Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The TBD of Crowds

Every now and then I get back on a hobby-horse to try to take Jimmy Wales to task for his naiveté about the social context in which his Wikipedia effort is embedded. What I had not realized until yesterday is that there is actually a very useful source in the social theory literature that directly confronts this issue. It turns out that whether or not a “great experiment” like Wikipedia succeeds or fails is a long-standing problem in social theory. A good introduction to the problem may be found in the paper “Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action,” by James S. Coleman, where it is called the “micro-to-macro problem.” As irony would have it, Coleman has an entry in Wikipedia. Indeed, this paper is included in the list of his “Selected Works;” but there is no mention of his contribution to the study of the micro-to-macro problem in the entry itself.

Simply put, the “macro” is about the sorts of relations that occur between social groups. The example Coleman cites is the classic thesis about the “Protestant work ethic” formulated by Max Weber, the causal relationship between Protestant religious doctrine and a capitalist economy system. The “micro” on the other hand is about individual behavior and thus occupies the “turf” of psychology. So, to continue with the Weber example, we have models for the relationship between Protestant doctrine and individual values; and we have models for the impact of individual values on the economic choices that those individuals make. What we lack, however, is a model that explains the relationship between those individual economic choices and the emergence of a capitalist social system. (Coleman also cites, as another example, the micro-to-macro problem with classical Marxism.)

Another way of looking at this is in terms of the two extreme models of crowd behavior. These are generally known as “the madness of crowds” and “the wisdom of crowds.” The fact is that neither model holds all the time, and which model prevails depends on a whole lot of contextual details that tend to be ignored. In this respect the problem of the “micro-to-macro problem” is our inclination to avoid those details (just as Wikipedia avoided saying anything about them in its piece of James Coleman)!

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