Mon, 4 October 2021
“Convict criminology,” Jeffrey Ian Ross explains in this Social Science Bites podcast, is “a network, or platform, that’s united in the perception that the convict voice has been either neglected or marginalized in scholarship or policy debates in the field of criminology in general, and corrections in particular.”
About half of the people in the field of convict criminology are either ex-convicts, have impacted by the prison system or are prison activists who have or are in the process of getting a PhD in criminology, Ross says. “Many people who have a criminal conviction try to keep it quiet,” Ross says about jobseekers in academe (or anywhere), and he’s proud of the strides convict criminologists have made. “We’ve managed to forge a beachhead and produce very impressive scholarship,” he says, all the while offering authenticity and degree of inside knowledge.
Convict criminology, he details, rests on three pillars: scholarly research, mentorship, and some sort of service or activism. All three pillars arise from a “desire and goal to make a meaningful impact on prison conditions.”
So mentorship, for example, might involve having ex-cons be mentors in re-entry programs, while scholarly research benefits from both having an inside view that pays extra dividends when interviewing incarcerated or formerly incarcerated subjects and in understanding the nuances of their accounts.
He has received a number of awards over the years, including the University of Baltimore’s Distinguished Chair in Research Award in 2003; the Hans W. Mattick Award, “for an individual who has made a distinguished contribution to the field of criminology and criminal justice practice,” from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2018 Last year he received both the John Howard Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ Division of Corrections and the John Keith Irwin Distinguished Professor Award from the American Society of Criminology's Division of Convict Criminology.
Tue, 7 September 2021
Molefi Kete Asante, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University, has long been at the forefront of developing the academic discipline of Black studies and in founding the theory of Afrocentrism, “the centering of African people in their own stories.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Asante offers an insiders view of the growth of the Afrocentric paradigm, from the founding of the Journal of Black Studies a half century ago to the debates over critical race theory today.
“Afrocentricity,” Asante tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is a paradigm, an orientation toward data, a perspective, that says that African people are subjects, rather than objects, and that in order to understand narratives of African history, culture, social institutions, you must allow Africans to see themselves as actors rather than on the margins of Europe, or the margins of the Arab culture, or the margins of Asian culture.”
While that might seem a mild prescription, it’s one that has been often ignored. Asante offers the example that the waterfalls between Zimbabwe and Zambia had a name (Mosi-oa-Tunya for one) before European explorer David Livingstone arrived and dubbed them Victoria Falls.
“Livingstone is operating in the midst of hundreds of thousands of African people – kings and queens and royal people – yet the story of southern Africa turns on David Livingstone. The Afrocentrist says that’s nonsense; here's a white guy in the midst of Africa and that you turn the history of Southern Africa on him does not make any sense to us.”
Asante then details some of his own efforts in centering the stories of Africa and the African diaspora in their own narratives, including the founding of the first academic journal focused on doing so. He details how as a PhD student in 1969, he and Robert Singleton started the effort to create the Journal of Black Studies as a forum for the nascent academic discipline. (The story sees SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, and its founder Sara Miller McCune taking an important role as the one publisher that embraced Asante’s proposal in 1970.)
“The journal survives,” he explains 50 years later, “based on its relevance to contemporary as well as historical experiences.”
At the time the journal was founded, Asante directed the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Afro American Studies from 1969 to 1973. He chaired the Communication Department at State University of New York-Buffalo from 1973 to 1980. After two years training journalists in Zimbabwe, he became chair of the African American Studies Program at Temple University where he created the first Ph.D. Program in African American Studies in 1987. He has written prodigiously, publishing more than 75 books, ranging from poetry on Afrocentric themes to high school and university texts to the Encyclopedia of Black Studies.
Mon, 2 August 2021
There is inequality in the United States, a fact most people accept and which data certainly bears out. But how bad do you think that inequality is, say, based on comparing the wealth held by the average Black person in America and the average white person?
First off, the facts. The Black-white wealth gap in the United States is, in Richeson’s words, “staggeringly large.” Citing figures from 2016, she notes that “the average Black family had about 10 percent of the wealth of the average white family.” The actual percentage in wealth improved slightly in the five years since, “but the important thing is that it’s a huge, staggering gap that has been persistent for 50 to 60 years.”
With the gap so large and so persistent, you might expect estimates of its size to reflect reality. You would be mistaken, as Richeson tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “If you ask the average American on any given day, they will probably say the wealth gap is around 65, 70 percent. … That’s not only wrong, it’s very wrong compared to the actual wealth gap. … Part of the reason we’re so wrong is because we really believe that since the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, things have gotten dramatically better and are continuing to get better.”
The perception is that roughly since the Civil Rights era the gap narrowed from about half to near parity. Respondents to these sorts of questions “feel compelled to conform to this narrative of racial progress” in their estimates, a narrative that Richeson has likened to a mythology.
“No, things are not fine – they are similarly bad as they were in the 60s. That’s true for the wealth gap, that’s true for the wage gap. Income is slightly better, but not much. It’s a persistent and pervasive staggering inequality that’s stubborn, and our psychology refuses to believe that.”
Visions of this delusional economic advancement are shared broadly across the nation’s economic and ethnic strata; “Black Americans,” Richeson says, “are more accurate but still really wrong.” Her research has found that the more you believe in a just world, the more your estimate will underestimate the gap. This suggests in part why Black Americans – with daily experiences of structural inequality – give estimates that are at least a little closer to the mark. “One reason we believe there is this gap between Black Americans and white Americans is because of the differential tendency to believe that outcomes are fair and only determined by your individual effort, talent, hard work.”
This massive misperception matters. While “being this wrong about anything is interesting” academically, Richeson says, the magnitude of this misperception affects individual and societal wellbeing; it also undermines the idea behind the so-called American dream, that American society is a meritocracy. American cannot, she says, “just know the truth and do nothing about it.”
Richeson, the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale, received the SAGE-CASBS Award in 2020 for her work and will deliver a COVID-delayed lecture at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University later this year. That was one of a number of honors she has accumulated, including a 2007 John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the “genius award”), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015), the Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth B. Clark Distinguished Lecture Award from Columbia University (2019), the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (2019), and a Carnegie Foundation Senior Fellowship (2020).
Thu, 1 July 2021
The twin prods of a U.S. president trying to rebrand the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’ and a bloody attack in Atlanta that left six Asian women dead have brought to the fore a spate of questions about Asian Americans in the United States.
“’Asian American,’” Lee explains, “was originally conceived as a political identity by student activists at Berkley in the 1960s who coined the term as a unifying pan-ethnic identity to advocate for Asian-American studies in university curricula and to build coalitions with other marginalized groups.” Since then, it evolved into a demographic category, and in 1997 the U.S. Census Bureau grouped together people from East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia under the classification of ‘Asian.’ (Those regions, of course, don’t include everyone from the continent of Asia – where are the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks, for example – and does include people from the islands adjacent to the land mass – Japanese, Malaysians, Filipinos.)
“These are groups don’t have a whole lot in common in terms of language, culture, religion, history,” Lee notes, but they are bound by various forms of exclusion in the U.S. But their presence in the United States in growing rapidly. Combined, Asians are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.; their population is up 27 percent in the last decade to about 23 million people, or 7 percent of the total U.S. population.
Immigration is a key component of that growth, notes Lee, who herself emigrated to the U.S. with her Korean parents when she was 3. Some four out of five current Asian Americans are foreign-born, she explains, and continuing immigration replenishes the cohort of ‘new’ Asian Americans. That, she suggests, will keep the category of Asian-American alive for some time.
Immigration also contributes to the trope – a trope Lee rejects – that “‘Asians have some set of values that make them successful.” Instead, she argues that due to who has emigrated, America “engineered this idea that Asians are successful.”
Asian immigrants coming to the United States are not just a random sample of the population in their countries of origin; they are extremely educated, more likely to hold a B.A. than those who don’t immigrate, and they’re also more likely to have a college degree than the U.S. mean. It’s this ‘hyper selectivity’ that largely accounts for educational and economic accomplishments of America’s Asians, she argues here and in her latest award-winning book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, written with Min Zhou.
Lee offers several data points during the podcast to buttress the idea that innate cultural values are not driving success. For one thing, the distribution of Asian American accomplishments are not evenly distributed: Indian-Americans have exceptionally high educational achievements while Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans have relatively low graduation rates. Plus, Lee says, if ‘values’ drove the success, we’d see the same successes in the immigrants’ Asian countries of origin or in other areas where Asian diasporas are represented – and we don’t.
Lee is the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia and past president of the Eastern Sociological Society. She is or has been a fellow at the Center for the Study of Economy and Society, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan. She will join the board of trustees for the Russell Sage Foundation this fall.
Mon, 7 June 2021
Despite being someone who doesn’t “particularly enjoy the game,” cognitive anthropologist Martha Newson is drawn to football. “Football is one of the most exciting games to watch as an anthropologist,” she explains in this Social Science Bites podcast. “I’m not watching the ball go around the pitch – I’m watching the fans. I’m transfixed by them! You go through all the emotions in a single match.”
But studying football (or soccer) offers some pragmatic advantages to the researcher. For one, the bonding is very public and very passionate. Fused fans will tattoo themselves, for example, an indelible statement that demonstrates they’re much easier to access and observe than say a terrorist cell or secretive political group.
And football fandom is diverse culturally and geographically. One study Newson is working on currently taps into fanbases in Indonesia, Australian, Britain, Brazil and Spain. While there are differences in each country, “the love of the fans is quite consistent.” (And it is also love for the fans, Newson says, since it seems to be fusion to their fellow fans, and not necessarily the team or town, that’s the real driving force of cohesion.)
Newson has taken an innovative and interdisciplinary approach in her research, conducting surveys of fans, measuring their physiological responses and even drawing on existing and disparate databases like police records of fan violence.
And while violence or hostility may be linked in the popular imagination with extreme fandom, Newson’s research offers a more nuanced view. When someone feels their group is being threatened, like a mother bear they may wade in to defend their group. But when things are pleasant, like that same bear, so are they. “Fused fans preferred to be cooperative and altruistic to their rivals over being hostile toward them,” Newson has found. “The more fused you are, you are more likely to be violent than the less-fused fans,” she adds, “but that’s only because you’re looking out for your group in some way.”
Identity fusion research also finds that having bonded is a lifetime commitment, regardless of losses (and perhaps abetted by them!). “Once you are fused, you don’t unfuse – fusion really sticks,” Newson explains, adding that the primacy of the bond may wax and wane over time.
Mon, 17 May 2021
When human judgment enters the picture, so too will errors in human judgment. Think of this as “noise,” just as you might think of a signal-to-noise ratio in an audio signal. And just as in listening to music, this noise is not a feature, but a flaw.
In a new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by psychologist and Bites alumnus Daniel Kahneman, Sibony, and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein (author of Nudge), the trio look at the lottery that noise creates in social outcomes, and discuss ways to practice better “decision hygiene” to prevent noise from infecting important outcomes.
Coinciding with the release of Noise, Sibony spoke with interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast about noise as a concept, the types of noise, why acknowledging it matters, and a little on what we can do to avoid it. This is an area of great interest for Sibony, whose own research centers on reducing the impact of behavioral bias.
“Bias and noise,” Sibony explains, “are mathematically equivalent in the effect they have on error. Noise causes exactly as much error as bias does for the same quantity of noise or bias.
“And so, if you can reduce noise, you can reduce error.” Or put another way, make better decisions.
He gives the example of insurance claims adjusters. “When you look at how two of these people judge the same case, what price they set on the same insurance policy or the price they set on the same claim, and you ask them how much they expect to disagree, they say, ‘Of course we’re not going to be in perfect agreement; it’s a matter of judgment, after all. It’s still a calculation – we’re not just adding up numbers and saying, “The answer is X.” Otherwise our job would just be automated. That’s what makes the job interesting – it’s a matter of judgment. So we expect some disagreement between us. But hey! We are all highly qualified, competent people, so we are more or less interchangeable depending on who is available.’”
If you ask the adjusters, or their bosses, about how much variability they expect, the answers come back around 10 percent. And if you ask business executives in general what they would expect the difference to be – and Sibony talked to hundreds -- the answers came back at 10 to 15 percent.
But looking at the actual variability in real life, he reveals, the differences vary by as much as 55 percent.
This isn’t just some peculiarity of insurance. “This was,” Sibony said, “something we found everywhere we looked!” He offers many examples: assessments by financial professionals, x-rays read by skilled doctors, professors grading essays, and many more. What he terms “big differences” appeared repeatedly
“More worrisome, perhaps, if you look at how judges sentence people who have been found guilty of a crime … [W]hen the average sentence is seven years in prison, the average difference, the mean difference between two judges is three-and-a-half.” And so, as Sibony notes, when appearing before two judges, you’ve already been sentenced to five years, or to nine years, “just based on the luck of the draw.”
This variability, this happenstance in outcomes, matters for a trio of reasons: fairness (“when similarly located people are not treated similarly, it is unfair”); credibility of the underlying institutions; and because we’re routinely making bad (or at least not the best) decisions.
In addition to teaching strategy, decision making and problem solving at HEC Paris, Sibony is an associate fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He writes often on strategy and decision making in the academic and popular press, and his book Vous Allez Commettre Une Terrible Erreur ! (published in English as You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake!) received the was awarded the Manpower Foundation Grand Prize in 2019 for best management book. He is also a knight in the French Order of the Légion d’Honneur.
Mon, 10 May 2021
"That’s such a hard question,” Gina Neff, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, responds when asked what social science research or thinker most influenced her. “It’s like a busman’s holiday for an academic, because so many things have influenced my thinking.” Her answer, by the way, was Ulrich Beck’s concept of the risk society, as explained in this 1986 book.
In this montage drawn from the last two years of Social Science Bites podcasts, interviewer David Edmonds poses the same question to 25 other notable social scientists.
For many of the guests, the answer proves difficult to pin down to just one person or work (“That’s like asking who’s your favorite kid,” was David Halpern’s first response). For a few guests, the response is instant.
“A simple answer, really,” replies Rupert Brown, naming a fellow social psychologist, Turkish-American Muzafer Sherif, and his work in the 1950s. And sociologist Les Back, too, answers instantly: “Don’t even have to think about it: WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois is the writer who captures both the heat and the passion of life and also the cool historical perspective and analysis in the most extraordinary compound of literary expression.”
Back, in turn, was mentioned by one scholar: Kayleigh Garthwaite as her great influencer.
A number of the guests cited titans from the early days of social science – Max Weber, Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu, Emile Durkheim, while others named modern-era titans like Stephen Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt or Jean Piaget. And many named creators of the new canon – Jim Scott cited A.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, Alondra Nelson picked Troy Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics, and Gurminder Bhambra tabbed Danielle S. Allen’s Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education.
And no such list would be complete without a wild card, and for that we turn to Michelle Gelfand, who turned to Herodotus’ The Histories and the lessons a 2,500-year-old post-mortem of an ancient war can teach us today: “He was a brilliant cross-cultural psychologist … he also had a really interesting observation — that all humans are ethnocentric. They don’t just think that their culture is different, they think it’s better.”
This is the fourth collection in this series (and the 100th Social Science Bites podcast).
Thu, 1 April 2021
When Jim Scott mentions ‘resistance,’ this recovering political scientist isn’t usually talking about grand symbolic statements or large-scale synchronized actions by thousands or more battling an oppressive state. He’s often referring to daily actions by average people, often not acting in concert and perhaps not even seeing themselves as ‘resisting’ at all.
The ‘problem’ with political scientists, he tells interviewer David Edmonds, in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is that when they’re talking about resistance they’re tending to talk about overt declarations – protests in the streets, marches, or potentially armed combat. What I’ve found is that throughout history, open resistance of this kind is impossible or suicidal. The result is a lot of what I call ‘unobtrusive forms of resistance.’”
There are, he notes, “very many different kinds of resistance: forms of resistance that announce themselves publicly and forms that are more subtle and unobtrusive in order to protect the people who are protesting from massive retaliation.”
He offers several examples of this unobtrusive resistance, such as poaching, squatting, and desertion - “common weapons of people who don’t have formal power.”
In this podcast, Scott draws on the year and half he spent in a Malaysian village, in the late 1970,s to discuss insights he gained about resistance (and which resulted in his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). Scott learned the Malay language, acquainted himself with the local Kedah dialect, and studied first the rich and then the poor in this village. Mechanized, combine harvesters had taken over rice harvests in the area, leaving many people out of work and many tenants homeless. While there was no organized public protesting – that would have been foolhardy – he witnessed sabotage in the fields and ousted tenants killing the chickens of those who had evicted them.
In a “a subtle showing of contempt,” people who felt badly treated would look the other way when someone they hated crossed their path. “The kind of shunning was extraordinarily effective and humiliating in a face-to-face community of such a small size.” It reflected, in turn, the psychic violence done to the poor -- “Inequality and injustice almost always is reflected in a loss of cultural dignity and standing.”
Scott sees resistance from several vantage points in large part because he’s untethered himself from many academic restrictions, “defecting” from a discipline when he finds its approaches miss the point. He trained as a political scientist, for example, but as he saw how it studied elites and mass populations differently -- conducting social science “behind their backs,” as he put it -- he decamped to anthropology. ( But he argues every anthropologist should come with a historian strapped to their back.
“James Scott has taught us to see how art can fuel resistance, how social planning can undermine social justice, how anarchic principles inform everyday acts of resistance, and how agriculture led to the rise of state control,” said Tamar Szabó Gendler, the dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when the Social Science Research Council awarded him the Albert O. Hirschman Prize last year.
Mon, 1 March 2021
The study of stigma, , says Michèle Lamont, is a “booming field.” That assessment can be both sad and hopeful, and in this Social Science Bites podcast the Harvard sociologist explains stigma’s manifestations and ways to combat it, as well as what it takes for a researcher to actually study stigma.
Lamont defines stigma “as the negative characterization of any social attribute,” and offers examples such as mental illness, social status, or obesity as conditions routinely stigmatized. And while stigma can attach itself to an individual or to a group, stigma requires intersubjective agreement for it to function.
As that intersubjectivity would suggest, the specifics of stigma varies by culture, a point brought home by Lamont’s own research among stigmatized groups in the United States, Brazil, Israel (and which saw her 2016 co-authored book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel). The work involved more than 400 interviews, conducted by members of the stigmatized groups, in the three countries, and Lamont offers insights into how stigma plays out.
The project paid people $20 in the U.S. to be interviewed, but the Brazilian team said Brazilians would be insulted if they were offered money to participate. In Israel, Palestinians being surveyed didn’t trust Tel Aviv University, so that created obstacles even though the team members were themselves Palestinian
Lamont cites the work of Erving Goffman, who studied this experience of having a negative mark. (See this earlier Social Science Bites podcast for a look at Goffman’s legacy.) One key concept is that of “front stage” and “back stage,” where someone manages their life in a public way (the domain of stigma) but also in a private way.
Lamont, professor of sociology and of African and African American studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard, directs the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She was president of the American Sociological Association in 2016-17 and chaired the Council for European Studies from 2006-09.
She received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, a Gutenberg research award in 2014, the 2017 Erasmus Prize, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for 2019-21.
To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.
Mon, 1 February 2021
What we tell people about ourselves is not exclusively, or often not even majorly, what comes out of our mouths. A host of nonverbal messages emanate from us, many of them intentionally sent to create or reinforce a narrative for a recipient who is left trying to judge the veracity of the sum total of the information. The study of this signaling in the content of an asymmetry of information is known as ‘signalling theory.’
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Diego Gambetta, a professor of social theory at the European University Institute in Florence, discussing his research around signaling theory and the applications of his work, whether addressing courtship, organized crime of hailing a cab.
“The theory,” he tessl interview Dave Edmonds, “has to do with the unobservable qualities of interest. The question is, how much scope do we have to con each other, to cheat each other. … What I would like to know about you is more than is what is apparent. The things that we are interested in are not written on our foreheads.”
Signaling theory’s value, he continues, comes in “trying to establish when truth can be communicated even in conditions that are difficult, in which we expect the interests of the parties communicating to diverge, or to not completely overlap.”
This gives the theory a wide range of applications, which is reflected in its own birthing. Initially formalized by economists, particularly Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence. Who used it to show how can an employer can determine if a job applicant in likely to be highly productive or not. At roughly the same time, Gambetta explains, there was a “an intuitive expression of the theory” by an animal behaviorist, Amotz Zahavi.
In the social and behavioral realm where Gambetta works, signally theory shows in utility whether the parties are in conflict – hence his work examining the Italian mafia -- or cooperation – studying taxi drivers in Belfast and in New York City.
“In a conflict,” Gambetta details, “I may want to persuade you that I am really, really tough. If this is true, and you believe me, then we may sort the conflict out cheaply for both of us because we don’t enter into a damaging fight.” And in cooperation, how do you accept the accuracy of someone’s representations (or convince someone of your own honest representation) that they do indeed possess the qualities they feel, or say, they have.
Given the current mass trial of alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate in Italy, perhaps Gambetta’s work among the mafiosos is is most salient at the moment. “I was alerted to the importance of symbolic communication in the mafia by the way they communicated with each other, and also, on a couple of occasions, with how they communicated with a researcher, myself included. They display a subtlety in communication that surprised me. We tend to expect an organized criminal to excel at brutality and intimidation, but we can’t really expect them to be a lot subtler than we are in communicating.”
He gives the example of a Canadian researcher who announced plans to research the mafia. The researcher’s car was burglarized, his dirty laundry stolen, and a few days later the laundry came back, cleaned and ironed, with a note that said, “Goodbye.” It was, Gambetta noted, “a more enthusiastic rendition of ‘I know where you live.’”
“Violence,” he adds, “is known to us because it leaves a body on the ground, it attracts attention. But there is a subtlety in threatening.” And in Palermo, for instance, there is “an obsessive search for meaning” – the workaday side of the signaling theory coin.
Another workaday aspect revolved around his work studying taxi drivers, who had to determine which passengers they would pick up based on the drivers’ perception of the person hailing them being a fare that was safe and trustworthy. These instant assessments can rely, however, on short-cuts that reek of racial profiling. In New York, for example, Gambetta that even Black drivers wouldn’t pick up young Black people. This essentially removes the service from that population – “the cost of proving your bona fides, that you are a real passenger despite your age and color, is too costly, is too complicated.”
In addition to his professorship at the European University Institute, Gambetta is the Carlo Alberto Chair at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Among his books are 2016's Engineers of Jihad, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate from 2009, and 1993's The Sicilian Mafia. The Business of Private Protection.
Mon, 4 January 2021
Consider two different, but similar situations. In the first, children are asked to pull ropes together. Candy cascades down, but in unequal distribution – three for one child and one for the other. In the second situation, the children come across the sweets but without joint labor, and again find an uneven distribution.
What usually happens next differs between the two situations. When the kids work together, they tend to willingly share the proceeds so everyone ends up with an equal share. But when the candy was discovered through individual serendipity, the children tend to accept the uneven outcome and don’t equalize shares.
The first situation involves what Mike Tomasello, the James F. Bonk Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Duke University, would call joint commitment; “When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally.” There’s no explicit promise of an equal share, but there is an implicit one that’s just as recognizable and genuine.
As Tomasello details to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “I can say I don’t like it when you keep all the sweets – that’s my personal opinion – but when I say ‘you shouldn’t do that, you mustn’t do that, you must do this, you have to do that,’ this is not my personal opinion. This is something objective.”
While this might be a normative bond that helps glue humans together, it’s not a bond he finds in our closest relatives. Tomasello points out that among chimps – with which the longtime co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has a deep background researching - the dominant partner takes the spoils in almost all cases. The “we-ness” that can mark human behavior is replaced by the “me-ness” of other primates.
That difference between primates and people is the basis of much of Tomasello’s career (see the work of the Tomasello Lab at Duke: “studying the development and evolution of social cognition, communication, and cooperation“) and of his 2018 book, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. Much of his effort has focused on great apes, our closest primate relatives, following a line of research that started with Jane Goodall learning that apes make and use tools. Great apes share many qualities with human beings – they understand causal relations, can work with the concept of quantities, can predict what others might do based on what they see and what their goal is, are good social learners, can communicate with gestures (and can learn new ones), and can work with one another in some cases.
But Tomasello notes a key area in which apes and people differ. “Humans put their heads together, as a general phrase, to accomplish things that neither one can do on his or her own. So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively at the moment or else over time as individuals build on one another’s accomplishments.”
Great apes and other creatures – ants and bees do offer a limited counter-example -- don’t do that. Understanding this evolved capacity – Tomasello doesn’t like using terms like “hard-wired” or “innate” – isn’t just a matter for academic interest. While he shied away from talking about the normative implications of his research and theories, Tomasello noted the benefits of cooperation and collaboration (and also some of its less-welcome artefacts such as creating out-groups to discriminate against), whether in sports, or work, or society. While he wouldn’t develop public policies, “If you want a more cooperative society, I can tell you some things that would help.”