WHEN STRANGERS COOPERATE: Using Social Conventions to Govern Ourselves by David W. Brown

WHEN STRANGERS COOPERATE: Using Social Conventions to Govern Ourselves

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A mundane sociological essay examining the nature of social conventions. Brown, formerly of the Yale School of Management, describes conventions as unspoken agreements that make cooperation possible among strangers. He compares them to a well-worn path you choose to follow through the woods: Even if you're not certain where the path will lead, there is a sense of security created by the fact that many others have used it in the past. The author differentiates between a normal convention and a ""metaconvention,"" the underlying societal concept that makes it possible. For example, forming a line at a bank is a convention, while ""first come, first served"" is the metaconvention that lends this practice credibility. Conventions are formed by ""unplanned coordination,"" as when strangers work together to cross a busy intersection; ""coordination by agreement"" (dance steps and self-help groups); and ""coordination by central authority"" -- laws such as immunization requirements. Brown argues that the formation of new, potentially constructive conventions is stymied by various internal impediments in American society, including our national predilection for exit (urban flight), delegation (just pass a law), and parity (we do not wish to be put at a personal disadvantage). Despite these obstacles, however, he believes that the creation of new conventions is our best hope for solving major social problems like street crime and the abandonment of children. He sees the ""blockwatch,"" for example, as an effective new social convention for the prevention of crime. He also contends that the introduction of a model of collaborative education could help students develop the skills necessary for entering into these unwritten social contracts. Brown has tackled an interesting topic, intrinsically related to current issues in popular culture, but his treatment of it is neither profound nor innovative.

Pub Date: June 14th, 1995
Page count: 300pp
Publisher: Free Press