May 12, 2003

The Sociology of "Survivor"

I spent yesterday evening with friends watching the three hour Survivor end-of-season finale. Much fun, with many upsets over the course of the evening, and an entirely unexpected winner. But - and here's the sign that I'm an incurable academic - it set me to thinking about the difference between economic and sociological models of human action.

I expect 90% of my readers to switch off at this point. But you shouldn't; at least not if you're a Survivor fan (and Survivor's about as much fun as junk tv gets). Survivor is all about strategy, and making and breaking alliances. One person gets voted off by the other players every week; nobody wants to be that person. In order to avoid that fate (and to make sure that other, threatening players are voted off), each player tries to create an alliance with other players, where people agree not to vote each other off, or to target other people to vote off, or both. But there's no way to enforce these agreements. Furthermore, there's a substantial random element to the game; one person can win "immunity" every week, so that he or she can't be voted off that week; this can throw pre-arranged strategies into disarray, especially towards the end of the game. Thus, in order to prosper at Survivor, you not only need to be good at working with other people and forming teams; you need to be good at breaking alliances, stabbing people in the back, and finding new allies when circumstances so demand.

Now clearly, you have to behave strategically to prosper in the game. But what does "strategically" mean? Game theorists and sociologists have very different answers to that question. A game theorist would assume that everyone would have a clear map in their head of the different kinds of players that she might encounter, the different kinds of strategies that she could use (perhaps dependent on which kinds of player she is dealing with), and the different kinds of outcomes that will likely result from different kinds of actions. There's room for some uncertainty in the game (random acts of "nature" can intervene here and there), but everyone knows that if they are at point x in the game, their interest is best served by strategy y (I'm simplifying a little here for the purpose of popularization). Here, it's a matter of playing within a fixed structure (the parameters of the game), which you completely understand, and where your interest is dictated at any particular moment by the specific point of that structure you're at.

Sociologists tend to take a different approach to social structures. By and large, they're interested in networks rather than games. Network theory suggests that a player's power and influence depends on her position within the network of social interactions that she finds herself in. Again, simplifying wildly, some actors can be at the centre of a spiderweb of relations; everyone comes to them in order to get things done. Others may be gatekeepers or intermediaries between two groups of people who don't otherwise have much contact with each other; these actors too can be quite important. Here, strategy is all about positioning yourself well within the network, and then manipulating information and resource flows in order to maintain or improve your position. It's much more open-ended than game theory - the universe of possibilities isn't fixed at the outset, but changes over time, and can be affected by the conscious action of the players.

Which of these conceptions of strategy best fits Survivor? I think that the answer is obvious to anyone who watched the series. It's the second, sociological conception. Pretty well everyone who saw this series of Survivor would agree that Rob was the smartest and canniest player. He didn't win; but this was in large part because he was quite unlucky at the end (Jenna, who did win, survived by a fluke). Both of the two finalists agreed that he should have been there instead of them.

How did Rob play? Not by having a rote set of strategies at the beginning of the game. Instead, as he explained it, he was always at pains to keep his options open; he maintained friendly relations with as large a group as possible (and was rather good at convincing others that he had their best interests at heart, even when he didn't). He then chopped and changed his strategy as circumstances demanded. When he needed to zig, he zigged, and when he needed to zag, he zagged. He didn't seek to lead alliances, but instead made himself into the pivotal player, who could move from one alliance to the next, and thus swing the vote in one direction or another. By so doing, he shaped the strategic context which everyone else had to play in.

Compare his behavior with that of Cosimo de Medici in early Renaissance Florence, as depicted in John Padgett and Christopher Ansell's classic piece, "Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici." Padgett and Ansell are sociologists, who want to argue against rational choice notions of strategic behavior, by offering their own notion of "robust action." Robust action is all about trying to maintain your own flexibility and freedom of choice over as wide a range of options as possible, while narrowing the options of everyone else. It implies that there aren't any fixed interests - all interests are positional and actors are less interested in pursuing specific goals at any point in time, than in maintaining discretionary options against the day when they do have a definite end to pursue. Thus Cosimo positioned himself at the center of a web of influence, without ever wanting fully to commit to anything or anyone. As Padgett and Ansell describe it,

"in nasty strategic games like Florence or chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked-in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice, but at least as much of others' successful 'ecological control' over you."

This is a more or less exact description of how best to play 'Survivor' (or, at least, to play Survivor as Rob played it). Keep your options open - maintain ties with everyone. Don't get frozen into a group with a specific agenda; instead, try to be a key player (or potential key player) for every possible group. You're more powerful (in the sense of maintaining options and contacts) as a swing vote than as tribal chief. Keep your end-goals and specific strategies mysterious - try to be all things to all men and women. Maintain flexibility at all costs. And then go for broke when the opportunity arises.

I reckon that two important lessons flow from this. First, that sociological approaches to the understanding of human behavior capture certain things that economic approaches can't. They're much better at dealing with fluid situations, where the future is unknowable, and people want to keep as many options open as possible for dealing with unanticipated problems. And many other things besides, I'm sure. Second, that an academic with time on his hands during the summer break is a dangerous thing indeed.

Posted by Henry at May 12, 2003 05:06 PM | TrackBack

“Keep your options open - maintain ties with everyone. Don’t get frozen into a group with a specific agenda;”
In place of survivor, read blogland. Think Granoveter, and the strength of weak ties. By the way networking is perfectly compatible with economics, see eg Ormerod, or Watts.

See ya.

Posted by: Edward Hugh at May 13, 2003 07:28 AM

“He then chopped and changed his strategy as circumstances demanded. When he needed to zig, he zigged, and when he needed to zag, he zagged. He didn’t seek to lead alliances, but instead made himself into the pivotal player, who could move from one alliance to the next, and thus swing the vote in one direction or another. By so doing, he shaped the strategic context which everyone else had to play in.”

I think this is very much the point. I mean I have no interest whatsoever in ‘survivor’ but the argument stands in many contexts. Chess is such a constricted game, I mean it’s far too obvious what the objective is, I mean what if, in Borges like fashion, someone were playing to lose, but to lose in a determiante number of moves….thus ‘shaping the strategic context’. Boredom is a very important motive to consider. Or read Kojeve on ‘master and slave’. The thing is to keep ‘em guessing both where you’re coming from and what you may be trying to do.

I think you’re not so much arguing with economic analysis as rational agent theory. I’ve got a friend who keeps writing to me trying to persuade me that we should treat money as if it were a language: the funny thing is, I think he may have a point.

See ya

Posted by: Edward Hugh at May 14, 2003 05:16 PM
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