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The social structure of cultural change: Damon Centola

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A dominant theory cultural norms are functional, but Damon provoked us to consider that there are cases in which norms are not functional at all, and can even be dysfunctional. Conformity norms stifle speaking up, for example which is seen in the Emperor’s New Clothes story and Stalin’s Russia. Such norms often comes from some sense of exogenous authority that dictate a behavior (political science), or sense of what is better (behavioral economics), or snow-ball effects of what’s popular (sociology). But all of these explanations assume there is awareness of all these things and they are valuable in some way.

An alternative view is that culture emerges through social interaction without these assumptions. The intuition is that if critical mass is built they can tip a culture. The question is how is critical mass built and what are the mechanisms of change. A key idea is that the quality of the solution isn’t important, it’s the quality of the social structure that matters. His studies show that conventions become accepted in populations not at a particular critical mass, but in how the population is connected. He studies showed that globally connected (random) versus locally connected.

But critical mass does happen, his studies on changing popular opinion showed that when a population hit 25% of a view radical changes happen, conventions are changed. But under that, conventions don’t shift. What is key is that the kinds of connectedness facilitates cultural change, not the quality of the thing itself. I wonder: if people are connected not globally and randomly, but intentionally and by affinity? How might we use this to gain insights into homophily and media-echochambers many of us live in today? If people are acting locally, how do we design for more interactions in a genera population(e.g. across an organization, across a state, nation, etc.) in which conventions are negotiated

Harvard Graduate School of Education