© Copyright JASSS

JASSS logo ------

Individuality and Entanglement: The Moral and Material Bases of Social Life

Gintis, Herbert
Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2016
ISBN 9780691172910 (hb)

Order this book

Reviewed by Ozge Dilaver
Northumbria University Newcastle

Cover of book In this book, Gintis reflects upon some of his previous work for developing two sets of arguments. The first one is theoretical; Gintis looks for commonalities in different spheres of human social life for building some very general arguments about human nature and values. For example, he refers to the link between culture and biological evolution of humans, pointing out that a combination of biological, environmental, cultural and technological factors made sophisticated forms of communication very advantageous for hominins. He, then, links this to social construction of reality with a strong emphasis on ‘games’, which, he seems to argue, largely or entirely constitutes human social life. He, therefore, sees humans as Homo ludens – Man, the game player (p 12). The second set of arguments is methodological; he calls for an interdisciplinary dialogue between what he calls behavioural sciences (social sciences plus sociobiology) by establishing a common ‘analytical’ core that essentially approaches different aspects of life as rational decisions.

The book is certainly interesting in that it touches upon different fields of study from human evolution to political systems, from social norms to economic systems. It provides additional perspectives on the author’s well-known publications. In many chapters, Gintis also introduces mathematical models in a succinct way, which can be a useful resource for social simulation modellers. Most researchers working on game theory and complexity science do not address social construction of reality. Gintis, however, takes a step (even if a hesitant one) towards this direction. His approach could provide valuable insights for important questions such as: to what extent do our evolutionary features/rational decision-making affect social construction of reality? Even if the answer was not so much on an everyday basis, it is thought-provoking to explore these complex dynamics. On the other hand, both naturalness and rationality of particular ways of social organisation are heavily used to argue for their legitimacy. It is, therefore, important not to overclaim and keep their knowledge claims in line with evidence, limitations of which need to be carefully considered.

The book definitely provides some content towards tackling such interesting questions, but these are partially outshone by Gintis’s attempt to build overarching generalisations. His core theoretical arguments, such as those mentioned above, are left far too general to be adequately justified. While he moves back and forth between prehistoric narratives, mathematical models and experiment findings, the readers are not given detailed accounts of the extent to which these fascinating studies can explain current, actually existing, real-life social phenomena, or where the gaps in our knowledge are. Perhaps this should be expected, as Gintis does not hide in the book that he does not take most of the work carried out in the social science disciplines that study real-life social phenomena very seriously. Yet, as he discusses later in the book (Chapter 12), interdisciplinary intolerance is usually counterproductive, perhaps even more so in interdisciplinary research.

Gintis’s main argument about human sociality is that humans have a distinct capacity of constructing and playing social games. “Other animals are playful, but they do not make up the games they play” (p xi), which are, according to Gintis, inscribed in the species’ genome. Beyond this sharp distinction between humans and non-humans, what is confusing in this line of thought is the use of ‘games’ and ‘playfulness’. In the way he generally uses the term, Gintis refers to the metaphorical use of the word ‘game’ in game theory, roughly standing for contexts of strategic, interdependent decision-making. ‘Playfulness’, however, relates to the literal and not the metaphorical meaning of the word. This kind of collapse of distinction in meaning is not trivial because it may affect our understanding of the world. If taken lightly, understanding human social life as games can imply, for example, that real-life contexts are meant to lack substance beyond rules, or that nobody is actually hurt as a consequence of players’ actions. It is probably safer and clearer to focus on interdependent decision making than games. Putting his Homo ludens aside, Gintis rightly underlines the importance of interdependent decisions in human social life. Taking interdependent agency of individuals as one of the important spheres of social construction of reality can be a fruitful avenue to explore for social simulation researchers.

Gintis’s methodological argument, that social sciences should use rational actor approach as a common analytical core is both limiting and problematic. It is limiting because it attempts to construct a narrow bottleneck that research efforts are forced towards in the aim of creating commonalities between social science disciplines. According to Gintis, “(t)here is absolutely no way to do serious social theory without recognizing that human behaviour is purposive and can generally be modelled as rational choice”(p xiv). As such, he fails to create a space for, for example, qualitative research on meanings, discourses and narratives in his call for interdisciplinarity. This is ironical because in Chapter 1, he discusses the evolution of physiology of speech as an important turning point for our species and in Chapter 2, he underlines persuasion as ‘the name of the game’ (p 38) in prehistoric human groups. Thus, for Gintis, physiology of complex linguistic abilities is important to understand social phenomena, but inquiring into what people actually say is not ‘serious’ science.

His methodological argument is problematic because, at least in the cases of rational actor and general equilibrium models, Gintis seems to emphasise the importance of expressing rather than explaining social phenomena. While prescribing a quite specific way of modelling social life as the only way of doing serious research, he doesn’t dwell upon how to understand, first of all, what we model apart from few specific decision making contexts that are studied via experiments. This is clearly a limitation in terms of validity of models, but that is not the main problem. Since Gintis does not allow much room for critical social theory in his interdisciplinary call (he criticises sociology because many researchers “focus on the current ills of modern societies”, p 273), he neglects that science does not only study but at times also takes part in the construction of social reality. For example, the convenience of swapping thought experiments that are developed to explore social phenomena in a hypothetical and abstract space with generally accepted, empirically supported, scientific principles has been an important factor in the neoliberal re-construction of modernity with concrete effects on the most vulnerable groups across the world. Constructs like rational actor (playing games) and general equilibrium that Gintis illustrates in this book have been among the primary discursive technologies of this regressive transformation.

It must be noted, however, that the way Gintis describes rationality in the book is quite different from the common way the term is used in mainstream economics. It does not involve features that are commonly criticised in the social simulation community such as super-cognitive skills, model-consistent expectations, selfish or materialistic preferences and optimisation. A rational actor in the way Gintis uses the term, can make unwise choices, does not have to focus on his or her utility, and can value welfare of others, as well as intrinsic moral values such as honesty or trustworthiness. It is assumed, however, that he or she has clear preferences over expected outcomes and a set of beliefs on which actions lead to which outcomes. This more fluid understanding of human rationality offers both a positive potential and a problem. It may potentially help us see rationality, which is valued in modern societies, as a heterogeneous, multicriteria and subjective characteristic that manifests itself in different forms depending on complex social contexts and local conditions. We may, then, re-claim the word and argue for the rationality of a much wider range of human actions.

The problem with the fluid understanding of rationality and rational actor, on the other hand, is two-fold. Firstly, as we expand the scope of rationality, we seem to lose its meaning: who is not a rational actor if rationality can be subjective and mistake-friendly? Secondly and relatedly, it may create an irrefutable, dogmatic construct. It would, on one hand, not yield to refutation based on empirical observations due to fluid definition and on the other, continue to assign meaning and be used to legitimise certain actions versus others based on conventional, more rigid understanding of the term. Since we already expanded rationality to cover almost - if not all- purposeful action, why do we not think in terms of purposeful rather than rational actions and stop reconstructing rationality (that we cannot meaningfully define) as a value?

Overall, as Gintis explores in this book, understanding social construction of reality through studying interdependent decision making, and thinking of individuals in this process as purposeful actors with diverse, subjective and dynamic objectives are interesting and useful approaches for social simulation researchers. We may, however, need more explicit distinctions between metaphorical and literal use of words, between thought experiments and theories, between what empirical evidence shows and what we presume. Regarding interdisciplinary research, although we may experiment with shortcuts, bridges and meeting points, ultimately, we probably need more work towards understanding social phenomena and others’ research with all possible means.


ButtonReturn to Contents of this issue