Syllabus / SocialFacts-S09
Clay Shirky (firstname.lastname@example.org) Tisch 406 -- Friday, 12:30-3:00
Social Facts centers on two questions. The first is, how do we function in groups? As anyone who has ever run a business or even arranged a birthday party knows, groups present significant coordination problems, problems that have to be overcome even to do anything as simple as getting everyone in the same place at the same time. These problems are worse, much worse, for groups who want to have some effect on a world. Organizing a birthday party or a book group, as annoying as that can be, are simple compared to organizing political parties or philanthropic groups, to say nothing of businesses, religions (at least proselytizing ones), and armies. Getting a group to function as a relatively cohesive unit means getting its members to set aside enough of their autonomy, and to come to regard their membership in the group as important.
Much of the cohesion necessary for group effort can be only be explained by reference to social facts, those things that are true because everyone agrees they are true. You can take a car or a bus to work, and you would be able to drive either vehicle, but there are a set of socially created and enforced rules that prevent you from driving the bus. (Reflect on the difference between describing these two vehicles as “my car” and “my bus”.)
Though it is tempting to regard such facts as weak or ephemeral, they are in fact both strong and persistent. Your apartment is actually yours in a way that you can rely on, despite the ethereality of the agreements An enormous number of often unstated rules are necessary precursors to effective social effort. The concept of membership, for instance, is necessary to identify who can and can't be expected to do the work even in informal groups. Yet membership exists purely by social agreement; even in places where membership is tied to some objective attribute, like being a second-year, that membership creates certain requirements (Thesis) while forbidding others (you can't take Applications again), which are socially enforced. Thus any attempt to understand how groups get anything done has to take into account the structures of governance and group alignment provided by these social facts, and to understand how they get created or modified.
The second, related question core to the class is, what effect does, can, or should technology have on the way groups function? We are in the middle of a revolution in the creation of group value. Many new technologies, especially communications technologies, are altering the way groups form and function. We are seeing everything from stay-at-home moms coordinating for social action using Meetup to the schisms in centuries old religious institutions arranged via email and the Web. And much of the change is still to come; most technology, having been targeted for personal use, has been under-examined and under-optimized for its effects on groups and group dynamics.
We will be particularly interested in questions of motivation, and we will refer at several points during the semester to the literature on non-economics motivations for participation in group activities. There is no one literature on motivation; instead, each field in the social sciences makes assumptions about The question of technological effect on social life is partly descriptive (What is happening with group use of technology now?), partly predictive (What will happen?) and partly normative (What should happen?) Many of the changes created by new technology are double-edged -- our communications tools have the effect of making it much easier to form groups,for example, but harder to get them to take action. As tools like email and SMS free the participants from needing to gather in the real world, the groups that rely on these technologies have looser bonds and the members enjoy greater autonomy. The goal of the class is to uncover interesting but as yet unachieved possibilities in our increasingly mediated group life.
The course has three broad goals: at the end of the semester, you should have a general understanding of the attributes and dilemmas of coordinating group effort; an understanding of how communications technology affects group action; and have experience making either predictions or imagining improvements in the way technology can affect group action.
CONCEPTUAL MODEL The course will progress through three overlapping themes:
1. Introduction to Group Dynamics and Dilemmas
What is a group? What makes it special, and different from a mere aggregation of individuals? What is a social fact, and how do social facts provide the background for group cohesion and achievement? What dilemmas are particular to groups? What are some ways we can characterize or analyze groups to answer these questions.
2. Technology and Its Effect on Groups
The explosion in communal media and tools is changing the landscape in which groups set and pursue goals for themselves. What effects does technology have on the ability of groups to organize, set tasks, gather and expend resources, and govern themselves? What kinds of groups are we seeing form whose work would have been difficult or impossible prior to the last decade? In what ways is technology undermining our existing assumptions about group action, or making it harder to organize groups along older patterns?
3. The Shape of Things to Come?
There is always a gap between the possible and the actual; in the case of group activity, that gap is now quite large. What kinds of things are now possible for group action that have not yet been widely realized? What form would those changes take? New infrastructure, tools, techniques, social models? What normative goals can be brought to bear? What should be made available to groups, to advance larger social goals or benefits?
The principal work of the class is understanding and synthesizing your observations from the readings, in-class exercises, and field observations. You will demonstrate your understanding with your participation in class discussions, in two short papers, and in a final project, which can either be a larger paper or an attempt to study and document some aspect of mediated group function.
Week 1. What Are Groups Good For?
Human beings are social creatures, not occasionally or by accident, but always. Society is not just the product of its individual members, it is also the product of its constituent groups; the aggregate relations between individuals and groups, between individuals within groups, and between groups, forms a network of astonishing complexity. Because group effort means sub-dividing and sharing the work, by definition, we have to have ways to know when and how to trust people.
Week 2. Three is a Magic Number
More is different; when you gather three or more people, the dynamics move from the personal and psychological to include the social as well. What group dynamics can't be explained by simply analyzing the behavior of individuals? What is a social fact, and how does it create expectations that guide both individuals and the group?
Week 3. Dilemmas of Group Life I: Early Dilemmas
The moment of group founding is an especially tricky one -- a mere aggregation of people have to agree to set enough of their autonomy aside to join together in a group that, by definition, doesn't exist yet. What are the possibilities and perils that are presented to a potential or nascent group at the moment of its founding? How do choices about founding affect the subsequent life of the group?
Assignment 1a: Observe a group sharing or collaborating online
Week 4. Dilemmas of Group Life II: Continuity Dilemmas
Once started, the ongoing life of a group presents several opportunities and dilemmas. How do groups balance the tension between group and individual goals? How do groups handle, or even detect, members who are not pulling their weight? How do groups take in new information, and make binding decisions based on that information? How do groups decide to fundamentally alter their makeup, or even to cease existence?
Week 5. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Wherever we turn, people are engaged in activities that can’t be explained with reference to pure self-interest. There is not consistent rationale for these actions with reference to selfish and economically driven motivations, and yet there the behaviors are, every day, worldwide. What can we say about non-selfish forms of human motivation?
Assignment 1b: Write a short paper contrasting the group you studied with other groups
Week 6. Social Motivation and Social Capital
Social capital is any informal mechanism that increases two people’s willingness to associate or transact in a society. It is a kind of mid-point between direct, reciprocal trust, and the rule of law. How does social capital affect help solve social dilemmas?
MID-TERM Assignment A: Work with a group of your classmates to find and describe a group whose communications are at least partially mediated.
Week 7. Mid-term discussion
We will discuss your observations from the mid-term assignment.
MID-TERM Assignment B: Write up your observations about group dynamics
Week 8. Small Worlds and Social Networks
Groups are not hard-edged units. As information is passed person to person, it also passes group to group. The surprise about these flows is that while the social networks we live in are very sparsely connected (no one knows more than a tiny fraction of everyone) yet information can typically traverse the network over a very short path (we are connected by six degrees of separation.) How and why this sparse but effective communication exists is one of the key discoveries of group life in the last decade.
Week 9. Membership
The paradox of groups is that there can be no group without members, but there can also be no members without a group, because what would they be members of? This problem is more acute online, because so many of our cues about identity are truncated online. How is identity formed and managed online? How is membership managed? To what does membership attach, in an environment where identity is often poorly defined?
Week 10. Identity
All of social life requires “the shadow of the future”, the ability to track and react to different individuals differently. This in turn requires complex and subtle mechanisms for identity, mechanisms that vary depending on the context they are used in.
Final Assignment A: Write a short description of a topic you would like to develop further.
Week 11. Open Source and Group Norms
One of the great and complex examples of strong group collaboration is Open Source software, whose intellectual beginning, in the Free Software Foundation, happened 25 years ago. What have we learned about motivation and group norms as tools for large collaborative work in that time.
Readings: TBA, for Guest Lecture
Final Assignment B: Write a paper on the topic you have chosen.
Week 12. Guest Lecture
Final Assignment C: Paper due
The readings for the last two weeks will be the papers you have written
Week 13: Class discussion and Open Issues #1
Discussion of the ideas in the final papers
Week 14: Class discussion and Open Issues #2
Discussion of the ideas in the final papers