Baroque Theory and Collective Action

In his review of Akerlof and Kranton’s Identity Economics,Tom Slee argues that leftist critical theory uses ideology and false-consciousness-based approaches to explain what is better understood as a collective action problem.

Sometimes it has seemed to me as if all the avant-garde contortions of post-Marxist, post-modern political thought could have been avoided if sociologists had learned a little game theory. Instead, believing that it is in the interests of subjugated classes to throw off their shackles and yet seeing no shackles being thrown, they have resorted to more and more baroque explanations for this seeming contradiction…. Yet simple game theory would have cut this Gordian knot. Eagleton writes that “If it is rational to settle for an ambiguous mixture of misery and marginal pleasure when the political alternatives appear perilous and obscure, it is equally rational to rebel when the miseries clearly outweigh the gratifications.” But this ignores the collective action problem: just because it would be good for a group to rebel does not make it sensible for an individual to rebel. The contradiction is not a contradiction at all: was all this baroque theorizing really necessary?

That’s a good question. Another way of putting this is that we have a variety of group identities as well as individual identities and each of these comes with different rationales for behavior, different hierarchies of motives. I think baroque theorizing can help explain the means by which these various identities are constituted and delimited, and what prompts us to switch between them. The salience of our various identities can be manipulated externally, and identities can be made to seem more or less relevant or unchangable — just look at Facebook’s efforts to persuade us that we need a one online identity to have “integrity.” What we believe is important to believe about ourselves is subject to environmental conditions: class habitus; the sorts of marketing we are exposed to; the sociopolitical environment; group religiosity; etc. So the structures that lead to the cognitive dissonance that shapes our choices of whether to act in situations, or continue to act, are always in play — at every moment the nature, salience, and apparent consequences of our identity (or rather our identities) are being negotiated.

Theory speculates on what the fulcrums might be for that exogenous manipulation of identity, rather than accepting predefined identities from empirical observation or self-reports. Is that methodologically dubious? Possibly, but it may help open avenues of exploration for more empirically oriented social science.

Slee points out that “what game theory brings is an explanation of why certain patterns persist, and the introduction of identity extends these explanations to many important patterns.” One can see the power of this approach in Slee’s book No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart and in the work of economist Thomas Schelling, to give a few examples. They reveal how well-intentioned people can help perpetuate macro-level injustices or conditions they long to reject and change. It shows how self-interest is not all that socially benevolent in many situations. What we believe is good for society (or our group identity as a member of a community, etc.) turns out not to be something we can act upon directly; what we can directly affect as individuals has unintended, contrary consequences at that level.

But ideally baroque theory can investigate whether power in society turns us against collective identity and traps us in self-interested behavior that reinforces existing power relations. It can explore why game theory holds for human behavior, rather than accept its structure and logic as given. This is part of what makes it so frequently baroque; it sometimes attempts to explore human behavior without recourse to formal logic or a stable definition of rationality or a simple, measurable balance of pros and cons. (I tried to make a similar point in my post on Identity Economics.)

Identity, ideology, and micromotives are concatenated in a complex cluster. Slee makes a crucial point that illuminates how ideology tends to work: “To articulate beliefs carries with it a cost.” That cost is socially negotiated — a matter of not just education and diligence but of courage. When beliefs are “expensive” to express (to bring it back within economics-style analysis), we avoid clarifying them even to ourselves and find ourselves conforming to beliefs that are already circulating and are attached to generic identities that are also circulating. Power adheres there, in that circulation. In other words, that is how ideologies become hegemonic; that is how identity’s building blocks, which dictate the limits of our identity, are determined. Who circulates them, and how, and what drives up the cost of expressing beliefs? These are the questions of baroque theory, perhaps of sociology in general.