Game theory and society, and infrastructures

I recently attended a conference on “Game theory and society” at the ETH in Zürich. It was a very productive conference with a good mixture of plenary sessions with people like Brian Skyrms and Herbert Gintis and the usual host of more work-in-progress oriented panel sessions. Speakers and attendants had backgrounds in sociology, philosophy, economics, biology, even in physics. If there was a common and unifying interest, this interest was in modeling elementary forms of cooperation. All the more striking was the nearly complete absence of people from sociological theory. Game theory, it appears, has been largely abandoned by sociological theory, leaving it to colleagues specializing in formal modeling or generally versed in quantitative methods. It happens that I found this to be quite a pleasant bunch of people to be around.
A couple of questions with respect to our interest in infrastructures have been bugging me since:
– I might start with the issue brought up by Nicholas a couple of posts ago whether there is a problem in sociological theory of addressing questions of efficiency. After working through some of contemporary game-theoretical research and comparing it to the state of the art in sociological theory, how could I not agree? Game theory could be one, if not THE weapon of choice for sociologists discussing questions of efficiency in an analytical manner, and evolutionary approaches have been demonstrating that the use of game theory need not be congenial to either rationalistic or economistic reconstructions of effiency. Evolutionary game theory is particulary good at showing how inefficent equilibria come about and turn out to be stable.
– Closely related are questions of utility that tend to be treated with a similar kind of disregard by many sociologists. One does not need to adopt a utilitarian perspective to see that analyses how relationships and structures develop, how artefacts evolve and diffuse, etc. are correlated with (mostly implicit) ideas about utility. We may of course treat such ideas about the utility of contacts, associations, or tools as mere background assumptions of our observations of infrastructures, or we may broadly consider them as taken care of by looking at practice pragmatically. Seeing what can be accomplished by taking a more analytic approach to utility, I suspect though that we can do better than just telling utility stories (either with respect to particular cases or in the exposition of theory).
– Which brings me to the more general question of research orientation. Why is there so little modeling in STS and in the emergent field of studies of infrastructures? Researchers have been investigating broadly and writing quite generously about how complex forms of modeling are utilized in the construction of truths and technological artefacts but have been making little use of these methods and tools themselves. It is surely great to have so many sound STS case studies and ethnographies at our disposal in discussing our theoretical concepts and ideas about infrastructures, but again I suppose we could do much better with a less restrictive choice of methods and approaches. If there is a unilateral bias in favor of qualitative methods, story-telling and small-n studies, systemic problems in aggregating empirical data (if not, in the end, a constant recycling and re-invention of theoretical concepts with little progress in accumulating empirical intelligence) are likely to result.
Should we therefore not try to engage more with formal models of cooperation, social order and infrastructures? In Zürich, I found the doors to be generally open, and that there is a lot to learn in terms of concepts and methods. And I find myself encouraged to look into this in a more sustained manner.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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