge if all actors know
s, all actors know that all actors know s, all actors know
that all actors know that s, and so on, to whatever depth of
recursive knowledge is required.
Common Knowledge is Durkheim’s
Collective Representations
Common knowledge is Durkheim’s notion of collective
shorn of its possible metaphysical dimensions.
“Collective representations exist outside of individual
consciences…they derive not from individuals taken one
by one, but from their interaction.”
Émile Durkheim
Sociologie et Philosophie
Common Knowledge is Durkheim’s
Collective Representations
A central unifying task of social institutions is to turn private
information into common knowledge
as a basis for an efficient social division of labor.
Epistemic Game Theory
The concept of common
knowledge comes from
epistemic game theory.
The Bounds of Reason
(Princeton 2009).
Example: The Role of Voter
In Liberal Democracy
The electoral process in a liberal democracy is perhaps the
grandest example of a social dilemma.
The legitimacy of liberal democracy depends on a high level of
electoral participation.
However, individual voters have no self-regarding interest in
because one vote makes no difference in a large election.
No voter has a self-regarding interest in voting his self-interest.
Therefore the electorate has no self-regarding interest in being
politically informed.
The electoral process is a vast morality play.
The Socio-psychological
Theory of Norms
The socio-psychological theory of norms relates social
morality to individual morality.
Social norms are commonly seen as devices that choose
among the Nash equilibria of an underlying social roleplaying game.
In fact, social norms are better explained as correlating
devices for an underlying stage game.
The Socio-psychological
Theory of Norms
Social norms are an emergent property of human society,
In particular, social norms are predicated upon a social
epistemology, instantiated in the neural structure of the
human brain,
that is the product of individual ontogeny (personal
development) and our common species phylogeny (natural
selection and adaptation).
The Socio-psychological
Theory of Norms
This social epistemology fosters the interpersonal sharing of
mental concepts,
and justifies the assumption of common priors upon which
the identification of Bayesian rationality with correlated
equilibrium rests.

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