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Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge [Kindle Edition]

Michael Suk-Young Chwe
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Why do Internet, financial service, and beer commercials dominate Super Bowl advertising? How do political ceremonies establish authority? Why does repetition characterize anthems and ritual speech? Why were circular forms favored for public festivals during the French Revolution? This book answers these questions using a single concept: common knowledge.

Game theory shows that in order to coordinate its actions, a group of people must form "common knowledge." Each person wants to participate only if others also participate. Members must have knowledge of each other, knowledge of that knowledge, knowledge of the knowledge of that knowledge, and so on. Michael Chwe applies this insight, with striking erudition, to analyze a range of rituals across history and cultures. He shows that public ceremonies are powerful not simply because they transmit meaning from a central source to each audience member but because they let audience members know what other members know. For instance, people watching the Super Bowl know that many others are seeing precisely what they see and that those people know in turn that many others are also watching. This creates common knowledge, and advertisers selling products that depend on consensus are willing to pay large sums to gain access to it. Remarkably, a great variety of rituals and ceremonies, such as formal inaugurations, work in much the same way.

By using a rational-choice argument to explain diverse cultural practices, Chwe argues for a close reciprocal relationship between the perspectives of rationality and culture. He illustrates how game theory can be applied to an unexpectedly broad spectrum of problems, while showing in an admirably clear way what game theory might hold for scholars in the social sciences and humanities who are not yet acquainted with it.

Editorial Reviews


"Communal activities, with lots of emotional and symbolic content . . . serve a rational purpose, argues Michael Suk-Young Chwe. . . . [His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences."--Virginia Postrel, New York Times

"A welcome addition. . . . Rational Ritual . . . can be understood and enjoyed by almost anyone interested in human interaction."--Vincent P. Crawford, Journal of Economic Literature

From the Inside Flap

"This is a very compelling and original work. It is the best conceptual book I have read in economics in several years. It will have an immediate and enthusiastic readership in the social sciences and will make Chwe's name as an important thinker."--Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

"Rational Ritual is engaging, well organized, and well written. It brings together the tools of game theory and the issues posed within a wide variety of areas of contemporary social theory to address an important problem. Students and scholars in diverse academic disciplines--including political science, sociology, anthropology, and some areas of cultural studies--will find the book both relevant and accessible."--David Ruccio, University of Notre Dame

Product Details

  • File Size: 2215 KB
  • Print Length: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 7, 2001)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001QXCY8Q
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #866,655 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars great overview but needs more substance March 10, 2010
By lou who
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
What purpose do rituals serve? How can people coordinate behavior when many solutions exist? Michael Chwe's book hopes to answer these questions from the perspective of knowledge. He contends that community rituals and education are a means to form common knowledge and initiate individuals into the group. Most interactions are not zero-sum games of conflict: instead, individuals must understand how to coordinate behavior when there are many potential ideal equilibria. Hence, believing that information is the same across individuals can help when attempting to choose amongst multiple equilibria. Chwe offers insight into how these rituals can help separate equilibria, however he falls a bit shy of the mark when he attempts to address counter points to his arguments. Despite this shortcoming, his book offers an interesting overview of the significance of common knowledge and rituals that is short, accessible, and easy to read.

Chwe shows that rational behavior motivates individuals to seek common knowledge if they hope to interact in any form of group environment (in which coordination/cooperation is needed). Often in these interactions, individual behavior is conditioned not upon an individual's knowledge, but what that individual perceives others to know. Rituals are one means of generating common knowledge and the specific behavior within the rituals is designed to lay a basic foundation for future interactions. Alternatives to these rituals are costly in that they would require explicit communication on the individual level, or small-group level, but again not everyone could be certain of the knowledge others possess. Chwe uses examples to explain how agents are able to coordinate, showing that many cultural practices are about reinforcing what they already know.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Chwe review November 11, 2008
By A. Dale
Michael Chwe's book Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge is an enjoyable and readable exploration of how strategic actions intersect with rituals and other forms of non-"rational" behavior. For a popular audience, Chwe's illustrations will likely ring familiar and stimulate discussion about the foundations of social behavior. As an academic work, Chwe's book makes progress in connecting disparate lines of research in social science. However, the anecdotal approach of his argument leaves open some conceptual and empirical questions about the usefulness of his theory.
Chwe's primary task is to demonstrate that the construction of common knowledge--a situation where everyone knows a piece of information in a group, "everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on"--can be used to overcome coordination problems (p. 3). According to Chwe, coordination problems arise when a group of people want to participate in some activity, but only when others are also participating--a "safety in numbers" type of situation.
Chwe rolls out his argument by offering dozens of engaging examples where coordination problems are resolved through the construction of common knowledge. He discusses examples such as Super Bowl advertising, architecture in prisons, mass rebellions, and authoritarian rituals. In each of these cases, Chwe claims that individuals would not be able to achieve a collective outcome without common knowledge. For example, a group of individuals will not engage in rebellion if they are not relatively certain that other people will join them. Common knowledge lets people know that others share in their plight.
Information plays a key role in this theory.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new way of thinking June 3, 2003
By A Customer
This book has the potential to open the minds of economists to the relationship between culture and economic action, and anthropologists-sociologists and political scientists to the power of game theory. It lays the path towards a new, more intergrated social science, which helps reconcile the collectivist notions of Durkheim with the individualists notions of neo-classical economics, and does this much more effectively - within its realm - than social capitalists like James Coleman and Robert Puttnam. Chwe's ideas are much deeper than theirs - and more better expressed -- he writes very well. Since "Rational Ritual" is more deep than flashy, its real impact will be felt in time.
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More About the Author

I teach game theory in the political science department at UCLA. I started watching Austen adaptations with my kids, which naturally led to reading the novels. The connections between Austen's novels and game theory were too strong and numerous to ignore, and thus I was moved to write "Jane Austen, Game Theorist." For more information, please visit !

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