Jane Austen, Game Theorist (2013, 2014)

Game theory—the study of how people make choices while interacting with others—is one of the most popular technical approaches in social science today.  But as Michael Chwe reveals in his insightful new book, Jane Austen explored game theory’s core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago.  Jane Austen, Game Theorist shows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors.  With a diverse range of literature and folktales, this book illustrates the wide relevance of game theory and how, fundamentally, we are all strategic thinkers.

Although game theory’s mathematical development began in the Cold War 1950s, Chwe finds that game theory has earlier subversive historical roots in Austen’s novels and in “folk game theory” traditions, including African-American folktales.  Chwe makes the case that these literary forebears are game theory’s true scientific predecessors. He considers how Austen in particular analyzed “cluelessness”—the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking-and how her sharp observations apply to a variety of situations, including U.S. military blunders in Iraq and Vietnam.  Jane Austen, Game Theorist brings together the study of literature and social science in an original and surprising way.  Princeton University Press.

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge (2001, 2013)

How do political ceremonies help establish authority?  How can a public declaration have political consequences even when it says something that everyone already knows? Why do ritual songs and speech typically involve lots of repetition?   Why were circular forms considered ideal for public festivals during the French revolution?  Why was the advertising during the Barbara Walters television interview of Monica Lewinsky dominated by Internet companies?  Why are advertisers willing to pay more per viewer to buy commercial time on the most popular television programs?  Why are close friendships important for collective action even though people typically “reach” many more people through casual acquaintances?  How is the “panopticon” prison design also a ritual structure?  In what sense is everyone separately reading their own copy of the morning newspaper a ritual?  How is historical experience a resource for collective action?  How do rituals and media events help create social identity?  This book (essentially a more in-depth version of the “Culture, Circles, and Commercials” paper below) tries to answer these and other questions with a single argument, trying to find a common thread among a variety of cultural and social practices usually thought disparate.  Princeton University Press.